It is common for individuals to invoke the BITE model and other cultic research, showing how the LDS Church fits many (but not necessarily all) of those criteria, and then wondering if the LDS Church ought to be categorized as “a cult” (for example). While that exercise may be useful in some ways (e.g., better understanding group influence and potential manipulation), the underlying question of whether an organization is a “cult” may not be the best focus from an academic perspective. Arguments about whether an organization is a “cult” are foundationally suspect on some level because the legitimacy of the cult research movement as an academic enterprise itself is somewhat suspect—most researchers of the psychology and sociology of religion today would not consider the exercise of classifying a group as a “cult” particularly valid or helpful.

Historical Background

Some background on the cultic research movement is helpful. There was a crescendo of academic and intellectual thought from the 60s and on into the 1980s thinking about what constituted a cult and discussing cultic behavior. This included the work of Robert J. Lifton, Margaret Singer, John G. Clark, Jr., and Stanley H. Cath (e.g., as discussed in this New York Times article from 1982).

All of this research and focus culminated in the creation of the DIMPAC report (with the well-respected Margaret Singer at the helm) in 1986. BUT, in 1987 the APA Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) rejected the DIMPAC report (See the wikipedia page for a summary).

At that point, those who still wanted to pursue study in the vein of the DIMPAC report rallied together and created their own journals, scientific societies, and conferences, and they become the counter-cult movement. Hassan fits within this movement, as does Michael Langone, who summarizes the history of this split here.

Everyone else studying psychology and sociology seems to have dropped counter-cult studies, and counter-cult studies have never regained scientific credibility on any large scale. Besides one publication by Hassan,1 there are only a few peripheral counter-cult studies that have made it into respectable journals, and these do not represent main-stream counter-cult research.

Academics today

Most psychologists of religion refer to “cults” as “new religious movements” and they are not even trying to classify or study cults in the same manner as the counter-cultists. They just see new religious movements as one manifestation of a common human experience, with some NRMs being more harmful or totalistic than others.

Do academics still discuss “cult-ish” aspects?


Most professors will use something like “social learning” to discuss behavior in new religious movements (and maybe the LDS Church is no longer even an NRM since it is not so new anymore). They still discuss things like indoctrination, levels of totalism, and the kinds of socialization that happen in the LDS Church, but those efforts have little to do with classifying the institution as a “cult” or using the BITE model.2

Although it is not my primary field of study (my academic work has been primarily in the hard sciences), I endeavored to analyze ways in which the LDS Church culture and programs act to retain members using social learning as the underlying paradigm:3

LDS Indoctrination and Retentive Socialization

Many Latter-day Saints have read that document and responded with something like “so what,” but that only underscores the validity of this approach: An academic characterization of a religious movement should ring true to the lived experience of its adherents and seek to be as objective as possible regarding various helps and harms that a person might experience.


There are interesting ways that totalism and retentive socialization happen in the LDS Church, but that is not necessarily a bad thing because everyone is being socialized in so many different ways as parts of so many different groups in their life. We should be able to objectively discuss these various behaviors and cultural features and acknowledge that some of it is likely to be helpful and some of it may be harmful to some adherents.

  1. Hassan recently (2019) published one paper, wherein he presents the BITE model in discussion of terrorist cults, and more recently his dissertation which attempts to establish quantitative parameters for the BITE model. These publications may be viewed as an initial engagement with the scholarly community outside cultic studies rather than an establishment or countenancing of the BITE model in academia, which may or may not come over time as other scholars engage more with his work. 

  2. I learned about academic skepticism of cult-ic studies by hard experience. After spending close to a year writing up a critique of the LDS Church using Robert J. Lifton’s model of ideological totalism, I reached out to some psychology of religion professors by email seeking their feedback and a few offered criticism. Ultimately, I found their criticisms valid, and I reworked and reframed (ditching significant aspects along the way) and adopted a “social learning” model as the underlying framework. 

  3. My approach was guided by discussion with Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi (the academic primarily responsible for rejecting the DIMPAC report). A professor of psychology (formerly at Brigahm Young University) who studied the psychology of religion has read the final document and expressed that my approach is valid and consistent with current academic approaches.