It is not a particularly unique observation to notice that the Critical Social Justice movement, particularly the part that embraces Critical Race Theory, bears tremendous resemblance to a secular religion. When asked about that similarity, sociologist Bradley Campbell, author of The Rise of Victimhood Culture, explained,
I think it’s similar to a lot of utopian political movements in having similarities to religion. Those at the forefront of the movement, who wholeheartedly embrace an oppression/victimhood worldview derived from Critical Theory, and who see it as providing a basis for a call for repentance and change in their own lives and the lives of others, and as a call to restructure social institutions, seem to have embraced something very much like a religion.
In my own work I’ve called it a “moral culture” rather than a religion, and I think that’s probably more accurate. We could call it “social justice culture,” or as Jason Manning and I called it, “victimhood culture,” but in any case, it’s a worldview that places a certain conception of social justice as the highest value. In this view oppression permeates social institutions and interactions, and social justice means fighting this oppression. Drawing from critical theory, those who embrace this moral culture tend to view various social identities as the most important thing about people, and they see those identities as oppressor or victim identities. To be white, male, Christian, or straight, for example is to have a privileged position in a system of oppression, and to be a person of color, female, non-Christian, or LGBT is to be disadvantaged. Those who embrace the new moral culture aren’t alone wanting to address oppression and injustice, but they tend to see it in a particular way and to interpret everything in these terms…interpreting everything in terms of oppression and in elevating those concerns above all others seems to have led many of the activists to disregard liberal values such as due process and free speech.
While there is much merit in Professor Campbell’s analysis, I wonder whether it goes far enough. Religion, when taken to extremes, tends no longer to promote love, acceptance, and a sense of community and fulfillment—the stated goals of most religions. Religious extremism promotes violence, intolerance, tribalism, and a deliberately confused mental state in its adherents. When that happens, when religion “goes to the dark side,” we stop using the term religion, and start using the word “cult.”
As a former CIA officer, I know what that kind of cult looks like. I can’t write about my own counterterror operations, or any training I may have gotten from the CIA in persuasion and indoctrination without having to submit it for pre-publication review to the CIA. But nothing stops me from highlighting the work of others on the same topic, so we can see what the ideological conversion of a cult looks like up close and personal.
Some of the best journalism on the terror group ISIS—a cult within a religion—was done by Rukmini Callimachi, whose Peabody-winning podcast, The Caliphate presents a grim journey into the heart of darkness. It is not for the faint of heart, as it includes detailed descriptions of beatings, gruesome executions, and religiously-justified systematic rape.
The Caliphate follows a young Canadian whose nom de guerre is Abu Huzayfah. He starts as an ISIS fanboy watching videos of violence in the Syrian civil war, but when he shows up in online chat forums about the war, he gets engaged by lurking ISIS recruiters who use techniques explicitly designed to rob converts of the ability to think critically.
Eventually he finds himself in Syria, operating as an ISIS policeman, flogging a man bloody for the crime of not forcing his wife into a niqab, and executing fellow Sunni Muslims (who ISIS claims to protect) for the crime of not surrendering abjectly to ISIS. And how does he justify murdering follow Sunni Muslims? It’s their fault, apparently. He had no agency in their deaths, even though he pulled the trigger. By not turning their town over to ISIS the instant ISIS appeared, “They killed themselves,” he stated.
He finishes his direct involvement by fleeing ISIS territory after his second murder on their behalf, disillusioned, but no less full of willful blindness about the harm caused by his radical views, as well as convenient self-justifications for why he doesn’t need to confess his murders to the Canadian police. This story, though far more brutal and gruesome, contains elucidating parallels to the rapid rise of Critical Race Theory in contemporary Western culture. Though there are many obvious differences, given our present context, it’s worth examining how ISIS and Al Qaeda lure in recruits in some detail.
From Chapter 2 of The Caliphate: The speakers in this lengthy snippet of conversation are Callimachi, Abu Huzayfah, and Jesse Morton, an Al Qaeda recruiter who reveals exactly how he manipulated recruits into embracing Al Qaeda’s murderous ideology.
Huzayfah: I actually just started talking to them. You know, like, “Hello, how are you?”
Callimachi: And if you’re searching for an identity, and you don’t necessarily have a community that you really fit into ——
Huzayfah: Oh, it felt like, you know, wow. These guys — it’s easier to talk to them. Like, they’re more accepting of you.
Callimachi: This becomes your community.
Huzayfah: And I started asking questions about jihad and everything, what their viewpoint was, and how does — how is jihad, like, right? I would even put out things that I thought were wrong with jihad, like how is killing accepted? How is suicide bombings accepted? And they’d always give religious justifications.
Callimachi: What were the techniques that you, yourself, used to draw people in?
Morton: So you do that through the ideology. That’s the framework. At the same time, this individual is wide-eyed and asking you questions, like are suicide, uh, martyrdom operations permissible in Islam?
Callimachi: Can you give me examples of people that you recruited and explain to me how you did it?
Morton: Well, essentially, once you have an audience, once a person expresses an interest by email, or once you see that they are logging consistently into your conversation room —— What you have to do is you have to frame their personal grievance (emphasis added) in a way that is making them think that they can contribute to a broader cause. And we utilize three primary principles that are part of the jihadi or the Salafi jihadi, as they really call it, worldview.
Callimachi: And Jesse explained to me that there are actual steps that the recruiters are taught. Essentially, three steps. Three concepts, he called it.
Morton: They are based upon interpretations of the Quran, and they are based upon references in Hadith.
Callimachi: Some of them are concepts that every Muslim, you know, believes in. But what they do is they sharpen them, and then eliminate any other understanding of these concepts (emphasis added) to the point where the person now believes that the only choice they have is to join an armed jihad.
Morton: The first principle to teach is what you call tawheed al-hakkimiya.
Callimachi: Tawheed al-hakkimiya, which is also sometimes called tawheed al-hakkimiya
Callimachi: The concept of tawheed means monotheism, a single God. But what the jihadists have done is they take tawheed, they take monotheism, to this completely other level.
Morton: Which is basically the belief in Allah requires belief that Allah is the lawgiver, the legislator, the one who developed the Shariah.
Callimachi: The only form of governance that the jihadists believe is acceptable is governance according to Shariah law, which they believe is divine law. This is the corpus of Islamic jurisprudence that was written down and shaped after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
Morton: And what you do with that is you teach people that unless you have this belief, which most of the Muslims in the world don’t, you’re not a Muslim, really. You don’t understand your religion.
Callimachi: So you living in Canada and paying your taxes or voting in an election or abiding by the laws of that society negates your belief in God as the legislator, because that is not Shariah law, right? And your participation in that makes you an infidel. It basically expels you from the fold of Islam. It’s that radical.
Callimachi: Concept number two.
Morton: What you do is you take it to the next principle, which we call kufr bi taghut.
Huzayfah: Once you’re declaring that there is one God only, one God, then you have kufr bi taghut.
Morton: Which is a rejection of the false gods. Really, it means idols.
Callimachi: You’re supposed to rebel against false idols. It’s one thing to say, O.K., I live in Canada, I believe in Shariah law, so therefore, I’m not gonna vote, I’m not gonna pay my taxes, I’m not going to, you know, take part in municipal elections, I’m not gonna take part in any of that. That’s not enough.
Callimachi: They say that during the life of the Prophet Muhammad, there was an incident where he comes back to Mecca, and he goes to the Kaaba, which is that black cube structure. It’s considered the first mosque in Islam. And he apparently entered it, and he found it full of idols, and immediately he goes and smashes them. He destroys them.
Callimachi: So what did the jihadists do with this? If you have accepted that God is the lawgiver, right? Then the idol is anything that takes away from that idea.
Callimachi: So the democratically elected president of your country? That is an idol. The ballot box? That is an idol. The act of voting? That is an idol. And if you are a good Muslim, you don’t just let an idol sit around, right? You destroy it (emphasis added).
Morton: The third principle is al wala wal bara.
Morton: Which means that your allegiance is to the Muslims only.
Callimachi: In Arabic, it means loyalty and disavowal or loyalty and rejection. I’ve heard ISIS members translate it as loyalty and hatred.
Huzayfah: Al wala wal bara, because if you’re believing there is one God, you’ll have to hate and love everything that God loves and hates. So that’s al wala wal bara.
Callimachi: It’s basically the concept of us versus them (emphasis added), which just kind of seals it.
Morton: To reject contact and support for everyone else outside of the jihadi movement, including other Muslims, and you must sacrifice in the way of Islam for the sake of the global Muslim population.
Callimachi: So that means you don’t just reject the society that you’re in. You don’t just reject its leaders. You also reject your Christian friends. You also reject your Muslim parents, if your mother is not a practicing Muslim and is properly covered up, or if your father is forbidding you from joining the Islamic State, which is the only lawful form of government that there is.
Huzayfah: It says in the Quran, you have to enter the religion in totality. You can’t just cherry-pick.
Callimachi: And Jesse talks about how when you get them to that third stage ——
Morton: Once they’re indoctrinated to a certain degree-you could essentially do anything you wanted with them (emphasis added).
Perhaps needless to say, any group that wants to move adherents into a state where it can do anything it wants with them has gone well past whatever beneficial aspects major religions purport to deliver and moved firmly into destructive-cult territory.
Steven Hassan, an expert on cults, was himself once lured into the “Moonie” cult before figuring out, with the aid of his family, that a deluded fat Korean billionaire that owned a factory that was churning out AR-15 assault rifles was probably not, in fact, the Messiah.
In Hassan’s book, Combating Cult Mind Control, he outlines what he calls the “BITE model” of cult manipulation. Not every cult follows every aspect of the BITE model, but every cult does some or most of the BITE techniques. These techniques begin lightly and get increasingly severe as cult recruitment progresses from initiation to indoctrination into reprogramming.
These techniques are relevant in all cult contexts. They are also clearly evidenced in the moral panic sweeping the country, which operates through the ideology of Critical Race Theory.[James Lindsay: For the last several weeks, my Twitter DMs, private messages, and email are bombarded daily by messages from scared and upset people reporting the sinister instances of CRT in action in their own lives—from their workplaces to their institutions to their social lives and to their romantic relationships—the phrases and actions in brackets following each BITE bullet point are examples of how CRT is showing up in real life. Each echoes a commonplace sentiment in the CRT research and popular literature and its related social activism.]
The B in BITE is Behavior Control. It includes
- Instill dependence and obedience [“Do better”]
- Modify behavior with rewards and punishments [“This apology leaves a lot out and is still very racist”]
- Dictate where and with whom you live [This is most nearly applicable in schools and various “spaces” that are to be “desegregated,” by which is meant excluding white and white-adjacent people in the name of inclusion; easily extends to living arrangements]
- Restrict or control your sexuality [more prominent in queer and trans activism than CRT, but characterizing lack of attraction to certain features as racism and attraction to them as exoticization and fetishization]
- Control your clothing and hairstyle [cultural appropriation, decolonizing hair and fashion]
- Exploit you financially [“…here’s my cashapp for all this emotional labor,” make sure you donate to the cause in these approved ways and we’re compiling a list (through contribution matching, say) of people who do and don’t]
- Restrict your leisure time activities [demands to use leisure time in “critical self-reflection” and reading anti-racist materials or be accused of racism]
- Require you to seek permission for major decisions [cultural appropriation, can get far worse (recall college president George Bridges at The Evergreen State College asking to go to the bathroom and being told to hold it by student activists)]
- Require you to spend major time on group indoctrination and rituals, including self-indoctrination on the internet [“do the work,” post the hashtag, black out your image, read these resources, share these articles, retweet these accounts]
The I is Information Control
- Deliberately withhold and distort information [decolonize the curriculum, remove “white” sources from the canon and education, characterize disagreement as “privilege-preserving” or “race-traitorous”]
- Forbid you from communicating with ex members and critics [cancel culture, conservatives and liberals are Nazis]
- Restrict access to non-cult sources of information [Those resources are written from a racist position in order to uphold white supremacy]
- Compartmentalize information to insider vs outsider doctrine [Same as above]
- Use information gained in confession sessions against you [Confess that you complicit in racism, then use this against the person by saying they’re a “known” or “confessed racist”]
- Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory [Black Lives Matter is just about the fact that the lives of black people matter too, these protests are peaceful and the riots just the voice of the silenced finding room to breathe]
- Require you to report your thoughts and feelings to superiors [forced confessions of complicity in racism or else one suffers white fragility]
- Encourage you to spy and report on others’ misconduct [cancel and dox culture]
- Use “Big Brother” surveillance methods [everyone has a camera in their pocket and will load any racist behavior they can find onto the internet in a heartbeat]
The T is Thought Control
- Teach you to internalize to internalize group doctrine as “Truth” (a la Robert Lifton’s “sacred science”) [Lived experience is the best arbiter of “lived realities”; Critical Race Theory is sociology, race research, or even “science,” real science suffers white biases and isn’t to be trusted, Critical Race Theory uses emotion and stories and thus is authentic, disagreement with Critical Race Theory is always ideologically and politically motivated by white supremacy; you need to forward black and brown voices; believe black (women); disagreement is false consciousness/internalized racism/willful or white ignorance]
- Instill Black vs. White, Us vs Them, and Good vs. Evil thinking [racist versus anti-racist; there is no not-racist; choosing not to be anti-racist is choosing racism; there is no neutral; brown complicity is a form of anti-blackness that is pushed upon brown people by white supremacy and upholds it]
- Change your identity, possibly even your name [Ibram X. Kendi’s real name is Ibram Henry Rogers, for example, but the demand to change the victims’ names is not yet prominent in CRT; it does require adopting a Woke activist identity, such as “politically Black” or “queer” however]
- Use loaded language and clichés to stop critical/complex thought [all of the words “racist,” “antiracist,” “fascist,” “antifascist,” “Nazi,” “alt-right,” “sexist,” “misogynist,” “homophobe,” “transphobe,” “ableist,” “fatphobic,” and so on and endlessly so forth are clear examples; others include “white fragility”; “sounds about white”; “check your privilege”; “somebody’s triggered”]
- Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thinking and reality testing [“oh, look, another white man giving his opinion on Critical Race Theory”; disagreement is a means of “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback” just meant to maintain one’s privileged status]
- Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, and constructive criticisms [all engagement that isn’t critical engagement is inauthentic, supports racism, comes from false consciousness, internalized dominance, internalized racism, willful ignorance, white fragility, biased, privilege preserving]
- Use excessive meditation, singing, prayer, and chanting to block thoughts [“Antiracism is a commitment to a lifelong and ongoing process of self-reflection, self-criticism, and social activism”; protest chants]
The E is Emotional Control
- Instill irrational fears of questioning/leaving group [cancel culture, dox culture; accusations of being branded a racist and shunned or fired; you won’t be part of “the community”]
- Make you feel elitist and special [“you’re on the right side of history”; “you’re in solidarity with the Truth”]
- Promote feelings of guilt, shame, and unworthy [“good white people”; “I define as a white progressive any white person who thinks they are not racist or less racist” and they are the worst for upholding white supremacy culture]
- Elicit extreme emotional highs and lows [“you’re on the right side of history”… “you did it wrong, centered yourself, you’re still racist”]
- Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong [“white women’s tears are political and uphold white supremacy more than anything”; emotional outbursts show a lack of “racial stamina” and “racial humility” and are thus “white fragility”]
- Teach emotion stopping techniques to prevent anger or homesickness [Same as above, really, plus reminding that the white home is the place where white supremacy begins and takes root first]
- Threaten and harass your friends and family [cancel and dox culture; they’re racists]
- Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve [cancel and dox culture]
- Teach you there is no happiness or fulfillment outside the group [everyone else is complicit in racism and upholding the status quo; there is no neutral, only a choice between antiracism and racism]
An additional trait of CRT that likens it to cult environments is the hyper-attentive focus on the central idea of the cult doctrine: systemic racism, which is believed to pervade everything, be “ordinary,” and is considered permanent. According to many CRT advocates, including the bestselling Robin DiAngelo, racism is present in and relevant to every interaction and circumstance. The question, she says, must move away from “did racism take place?” to “how did racism manifest in this situation?” For her, every situation and interaction contains racism, and the devotee of her program is to focus obsessively on finding it and calling it out.
Moreover, CRT establishes an identity cult, as opposed to, say, a cult of personality around some charismatic figure. Under CRT, every Critical Race Theorist who is also a racial minority becomes his or her own cult personality. It therefore proceeds with an “identity first” model that says “I am Black,” for example, means something more and more important than “I am a person who happens to be black.” The capitalized B in “Black” here indicates the CRT-defined politically Black identity that is key to cult identification and cult participation.
Under CRT, then, race is expected to be given ultimate social significance and racism is believed to pervade every possible occurrence and interaction. Thus, race and racism are always of central relevance to CRT thought, which dramatically increases and focuses the control-based elements of the BITE model. All behavior must be CRT-appropriate. So must the information one takes in and communicates, the thoughts one has, and the emotions one expresses because anything else signals racism that must be “interrogated” and “dismantled.”
To care that racism is reduced in reality therefore necessarily means taking the fight against racism out of the hands of the Critical Race Theory advocates. Not only do they operate in bad faith—meaning from the Critical Theory approach—and do so using cult mind control language; they’re also deforming the institutions that are the foundations of our society.
In attributing all differences between different racial groups to racism, they’re proposing univariate solutions to multivariate problems. This means not only is their project is doomed to fail and leave many black people stuck at the bottom of the socio economic ladder, it will do so only after wildly alienating the majority of the country. Moreover, “systemic racism” is intentionally vague enough to be quasi-spiritual in nature. It is, as James Lindsay has described it, “racism of the gaps” that can continually be appealed to as the cause of problems or disparities even when there is no evidence of discrimination or strong evidence against discrimination.
To pick just one example of how CRT’s oversimplification provides incorrect diagnoses and solutions to what’s driving systemic inequality in the black community, consider a line from “Black Lives Matter’s” manifesto.
We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.
Notice the word missing from that phrase? Fathers. Research on family structure is crystal clear: families with an active father in them have far better outcomes for children. Families without fathers produce children with less impulse control and more assertive/violent behavior. That’s not a formula for success in either school or life. Moreover, the concept of disruption of family structures can readily lead to the kind of psychological states and isolation necessary for cult indoctrination.
In the black community in the US, 70% of children are currently being raised by single parents, almost all single moms, the highest single-parent proportion by far of any other group. If BLM gets its way, that number would be 100%, because the nuclear family needs to be “disrupted,” and active dads are an irrelevant variable in successful child raising. Except we know they’re not, and what is really needed in black America are more active dads, not fewer.
Critical Race Theory is not a recipe for racial progress, but unmitigated strife and ultimate disaster for black America and the broader America of which it is a part. This is why we need to turn our backs on this cult.