During our Annual Secular Summit, we hosted a panel called Leaving Cults and Conspiratorial Thinking Behind. We gathered three experts with deep backgrounds in the subject, including two which fled extreme beliefs themselves. They discussed what motivates people to become victims of high control groups—including Q-Anon, evangelicalism, MAGA, and ultra-fundamentalist sects—and how we can pull people out.
From their perspective, the answers lay less in confrontation and fact checking and more in slow, intentional relationship building—something more akin to addiction recovery than a simple appeal to reason. Here were panelists’ top opinions:
Get to know indoctrinated people over time
Author Gloria Beth Amodeo escaped the evangelical movement in her 20’s. She thinks we can use tactics employed by religious sects to de-convert people from them—notably, the concept of “relational evangelism,” wherein conversion is performed by gradually forming close bonds.
“So basically people formed relationships with me. And slowly, over time, they sort of planted seeds in my mind until I kind of became familiar with the beliefs,” says Amodeo. “Even though the beliefs were kind of weird and outlandish, they didn’t seem as weird and outlandish because they’ve been planted so slowly.”
Amodeo said the evangelicals forming relationships with her did not only seem like normal people, but became her friends and seemed to respect her. She eventually gave in because she wanted to be more a part of their world.
Amodeo says she thinks many people give into cults and conspiracy theories because of a feeling that the world is against them in certain ways.
“I think that we have to acknowledge and see the person behind the conspiracy theories, and sort of show them that you […] see the good in them. […] Find the areas that you can relate with them on, so that like over time maybe we can drag them out of this thinking or encourage them out.”
Followers are looking for a sense of belonging
Nick Carmody, JD, MS Psych is a trauma therapist with firsthand experience recovering from traumatic brain injury. He thinks it’s important to recognize that many people gravitate toward extremism for the communal aspects—fulfilling a medical need.
“There’s research and fMRI technology. It shows that the same areas of the brain to activate when we experience physical pain also activate when we experience social isolation or exclusion,” says Carmody. “And so what this would suggest is that there’s almost a pain avoidance-like experience when we remove ourselves or isolate ourselves, or maybe even push up against a group from which we derive identity.”
He goes on to explain that 1 in 7 men and 1 in 10 women don’t have a single friend. So when someone enters these peoples’ lives with a recruitment plan, it’s a recipe for mass indoctrination.
Secular AZ’s Jeanne Casteen jumped in with a simple analogy.
“These people who travel all over for these Trump events or ReAwaken America Tour, it’s almost like back in the day when we would try to see how many Grateful Dead shows we could go to,” Casteen said. “It’s that sense of belonging and you get to see your bros all over the United States and I guess compare stories or whatever.”
If Carmody and Casteen are right, then it is critical to build alternative communities that fulfill our neighbors’ sense of belonging—and we can base those communities on reason and compassion rather than incitements to violence.
Many conspiracy theorists crave a heroic purpose
A couple of panelists thought conspiracy theories like Q-Anon appeal to followers’ sincere desires to want to help or rescue others, which becomes weaponized by misinformation.
Kemmerer finds it useful to redirect “red pilled” people’s energy. For example, she recommends to fellow ex-Q-Anon followers that if what drew them into the movement was a desire to save children, they can channel that energy into other areas—for example, the true crime community.
“You can try and solve mysteries, online, you know, turn that energy into something real. You want to save the children? Here, maybe you recognize this missing person. Maybe you can match this unidentified, deceased person with a missing person, and give a family closure.”
Cult victims need to see there is a safety net outside
The panel conversation took a turn toward the punishments sects like Scientology enforce to keep victims from leaving—such as shunning, harassment, and ruinous financial penalties.
Kemmerer thinks the only thing that can motivate a person to leave in these cases is becoming thoroughly convinced there is a better life on the outside, and to see examples of how others like them have been able to build their lives up.
“If they can see that there is life afterwards, and that there are people who have put resources together to help them get out of it, then that is a motivating factor because I think that a lot of times one of the things that keeps people in these faith systems is believing that there’s no one out of it who’s ever been able to do life outside of it.”
Panelists agreed it’s important to spread the word about existing safety nets, such as the exvangelical movement, ultra-Orthodox recovery organizations like Footsteps, and group homes for “lost boys” excommunicated from polygamist LDS sects.
Fear is the mind-killer
Panelists pointed out that fear biologically trumps logic in most cases—and that’s why hucksters like Alex Jones traffic both in fear and the supposed cure for it.
“Chronic fear will literally rewire the brain in a way where subsequent stressful or fearful experiences will be experienced at a higher intensity level for a longer duration,” said Carmody. “When we become emotionally excited, the amygdala hijacks the prefrontal cortex, and obviously in order to think critically, about conspiracy, theory or really anything, you have to indicate your prefrontal cortex. But if you are excited, if you’re scared, you have high anxiety, you know, if you’re constantly hearing Tucker Carlson […] then it becomes really difficult to think rationally and logically use critical thinking skills.”
An audience member suggested that inciting our loved ones’ curiosity about other spheres could help get them out of fear. Secular AZ’s Jeanne Casteen suggested “Maybe we could all try it as we sit around the table this holiday season, and ask our Q-Anon, uncle, what are you afraid of?”