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"In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal" Is a Call to Do Better

A Netflix's docuseries on Korean cults offers an opportunity for self-reflection.

Key points

  • "In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal" is an opportunity for religious communities and leaders to engage in self-reflection.
  • One introspection might focus on how unquestioned obedience emphasized in religious communities can sometimes result in destructive outcomes.
  • Another question might be around the use of fear to control people, and what other things can be used to draw people into a religious community.

We gasp in horror, or let out a loaded, grieved sigh, every few minutes.

My wife and I recently finished the Netflix documentary series, In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal. So far, the Korean docuseries has ranked in Netflix’s “Global Top 10 TV (non-English)” category for two straight weeks, peaking at the fifth spot shortly after its release; it is also the highest-ranked documentary in this category, attesting to its relevance and widespread interest. This series narrates the deeply disturbing stories of Korean cult leaders who, under the guise of religion, inflicted horrific abuse upon their dedicated followers. The details of the abuse are so heinous that we had to step away from the screen a few times.

How might religious communities and their leaders respond to a docuseries like this?

In this age of abundant cynicism, one tempting response might be an outright dismissal of the institution of religion (“See? This is why I am spiritual but not religious”); another response might be a defensive posture – an “us versus them” mentality (“My church/religious leader is nothing like that”).

I believe that there is a better way for religious communities and leaders to respond. Indeed, In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal can serve as a mirror of our individual and collective tendencies and provide an opportunity for difficult but necessary introspections. And it should be said: the relevance of this docuseries is not confined to South Korea, nor to the religious communities that we label as cults.

Here are two reflection questions for those who practice institutional religion:


1. Have we elevated vertical collectivism to the detriment of the most vulnerable among us?

A striking commonality among the cult followers in the docuseries is also a simple one: true to their name, they followed. They pledged and lived out undying loyalty to their leaders. In the language of social scientists, the followers demonstrated radical vertical collectivism — a type of interdependence that emphasizes social hierarchy and respect for authority (Singelis et al., 1995).

Certainly, many religions emphasize obedience to deity and those in positions of authority as a noble practice and posture. For instance, in the Christian religion, there are teachings around deference to authority, both within the church and outside of it as well.

At the same time, in the Netflix series, I am reminded of the perils of unquestioned vertical collectivism, especially when it is used to maintain an abusive power structure. In particular, I thought about the famous Stanley Milgram experiment (Milgram, 1963). The troubling data from this study is that the majority of the participants (two-thirds) were willing to “deliver” the highest level of electric shock to another person, simply in obedience to the authority figure in the room. A key lesson of the Milgram study is that blind obedience to leaders is more likely than one might think, and such a form of vertical collectivism can have destructive consequences; In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal echoes this lesson for the religious community.

We need more accountability checkpoints for leaders in religious communities, and less blind allegiance to charismatic personalities. We need a more faithful following to the sacred and original teachings, and less unquestioning devotion to the perspectives of imperfect human beings wielding power. We need more confrontation and upheaval of structures that oppress those in weaker social locations, and less premature criticism and labelling of protests against social injustice as acts of disobedience.

2. Are we relying on fear to control people?

The cult leaders featured in In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal were effective because they were masterful in leveraging fear to control their followers. A common warning that accompanied the abusive behaviors was to tell the victims that their (or their loved ones’) salvation or other forms of spiritual well-being would be impacted if they were to go against the cult leader.

These elements of the docuseries reminded me of how sometimes, the emotion of fear and its siblings (e.g., protectionist mentality) can be so dominant in many religions. Whether it be the fear of anti-racism efforts, immigrants, or having certain books accessible to our children, fear can be a persistent motivation behind how a religion is practiced.

The docuseries is a good reminder for religious communities to examine our hearts for what we rely on as motivations for faithful living, and as needed, recalibrate them so that our hearts and actions are truly about what is good and noble, and not rooted in fear. That people are invited to join and stay in our religious communities, not because of the fear of what might occur if they did not, but because they are drawn to the ways in which flourishing, love, sacrifice, and other qualities permeate our communities.

In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal is not for everyone. It can trigger painful emotions and memories for those who were part of similar cults in the past, and discernment is needed in viewing it. But for those who choose to watch it, I hope that it can serve as a mirror of our own spiritual communities.


Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371–378.

Singelis, T. M., Triandis, H. C., Bhawuk, D. P., & Gelfand, M. J. (1995). Horizontal and vertical dimensions of individualism and collectivism: A theoretical and measurement refinement. Cross-Cultural Research, 29(3), 240-275.

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