Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory

download 10In the United States at the end of the 1970s, brainwashing emerged as a popular theoretical construct around which to understand what appeared to be a sudden rise of new and unfamiliar religious movements during the previous decade, especially those associated with the hippie street-people phenomenon. Most of the new groups were of Asian origin and located on the fringe of the evangelical Christian-based counter cultural movement, the Jesus People, although a few quasi-religious groups such as est and Lifespring were also brought into the controversy. While there had been a few scholars interested in new religious movements over the previous decades, especially in Japan where new religions had flowered in the 1950s, with the sudden appearance of a host of new groups in the United States following the rescission of the Asian Exclusion Act in 1965, a number of new scholars appeared ready to devote a significant amount of their research and writing to the issue of an understanding of the role of new religions in late twentieth century society. The first academic organization to focus research primarily on the many new religious groups was incorporated in 1969.

While these scholars explored with interest the many similarities of the new religions with older religious groupings, both familiar American groups and different groups seen in other lands, in the early 1970s movements appeared to oppose these new religions. The leaders of these groups, primarily parents of young adults who had joined the groups, focused upon the dissimilarities they saw between these new groups and the religions with which they were familiar. They were strange, but more than strange, they were quantitatively different, and their distinctive nature included a sinister element. Through the 1970s, as people struggled to articulate the strangeness they felt from these new religions, the term “brainwashing” became the symbol of the threat they represented.

While many objected to their son or daughter joining any religion different from that in which they had been raised, parents were particularly upset by those new groups who sought the full-time commitment of recruits, accepting them not just into membership but into a career either as an administrator, teacher, or missionary for the group, or a resident of a commune or monastic-like community. The brainwashing idea came as a godsend to parents who had been objecting to their offspring’s joining one of the new movements, as it offered what appeared to be a scientific rationale for their son or daughter’s actions.

Joining the new religion, at least to all outward appearances, included a radical change in lifestyle, social relationships, and career trajectory. Joining the groups usually included the individuals’ assigning religion a significantly higher priority in their lives. Parents were often at a loss to explain what they saw as an unexpected change, though examination of the recruits usually revealed that the visible changes had come only after a period of time in which they had felt some dissatisfaction with their life in general and their religious life in particular.

In reaching out for some reason why a young adult would radically reject the way which parents had prepared for them to fine a successful (and by their standards, normal) life, parents tended to place the blame upon the group that s/he had joined, and increasingly upon the leader of that group. The several organizations founded in the early 1970s drew upon the literature developed primarily by American Evangelical Christian writers that referred to the new religions as “cults.” (1) Through the early 1970s, they began to seek the assistance of law enforcement agencies and various professionals, primarily mental health professionals, to intervene in the life of the new believers. Police and courts were generally unable to assist parents whose child had joined a cult, a “cult” being defined as it was in Evangelical literature merely by its espousal of a radically different set of beliefs. The situation changed in the late 1970s largely as a result of (a) the discovery of involuntary deprogramming as a technique that had some positive results in persuading members to drop their affiliations to new religions, (b) the emergence of the concept of brainwashing in the trial of millionaire heiress Patty Hearst, and (c) the death of some 900 people at Jonestown.

First, the original parental groups found a major ally in the person of Theodore “Ted” Patrick who stumbled upon the process of deprogramming after being alerted to the dangers of cults when one of his relatives became briefly associated with the Children of God. In 1976 he authored a popular volume, Let Our Children Go,(2) describing his kidnapping of several people and the application of various forms of physical and emotional stress in an attempt to force them to sever their relationship to the group, be it the Unification Church, the Hare Krishna, The Divine Light Mission of Guru Maharaj Ji, or one of the several new Evangelical Christian groups.

Then, in 1975, media-empire heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California, and disappeared into the Symbionese Liberation Army, a self-styled leftist revolutionary political group. Some months later she was photographed carrying a rifle and participating in a bank robbery. When she was finally captured by the police, she was tried for her role in the robbery, and her defense lawyers tried to argue a new concept, that she had been brainwashed by the SLA and having lost her free will was not responsible for her actions during the robbery.

As the story of her life in the SLA was revealed, it became obvious that during the weeks immediately after her capture that she had undergone a horrible ordeal that included being locked for long periods in a closet, physical rape, and a period of indoctrination into the political theories of the SLA. Overtime, she began to identify with her captors and eventually became a convert to the SLA cause. At her trial, several people came forward to testify on her behalf, most prominently, Louis J. West and Robert J. Lifton. However, one more-obscure expert, Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer (though she did not testify on brainwashing at this time), would later emerge as the key figure in the brainwashing debate.(3) While the jury turned back any leniency for Hearst based on the brainwashing argument (in spite of her case bearing some analogy to the situation of the Korean prisoners of war), other juries were found to be more attuned to the concept.

At the time of the Hearst case, the parental movement against the new religions seemed to be running out of steam and was splintered into a variety of independently minded local organizations. However, in November 1978, an event in a small South American country would change everything. Jim Jones was the pastor of the Peoples Temple, a large California congregation of the prominent liberal Protestant denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Jones had become an advocate of a radical form of Marxist liberation theology, then a popular perspective in liberal Protestantism. However, while he was praised within his denomination and other Protestant churches, for his social outlook and work on racial harmony, he was not without his harsh critics. In 1977, he moved with hundreds of his church members, mostly African Americans, to Guyana, where the church had previously established a small agricultural colony.

In Guyana, a communal lifestyle emerged, and the group considered suicide as one alternative to the public’s lack of acceptance of their Marxist ideology. Then in November 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan visited as a response to the controversy stirred by the church. Though seemingly completing his visit on a highly positive note, he and his party were brutally murdered just before they were to catch their plane back to the United States. Several hours later, almost all of the residents of Jonestown were dead, some committed suicide, others were murdered. Overnight, the Peoples Temple emerged as the epitome of the “cult.” (4) The parental groups, divided and possessed of intense local loyalties to their group, found themselves unable to make a response at the level they believed that the Jonestown event demanded. However, over the next few years, they hammered out an national organization originally known as the Citizens Freedom Foundation (the name of an early group in California) and eventually assumed the name, Cult Awareness Network (CAN).

CAN emerged in the early 1980s prepared to fight the cults. It was equipped with a program to help parents who had lost a son or daughter into a cult (i.e., deprogramming) and what appeared to be a secular scientific understanding of the danger that cults posed (i.e., brainwashing). While CAN assumed the activist role serving families who desired the disassociation of one of their family members from a new religion, a sister group, the American Family Foundation (AFF) emerged to carry on an educational and research program designed to alert the public to the threat posed to the social order by the cults and the danger of cult life to its members. AFF leadership was largely constituted by professionals-with mental health professionals and lawyers constituting the largest segment. While pursuing separate roles, the efforts of the two organizations were coordinated by interlocking boards and the active role many people assumed in both CAN and AFF, and through the mid-1980s, professionals would largely replace parents on CAN’s board By the end of decade, both organizations consisted of a small number of professionals leading a constituency of parents, anti-cult activists, and lay people concerned about the cult issue.


The Brainwashing Controversy

The idea of brainwashing came out of the misunderstanding of the Chinese indoctrination program directed at American Armed Forces prisoners during the Korean War. Many Americans were offended that some of their soldier prisoners had made anti-American statements during their prison days and that a few had even chosen to remain behind when prisoners were liberated at the end of hostilities. In the context of the public’s coming to grips with the insult of the prisoners’ actions, a journalist, Edward Hunter (later revealed to have been a undercover CIA agent), proposed that a new process of indoctrination had been developed by the Chinese Communists, that they had discovered an intense manipulative process that has insidious power to actually alter the mental outlook of those who fell victim to it.(5)

As soon as the Armistice was signed, a team of psychiatrists and psychologists were dispatched to Korea to interview the returning prisoners. Prominent among the group were Robert J. Lifton and Edgar Schein, and several years later the results of their research began to appear.(6) They concluded that in many ways the experience of the prison camps did not really test Hunter’s accusations, as the prisoners were not really subjected to a systematic re-education program. Prisoners were subjected to pressures to engage in collaborative behavior rather than appeals to convert to Communism. Lifton and Schein noted that the thought control process occurred in the context of the prisoners physical confinement under the harshest of conditions, conditions in which necessities such as food and warm clothing were scarce. Positive results in the process were most often pulled out of prisoners who had faced severe deprivation and were offered such things as more comfortable sleeping quarters, better food, a sweater, or a blanket. They also noted that the process, in spite of the publicity given several prisoners who had made “unamerican” statements, was actually quite ineffective in changing any basic attitudes.(7) In spite of these results, the term “brainwashing” entered the public consciousness, and many people adopted Hunter’s original perspective as truth.

However, soon after the Armistice, the Chinese government also began to release a number of prisoners, Americans and other foreigners (missionaries, students, doctors, businessmen) caught in China when the Korean War began, as well as a few Chinese who had not been arrested but had been encouraged to attend “voluntarily” one of the thought reform institutions set up throughout this period. When they emerged from captivity into freedom in Hong Kong, several made public statements to the effect that they had been American spies, that their arrest and detention was just, and that they deserved any punishment they had received. Given the seeming falsity of the statements they were making, possibly they were true victims of what Hunter had called brainwashing, that the sophisticated Pavlovian process of thought reform utilized by the Chinese was so effective that the victims subjected to it had become little more than a puppet or robot. Thus Schein, Lifton and their colleagues began a new round of research. While some such as William Sargent (8) and Joost Merloo (9) initially accepted Hunter’s perspective, Lifton’s (10) and Schein’s (11) careful analysis of the prisoners accounts led them to reject Hunter’s view.

Lifton, Schein, and their colleagues concluded that in fact coercive persuasion, in which a mixture of social, psychological and physical pressures are applied to produce changes in an individual’s self-perception, beliefs and attitudes, does occur. However, they also concluded that a necessary condition of its occurring was the physical element-confinement or its equivalent, As Schein put it, “… the coercive element in coercive persuasion is paramount (forcing the individual into a situation in which he must, in order to survive physically and psychologically, expose himself to persuasive attempts).” (12) They also concluded that it was successful only on a minority of those subjected to it and its end result was very unstable, the individuals so coerced tending to revert to their previous condition soon after the coercive force was removed. (13)

By the time of the Hearst case, a popular anti-cult movement had been energized by the practice of deprogramming, an activity that included the forceful detention (and occasionally an actual kidnapping) of a member of a new religion and the subsequent application of pressure for the member to withdraw and return to a “normal” life. When legal authorities failed to respond to their requests, deprogramming offered parents one way to intervene in their offspring’s life and hopefully end their foray in a new religious group. During the 1970s, parents also placed their hope in a second, closely associated, tactic, the placing of their child under a court conservatorship during which time pressure for their leaving the group could be applied without the questionable coercive activity involved with deprogramming.

In the years immediately after the Hearst case, several psychiatrists, most notably UCLA Professor Louis J. West and Massachusetts psychiatrist John Clark, were active in applying theories of brainwashing to new religious movements, however, it was Margaret T. Singer, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California, who became the leading theoretician and the most prominent exponent of the theory in court situations. Her position was initially established in several articles, most notably “Coming Out of the Cults,” that appeared in Psychology Today, a widely circulated newsstand periodical designed to convey psychological insights to a popular audience.

Much of the article was devoted to discussing the harm suffered by the ex-members of several of the new religions. Symptoms included depression, indecisiveness, the blurring of mental acuity, uncritical passivity, and fear. The discussion of the mental health of group members would be a continuing theme in the literature. However, slipped into the discussion was the more important theme of coercive persuasion which Singer admitted needed a “long and sophisticated explanation of social and psychological coercion, influence and control procedures.” (14) However, she did accuse the “cults” of maintaining the loyalty of their members through the use of “social and psychological pressures and practices that, intentionally or not, amount to conditioning techniques that constrict attention, limit personal relationships, and devalue reasoning.(15) She also noted that even trained therapists “may fail to be aware of the sophisticated high-pressure recruitment tactics and intense influence procedures the cults use to attract and keep members,” and may rather see in the symptoms signs of a long-standing psychopathology originating in the days prior to cult involvement.(16)

In several subsequent articles, Singer would develop more completely her idea of “conditioning techniques.” For example, in 1980, in an article co-authored with Louis J. West, she noted that cults use drastic techniques of control:

“… techniques that in some respects resemble the political indoctrination methods prescribed by Mao Tse Tung during the communist revolution and its aftermath from 1945 to 1955 in China. These techniques, described by the Chinese as ‘thought reform” or ideological remolding were labeled “brainwashing’ by the American journalist Edward Hunter (1951, 1958). Such methods were studied in depth after the Korean War by a number of Western scientists (Lifton, 1961; Schiein, 1961).” (17)

Further she added that the use of these techniques led members to become incapable of complex, rational thought, responses to questions become stereotyped, and the ability to make decisions difficult. Much that was asserted in articles such as these resonated with the finding of new religions scholars in general who studied what were seen as “high demand” religions within which a variety of, to borrow a phrase from Rosebeth Kantor, “commitment mechanisms” to encourage and hold group members.(18) However, critics noticed that Singer consistently employed the language of brainwashing and Pavlovian conditioning. While quoting her mentor Edgar Schein, she largely avoided discussions of two key issues: the necessary element of coercion involved in the process of coercive persuasion and the issue of the overriding of the free will of people upon whom the persuasive techniques are used.

However, in her court testimony she consistently moved beyond her published articles to assert that social and psychological techniques had been used by the new religions on their members, and that these techniques had effected the members ability to think clearly and make decisions, but went on to asset that, in fact, the end result of the process was (a) the overpowering of the person’s free will in making critical decisions and (b) the group’s gaining control that was virtually total. Singer’s articles offered several possibilities of interpretation. One, the social influence approach, accepted that new religions, just as other groups, influenced members, and that cults simply did it somewhat more. The other, known as the robot theory, from the use of that term by Edward Hunter, suggested far more. That the free will of the person had been inhibited and that they actually remained a member of the group against their will because they were controlled by the group.

While a cursory reading of Singer’s writings through the 1980s could reach the conclusion that she was simply articulating a social influence approach, the articles served to provide a foundation from which the so-called “robot” theory could be asserted in court. This latter assertion was essential if court cases directed against new religions were to have a claim of action that justified the multi-million dollar judgments that were being sought. Thus, it was in the depositions and court transcripts that what became known as the “Singer hypothesis,” the application of the “robot theory” of brainwashing to cults was largely articulated, and it became necessary to consult these documents to create a full respond to her thought.

However, what Singer said in court was being said more openly in public statements by others. For example, social worker Jean Merritt, one of the AFF’s early employees, said of members of some “authoritarian” groups she had interviewed, that “their free will has been given up by the isolation, lack of sleep, sexual acts, poor eating and the sophistication of the psychological manipulations of leaders.”(19) Among the most widely circulated statements of support for Singer came in the book Snapping, authored by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. Snapping was the name they gave to the effect upon cult members when the brainwashing process took over. As they put it:

“Inevitably, under the cumulative pressures of this sweeping physical, emotional, and intellectual blitz, self-control and personal beliefs give way. Isolated from the world and surrounded by exotic trappings, the converts absorb the cult’s altered ways of thought and daily life. In a very short time, before they realize what is happening, while their attention is diverted to contrived spiritual conflicts and further weakened by lack of food and sleep, the new cult members slide into a state of mind in which they are no longer capable of thinking for themselves.” (20)

As these opinions became known at the end of the 1970s, they produced a storm of comment and through the mid 1980s the issues were fully aired at various scholarly gatherings, and a significant scholarly consensus that the brainwashing model used by Singer and her colleagues was woefully inadequate emerged. That consensus, most clearly stated in the negative responses to the report that Singer and her colleagues would prepare for the American Psychological Association, would in turn be injected into the court process in the late 1980s and lead to the rejection of the “Singer hypothesis” by U.S. courts and a series of reverses by the Cult Awareness Network and indeed the whole anti-cult movement in the 1990s.


The Response to the Brainwashing Hypothesis

The articles which appear below represent the major scholarly reactions to the Singer hypothesis by social scientists (both psychological and sociological). Soon after the Hearst trial, in 1977, a pop book advocating the use of brainwashing terminology against new religions was authored by California psychiatrist Paul A. Verdier.(21) Simultaneously, support for the application of brainwashing theory to the new religions came from legal and sociological sources. (22)

In the meantime, Singer had become involved in a trial in which parents of five members of the Unification Church sought a conservatorship for purposes of “deprogramming” them from their allegiance to the Church’s belief and practice. Singer testified that the five were in need of treatment and recommended the facilities of the Freedom of Thought Foundation,(23) an establishment that specialized in talking people out of new religious affiliations. They had been victims of coercive persuasion (the term she used from her former mentor Edgar H. Schein), and need the “reality therapy” provided by the Foundation. The court granted the conservatorship, but in what became a landmark case, Katz v. Superior Court (1977), the California Appeals Court reversed the decision. This case although it largely ended the hope of using conservatorship laws in cult cases, did have the effect of publicizing the idea of cultic brainwashing to the general public.

Among the first, and certainly the most important response to the early writings of Singer and her associates came in the article by Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony, “The Limits of ‘Coercive Persuasion’ as an Explanation for Conversion to Authoritarian Sects,” the first article to appear below,(24) originally published in the Summer 1980 issue of Political Psychology. While admitting the possible limited use of a “coercive persuasion” model in the study of new religions, Robbins and Anthony argued that the use of such arguments as a justification of deprogramming and legal action was illegitimate. Such extended uses, they argued, ignored the significant differences between different religious movements, wrongly equate the voluntary affiliation operative in religious groups with the physical constraint working on government operated totalistic institutions (such as prisons camps), lack any evidential support that persons subjected to “coercive persuasion” failed to exercise free will, and rely too heavily on the testimonies of ex-members whose account of life in the group had previously been effected by the work of deprogrammers and/or sessions with a therapist. (Singer had noted in her Psychology Today article that her view of the new religions had been almost totally formed by her sessions with ex-members, the great majority of whom had come to her only after being deprogrammed.)

Beginning with the Robbins/Anthony article, the issue raised by Singer and her colleagues became a matter of intense debate among sociologists and religious studies scholars. While many tried to separate that debate from the public controversy over “brainwashing” (a term which Singer tried completely to avoid), such was not possible. Singer’s most substantive presentation of her position had been placed in a newsstand publication, and legal colleague Richard Delgado followed his initial publication in a law review (25) with an article for the New York Times. (26) Those scholars who studied new religions were regularly interviewed by the press concerning their observations. The debate took place amid the weekly occurrences of deprogrammings, a series of civil lawsuits brought by former members against several new religious groups that resulted in multi-million dollar judgments, and what appeared to be a growing popular prejudice against any group labeled a “cult.” Those who wrote about new religions did so knowing that every word would be scrutinized for its position vis-a-vis the controversy.

Among the issues rarely discussed was the assumption that many (hundreds if not thousands) of the new religious movements existed but data about and attacks upon “cults” was limited to a relative few groups. Only five groups, the Unification Church, the Divine Light Mission, The Way International, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and Church of Scientology, were regularly mentioned with less than twenty additional groups also cited on rare occasions.

As the controversy progressed, it was noted that primary support for the brainwashing/coercive deprogramming position came from psychological clinicians, and that they tended to bolster their attack upon the new religions with claims that cult life produced pathology. Various reports had suggested that members of cults had inherited problems from their dysfunctional families and joined a new religion to escape from the demands of autonomy. John Clark, one of the earliest exponents of the brainwashing perspective made broad claims that most cult members were “substantially and chronically” disturbed. (27) Clark’s claim produced two different responses. First, those who supported such claims implied, if they did not state, that new religions were best understood as psychological phenomena rather than religious organizations. If his perspective were to be adopted, it would be assumed that the large amount of scholarly work on new religions was as best irrelevant and in fact, worthless.

Second, others, including Singer, even though she shared a distaste for the new religions with Clark, rejected Clark’s perspective that cults recruited psychologically damaged individuals. In 1980, she and West asserted to the contrary that the great majority of adolescents and young adults who joined new religions were not disturbed before joining. This position allowed them to emphasize that the symptoms which they observed in ex-members were the effect of converting and remaining in a new religion. Others also expanded upon what they saw as group-generated pathology.(28)

In 1982, the psychological literature, both that critical of new religious groups and that more supportive, was surveyed and evaluated in an important article by professor of psychiatry Marc Galanter (later expanded into a book).(29) Adopting the more neutral term “charismatic religious sects,” he discussed issues around the attraction felt by people who experience a high level of distress (both pathological and nonpathological) prior to joining a religious group, the process of conversion, and the effects of long-term membership and of leaving an alternative religious group. Galanter discussed the psychological issues around new religions apart from the emotionally charged language of brainwashing and the manipulation of images of prisoner of war camps, and objectively assessed the presence of psychopathology in some potential recruits and the role that conversion, mystical experiences and group membership played in the over coming of the initial distress.

More importantly, Galanter pointed out the major problem of approaching members of new religions using categories had been developed to deal with mental illness, i.e.. the problem of medicalizing the discussion of new religious groups. He further notes that the process of joining, being a member, and leaving a new religious group is best described not as a matter of personal pathology but of social adaptation. For example, experiences that in a secular setting might be considered pathological are, within some religious settings, perfectly normal. While psychological categories were created to discuss individual dysfunctional behavior, the behavior of group members must be seen in light of group norms. Thus what may be considered disturbed behavior in a secular setting may be perfectly functional and normal within a group context.

Galanter’s analysis had the effect of reducing the significance of the observed abnormal behavior reported among former members. He also suggested an alternative means of understanding otherwise inexplicable behavior in members and ex-members without considering them as suffering from psychopathology. Galanter’s work, along with that of several other psychiatrists who saw members of new religions in nonpathological terms,(30) provided the substantial challenge to the Singer hypothesis from the psychological community.

While Galanter’s work was being read by psychiatrists and psychologists, on a popular level, Conway and Siegelman were making broad sweeping claims of pathology among the members of the reputed thousands of cults operating in the West. Though lacking any medical or psychological credentials, in Snapping, they posed the existence of an as yet unknown disease caused by membership in a cult. This “information disease,” as they termed it, was produced by the manipulation of information by cult leaders. In essence, they suggested that the individual nervous system is fed by information flowing into it. The practice of various spiritual disciplines (from prayer and meditation to chanting and yoga) shut off the flow of information for long periods of time and created a disorder of awareness. Going even further, they suggested that the amount of time needed in rehabilitation was directly related to the amount of time a member had spent in group rituals and spiritual practices.

Conway and Siegelman stated in blatantly popular language what Singer had been saying in much more staid terms: membership in cults caused significant pathology and former members required extensive psychological therapy. And while the approach of Galanter and others suggested nonpathological perspectives for understanding ex-members, clinicians such as Singer continued to see pathology in most ex-members. This pathology was initially seen as an “atypical dissociative disorder” and also as similar to the “delayed stress syndrome” often experienced by Vietnam War veterans. (31)

If Conway and Siegelman’s work did anything, it spurred research in that most difficult of work areas, ex-members. While members of new religions could be contacted and studied relatively quickly, former members tended to fade into the larger population and required some effort to locate. However, researchers quickly noted that Conway and Siegelman’s samples, like those used by Singer, had been drawn from that relatively small group of former members who had associated with the anti-cult movement, some because they had left due to a bad experience in the group, but the great majority because they had been deprogrammed. These people constituted but a tiny percentage of former members (10 to 15%), and were drawn from the same relatively few groups upon which the anti-cult movement was focused.

Attempts to survey and study ex-members was pioneered by J. T. Ungerleider, D. K. Wellisch, Trudy Solomon and Stuart Wright, whose works helped to break many of the stereotypes of former members. Ungerleider and Wellisch (32) were among the first to point out significant differences between ex-members who left voluntarily and the those who were deprogrammed, the later group usually going on to become involved with the anti-cult movement and in the practice of deprogramming others. Solomon and Wright extended the consideration pointing out that those former members involved with the anti-cult movement represented only a very small percentage of former members. Solomon, found in her study of former members of the Unification Church, that attitude toward the Church were directly related to their method of severing membership (voluntary or forced) and their subsequent level of contact with the anti-cult movement (low to high), with the later option correlating with a negative assessment of the Church. (33) In like measure, Wright found that those who voluntarily left the various controversial new religions rarely adopted brainwashing language to discuss their experience. (34)

Then, spurred by Conway and Siegelman’s rather blatant assertions James R. Lewis and David G. Bromley took the research one step further and tested the claim of harm done to members by cults in their study of ex-members, “The Cult Withdrawal Syndrome: A Case of Misattribution of Cause” (1987), (35) reprinted below. This study largely laid to rest the continuing issue of pathology among former members of new religions. Using a more representative sample of former members, Lewis and Bromley measured the presence of the various pathological symptoms that Conway and Siegelman had discovered in their sample of former members (an extension of the symptoms discussed elsewhere by Singer). While disconfirming many of Conway and Siegelman’s assertions, such as that people who had been in groups longer would show more symptoms, Lewis and Bromley were able to pinpoint the major source of dysfunctional symptoms among ex-members, the process of leaving the group.

Lewis and Bromley considered the presence of symptoms relative to the type of exit from the group. They divided the sample into those who left voluntarily and received no counseling by individuals associated with the anti-cult movement, those who left and then received some form of voluntary deprogramming (usually termed exit counseling), and those who were involuntarily deprogrammed. While the entire sample showed significantly lower levels of dysfunctional symptoms than the one reported upon by Conway and Siegelman, it did show a dramatic relationship between the method of leave-taking and the presence of symptoms. Those associated with the anti-cult movement had measurably higher levels of symptoms, but those who had been deprogrammed had a radically higher number of symptoms than the general sample.

The Lewis and Bromley study became a landmark study in shifting the onus of pathology experienced by former members of new religions from the religions to the coercive activity of the anti-cult movement. In the wake of this study (and other works that confirmed its findings), treating former members as people in need of psychological help has largely ceased. The lack of any widespread expressed need for psychological help by the tens of thousands of former members of new religions in the succeeding decade has itself become the strongest evidence refuting the early sweeping condemnation of new religions as causes of psychological trauma. (36)


From DIMPAC to “Fishman”

Through the early and middle 1980s, the brainwashing controversy generated hundreds of papers and several books. After considering all of the arguments put forth by the exponents of the Singer Hypothesis, and listening to the counter arguments, one point of overwhelming consensus had emerged, that brainwashing was an inadequate model for understanding the dynamics operative in new religious movements. That consensus was best stated in several documents that appeared as the decade drew to a close and was capped in the U. S. Federal Court decision in the case of U.S. v. Fishman. The events leading up to Fishman were launched in 1983 when the American Psychological Association (APA), the major professional body of psychologists in the United States formed a task force to study the theories of coercive persuasion as advocated by Margaret Singer. Appropriately, Singer was selected to chair the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (generally referred to by its acronym, DIMPAC). She in turn selected several of her most sympathetic colleagues to assist her, including Dr. Louis J. West, head of UCLA’s Psychoanalytic Institute, and Dr. Michael Langone, a psychologist, an executive with the American Family Foundation, and editor of the Cultic Studies Journal, published by the Foundation..

As DIMPAC set about gathering the material for its report, other events were occurring on the legal front. A number of former members, most of whom had been forcefully deprogrammed, filed suits against the more controversial of the new religions. One of these cases began with the deprogramming of David Molko and Tracey Leal from the Unification Church. They claimed that they had been deceptively recruited and were caught up in the brainwashing process before they really knew that it was the Unification Church with which they had become affiliated. When the case came to court in 1986. The judge dismissed the case against the Unification Church, but the decision was immediately appealed.

As the case was going through the appeal process, (37) the APA, through its board, decided to become involved in the case by submitting a friend of the court (amicus) brief. The brief suggested that the idea of brainwashing had no scientific backing. By the time it was submitted early in 1987, a number of individual scholars from a variety of academic disciplines who were knowledgeable of the issues involved also signed it. At a later date, the American Sociological Association also submitted an additional brief. These briefs became one symbol of the consensus that had emerged over the issue of brainwashing as it applied to new religious movements.

There was an immediate reaction by the members and supporters of the DIMPAC committee who effectively argued that it was not proper for the APA to submit a report that anticipated the finding of one of its own active committees. APA withdrew its name from the brief (though the brief remained as part of the court case due to the additional people who had signed it). Within weeks, however, on May 11, 1987, the APA’s Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility issued its official response to DIMPAC based upon four reviews of the last draft of its report. (38) The reviews were uniformly negative, and the resulting memorandum to Singer and her cohorts read:

“BSERP thanks the Task Force in Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control for its service but is unable to accept the report of the Task Force. In general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for the APA imprimatur.

The report was carefully reviewed by two external experts and two members of the Board. They independently agreed on the significant deficiencies in the report. The reports are enclosed for your information.

The Board cautions the Task Force members against using their past appointment to imply BSERP or APA support or approval of the positions advocated in the report. BSERP requests that Task Force members not distribute or publicize the report without indicating that the report is unacceptable to the Board.

Finally, after much consideration, BSERP does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue.

The Board appreciates the difficulty in producing a report in this complex and controversial area, and again thanks the members of the Task Force for their efforts.”


(A more complete discussion of the events surrounding the APA memorandum and the memorandum itself with the two publicly released enclosures are reprinted below in this book.) The APA documents further stated the scholarly consensus of the inadequacies of the coercive persuasion hypothesis as developed by Singer and applied to new religious movements.

By the time of the APA decision concerning the DIMPAC report, several scholars had already reached the conclusion that a more definitive refutation of the Singer hypothesis was needed especially as it had been developed in [by that time] her more than thirty legal depositions and court appearances. Several researchers began to assemble a set of her testimonies. However, it was psychologist Dick Anthony who in the end produced the most thorough study of Singer’s views and offered what has remained the most important response to them: his lengthy paper, “Religious Movements and ‘Brainwashing’ Litigation: Evaluating Key Testimony” that appeared in the second edition of the textbook, In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America (1989). (39)

Anthony noted the problem that he and others had in attempting to refute Singer. Her theory “has never been published and thus has not been available for scholarly evaluation and critique. Indeed, review of her testimony in these cases reveals that her trial testimony differs quite significantly from the views expressed in her publications in this topic.” (40) As her position had evolved, Singer had come to refer to the “Systematic Manipulation of Social and Psychiatric Influence” (SMSPI) which, as utilized by cult groups, could deprive individuals of their free will in the absence of physical force or threats. Singer argued this point in, for example, the Robin George case [a case against the International Society for Krishna Consciousness], and grounded her testimony by reference to the body of material built up during the study of the prisoners from the Korean War and the Chinese thought reform institutions as studied by Robert J. Lifton and her own professor, Edgar Schein. In the cases in which she testified, Singer argued that cults exerted such influence on the mental processes of their recruits that their power to exercise their free will was overridden.

It is this very idea, popularly called brainwashing, which had been discredited by the work of Lifton and Schein, and had never gained any scientific credibility. And was this very idea that she had avoided stating in many of her published works, as had, for example Conway and Siegelman. Anthony appears to have been the first to note the gap between her published articles and her testimony, to gather the relevant documents, and to pursue the idea in several articles and court documents.

Anthony’s article responds to Singer’s testimony in relation to the Kelley-Frye Standard, which is the rule determining the admissibility of expert testimony in the courts in California. To meet the Standard, such testimony must be an application of a theoretical foundation which has been generally accepted in the relevant scientific community. Previously Singer had claimed that her theory was primarily based upon the research on communist thought reform by Lifton and Schein. Anthony argued in his article that Singer’s testimony confused two different approaches to evaluating Communist Chinese interrogation and indoctrination methods which were actually antithetical to each other, i.e. the brainwashing paradigm which had been rejected by a consensus of qualified scientists, on the one hand, and the views of Lifton, Schein and other recognized experts on the other.

According to Anthony, the brainwashing paradigm was and is actually pseudoscience. It began as a propaganda ploy which was developed by the American CIA to counter Communist propaganda that clamed that Western POWs in Korea and civilian prisoners on the Communist mainland were converting to Communism. The “brainwashing hoax”, as it was referred to by one researcher, claimed that the Communists had invented scientific techniques of coercive persuasion capable of forcing people to convert to Communism against their wills. The essence of the brainwashing notion is that people are put into a hyper-suggestible altered state of consciousness through hypnosis, drugs, debilitation or other means, and then their worldviews are transformed against their wills through conditioning techniques.

Anthony demonstrated that Lifton’s and Schein’s research refuted the brainwashing paradigm in eight major respects. For instance none of their subjects actually converted to Communism at any point. Rather they had merely behaved as if they were being influenced by Communist propaganda because of the plausible threat of extreme physical coercion. Moreover, those few of their subjects who had been slightly influenced by Communist indoctrination differed from the great majority of their subjects because of motives and personality characteristics that existed prior to their Communist indoctrination which predisposed them to respond favorably to totalitarian propaganda, rather than because they had been placed in an altered state of consciousness and then been conditioned to change their worldviews. The bottom line is that the brainwashing paradigm is actually the polar opposite of the theories of Schein and Lifton in that their research indicates that the Communists did not have techniques capable of converting individuals to Communism against their wills whereas the brainwashing idea claims the opposite. In his article, Anthony quoted repeatedly from Singer’s testimony in cultic brainwashing cases and demonstrated that her testimony was based upon the discredited brainwashing paradigm and was not based upon the views of Lifton and Schein. Consequently, Anthony argued Singer’s testimony was not based upon a generally accepted scientific theory and thus she should be excluded under the Frye Standard from testifying in cultic brainwashing cases.

By the time Anthony’s article appeared he had used its basic arguments in a several lawsuits involving Singer’s testimony. Actually, he had initially articulated this argument in the sections of an amicus curiae brief, written at the invitation of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion [SSSR], which was submitted in 1987 in the appeal of the trial verdict in George v. ISKCON, a case in which an ex-member had initially won a $10,000,000 judgment largely on the basis of Singer’s testimony that she had been brainwashed. In this effort Anthony collaborated with sociologist James T. Richardson who contributed a section comparing Singer’s research (negatively) to current research on new religious movements. The appeal was largely successful, and thus Singer’s brainwashing testimony in this case was largely nullified.

Over the next few years, Anthony’s argument was used in a variety of cases as the basis for either appeal briefs or for motions in limine with the result that Singer’s testimony was largely nullified by this approach, either because the trial judgment was overturned on appeal, as in Kropinsky vs. Transcendental Meditation, or because the case was settled out of court as soon as the argument was submitted in the form of a motion in limine.

Anthony had made his assessment of Singer’s thought as the Molko/Leal case was proceeding and where it appeared that the legal status of her theoretical construct would be decided. However, before that confrontation occurred, the Molko/Leal case was settled out of court and the scene of the critique shifted to another case, which unlike many of the previous cult-related cases was a criminal, not a civil, case. Stephen Fishman was standing trial on charges of mail fraud. A former member of the Church of Scientology, Fishman pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He did the deeds enumerated in his indictment only because, he claimed, he had been brainwashed in Scientology. Singer and her colleague Richard Ofshe, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley, submitted briefs on behalf of the defense.

In the Fishman case Anthony wrote several lengthy documents expanding his critique of the Singer hypothesis and the contradiction it had with its claimed theoretical foundation, i.e., Lifton’s and Schein’s research. Both the APA and ASA briefs originally submitted in the Molko/Leal case and the SSSR brief in the George case were also submitted. Anthony then argued that the fact that these three leading professional organizations had produced these briefs countering Singer’s theory was additional indication that this theory was not generally accepted in the relevant scientific communities, and hence should be excluded under the Kelley-Frye Standard..

Also submitting a declaration in U.S. v. Fishman was Perry London (d. 1993) the distinguished professor of psychiatry and dean of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychiatry at Rutgers University. His deposition in the case, reproduced below, reaffirmed the APA response to the DIMPAC report and Anthony’s assessment of Singer and Ofshe’s use of the robot brainwashing theory which they confused with Schein’s coercive persuasion approach, but made an additional contribution in its detailing the lack of empirical evidence that had been accumulated by Singer and other proponents of her theory over the fifteen years they had been proposing it. Singer had acknowledged in a paper submitted in the Fishman case the lack of controlled studies.

London drives home the failure to provide supporting evidence of such a unique theory as that offered by Singer and Ofshe, one that has been almost uniformly rejected in the scientific literature. In this regard, he conducted an independent search of the previous fifteen years of psychological literature covering 1400 journals in 29 languages. His search yielded “no empirical studies” supportive of her position and only a modest number of speculative/ theoretical articles. London’s work drove another nail in the coffin into which the Singer hypothesis had been placed by the APA and then by Anthony’s work. Echoing Anthony, he concludes most forcefully, “… that what I have called the Robot Theory, meaning any theory of social influence processes and/or irreversible social influence processes and/or subversion of the will as a result of these social influence processes, does not present an argument which is generally accepted in contemporary scientific psychology. That is the main reason I believe that this topic has not been the object of scientific study and research in general and is not widely discussed in the literature of the social, behavioral, or medical sciences.” These closing words again states the consensus which had been reached by the scholarly community.

Based on Anthony’s several documents and London’s declaration, attorney’s representing the government moved to exclude the testimony of Ofshe and Singer. The court granted the motion.

The complete published ruling excluding Singer’s and Ofshe’s testimony is reproduced below. It offers both an insight into American law, and the principles upon which expert testimony is admitted into court, and the careful consideration given by the judge in making his ruling. The court concluded:

“Although Dr. Singer and Dr. Ofshe are respected members of their fields, their theories regarding the coercive persuasion practiced by religious cults are not sufficiently established to be admitted as evidence in federal law courts.”

A further argument was introduced concerning Fishman’s reputed “diminished capacity,” an attribute that differs from insanity but also suggested that he was not totally responsible for his actions. Again, the Court excluded Singer’s and Ofshe’s testimony as what they would offer relative to diminished capacity would be drawn from their previously rejected theory of coercive persuasion.


The 1990s

Following their exclusion from the Fishman case and the publication of the ruling, Singer and Ofshe tried to present testimony in other cases, but, with the appearance of the arguments and documents from the Fishman case, they were systematically challenged and excluded (or in cases where a negative ruling on their appearance seemed forthcoming withdrew). Both were at this time devoting a considerable amount of their work time, in Singer’s case almost all, to preparing for and testifying in various court cases. The widely reported exclusion of Ofshe and Singer from testifying both hurt their professional standing and cut into their income. In reaction, the pair filed a lawsuit in Federal Court charging that they had been the victims of a conspiracy by the APA and a number of individual scholars to destroy their reputations and income.

The suit was dismissed before coming to trial, but within weeks a substantially similar suit claiming defamation was filed in the state of California. Again, the suit was dismissed at the initial hearing, however, in this case it was dismissed with prejudice and additionally, the judge accepted a counter motion, termed a SLAPP motion) by the defendants that ordered Singer and Ofshe to pay their considerable legal fees. SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) laws were put in place to prevent defamation lawsuits that have no proper basis but are designed to suppress free speech because of the prohibitive cost of defending against them In order to succeed on a SLAPP motion, the defense has to show that the grounds of the lawsuit are so far-fetched that the plaintiffs have to be aware that they could not succeed and are filing the suit only to suppress free speech (in this case discussion of the inadequacies of the Singer hypothesis).

Through the 1990s, the challenges to testimony by experts on brainwashing theory has led to significant alteration in civil litigation by ex-members against new religions (and the other organizations that, according to Singer, practiced coercive persuasion). Most importantly, it ended the series of cases against New Religions that began with a member of the group being forcefully deprogrammed and then turning on the group and suing it. After Fishman, there was a marked decline in forceful deprogramming (it being replaced with a more acceptable non-coercive exit counseling) and served as a warning to those organizations that supported it. While the number of involuntary deprogrammings had dropped significantly, they still occasionally occurred. In those cases, should a deprogramming fail, and subsequently the deprogrammers were arrested and tried, they often pleaded that their questionable actions were justified in their attempt to halt the damage being done by cult brainwashing. However, in the wake of Fishman, any prospective deprogrammer had to face the possibility that s/he would be left without help from experts like Singer as a legal shield from criminal laws against kidnapping and confining a person and civil laws against violating that individual’s civil rights.

Deprogrammer Rick Ross found himself in just that position after he failed in his attempt to deprogram one Jason Scott, a member of the United Pentecostal Church, a large Christian denomination. In suing Ross, Scott also named the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), the major group advocating efforts against new religious movements. Though the Cult Awareness Network publicly stated that it was not directly involved in any deprogramming activity, Scott charged it with being the referral agent that allowed his mother to get in touch with Ross. The jury agreed and, without the ability to argue that the church had “brainwashed” Scott, both Ross and CAN received hefty judgments. The million dollar judgment forced CAN into bankruptcy and eventually some of its assets, including its name, were purchased by a coalition of a number of the groups it had specialized in attacking. That decision has been sustained on appeal. That coalition now operates a new Cult Awareness Network. (41) The fall of the Cult Awareness Network was a major setback for the anti-cult movement in the English-speaking world.



Current Status (42)

Since the late 1980s, though a significant public belief in cult-brainwashing remains, the academic community-including scholars from psychology, sociology, and religious studies-have shared an almost unanimous consensus that the coercive persuasion/brainwashing thesis proposed by Margaret Singer and her colleagues in the 1980s is without scientific merit. To date, no one has come forward to refute the arguments, especially those advanced by Dick Anthony a decade ago, nor has the situation that Perry London found concerning articles providing an empirical base for the theory been reversed. Through the 1990s, it has been difficult to locate any scholar in the English-speaking world who has been willing to attempt a defense of it, and even Singer herself has appeared to back away from her earlier position. (43) After the fall of the Cult Awareness Network, only one American organization, the American Family Foundation, continued to offer any support for the coercive persuasion argument. Early in 1999, a second organization, The Leo J. Ryan Foundation, has emerged to fill the vacuum left by the former CAN. Almost all of the small cadre of scholars in North America who have persisted in their belief in the brainwashing theory are affiliated with one of these two organizations. (44)

While the scholarly community largely put further discussion of the brainwashing question aside in the late 1980s, public interest and discussion has continued and it has been an issue that has continued to crept into court cases, especially family court cases. It was most visible in media articles written by reporters unfamiliar with the history of the discussion in the 1980s who adopted the idea from their contact with anti-cult activists, most notably around the time of the tragic incidents surrounding the Branch Davidians at Waco, the deaths of the leaders of the Solar Temple, or the gassing of the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo. These more recent incidents provided the context of a set of lectures by psychologist Newton Malony. Malony, the senior professor at the famed Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, was invited to deliver the Seminary’s annual Integration Lectures in 1996. Having spent a considerable amount of time studying the issue over the previous two decades, he chose “Brainwashing and Religion” as his subject. The complete text of the three lectures are included below, as they not only provide a fresh discussion of the case against the idea of brainwashing as applied to religious organizations, but offers a picture of the manner in which the term “brainwashing” still pops up as a label to denigrate unpopular minority religious groups. Additionally, Malony presents a more positive psychologically-grounded perspective of the manner in which religious groups work to transform the lives of adherents..

Malony argues, with the mass of social and psychological literature to back him up, that “social influence” occurs. That while he personally (along with the entire field of clinical psychology) aims at producing individuals with strong egos, capable of individual self-determination, he cannot escape the fact that none of us can escape from the effects of personal interactions with others and social organizations (from nations to families) to which we belong. There is no act that is totally autonomous. That people have the privilege and responsibility to determine their life for themselves, complete self-determination is at best a heuristic goal. At times, individuals make decisions which most (family members, neighbors, friends, fellow employees) consider unwise, including the choice to join an unpopular religious organization. Malony goes on to emphasize that continuing problems with individuals who join new religious movements can be most fruitfully discussed in the light commonly accepted understandings of differing levels of social influence apart from any need to refer to any extraordinary theories such as brainwashing.

Malony is also aware that there is evil in the world and that religious groups (be they old or new, mainline or fringe) are not immune to its presence. Thus, religious groups are not to be supported when either corporately, or through individual leaders, psychological harm or physical violence is perpetrated on group members or society. Psychologists have been most aware of the many cases of child abuse that have come to light in a spectrum of groups ranging from the Roman Catholic Church to The Family. However, the problem of people suffering because of evil activity by a religious organization is by no means simply a “cult” problem, as has been amply demonstrated, for example, by recent incidents of terrorism in Northern Ireland, the Islamic targeting of Salmon Rushdie, or the massacres in Rwanda. Such activity is to be condemned wherever it occurs, but the fact that some new religions have perpetrated such acts is no justification to condemn the many others who have been free of any hint of illegal or violent activity.

By the time Malony delivered his lectures on “Brainwashing and Religion,” the issue in America had become one basically of informing a new generation of the previous debates on the subject and insuring that future generations would not repeat the mistakes of the past. However, just as the concept of brainwashing as proposed by Singer and others in the 1980s had been largely resolved in the United States (and simultaneously through the English-speaking world), several European countries were deeply affected by the violent incidents perpetrated by the Solar Temple and Aum Shinrikyo, and many were led to consider the possibility that there might be something to the old brainwashing hypothesis, now recast as a theory of “mental manipulation.” Since the major debates had occurred in the English-speaking work, many Europeans have been unaware of the earlier debate and until now the major documents were unavailable in any but the English language.

Thus, in recent years, legislators, urged on by proponents of the “mental manipulation” theory, have been asked to create new laws, regulations, and government agencies aimed at curbing minority religious communities. At the same time courts have been asked to bring in negative rulings based upon testimony of experts in the now rejected brainwashing or “mental manipulation” perspective. It is to this contemporary reemergence of brainwashing theory in Europe and the possible legal implications that sociologist and lawyer James T. Richardson closes out this section of material on the brainwashing debate with his 1996 article, “Brainwashing Claims and Minority Religions Outside of the United States.” He makes note of the status of the brainwashing theory and points out the possible dangers to religious freedom should it be utilized by governments attempting to react to the smaller religious groups in their midst. Richardson thus points to a sense of urgency and additional rationale for the publication of this anthology.


In Conclusion

As stated earlier, the brainwashing debate in the United States produced hundreds of articles and a number of books, and this anthology does not pretend to be even a representative sample. If space had allowed, a number of additional highly insightful papers could have been included. However, choices had to be made, and those papers which were chosen were those that proved most important, both because of their timeliness in moving the debate forward or in their initially treating key points in the debate, or in clearly stating the position that has been assumed by the community of scholars who have given their time to the problem. My apologies to those of my colleagues whose additional worthy papers also stand in need of translation and further circulation.

Apologies aside, it is also my hope that the selection of papers chosen will make available to our German-speaking colleagues the treatment given to the idea of brainwashing as it applies to religious groups during the last two decades. In presenting this work, it is our hope that this anthology can provide helpful insights as the question of “sects” in Europe is pursued. A new religious world is now being created by a new generation of religious adherents in the post-secular environment emerging at the twentieth century comes to an end. During the last generation, the Western world has made a quantum leap beyond Christendom and the secular society that has replaced it toward the development of a new religious order that includes significant Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu communities joining the older Jewish and Western Esoteric groupings. The future task for cultural leaders is the creation of structures in which these very different religious communities, some large, some small, can live and work with the older Christian Churches and mutually contribute to the welfare of the nations in which they find themselves. In such a context, freeing ourselves from labels such as “brainwashing” and the suspicions it arouses seems a necessary component of arriving at a harmonious future.

J. Gordon Melton

March 1999



As this anthology was being put together, sociologist Benjamin Zablocki, who had been an active participant in the discussions on brainwashing in the aftermath of the APA decision to submit a brief in Molko/Leal case, emerged with a call for a new dialogue on the issue of brainwashing and proposed what he saw was a more concise and “scientific” statement of what he termed the brainwashing conjecture. While he has yet to offer a detailed presentation of his approach along with the empirical data to back it, he has suggested a new definition of brainwashing As he states it,

“The core hypothesis is that, under certain circumstances, an individual can be subject to persuasive influences so overwhelming that they actually restucture one’s core beliefs and worldview and profoundly remodel one’s self conception. … The more radical sort of persuasion posited by the brainwashing conjecture utilizes extreme stress and disorientation along with ideological enticement to create a conversion experience that persists for some time after the stress and pressure have been removed …” (45)

While devoid of Singer’s understanding of the importance of the recruitment process, at first reading Zablocki appears to be offering yet another restatement of the essence of the older rejected brainwashing hypothesis with a focus upon the activity of the group as a change agent operating upon an essentially passive individual. At the same time he has specifically attempted to distance his defense of the term from Singer’s egregious statement about brainwashing overriding freewill. (46) Zablocki has subsequently authored several additional papers on the subject (47) though it is yet to be seen whether he will be able to attract any additional support within the academy.

Soon after the appearance of Zablocki’s initial article, a brief but significant statement, “On Using the Term ‘Cult,” by two leading spokespersons for the American Family Foundation, Herbert Rosedale and Michael Langone (who had set on the DIMPAC task force), was included in the Fall 1998 AFF Newsletter. (48) This article which quote several sociologists on the issue of cults (including Zablocki) offers a position striking different from that traditionally associated with AFF. Specifically, Rosedale and Langone distanced themselves from the idea of a necessary connection between groups previously labeled as “cults” and the thought reform process. They suggest that groups exist on a continuum from those that might practice coercive persuasion (in the more common manner that people such as Richard Ofshe and Margaret Singer have defined it) to those that do not. They also suggest that groups may vary both geographically and through time. (49) That is, a group in one location may practice coercive persuasion while elsewhere it does not and a group that at one time practiced coercive persuasion may drop the practice.

The writings of Zablocki (including his stated willingness to discard the label “brainwashing”) and this most recent statement from the AFF suggest the possibility of a new dialogue which focuses upon what almost all would agree are the remaining important issues, the degree of danger that new religious groups pose, the nature of that danger, the ability we have to distinguish destructive groups from more benign groups, and the integration of our knowledge of newer smaller religions into our knowledge of the older larger ones.



1 During the 1970s, concern over new religions also developed in Europe. However, European writers have generally not worked with the two categories of “cult’ and “sect” by which to distinguish new religious movements (“cults”) from the older church movements that dissented from the larger mainline and state-supported churches (“sects”). Thus, all new religions have been considered as “sects” and the eighteenth and nineteenth century sectarian groups have frequently been lumped together with the newer Eastern and occult groups. Some German writers distinguished the new groups as “youth religions,” religions that led youth on flights of fancy that would prevent their becoming contributing members of society. However, only in the 1990s did a form of the brainwashing hypothesis gain a significant audience, primarily in French-speaking countries.

2 Ted Patrick and Tom Dulack, Let Our Children Go! (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976).

3 At the time of the Hearst case, Singer was a relatively minor figure who had previously appeared as a junior co-author on several of Edgar Schein’s articles that had drawn upon his research on the Korean prisoner’s of war. Singer had not actually participated in direct research on the prisoners, and she moved on before Schein completed his more important research on the victims of Chinese thought reform.

4 Among the better scholarly works on Jonestown are: Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998); Rebecca Moore, ed., New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide, and Peoples Temple: Scholarly Perspective on a Tragedy (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989); and John R, Hall, Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1987).

5 Edward Hunter, Brainwashing in Red China (New York: Vanguard Press, 1951).

6 See, for example, Robert J. Lifton, “Home by Ship: Reaction Patterns of American Prisoners of War Repatriated from North Korea,” American Journal of Psychiatry 110 (1954): 732-39; or, Edgar Schein, “The Chinese Indoctrination Program for Prisoners of War,” Psychiatry 19 (1956): 149-72.

7 Lifton also suggested another factor that might be working in the lives of those prisoners who gave into the thought reform process-prior ideological perspectives. That is, those prisoners who gave in had some leftist leanings prior to their encounter with the idea that their captors wished them to adopt. Cf. Robert J. Lifton, “‘Thought Reform’ of Western Civilians in Chinese Communist Prisons,” Psychiatry 19 (1956): 173-95, and his later book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (New York: Norton, 1961).

8 William Sargent, Battle for the Mind: How Evangelists, Psychiatrists, Politicians, and Medicine Men Can Change Your Beliefs and Behavior (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1957).

9 Joost A. M. Merloo, The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing (Cleveland, OH: World publishing Co., 1956).

10 Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.

11 Edgar H. Schein, Coercive Persuasion (New York: Norton and Co., 1961).

12 Edgar H. Schein, “Brainwashing and Totalitarianism in Modern Society,” World Politics 11 (1959): 430-441 (436).

13 Lifton also studied a different phenomenon, the effect of what he called a totalistic environment (outside direct physical coercion) on individual beliefs and attitudes. He studied this environment in early Red China and, later, in Nazi Germany. He emphasized that different individuals react differently to a totalistic environment based on their character and the effects of early education. In further works, he concluded that a totalistic environment may be replicated on a smaller scale by some religious movements or cults (see his The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age, New York: Basic Books, 1987: 209-219), and even agreed to write a cautious preface to Margaret Singer’s book (written with Janja Lalich), Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in our Everyday Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995). Whatever his sympathies for various figures in the anti-cult camp, Lifton was, however, always careful not to lend support to any “robot” or “crude” theory of brainwashing, as such theories directly contradict his original research findings.

14 Margaret Thaler Singer, “Coming Out of the Cults,” Psychology Today 12 (January 1979): 80.

15 Ibid., 75.

16 Ibid., 81

17 Louis J. West and Margaret Thaler Singer, “Cults, Quack, and Nonprofessional Psychotherapies,” in Harold I. Kaplan, Alfred M. Freedman, and Benjamin J. Sadock, Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, Co., 3rd ed., 1980): 2348.

18 Rosebeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972).

19 Jean Merritt, “Open Letter,” Return to Personal Choice, 1975. Return to Personal Choice was a precursor organization to the American Family Foundation.

20 Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change (New York: Lippencott, 1979):57.

21 Paul A. Verdier, Brainwashing and the Cults (No. Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book Company, 1977).

22 See for example Richard Delgado, “Religious Totalism,” Southern California Law Review 15 (1977): 1-99; and Ron Enroth, Youth, Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977).

23 In large part because of its involvement in deprogramming cases, in 1978 the Freedom of Thought Foundation was permanently closed by order of the court.

24 Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony, “The Limits of ‘Coercive Persuasion’ as an Explanation for Conversion to Authoritarian Sects,” Political Psychology 2, 22 (Summer 1980): 22-37.

25 Richard Delgado, “Religious Totalism,” Southern California Law Review 15 (1977): 1-99.

26 Richard Delgado, “Investigating Cults,” New York Times (Dec. 27, 1978).

27 John G. Clark, Jr., “Cults,” Journal of the American Medical Association 242 (1979): 279-81.

28 See, for example: E. Shapiro, “Destructive Cultism,” Family Physician 15 (1977): 80-83; or F. G. Maleson, “Dilemmas in the Evaluation and Management of Religious Cultists,” American Journal of Psychiatry 138 (1981): 925-29.

29 Marc Galanter, “Charismatic Religious Sects and Psychiatry: An Overview,” American Journal of Psychiatry 139, 12 (December 1982) 1539-1548.

30 See also, for example, Saul Levine, Radical Departures: Desperate Detours to Growing Up (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1984).

31 More attention was paid to Conway and Siegelman after the substance of their perspective of the damage caused by new religions appeared in a popular newsstand magazine, Science Digest, which, like Psychology Today, attempted to interpret science to a lay audience: Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, “Information Disease: Have Cults Created a New Mental Illness?,” Science Digest (January 1982): 86-92. A scholarly response appeared soon afterward: Brock K. Kilbourne, “The Conway and Siegelman Claims Against Religious Cults: An Assessment of Their Data,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22 (1983): 380-85.

32 J. T. Ungerleider and D. K. Wellisch, “Coercive Persuasion (Brainwashing), Religious Cults, and Deprogramming,” American Journal of Psychiatry 136 (1979): 279-82.

33 Trudy Solomon, “Integrating the ‘Moonie’ Experience: A Survey of Ex-members of the Unification Church,” in Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony, In Gods We Trust (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1981): 275-94.

34 Stuart Wright, “Post Involvement Attitudes of Voluntary Defectors from Controversial New Religious Groups,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23 (1984): 172-82.

35 James R. Lewis and David G. Bromley, “The Cult Withdrawal Syndrome: A Case of Misattribution of Cause,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26, 4 (1987) 508-22.

36 In relieving groups of the stigma from early psychological condemnations does not, of course, find them guiltless of occasionally causing harm to members that might later manifest as a need for counseling. For example, as with some of the larger religions, some new religions have been the sight of cases of both physical and sexual child abuse. Victims of such behavior, no matter where they have experienced it, may often require some extended counseling to recover.

37 In the end, the case was settled out of court when the Church produced strong evidence refuting the plaintiffs’ claim that they did not know that they were joining in a Unification Church activity.

38 Singer and other members of the committee later claimed that the APA’s rejection of the DIMPAC report was invalid as they had examined an early draft rather than the final draft that would have been much better. In fact, this was not the case. The reviewers did examine the final draft of the text that was missing only a few additional references.

39 Dick Anthony, “Religious Movements and ‘Brainwashing’ Litigation: Evaluating Key Testimony” in Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony, eds., In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America, 2nd ed., (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 1989): 295-344.

40 Ibid., 297. James T. Richardson, a sociologist who also has a degree in law, has been a major spokesperson against the Singer thesis and contributed a number of articles to the controversy. His early volume (co-edited with David G. Bromley), The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983) appeared in the midst of the debate in the academy, and assisted in the formation of current consensus. More recent contributions by Richardson include: “A Social Psychological Critique of ‘Brainwashing’ Claims about Recruitment to New Religions”, in David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden, eds., The Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Religion and the Social Order, Vol. 3 (Part B) (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1993): 75-97; and “Sociology and the New Religions: ‘Brainwashing’, the Courts, and Religious Freedom”, in Pamela J. Jenkins and Steve Kroll-Smith, eds., Witnessing for Sociology: Sociologists in Court (Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 1996): 115-134.

41 Officially, the Coalition that formed after the Scott decision pursued (and continues to pursue) the purchase of the assets of the bankrupt Cult Awareness Network and established the board that now controls the new CAN. However, it is also the case that the Church of Scientology has been the most powerful member of this coalition. Following the resolution of its problems with the American Internal Revenue Service, Scientology’s leaders targeted the Cult Awareness Network. In this regard they supported individual church members who filed a variety of lawsuits against CAN, and through the many depositions taken in these suits acquired considerable data as to the internal workings of the network, especially the manner in which referrals were made to deprogrammers.

Following the filing of the Scott case, the Church encouraged one of the attorneys who had been active in a number of Scientology lawsuits, and who had taken many of the depositions in the recent CAN cases, to offer his service to Scott. He tried and won the case and has actively continued to participate in the on-going litigation growing out of it.

Additionally, although all members of the coalition have financially supported the new CAN, Scientology has been the largest financial backer. CAN operates in offices near to Scientology headquarters in Hollywood, California, and its new director is also a Scientologist.

42 Although this essay has focused upon the brainwashing debate in the United States, the debate was occurring in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia at the same time, and scholars from each of these countries also contributed their effort toward its final resolution. It was the case, however, that it was in American based professional groups (the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion) that the scholarly consensus were definitively stated and in an American court that the key decision on brainwashing theory published.

43 See the very weak presentation of a position on brainwashing developed in Singer’s 1995 book written with Janja Lalich, Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in our Everyday Life.

44 Through the 1990s, a few articles have appeared in professional sources restating Singer’s thesis, usually in the more ambiguous manner that typified her own published writings. Cf., Doni P. Whitsett, “A Self Psychological Approach to the Cult Phenomenon,” Clinical Social Work Journal 20, 4 (Winter 1992): 363-74.

45 He goes on to add: “The brainwashing conjecture attempts to explain the life style modifications of a NRM participant as the behavioral result of an intensely focused and highly structured process of manipulative influence. The influencing agent is a cohesive normative group with total or near total control of the social and physical environment (often although not always communal in organization) acting at the behest of a charismatic leader. The target of the influence is always an isolated individual, frequently an adolescent or young adult.” – Benjamin Zablocki, “The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 1, 1 (October 1997): 104. Zablocki’s articles provoked immediate reactions from several colleagues, that were also published in Nova Religio. See especially, David G. Bromley, “Listing (in Black and White) Some Observations on (Sociological) Thought Reform”, ibid., 1, 2 (April 1998): 250-266; and James T. Richardson, “The Accidental Expert”, ibid., 2, 1 (October 1998): 31-43.

46 It is yet to be seen if Zablocki’s restatement of the brainwashing conjecture, as he terms it, will have any effect on future court cases involving new religions.

47 Benjamin D. Zablocki, “Exit Cost Analysis: A New Approach to the Scientific Study of Brainwashing,” Nova Religio 1,2 (April 1998): 216-249.

48 “On Using the term ‘Cult” is taken from an AFF “Resource Guide,” the complete text of which can be found on the AFF website:

49 The obvious implication of the position articulated by Rosedale and Langone, that groups previously called cults exist along a continuum, is that prior to labeling any group a destructive cult, some actual study of the group has to be made. Given the fact that only a small percentage of the several hundred new religions have been studied at any depth, sweeping charges about all new religions being “destructive cults,” or the assembling of a list of such groups based purely upon their unfamiliarity or minority status in the culture (as recently occurred in France) are meaningless and should be dropped.

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