Social Science: Brainwashing & The Persecution of Cults

This article first appeared in the Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 1980

Thomas Robbins, Ph.D., is a Post-doctoral Fellow in Sociology at Yale University.

Dick Anthony is Research Coordinator for the Program for the Study of New Religions, Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Brainwashing and the Persecution of “Cults”

ABSTRACT: While the presence of authoritarian “cults” in our midst raises a number of social control and “law and order” issues, current controversies over cults contain substantial elements of mystification.

“Brainwashing” is an inherently subjective metaphor that is used as a rationale for persecuting unpopular movements and defining religious converts as nonautonomous zombies who can be coerced for therapeutic purposes. While ‘coercive persuasion” models do have some heuristic value for the analysis of indoctrination in some authoritarian groups, assumptions regarding the alleged destruction of the “free will” of converts and the status of authoritarian religiosity as a medical pathology are not warranted.

Dr. Poythress’s interesting paper, “Behavior Modification, Brainwashing, Religion, and the Law,” in the October 1978 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health raises some interesting issues. He fails to bring in certain other considerations that are essential to any contemplation of possible governmental controls over religious movements.

The validity of “brainwashing” as a scientific concept is problematic, to say the least. As Thomas Szasz has commented (apropos of the Hearst case), one cannot really “wash” a brain any more than one can make someone bleed with a “cutting” remark. 1

Similarly, Dr. Walter Reich has argued, also apropos of the Hearst case, that psychiatry lacks the expertness and clinical experience for making definitive pronouncements on alleged brainwashing; moreover, Psychiatry endangers itself–debases its coinage–by entering areas in which it lacks expertise. ”2

Brainwashing appears to be a mystifying and inherently subjective metaphor, which is now being used as a simplistic explanation for intense sectarian commitments, as well as a way of attacking groups against which charges of tangible physical coercion cannot be substantiated.

Such pseudoscientific metaphors satisfy the hunger for simple mechanistic explanations for complex social phenomena. Persons who wish to persecute unpopular but nonviolent and law-abiding movements can use the brainwashing metaphor as a foundation for disavowing any violation of the rights of participants when
seemingly arbitrary measures (e.g., “deprogramming”) are imposed.

The imputation of brainwashing implicitly defines certain persons as zombies and robots. Such persons are allegedly not responsible social actors and may be therapeutically coerced “for their own good” or to restore them to autonomy.

On the other hand, persons who for whatever reason temporarily accepted an unconventional or authoritarian ideology may find it comforting or convenient to deny any responsibility for their prior involvement by accepting a deterministic explanatory mystique that implies their own passive victimization.

Either way, a simplistic and misleading notion is being used in an essentially superstitious manner to rationalize certain actions.

Brainwashing is essentially an occult notion similar in some ways to traditional ideas of spirit possession: someone whose behavior is insupportable is viewed as or by an alien demonic force, which consumes the victim’s authentic personality and which must be ritually exorcised. 3

After the exorcism/deprogramming, all is forgiven the deviant individual since it is allegedly not his authentic self but his alien brainwashed/possessed self who was acting or thinking strangely. Notions of spirit possession and exorcism are rampant in popular culture and have invaded psychology via brainwashing
and mind control mystiques.

The concept of coercive persuasion, as developed by Lifton, Schein, and others, is less occult than brainwashing, but it is being used against “cults” in a misleading, reified manner.

Coercive persuasion is a model (or set of models) that has heuristic value in the analysis of indoctrination processes and the dynamics of authoritarian groups. When these models are applied to movements such as Hare Krishna and the Unification Church, they sensitize the observer to some (manipulative, constraining) aspects of indoctrination within, while possibly desensitizing the observer to other elements of the social situation. However, it is crucial to realize that the psychologically “coercive” aspects of social processes within authoritarian movements vary in intensity.

It is unreasonable simply to equate the degree of ‘milieu control” within Hare Krishna or the Unification Church with the situation within POW camps, in which armed guards, fences, and barbed wire operate to constrain the “inmates” physically.

As Alan Scheflin and Edward Opton have argued in The Mind Manipulators, indoctrination within ‘cults” represents a ‘non-instance” of true coercive persuasion because, although elements of classic coercive persuasion syndromes are present in these situations, they are usually significantly attenuated.

Isolation is one factor tying so-called “brainwashing” to religious cults; it is a central facet of each. But when one looks closely, any apparent similarity dissolves.” Isolation in religious movements “is of necessity only partial.4

Moonies” witnessing on city streets are susceptible to numerous influences that the church cannot really control. Not infrequently the putatively robotized members of a controversial “cult” are actually living and/or working outside of the movement.

When brainwashing, mind control, or coercive persuasion concepts are applied to social movements, certain assumptions are often made that are not really intrinsic to scholarly coercive persuasion models.

One such assumption is the notion that “mind controlled” converts lack free will and personal autonomy.
Free will is not really an empirical concept; it is more of a philosophical assumption that we assign to adult human behavior and withhold only in extreme cases (e.g., psychosis, senility).

Presently, however, the suspicion is spreading that there exists a vast reservoir of persons who are not rational, responsible, or autonomous: the insane and “mentally ill,” the economically disadvantaged who have been brutalized by oppressive life conditions, the victims of “brainwashing,” religious cultists, TV addicts, etc.

As the general assumption of personal autonomy is weakened, however, it drags down with it the conceptual basis of individual rights, which are generally viewed as presupposing prior rationality and responsibility.

One consequence of this development is the practice of legal deprogramming via court-ordered temporary
conservatorships, which were frequently granted to parents of cult converts during the period from 1974 through 1977, but which declined somewhat in the aftermath of Katz vs. Superior Court. 5

In the wake of the post-Guyana agitation against cults, this practice could be revived. Alternatively, courts and legislators may heed the calls for legally institutionalizing a temporary “cooling-off period,” during which converts to authoritarian sects would be forcibly separated from their religious group and compelled to seek therapeutic counseling.8

Such a proposal, which contemplates the forcible confinement of adults who have neither been convicted of a crime nor been declared insane, presupposes the essential nonrationality and mental slavery of converts, who can therefore be subjected to physical coercion for therapeutic purposes.

A second assumption that creeps into allegations of “mind control” practiced by religious groups is the medical model view of authoritarian religious involvements as induced mental pathologies. Certain religious beliefs are consigned to the realm of involuntary pathological symptoms.

Despite growing criticisms of the medical model and its extension to more and more areas of life (e.g., ‘caffeinism,” ‘tobacco-use disorder”), the importance of the medical model is necessarily enhanced in a society in moral flux, in which authorities are hesitant to acknowledge punitive intent and thus increasingly rely on psychiatrists and psychologists to provide benevolent therapeutic rationales for social control. The scope of the medical model is also increased in a society in which therapy and medical care are increasingly paid for by third parties such as social security or health insurance plans.

There have already been demands that People’s Temple survivors from Guyana receive government-subsidized
psychotherapy. This demand may foreshadow the day when persons leaving unorthodox religious movements and “cults” can routinely receive government or health-plan subsidized treatment for the serious medical condition of ‘destructive cultism,” which one physician views as an actual disease syndrome. These trends notwithstanding, there are serious philosophical and epistemological difficulties to be faced in treating shared spiritual commitments as mental pathologies.9

A final assumption implicit in imputations of brainwashing or mind control involving social movements is that no uncoerced person in his or her right mind could possibly accept a given ideology or life-style. This is a rather arbitrary premise. For centuries people have joined authoritarian and totalitarian movements and willingly surrendered elements of intellectual freedom and flexibility in exchange for rewards associated with a sense of normative structure, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, or relief from anxiety and anomie.

In Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, E. R. Dodds argues that Christianity appealed to persons in the later Roman Empire in part because “it lifted the burden of freedom from the shoulders of the individual: one choice, one irrevocable choice, and the road to salvation was clear.., in an age of anxiety any “totalist” creed exerts a powerful attraction.”

What is denounced as coercive ‘mind control” in the practices of certain authoritarian communal groups may also be viewed as commendable monastic discipline and austerity, which offers a favorable and vivid contrast to the “permissive” and hedonistic context of modern American life. Given the increasing moral ambiguity and normative breakdown of American culture, many systems and disciplines that appear deviant to most citizens can find voluntary (but often temporary) converts.

Notions such as brainwashing and coercive persuasion are not necessary to justify investigations and possible prosecutions of groups that are widely alleged to resort to actual physical violence and coercion. Conceivably, other aspects of wealthy religious or therapeutic empires such as the Unification Church or Scientology may bear some investigation.

Clear dissimulation in proselytizing (e.g., running an alleged summer camp without acknowledging religious training on the premises) or solicitation of funds (e.g., concealing the identity of one’s religious institution) can be attacked directly through statute.

What is to be feared is the possibility that subjective concepts such as ~mind control” will be used as rationales for using tangible physical coercion against adults. It will be ironic if we end up swallowing the camel of tangible physical coercion after straining at the rather dubious gnat of “brainwashing.”

1. Szasz, T., ‘~Some Call It Brainwashing,” New Republic, March 6, 1976.
2. Reich, W., “Brainwashing, Psychiatry and the Law,” Psychiatry, 1976, 39.
3. Shupe, A.; Spielmann, R.; and Stigall, S., ~’Deprogramming: The New Exorcism,” American
Behavioral Scientist, 1977, 20, 941-956.
4. Scheflin, A., and Opton, E., The Mind Manipulators. New York, Paddington Press, 1978, p. 61.
5. Lemoult, J., “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” Fordham Law Review, March,
1978, 46, 599-640.
6. ~Federal Intervention in Cults? Interview with Professor Richard Delgado,” U.S. News and
World Report, December 11, 1978.
7. Goleman, D., “Who Is Mentally Ill?” Psychology Today, 1978, 11, 34-41.
8. ~’Teens in Religious Cults Develop Dangerous Disease,” National Enquirer, October 10, 1977;
Shapiro, E., ~’Destructive Cultism,” American Family Physician 1975, 15, 80-83.
9. Cf. Needleman, J., and Baker, G., Understanding the New Religions. New York, Seabury
Press, 1978, pp. 49-62, 106-152, 201-208.
10. Dodds, E. R., Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. New York, Norton, 1963, pp. 133-134.

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