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About "cults"

Allegations of brainwashing by new religious movements (a.k.a. "cults")

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  • "An estimated 5,000 economic, political, and religious groups operate in the United States alone at any given time, with 2.5 million members. Over the last ten years, cults have used tactics of coercive mind control to negatively impact an estimated 20 million victims in the last ten years. Worldwide figures are even greater." Dr. Margaret Singer, "Cults in Our Midst." Ref A
  • "Given the problematic nature of scientific support for brainwashing based theories as they are applied to participants in new religions, it is reasonable to ask why such evidence was ever admitted [into court testimony], and why it is sometimes still admitted. The most plausible answer has to do with the operation of biases, prejudices, and misinformation in these cases that involve controversial parties and issues or, as Kassin and Wrightsman (1988) say: cases 'involving emotional topics over which public opinion is polarized'." James T. Richardson and Gerald Ginsburg Ref B


During the 1980s and early 1990s, groups in the Anti-cult Movement (ACM) promoted the belief that cults were engaged in advanced forms of psychological manipulation of their members. Their techniques were called brainwashing, thought reform, coercive persuasion, totalism, and mind control. ACM groups taught that cults were entrapping their members so that they could not escape, and reducing them to near zombie-like status.

The following essay was originally written in 1997 when:

  • Anti-cult Movement (ACM) groups were particularly active,
  • Some groups forcibly kidnapped members of NRMs and attempted to deprogram them, and
  • Charges of brainwashing were very common. This is the reduction of the members to a near-zombie state through psychological manipulation.

Since then, the credibility of the ACM has dropped precipitously for various reasons:

  • Some ACM groups were involved in criminal acts committed during attempts to deprogram people who were in NRMs.
  • The public has largely concluded that brainwashing is a hoax.
  • Professional religious and mental health associations have issued statements denying the reality of brianwashing by NRMs.

We will use the term "NRM" (new religious movement) in place of "cult" in this essay, because of the high negative emotional content and multiplicity of definitions of the latter term.

Beliefs promoted by the Anti-cult Movement:

Many individuals in the Anti-cult Movement (ACM) have attempted to raise public consciousness about what they perceive to be a major public threat, mainly to youth and young adults. They believe that many NRMs are profoundly evil. These groups, which they call "cults" are seen as:

  • Recruiting large numbers of young people into their religious groups, by using deceptive techniques.
  • Subjecting them to severe mind-control processes that were first developed in communist countries, and subsequently developed by NRMs to a much higher level of refinement.
  • Destroying their followers' ability to think critically and to make independent decisions.
  • Endangering their followers. Many groups have induced their members to commit suicide.

Many in the ACM see NRMs as being particularly efficient in attracting normal, intelligent older teens and young adults, and convincing them to:

  • Donate major amounts of time and effort to the group,
  • Uncritically accept its teachings,
  • Conform to their behavioral restrictions and
  • Make a permanent commitment to remain in the NRM.

Extensive confirmation for these beliefs has come from disillusioned former NRM members. A small minority of those psychologists who specialize in the mind-control field also support the ACM's conclusions.

ACM beliefs have been widely accepted by the general public and the media. Some small surveys of public opinion in the mid 1990s found that:

  • Among a sample of 383 adults from a western U.S. state, 78% said that they believed that brainwashing exists. 38% agreed that "brainwashing is required to make someone join a religious cult."
  • Among a sample of 1,000 residents of New York state taken before a high-profile tax evasion case involving Reverend Moon and the Unification Church, 43% agreed that "brainwashing is required to make someone change from organized religion to a cult."
  • Among a random sample of Oregonians who had been exposed to media reports on the Rajneesh group, 69% agreed that members of that group had been brainwashed. 9

ACM beliefs mesh well with the mind-control themes seen in The Manchurian Candidate (1962; remake 2004) and similar horror movies. Many people uncritically accepted these works of imaginative fiction as representing reality. The public has also absorbed misinformation about the efficiency of brainwashing techniques used by the communists during the Korean War, and allegedly used subsequently by the CIA. James T. Richardson comments:

"These techniques included physical coercion and, taken together, can be labeled 'first generation' brainwashing. Now these techniques are being used, it is claimed, against young people in Western countries by unscrupulous cult leaders...When questioned about the obvious logical problem of applying these theories to situations lacking physical coercion, proponents have a ready, if problematic, answer. They say that physical coercion has been replaced by 'psychological coercion,' which they claim is actually more effective than simple physical coercion. According to brainwashing proponents, this 'second generation' brainwashing theory incorporates new insights about manipulation of individuals...The assumption is that it is not necessary to coerce recruits physically if they can be manipulated by affection, guilt, or other psychological influences. Simple group pressures and emotion-laden tactics are revealed as more effective than the tactics used in the physically coercive Russian, Chinese, and Korean POW situations." 9

ACM beliefs are also reinforced some feminists, conservative Christians and others who still believe in the widespread existence of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA). SRA promoters claim  that secret, underground Satanic cults exit on a local, state, national and international level. The anti-SRA movement teaches that Satanists ritually kill tens of thousands of infants every year in the U.S. Other infants and children believed to be programmed to respond as robots without any degree of self-will. Their victims can allegedly be triggered at a later date by sounds, words, images, colors etc. to mindlessly perform pre-arranged acts in support of the Satanic cult. By the mid-1990s, investigators had not been able to uncover hard evidence proving the existence of SRA even after a decade and a half of study. By the end of the century, belief in SRA had largely collapsed, and continues to decline.

Some parents of adult children who have joined NRMs take comfort in ACM theories because they absolves the parents from any feelings of personal guilt. They can blame the NRM and its leaders for engaging in criminal acts and capturing their children.

With the decline in belief about mind-control by NRMs, ACM groups have largely abandoned their deprogramming in favor of exit counseling programs.

Beliefs promoted by other groups:

Mental health professionals and academics who study religions have formed a near consensus that this type of mind-control can not be achieved by psychological means. They observe people entering NRMs because of the emotional support and certainty of belief that the religious groups supply. Almost all later leave the group of their own volition, when their continued membership is no longer a positive experience. The average length of membership is probably less than two years. Some statements by mental health and religious communities follow:

The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion:

Ronald Enroth of the Christian Research Institute Journal wrote in 1994 about a court case involving the Unification Church (Molko v. Holy Spirit Association). It involved allegations of 'coercive persuasion' or 'brainwashing' in connection with the denomination's conversion practices. He wrote:

"The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the American Sociological Association became signatories in 1989 to the amicus curiae [friend of the court] brief that was put before the U.S. Supreme Court when the Molko case advanced to that judicial level. The brief concluded that allegations of 'brainwashing' constitute a 'devastating infringement' of the petitioner's religious practices and threaten 'the integrity of scientific research'." 11

In 1990, after  having received many requests to evaluate the practicality of brainwashing by religious groups, the Society passed a resolution:

"This association considers that there is insufficient research to permit informed, responsible scholars to reach consensus on the nature and effects of nonphysical coercion and control. It further asserts that one should not automatically equate the techniques involved in the process of physical coercion and control with those of nonphysical coercion and control. In addition to critical review of existing knowledge, further appropriately designed research is necessary to enable scholarly consensus about this issue." 10

The American Psychological Association (APA):

Philip G Zimbardo, PhD wrote an article during 1990 for the APA Monitor titled: "What messages are behind today’s cults?" 1 He is professor of psychology at Stanford University and a former APA president. Some excerpts from his article are:

  • "Cult methods of recruiting, indoctrinating and influencing their members are not exotic forms of mind control, but only more intensely applied mundane tactics of social influence practiced daily by all compliance professionals and societal agents of influence."
  • "...cult leaders offer simple solutions to the increasingly complex world problems we all face daily. They offer the simple path to happiness, to success, to salvation by following their simple rules, simple group regimentation and simple total lifestyle. Ultimately, each new member contributes to the power of the leader by trading his or her freedom for the illusion of security and reflected glory that group membership holds out."
  • "Cult mind control is not different in kind from these everyday varieties, but in its greater intensity, persistence, duration, and scope."

Ronald Enroth wrote in 1994:

"The American Psychological Association, along with nearly two dozen individual scholars and behavioral scientists, filed an amicus [friend of the court] brief in 1987 in behalf of the Unification Church in the California Supreme Court. ... The APA and its co-amici argued that there was little scientific support for 'brainwashing' theory. Both the National Council of Churches and the Christian Legal Society filed briefs in this same case." 11

Analysis by Answers in Action:

Bob and Gretchen Passantino of the conservative Christian group "Answers in Action" have analyzed the ACM belief systems about NRM brainwashing and have found them lacking in credibility: 2

  • Brainwashing experiments have all been unsuccessful. The CIA used drugs and electroshock during their investigations into mind-control. "Their experiments were failures; they failed to produce even one potential Manchurian Candidate, and the program was finally abandoned." The brainwashing attempts by Communist military organizations during the Korean war also failed. They were forced to use torture to supplement their mind-control techniques and were able to obtain success in only a few cases. However, ACM promoters appear to believe that modern forms of mind-control within religious organizations represent a major advance over earlier primitive brainwashing techniques. The Passantinos question how relatively uneducated NRM leaders could succeed when highly trained experts had earlier failed.
  • They wonder how NRMs can brainwash recruits in a week, while professionals failed after years of indoctrination. They quote the writings of  sociologists Bromley and Shupe 3 which point out how absurd this idea is: "...the brainwashing notion implied that somehow these diverse and unconnected [religious] movements had simultaneously discovered and implemented highly intrusive behavioral modification techniques. Such serendipity and coordination was implausible given the diverse backgrounds of the groups at issue. Furthermore, the inability of highly trained professionals responsible for implementing a variety of modalities for effecting individual change, ranging from therapy to incarceration, belie claims that such rapid transformation can routinely be accomplished by neophytes against an individual's will."
  • The ACM movement has collected some information to support its belief that religious groups successfully employ mind-control techniques. But the data is unreliable. The information typically represents a very small sample size. It is not practical to obtain information before, during and after an individual has been in a NRM. Often, their data is disproportionately obtained from former members of a religious organization who have been convinced during ACM counseling that they have been victims of mind-control.
  • One good indicator of the non-existence of mind-control techniques is the ineffectiveness of NRM recruitment programs. "Eileen Barker documents that out of 1000 people persuaded by the Moonies [Unification Church] to attend one of their overnight programs in 1979, 90% had no further involvement. Only 8% joined for more than one week..." 4
  • Another indicator of the non-existence of mind control is the high turnover rate of members. Eileen Barker mentions that there is a 50% attrition rate during the members' first two years. 4
  • The opinions of former NRM members who have left on their own are clear. Barker comments: "...those who leave voluntarily are extremely unlikely to believe that they were ever the victims of mind control.

The Passantinos conclude: "...the Bogey Man of cult mind control is nothing but a ghost story, good for inducing an adrenaline high and maintaining a crusade, but irrelevant to reality."

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Analysis by The Institute for the Study of American Religion:

J. Gordon Melton is the author of the three-volume set "The Encyclopedia of American Religions."  He directs The Institute for the Study of American Religion. The Cult Awareness Network quotes him as saying:

"Slowly, the collapse of the brainwashing hypothesis in relation to the new religions is being brought to Europe, though as in America it will be some years before the strong prejudice against the new religions which has permeated Western culture will be dissolved." 5

Analysis by the Association of World Academics for Religious Education

The new Cult Awareness Network quotes "AWARE" as stating:

"Because of its vested interest in maintaining the conflict, the anti-cult movement has been unresponsive to objective scholarly studies, and has proceeded with business as usual, as if these studies were non-existent. Scholars whose work directly challenges the ‘cult’ stereotype are dismissed as either naive or as being in collusion with the cults. Rather than responding directly to mainstream social science, a small band of anti-cultists with academic credentials have instead conducted research on their own terms, and have created alternative periodicals which featured studies supporting the worst accusations against NRMS."

“... Without the legitimating umbrella of brainwashing ideology, deprogramming - the practice of kidnapping members of NRMs and destroying their religious faith - cannot be justified, either legally or morally. While advocates claim that deprogramming does nothing more than reawaken cult members’ capacity for rational thought, an actual examination of the process reveals that deprogramming is little more than a heavy-handed assault on deprogrammers’ belief systems. The vast majority of deprogrammers have little or no background in psychological counseling. They are, rather, ’hired gun’ vigilantes whose only qualifications, more often than not, are that they are physically large or that they are themselves ex-cult members." 5

Analysis by James T. Richardson:

Dr Richardson is a Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies, University of Nevada, Reno. He has written extensively on NRMs and brainwashing. In the mid-1990s, he claimed that:

  • Modern brainwashing theories misrepresent earlier academic work on coercive processes developed in Russia, China and Korea. Those techniques were "generally rather ineffective."
  • More recent studies have shown that:
    • NRMs seem to have a generally positive impact on most of their followers.
    • Many participants actually seek out the NRMs "in order to learn about them and experiment with different lifestyles."
  • If the NRMs had access to powerful brainwashing techniques, one would expect that:
    • NRMs would have high growth rates. In fact, most have not had notable success in recruitment.
    • NRMs would be more successful in retaining members. In fact, most adherents participate for only a short time.
  • He said that many legal cases have been based on brainwashing theories, and have often been successful.

"Thus, the past two or three decades have seen the development of a very powerful "social weapon" to use against unpopular groups (both political and religious) within America."

  • He said:

"Brainwashing claims...have been used to justify in part some quite dramatic actions (or inactions) by authorities around the world. It may be months or years before the authorities find out that they cannot substantiate such claims and the situation is rectified. Meanwhile, adults may spend months in prison,... have their children retained by authorities for some time, or be placed in a mental institution for 'deprogramming' against their will." 9

References used which debunk cult brainwashing:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: "SSSR Resolution on New Religious Groups", SSSR Newsletter, 1990-DEC. Available at:
  2. Bob and Gretchen Passantino, "Overcoming The Bondage Of Victimization; A Critical Evaluation of Cult Mind Control Theories," (1994). See:
  3. D.B. Bromley, A.D. Shupe, Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare, Beacon Press, Boston, (1981).
  4. Eileen Barker, "New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction,"   Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, UK, (1989).
  5. Cult Awareness Network, "Brainwashing and Mind-Control: The Hoax Crumbles," at: This is currently offline
  6. D.G. Hill, "Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults," Toronto (1980)
  7. Massimo Introvigne, " 'Liar, Liar': Brainwashing, CESNUR and APA" at:
  8. The Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) has placed online some "...documents of the U.S. brainwashing controversies, particularly with respect to events of 1987 involving the American Psychological Association..." See:
  9. James T. Richardson, "Brainwashing" Claims and Minority Religions Outside the United States: Cultural Diffusion of a Questionable Concept in the Legal Arena," Brigham Young University Law Review circa 1994, at:
  10. Philip Zimbardo, "What messages are behind todayİs cults? Cults are coming. Are they crazy or bearing critical messages?," at: This is offline.
  11. Ronald Enroth "Friend of the Court or Friend of the Cult?," Christian Research Institute Journal, (1994) at:

Books which debunk cult brainwashing:

References which believe in cult brainwashing:

Although promoters of the concept of NRM brainwashing have obviously been discredited by the mental health and religious academic communities, their beliefs still have a strong following among the public. Their theories resonate with much of the public.

  • Books:
  • Web sites:
    • Freedom Portal has an enormous number of links to websites on their Psychology & Personal Power / Brainwashing and Cults section. The vast majority of links are to essays and sites appear to believe in the effectiveness and widespread nature of brainwashing. See: See also their Psychology & Personal Power / Mind Control section at:
    • The Freedom of Thought Foundation (FOTF) promoteds theories of alleged CIA mind-control experiments, federal government harassment of the population through the use of microwave energy, etc. See: An extensive mind control bibliography, primarily of articles by "true believers" in various conspiracy theories was available at:, but has apparently been taken offline.
    • Mind Control Forum (MCF) alleges "psycho-electronic technology" involving brain implants used to control people's minds. See:
    • Dick Sutphen, "The Battle for Your Mind" web site at: This redirects you to "The Church of Reality" at:
    • Jan Groenvald, "Totalism in Today's Cults," at:
  • Magazine articles: 
    • Richard Delgado, "Religious Totalism: Gentle and Ungentle Persuasion Under the First Amendment," 51 S. CAL. L. REV. 1, 3 (1977)
    • Margaret T. Singer, "Coming Out of the Cults," 12 Psychology Today 72, 72 (1979).

Additional references:

  • A: Dr. Margaret Singer, "Cults in Our Midst," Jossey-Bass, (Reprinted 1996) Read reviews and/or order this book
  • B: James T. Richardson and Gerald Ginsburg, "A critique of 'brainwashing' evidence in light of Daubert: Science and unpopular religions," Law and Science: Current Legal Issues, Vol. 1., Oxford University Press, Pages 265-288. Online at:

Site navigation: Home page > Cults > here

Copyright 1997 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest updated: 2007-AUG-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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