Allegations of brainwashing by new religious movements
"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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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 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,
groups have largely abandoned their deprogramming in favor of exit counseling
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
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
"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
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
"...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
"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:
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."
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
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
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
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
- 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
"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."
"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."
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.
The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: "SSSR
Resolution on New Religious Groups", SSSR Newsletter, 1990-DEC. Available at:
Bob and Gretchen Passantino, "Overcoming The Bondage Of Victimization; A
Critical Evaluation of Cult Mind Control Theories," (1994). See:
D.B. Bromley, A.D. Shupe, Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare, Beacon
Press, Boston, (1981).
Eileen Barker, "New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction,"
Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, UK, (1989).
Cult Awareness Network, "Brainwashing and Mind-Control: The
Hoax Crumbles," at: http://www.cultawarenessnetwork.org/
This is currently offline
D.G. Hill, "Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults,"
Massimo Introvigne, " 'Liar, Liar': Brainwashing, CESNUR and APA" at:
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: http://www.cesnur.org/
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:
Philip Zimbardo, "What messages are behind todayİs cults? Cults are
coming. Are they crazy or bearing critical messages?," at:
http://www.snc.edu/ This is offline.
Ronald Enroth "Friend of the Court or Friend of the Cult?," Christian
Research Institute Journal, (1994) at:
Books which debunk cult brainwashing:
D.B. Bromley, A.D. Shupe, Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare, Beacon
Press, Boston, (1981). You
can read reviews and/or safely order this book from Amazon.com
Lorne L. Dawson, "Are converts to New Religious Movements 'Brainwashed'?," Chapter 4
of Lorne L. Dawson, "Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious
Movements," Oxford University Press, (1998), P. 102 to 127.
Read reviews and/or order this book
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.
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:
http://www.buildfreedom.com/ 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:
http://www.azstarnet.com/ An extensive mind control bibliography, primarily of
articles by "true believers" in various conspiracy theories was available at: http://www.azstarnet.com/,
but has apparently been taken offline.
Mind Control Forum (MCF) alleges "psycho-electronic
technology" involving brain implants used to control people's minds.
Dick Sutphen, "The Battle for Your Mind" web site at: http://www.ctyme.com/
This redirects you to "The Church of Reality" at:
Jan Groenvald, "Totalism in Today's Cults," at: http://www.reveal.org/
Richard Delgado, "Religious Totalism: Gentle and Ungentle
Persuasion Under the First Amendment," 51 S. CAL. L. REV. 1, 3
Margaret T. Singer, "Coming Out of the Cults," 12 Psychology
Today 72, 72 (1979).
A: Dr. Margaret Singer, "Cults in Our Midst," Jossey-Bass,
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:
Copyright 1997 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest updated: 2007-AUG-22
Author: B.A. Robinson