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C&S: Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001
From a letter written by a mother:
I am a desperate mother. Ten years
ago, I lost my daughter to a ferocious "cult"�. The
unfortunate people whom we meet are completely taken over� they tell
them that their mothers are devils who give out negative energy, thus
hindering their perfect introduction into cult life� I hardly ever
hear from my daughter now. She doesn't take part in our family meetings
and calls me only when she needs money. You can well imagine the tragedy
of this poor mother... Please do something to help these poor people who
are in danger and want to live the life that Our Lord Jesus gave us� I
am afraid she will commit suicide like the others� do something, I
repeat, we cannot leave these kids at the mercy of jailers, of murderers
of the worst kind� I pray the Lord will help you in your work to help
all these kids who are prisoners of murderous cults.
Says a former member:
I then started to write a farewell
letter to my spiritual guide. This cost me a lot: every word was like a
dagger blow, and every now and then I had to stop since the tears would
block my vision. I wasn't able to do it all in one stroke, but every now
and then I went back to what was a small Calvary for me, a deserved one
however, unlike that of the Lord. My mind went back to the Good Thief
and I hoped Jesus would answer me the same way. When I got to the end of
the letter, I had a feeling of liberation� It had been a long trail,
lasting over 20 years, but this was what had happened... What I thought
was heaven was actually a pink-colored hell, painted over with
falsehood... I got hold of my ancestors and my roots again. For years,
everything which makes a person free and conscious of what he is doing
had been stolen from me. I was picking up my pieces one by one, slowly
but surely. However, many wounds would never close again. It was still
hard for me to free myself from what I had thought was reality but
actually was conditioning: the notion of being one of the elect,
somebody different, one of the Eternal's chosen� The feeling I had
deep inside is hard to describe: like being a flower which slowly raises
its petals again after having spent a long time without any water and
having risked death� When we realized that what we had been through
was a true cult, we understood we could no longer go on this way,
pretending nothing had happened, as other former members had done
before� All my fears went away one by one and were replaced by a
single, increasingly clear awareness: that diabolical thing, that
tremendous octopus, must stop, or at least we had to make others know it
existed� you can defend yourself from an enemy only when you know you
Who Says "Apostates" are
According to a certain current of
scholars of new religions, these two testimonies - the first by a mother
whose daughter belongs to a magical-occultist group, the second by a
person who left a pseudo-mystical group - are not worthy of consideration
by scholars of new religions.
In the first case, with all due
respect to the person involved, some might say that this is the typical
attitude of a parent who, upset by her daughter's making a choice that
does not agree with her mother's ideas, sees the "cult" as the
source of all evil. This attitude does of course exist among families of
members of New Religious Movements (henceforth NRM), but one cannot
generalize. When considering the suffering of a mother (which appears
clearly from the dramatic and even aggressive tone of this testimony), who
can no longer recognize her daughter, who has lost emotional contact with
her, who sees her suffer from a human and a spiritual point of view, we
cannot simply say: "Young people often make different choices from
their parents." Each case should be looked into individually. While
it is true that there have always been cases of authoritarian interference
by parents in the spiritual life of their children, without any respect
for their freedom of choice in such a delicate field as that of
spirituality, it is also true that there have been cases of young and less
young people taken into psycho-physical slavery inside certain
organizations that call themselves "religious." Those who are
aware of this issue also meet with cases of young people who, after
difficulties and hesitation and thanks to far-sighted and respectful help
from their parents, realize that the group they had joined was not
actually what they thought it was. In such cases, the young person leaves
the group freely, but support and help from parents are an indispensable
element. We must therefore avoid pronouncing summary judgment, and must
keep to the facts. Facts sometimes do not confirm what the parents say; in
other cases they most definitely do.
In the second case, we have a former
member who denounces the state of "psychological imprisonment"
in which the group kept him. For a certain current of thought, this
testimony would not be reliable either, since this individual is certainly
inspired by resentment against the group he belonged to. Since the former
member says he intends to denounce the "atrocities" of the
group, according to the scholars we have in mind, this would be a case of
"apostasy," that is, a case in which the person who has left the
group starts a war against it for personal reasons or interests, or
because he/she belongs to an "anti-cult" movement.
Once the unreliability of this kind of
testimony has been settled, to whom must we refer to have the simple,
objective, clear, and "scientific" truth about the cult or NRM,
always following these same scholars? To the movement itself, of course,
which will be happy to cooperate, providing its own followers for
interviews, its own documents for a study of the doctrine, and everything
else that may be needed for a successful scientific study! Is there
something out of place or wrong in this happy picture of loving concord?
First of all, let us ask, is it scientifically correct to study a movement
only on the basis of its own sources and of the documents it provides? Is
it possible that our scholars never suspect that somebody in the movement
might have an interest in "forgetting" some document? And what
if those who have left a group, showing authentic documents and using
evidence, had something to say too? And why should "apostates"
always be unreliable? What philosophical dogma lays this down? Where is
the evidence that every "apostate" is associated with an
anti-cult movement? And even if some really were, does this mean that
merely because they belong to such a group, they lose their human value,
so much so that they cannot be believed even when they present proof.
We are dealing here with bigotry, not science.
Luckily, not all scholars agree with
this attitude. For example, Benjamin Zablocki, Professor of Sociology at
Rutgers University, who has studied NRM's for about 30 years, says he has:
hundreds of religious communes and talked with or interviewed over a
thousand members and ex-members of these groups. Enough of these people
have explained their experiences by something like a brainwashing model to
convince me that the weapon exists. Some of them probably are lying or
confabulating, but it is unlikely that all of them are. Most had no
particular ax to grind, nor were the majority associated with any
same author says:
Since many NRM
apostates were sources of evidence about brainwashing, a tendentious
campaign was begun to define the apostate role as one whose accounts were
inherently unreliable. Instead of letting the issue of the reliability of
apostate accounts be settled empirically, an attempt was made to settle it
definitionally... By definition, they are all now following the
ideological line of some opposing group, usually an anti-cult
It is true that people who leave such
groups do not always do so dramatically; nor do they always bear a
negative memory of the group; indeed, they sometimes recognize that there
were positive as well as negative features in it. It is also true
that only a few denounce the "injustices" they suffered.
The fact that the former are less
numerous than the others does not necessarily imply that they are
exceptions. It could mean that other former members, who could
testify to the same facts, do not do so for other reasons, including:
Fear due to the continued presence inside
the group of a relative one has to go on living with or whom one is
afraid of losing once and for all, or whom one hopes to help
Blackmail of various kinds, both emotional and financial.
Shame for taking part in not entirely "transparent" activities
when one was involved in the group.
A psychological reaction of total rejection of the past experience, felt
to be foreign to one's own picture of oneself, a defensive desire not to
mention this part of one's past any more.
Involved minors are not always able to testify suitably to any psychological or physical abuse they may have
A left-over phobia induced by the leadership, which leads to the notion
that those who do not keep secrets may suffer mishap or disaster of some
Who can decide whether the silence of
the majority of former members is more reliable than the dramatic
testimony of a minority of "apostates"? Who can decide that
"apostates" are "bad" former members, and that all the
others are "good"? Can some percentages here and there in one
hurried study finally prove a principle which can then be generalized to
all groups and all situations? And what about the statement that
"apostates" accuse the groups they used to belong to in court
only to be awarded damages, or in order to get publicity for their story,
or to publish their autobiography for money? Who can establish the
intentions of people? Could it not be that an "apostate" decides
to testify or to ask for an indemnity or to write a book simply because he
considers it to be a useful action for mankind? One could say the same
thing about a couple who decides to sue a doctor who, in their opinion,
has caused the death of their child through negligence. They
will certainly ask to for damages, but are they doing so because they want
to get rich, or because they want to see justice enforced and want to
prevent the doctor from repeating the same mistake with others? In
terms of principle, why is such a notion not also applicable in the case
When the conscience of a person is
involved, the scholar might do best to bow his head and say, "this is
a task for God and not for me." While one can investigate the
actions of a person, it is much harder to establish the real reason why he
performs them. And this holds true for the members and leaders of NRM's.
While one may criticize their actions, statements, and doctrines, nobody
can reliably and easily judge their intentions. The history of mankind is
replete with examples of people who did a great deal of damage to others,
thinking to do well.
As we see it, there is a tendency to
be very indulgent towards the organizations involved, but ferocious
towards so-called "apostates," even though the latter - while
denouncing the abuses they have suffered - rarely deny, in their often
very painful confessions, having made serious mistakes themselves.
Considering the complex and delicate nature of this issue, it would
perhaps be best to establish some objectivity and formulate research
hypotheses that are not prejudiced and which use diverse methods of
Who Wants the Funeral of "Brainwashing"?
What is the basic issue behind this
matter? It is what is commonly called "brainwashing." This
expression, coined by a journalist named Hunter, today is merely a
metaphor, and like all metaphors expresses a complex notion by using a
picture, in this case images reminiscent of Frank Sinatra's role in the
movie, The Manchurian Candidate.
Some people are scandalized by the
very mention of this expression; others, like Benjamin Zablocki, are not
afraid to use it because "It may also be the most misunderstood of
all these terms, but I see that as an advantage, since using the term
impels us to face these misunderstandings head-on instead of avoiding them
with linguistic sleights of hand."
What causes so much distrust among
scholars is not simply the metaphor, but what it means. Admitting the
possibility that some form of mind conditioning might be practiced on
members within an NRM is something of a holy monster to be exorcised, in
order to achieve the noble purpose of defending religious freedom at all
We agree entirely with those who wish
to defend religious freedom, but not at all costs, not at the cost of
closing an eye to violations of other, equally fundamental, human rights.
First of all, we should establish what a "religion" is, and
what, on the other hand, is mystification, exploitation, abuse of
credulity, etc. These issues, however, would take a thorough
investigation, and they are not the purpose of this article. Zablocki
I am convinced, based
on more than three decades of studying NRMs through
participant-observation and through interviews with both members and
ex-members, that these movements have unleashed social and psychological
forces of truly awesome power. These forces have wreaked havoc in many
lives - in both adults and in children. It is these social and
psychological influence processes that the social scientist has both the
right and the duty to try to understand, regardless of whether such
understanding will ultimately prove helpful or harmful to the cause of
He then concludes that "the real
sociological issue ought not to be whether brainwashing ever occurs but
rather whether it occurs frequently enough to be considered an important
5 This scholar,
however, suggests focusing the study of this phenomenon, not on the
recruiting methods used by groups, but on the processes which make it
enormously difficult to leave them, and which continue to condition people
even after they have left: "Does something occur to create, in the
mind of the person, a social-psychological prison without guards or
These suggestions can help serious
scholars avoid confusing ideology, philosophy, and culture with a
scientific approach. Why after all should we totally deny the possibility
that certain groups, under certain conditions, can actually practice some
form of mental conditioning? How can we otherwise explain cases of
collective suicide or mental illnesses which recur constantly among people
who join such groups, or why "normal" people can firmly believe
absurd and unimaginable things and go on doing so even when it is proved
that these do not exist?
What is worrying is the attempt to minimize such episodes and to downplay their enormous seriousness.
Unfortunately, even the case of Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out a poison
gas outrage in the Tokyo subway, has received this "softening
down" treatment from religion scholars who raised an outcry about
persecution of the group led by Shoko Asahara.
Here are the words of Haifa University
psychologist Benjamin Beit Hallahmi, who, after describing the sarin
outrage in Tokyo on March 20, 1995, which led to the death of 13 people
and injury to many others, says:
According to media
reports, four Americans arrived in Tokyo to defend Aum Shinrikyo against
charges of mass terrorism. Two of them were NRM scholars. According to
these reports, they stated that Aum Shinrikyo could not have produced the
gas used in the attack, and called on Japanese police not to "crush a
religion and deny freedom" (Reid, 1995; Reader, 1995).
Actually, the author of the article
says, the Japanese authorities had been rather negligent before, if not
actually conniving with, the criminal operations of Aum Shinrikyo,
precisely because it was a NRM. The author complains of the ostentatiously
favorable attitude of his colleagues, and says that this kind of behavior not only involved Aum
Shinrikyo, but recurs constantly among NRM scholars,
and is in his opinion deplorable.
A Cult Observer summary of a Washington Post article indicated that the
American scholars' "visit was not well received in Japan"
because it had been widely reported that Aum had paid for their ticket to
Japan and because the Japanese public believed it already knew more than
enough to consider Aum guilty.
Concerning this matter, it should be
said that "actually, at the opening of the press conference held in
Japan, J. Gordon Melton [one of the American scholars to whom
Beit-Hallahmi refers] stated that the traveling expenses - 'but no kind
of fee' - had been paid for by Aum Shinrikyo."
Whoever gave out the news, the facts stand and speak for themselves.
What we wish to stress is that
tragedies like those we have just mentioned invite all of us, scholars
included, to look for a plausible explanation of the phenomenon and for
possible ways to prevent others from happening. Sticking one's head in the
sand like an ostrich is of no use. One should lift up one's head, open up
one's eyes and ears, and use one's brain without making exceptions for
anybody, if the safety of human lives, and their psychological, physical,
and spiritual well-being depends on this.
Going back to those who are trying to
understand and investigate these issues honestly and without prejudices,
we find a proposal by Zablocki interesting. He says that the notion of
"brainwashing" should be defined again, and then treated like
any other notion of social psychology. The idea that
"brainwashing" must involve the denial of free choice is based
on wrong premises. "Brainwashing" does not in fact state that
people are not able to choose freely, but they choose freely on the basis
of values that are different and which have been totally restructured
according to the viewpoint of the group and its leader. Zablocki holds
that there is a sequence of events that can be observed in the notion of
"brainwashing" and that sometimes lasts for years.
"This visible and relatively unambiguous sequence consists of four
steps: (1) affiliation, (2) lifestyle modification, (3) disaffiliation,
and (4) disenchantment."
Zablocki's main hypothesis is, that
under certain circumstances a person can be subjected to a form of
persuasion that can transform his or her values of reference and notion of
personal identity. This is a special kind of persuasion that is performed
within a strongly united group, which largely or totally controls the
environment around the individual, and which uses stress and
disorientation to exercise its influence. The peculiarity of this kind of
persuasion lies in the fact that it persists even after the individual has
left the group, as well as in the terror of leaving the group it brings
about, as if the very life of the individual depended on his or her
belonging to the group. Of course, even though these aspects are easy to
observe, there is no reason to think they are present, or have the same
intensity, in every group. There may also be individuals who are hard to
condition, since the process varies from individual to individual.
Zablocki also says that, in his
opinion, "...brainwashing is likely to always remain a relatively
rare phenomenon because of the difficulty of achieving the high degree of milieu
control and charismatic influence necessary to make it effective.
We believe that the problem is that of
identifying the level of conditioning a person must be subjected to before
we can speak of brainwashing. This problem of definition arises because
there are several levels or degrees of conditioning inside different
movements, as well as different sensitivities and reactions on the part of
individuals subjected to environmental stimulation. Zablocki holds that
"brainwashing" is a relatively rare affair, and he does so on
the basis of his experience and of his assessment categories. Other
scholars hold that it does not exist at all, yet others imply that it
happens quite frequently. The frequency of this phenomenon is still harder
to establish when we are dealing with children or very young people, or
with people who have psychological problems. The controversy about the
existence, frequency, and intensity of mental manipulation inside NRM's
has also been dealt with in committees of various European parliaments,
which have drawn up reports after the recent mass suicides.
Concerning this issue, it is worth
while to remember what Massimo Introvigne had to say about the committee
of the Belgian Parliament:
This committee claims
to have "taken note of the division in the academic world," and
to have decided to choose sides. "On the basis of its own proceedings
(and especially on hearings of dozens of former victims) the committee
comes to the conclusion that it cannot share the conclusions of the group
of sociologists of religions, since the latter clearly underestimate the
potential dangers which cultic organizations pose, due to a restrictive
and unilateral approach that such sociologists adopt."
Especially, the sociologists - and CESNUR- deny the existence of
"mental manipulation," whereas the committee has "been
presented with several testimonies on this matter" which have
convinced them that the opposite holds true. The committee also takes the
liberty of preaching to the sociologists, since it "deplores the
conclusions of this type of analysis which refer to 'new religious
movements' being published without a thorough examination. From an ethical
point of view, it is highly disputable to consider a cultic organization
as a 'new religious movement (...). Analyses of this kind, which ignore
one side of reality, end up by justifying to a certain extent harmful
cultic organizations. The result is to give them carte blanche, or at
least to allow them to perform their dangerous activities more
We find another mention of the
attitude of the Committee towards CESNUR in an article by Julien Ries :
severely reprimanded the first group, CESNUR, for having published the
book, Pour en Finir Avec les Sectes, where 22 authors discredit the
"Report by the Committee of Inquiry of the French National Assembly,
judged not to be scientific" since it provided moral justification
for numerous representatives of cult organizations during the hearings in
Brussels, because of its support for the new religious movements.
The Belgian parliamentary report was
severely criticized for having included some perfectly
"orthodox" Catholic groups in its list of 189 movements. Some
used this to try to alarm the public, saying more or less:
"Catholics, beware, if we approve the methods of the Belgian
Parliament Committee (which accepts testimonies by 'apostates'), some
Catholic groups could also be labeled as cults!"
This of course would, quite rightly,
cause a chorus of indignation in the Catholic world. As a result, people
of faith would start to embrace the same positions of total distrust
towards "apostates" and towards "anti-cult" movements,
which are a resource for families trying to "recover" loved ones
who belong to various kinds of "cults." This could lead to a new
opinion crusade, which, however, we believe would be entirely out of
We believe no such possibility
existed, exists, or will exist. The Belgian parliament report issued on
April 28, 1997, does include some Catholic groups in its list of 189
movements, but a note on the side makes a very important point:
... this list in no
way expresses any judgment or any stand on the part of the committee;
further examination of these movements must be made and the chart must be
Moreover, on page 209, the text says
that the committee was able to make a census of 189 organizations that
"might belong to one of the three categories it laid down within the
framework of a definition," i.e., harmless sects or new religions, a
sect or new religion which is harmful for individuals and societies, and
criminal associations. In other words, the committee de facto admits
having mixed all groups together, leaving various people or bodies free to
make further classifications. 15
So the 189 movements (which also
include some Catholic groups) are not distinguished within the three
categories chosen by the Committee, which obviously did not want to take
the responsibility of putting on paper which groups are dangerous and
which are not. Of course, the fact that Catholic movements were listed
together with truly dangerous cults led to protests from the bishops as
well. The parliament finally approved the Report, but decided not to place
the list of movements in its conclusions, but only to consider an
We believe this is sufficient to prove
that it is simply not true that the Belgian Parliament called Opus Dei or
other Catholic groups dangerous cults. It is also a manipulation of facts
to blame the "anti-cult" movements, the "apostates,"
or anybody who believes brainwashing exists in NRM's for the fact that
Catholic groups too were listed. If the Committee drew up such a
list, it was because of testimonies and evidence which they found to be
credible. And in any case, when a Parliament Committee is established
after massacres like that of the Solar Temple, the people who have the
most right to be heard are the victims, and States have the duty to
investigate the dangerousness of groups. The fact that the Committee kept
to general terms, not fitting the various groups into the three
categories, is certainly a pity, since it seems to confuse them with each
other, and this appears to be a justified criticism. However, it does not
allow anybody to pick and falsely represent facts in order to "grind
his own axe."
We think a few comments should be made
here. The Catholic Church is certainly not a cult, since it has none of
the features of one, even when the religious experience is lived most
intensely. However, it is impossible to deny that during its long history,
there have been deviations on the edge of the Church, doctrinal deviations
and cases of sectarian groups (today generally called pseudo-Catholic).
The Bishops have often taken steps in such cases, sometimes also against
priests, members of religious orders, nuns, or even other Bishops who have
strayed from the authentic doctrine. Who can deny that in such deviant
groups, there may have been cases of small or large "cults" with
manipulative methods of recruitment and indoctrination similar to those of
other "cults"? The Pastors themselves have often warned the
faithful not to believe blindly in seers, prophets, or "holy
men" of various kinds, who blend the authentic faith the Church has
in the existence of supernatural phenomena with fanaticism and
sectarianism. We must acknowledge that the Church is both saintly and
sinful, and we must all take steps so as not to stick our heads in the
sand like ostriches, but to see, warn, and help those who are confused or
led astray by deviant doctrines.
For a believer, this does not mean
kidnapping, threatening, imprisoning or blackmailing; that is, forcing
those who are making a mistake to go back to the authentic faith. It means
respectfully engaging in dialogue and telling the person the truth
clearly, advising him or her of the possibly serious consequences of the
choice he or she is about to make or has made. Afterwards, the person will
freely choose and his brothers in the faith can only pray and witness the
Gospel with greater determination and courage than before. Perhaps someone
will be able to find a denial of religious freedom even in these words.
We believe, however, that it is simply a form of the "fraternal
correction" that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel.
The same blend of charity and truth
must be used, albeit in a different form, with all those who - even
outside the Catholic world - are involved in groups and movements of
various kinds where some elements can be found which can make one suspect
so-called "brainwashing." If this notion is interpreted and used
in a balanced form, moderately and with respect for others, it can help us
to understand the inside dynamics of certain NRM's better, and provide
help according to the circumstances.
So it seems
to us neither useful nor honest to want the "funeral" of this
notion at all costs so as to be able to justify the abuse of personal
freedom which exists in certain groups. According to Zablocki, this is
what many of his colleagues have done: the notion of
"brainwashing" has been treated without respect, declared
guilty, and set aside without a decent scientific trial. This improper
treatment has been called "blacklisting" by Zablocki. 17
He claims that most scholars have not been able to refute this theory;
they have simply swept it under the carpet. Others have used it in a
distorted fashion in court, and this distortion has led to prejudices
against those scholars who do want to investigate the phenomenon and who
are accused, for this reason only, of belonging to "anti-cult"
personally seen this bad habit of labeling others simplistically, unfairly,
and disrespectfully. However, because of the loose fashion with which some
label people or associations with derogatory terms such as
"anti-cult," this adjective has lost much of its power. This
happens whenever a category or a definition is abused. Equal over-use has
been made of the term "deprogramming." Nobody denies that in the
past, some made use of violent techniques and kidnapped people in order to
make them leave a "religious" group. Those who used such methods
merely put another kind of "brainwashing" into practice, equally
unacceptable and injurious to personal freedom. But, without going so far,
there are also people who - while entirely disapproving of deprogramming -
believe that certain "religious" organizations apply a high
degree of conditioning on their followers. One could also ask those who
refuse to believe in the reality of "brainwashing" to consider
what deprogrammers do to people. How can one accuse deprogrammers of using
coercive techniques similar to "brainwashing" when these
techniques are not supposed to exist? What kind of scientific theory is
this, which claims a phenomenon exists only when applied by a certain
category of people (deprogrammers in this case)? If
"brainwashing" exists, it exists, whether it is applied by
charismatic leaders or by deprogrammers; if it does not exist, then we can
accuse nobody of practicing it.
object that, whereas deprogrammers kidnap their "prey," people
who join a religious movement do so freely. We believe this method of
affiliation, which Zablocki considers to be unimportant in terms of
defining "brainwashing," deserves some comments. If it were true
that joining a group always took place with full respect for the freedom
of the individual, we would certainly agree with this approach. But things
are actually quite different. Let us consider a few concrete examples:
A person looking for a job lands up in an employment agency, where he is
put through "capacity" tests, in order to investigate his
capacities for a future job. If he then found himself, without realizing
it, a member of a psycho-religious group, he could walk away, but what if
he has already been conditioned, and has already been subjected to
pressure from the group, which has become his emotional point of
reference? Can we still say the individual has joined the group freely?
And what if part of the doctrine were kept hidden from the person, to be
revealed only when he is held to be "ready" by the leaders? In
this case, could we still say that the person was fully aware of what lay
ahead of him at the moment he made his choice?
A student with problems studying a foreign language receives an attractive
invitation with cartoons to a church where he will receive language
lessons from mother-tongue teachers. He goes there, and after a while, he
is presented with "strange" texts in the foreign language, which
tell the life of the founder of a religion, and how he was granted the
"great revelation," and the teachers begin to praise the virtues
of this figure, saying they are his followers. If this were followed up by
kind invitations to take part in religious services, chant special
prayers, would it not be right to say that the person approached the group
for entirely different reasons, and was then gently (i.e., without
kidnapping) led elsewhere?
A Christian is approached by a friendly "missionary" who offers
him a free home study of the Bible. This Christian could well accept in
order to try to take a deeper look at his own faith. But suppose the
"bible" studied at home were not the Bible after all, and the
homeowner too uninformed to realize it? If the alterations in the text led
him to abandon his previous religion to embrace the one offered by his
"teacher," in such a case could we still say that the person
freely and with awareness chose a religion, or would it be better to say
he had simply been tricked?
Countless examples of this sort could
be made. They lead us to think that "kidnapping" may take many
forms. Current laws rightly punish some kinds of kidnapping, others
(unfortunately, in our opinion) do not. However, they take place every
day, right under our eyes.
Who Finances Research on New Religious Movements?
Scientific research is always partial
because it is human and hence limited; however, one can well imagine how
partial it can be when, as in this case, it is affected by prejudices or
when some suspicions exist even as to its integrity and objectivity.
With regard to
finances, a major obstacle toward the sort of progress desired is the
cloud of secrecy that surrounds the funding of research on NRMs. The
sociology of religion can no longer avoid the unpleasant ethical question
of how to deal with the large sums of money being pumped into the field by
the religious groups being studied and, to a lesser extent, by their
opponents. Whether in the form of subvention of research expenses,
subvention of publications, opportunities to sponsor and attend
conferences, or direct fees for services, this money is not insignificant,
and its influence on research findings and positions taken on scholarly
disputes is largely unknown...I know there will be great resistance to
opening this can of worms, but I do not think there is any choice.
This is an issue that is slowly but surely building toward a public
scandal...I am not implying that it is necessarily wrong to accept funding
from interested parties, whether pro or anti, but I do think there needs
to be some more public accounting of where the money is coming from and
what safeguards have been taken to assure that this money is not
interfering with scientific objectivity. 18
To provide an example, Zablocki gives
some details on the funds he himself used for his research. 19
Some might say that such insinuations are unfounded and are part of a
campaign of defamation against certain scholars. Zablocki, however, bases
his statements also on a document dated December 20, 1989, which he
I was one of the
recipients on the mistaken belief that I would be sympathetic to the ideas
expressed. Even though the email message has been widely distributed and
is famous throughout the discipline, I see no need to embarrass the author
by citing his name. 20
This message includes an account of
a meeting of a few
sociologists of religion in 1989 shortly after an incident (discussed
below) which resulted in their failure to get the American Sociological
Association to endorse a statement to the United States Supreme Court
denying the scientific validity of the brainwashing conjecture.21
In fairness, it should be noted that
this memo was prepared by one of the meeting's participants and sent to
others, some of whom disagreed with certain points in the memo.
Nevertheless, the tone of the memo and the subject matter of the meeting
clearly indicate that this was not a group of dispassionate scholars
seeking truth, but advocates seeking to promote a point of view that tends
to gloss over, if even acknowledge, the destructive aspects of some new
Beit-Hallahmi mentions this same
I have before me a
piece of evidence which reveals significant collusion between researchers
and NRMs. This is a confidential memorandum, dated December 20, 1989, and
authored by an NRM researcher, who stated that he was writing on behalf of
two other leading researchers, all of them sociologists. Copies of this
document have been circulated by an anti-NRM group, and its authenticity
is beyond any doubt. It is significant that this document has been sent to
a long list of sociologists by email, and has been cited before. It is
embarrassing to refer to a confidential memo written by a dear colleague,
but no less embarrassing has been the experience of witnessing dear
colleagues act as collaborators and shills for a variety of masquerading organizations. This document reports on a series of meetings and
activities involving several NRM scholars, NRM attorneys, NRM leaders, and
some other scholars...What is striking is the clear sense in which the
leading members of the NRM research network regarded NRMs as allies, not
subjects of study. It seems that the scholars were more eager than the
NRMs to lead the fight for NRM legitimacy. 22
Immediately after, Beit-Hallahmi,
quotes a few lines from the email:
meetings with the members of the Unification Church confirmed our earlier
impressions that ... their response is very substantially confined to ad
hoc responses to crises. I pressed them on the question of whether it
might be possible for the UC in collaboration with several other NRMs to
raise a significant amount of money - no strings attached - to an
independent group, which in turn, would entertain proposals and fund
research on NRMs. NRMS were less than enthusiastic, the writer thought,
and "The cooperative funding of the American Conference on Religious
Freedom would appear to be about as far as they are prepared to go at this
time" (Confidential, 1989, p. 4). In addition to the idea of creating
an NRM-funded research organization...we spent a good deal of time
considering whether the time might be right to import ... INFORM or create
a US organization that would perform a similar function ... INFORM has
taken a very significant step in neutralizing anti-cult movements in the
UK (Confidential, 1989, p. 5).
Beit-Hallahmi then reminds his readers
of the foundation in 1992, of AWARE, the Association of World Academics
for Religious Freedom, which includes among its founding purposes the
promotion of the defense of freedom of religion. After a few comments, the
author says: "In light of what we have witnessed we are forced to
re-read, our eyes fresh with suspicion, the whole corpus of NRM
We would like to finish with the words
of our Pastors, who - in their sensitivity for the spiritual health of
their flock - are interested in the new challenge posed by cults, a
challenge typical of our times, and who on May 30, 1993, approved the
Pastoral Note of the Secretariat for Ecumenism and Dialogue of the Italian
Bishops' Conference. The Bishops, after listing certain reasons why people
join cults and stay in them, say the following:
Other motivations are
to be sought in a psychological context. Belonging to a cult is an easy
refuge for people who are psychologically disturbed, who need a kind of
safety which does not demand the price of a personal search. Sometimes,
members of cults are bound by forms of emotional and psychological
coercion, of control and vigilance, so much so that this can lead to an
actual limitation of personal freedom. 25
This Pastoral Note also stresses what
we believe to be an indisputable reality: that the right attitude towards
the phenomenon of cults must be based on dialogue, "without falling
into irenism or sectarianism." The Note goes on to provide pastoral
advice that is rich in opportunities for dialogue, charity, and respect
We fully embrace these pastoral
instructions, trusting that they will be shared by all men and women of
good will, whatever their religious orientation.
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, vol. 1, n.
1 (October, 1997), pp. 96-121 (p. 98). This article was published in
October 1997. The second article, a continuation of the first, was
published in April 1998 always in Nova
Religio. A reply by D. Bromley, and Zablocki's reply to him were also
Ibid., p. 113.
17 - p. 117.
 Ibid., p. 97-98.
Ibid., p. 99.
 Ibid., p. 101.
Beit Hallahmi, "Dear collegaues:
integrity and suspicion in NRM research," paper presented at the
1997 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion,
"American Aum Apologists Not Believed." Cult
Observer, July/August, 1995, p. 10.
(Based on T. R. Reid, "U.S.
Visitors Boost Cause of Japanese Cult." The Washington Post, May 9, 1995, A8.)
M. Introvigne, "Movimenti anti-sette
e ricerca scientifica," in Giovanni Cantoni e M. Introvigne,
Libert� religiosa, "sette" e "diritto di persecuzione,"
Cristianit�, Piacenza 1996, p. 142.
Benjamin Zablocki, Ibid., p103.
Ibid., p. 103.
Introvigne, "Il ritorno dei
giacobini: il rapporto della commissione parlamentare belga d'inchiesta
sulle sette," 2. Il metodo, CESNUR, 1997.
Le retour des Jacobins, Massimo Introvigne et
Julien Ries, "Sette e nuovi
movimenti religiosi davanti alla Commissione Parlamentare Belga,"
"Religioni e Sette nel mondo" , Rivista trimestrale di cultura
religiosa, Anno 3, n. 2 (giugno 1997), pp. 175-193 (p. 183)
 Ibid., p. 185-186.
Cfr. Ibid., p. 187.
Benjamin Zablocki, Ibid.
 Ibid., p. 116.
Ibid., p. 121. - nota 70.
Ibid., p. 118. -
 Ibid., p. 107. This is the
episode of the Amicus brief (a statement by some scholars who claimed
there was no reason to claim that physical coercion could be replaced by
another form of coercion in the process of "brainwashing"),
first signed and then withdrawn by ASA.
An executive officer of ASA appears to have simply signed the
brief, arbitrarily taking the place of the entire ASA, and delivered it to
the Supreme Court (as if ASA had approved it officially) before discussing
it with the Council. He later admitted having made a mistake in good
faith, believing the discussion had already taken place. However there is
no trace of this assumed discussion in his documents. The hurried and
secretive nature of these operations shows something of the atmosphere in
the late '80s. (Benjamin Zablocki, personal e-mail communication; also
asserted in documents submitted to ASA at the time by Richard Ofshe).
Benjamin Beit Hallahmi, Ibid.,
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 5.
Segretariato per l'ecumenismo e il dialogo della CEI, "L'impegno pastorale della Chiesa di fronte ai nuovi movimenti
religiosi e alle sette,,Nota Pastorale del 30 Maggio 1993, Edizioni
Paoline, Milano, 1993, pag. 16.
= Schuller, Jeanne. Review of Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare
Amitrani, Alberto & Di Marzio, Raffaella: "Blind or Just Don't Want to See: Brainwashing, Mystification, and Suspicion"
Amitrani, Alberto & Di Marzio, Raffaella: "Min Control in New Religious Movements and the American Psychological Association"
Bardin, David J., Esq.: "Psychological Coercion & Human Rights: Mind Control ('Brainwashing') Exists"
Kropveld, Michael: "An Example for Controversy: Creating a Model for Reconciliation"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: " Secular and Religious Critiques of Cults"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "Academic Disputes and Dialogue Collection: Preface"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "On Dialogue Between the Two Tribes of Cultic Studies Resarchers"
Langone, Michael D., Ph.D.: "The Two Camps of Cultic Studies"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "New Religions and Public Policy"
Martin, Paul: "Overcoming the Bondage of Revictimization: A Rational/Empirical Defense of Thought Reform"
Rosedale, Herbert, Esq.: "Cult Litigation Doesn't Threaten Religion"
Zablocki, Benjamin, Ph.D.: "Methodological Fallacies in Atnhony's Critiqueof Exit Cost Analysis"
Zimbardo, Philip, Ph.D.: "Mind Control: Psychological Reality or Mindless Rhetoric?"