© 1994 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.
"You've got to get my daughter back," Margaret pleaded. "She was such a beautiful girl, such a
good student! It's like she's another person. She used to think for herself, she used to spend time with us.
Now her whole life is consumed by the Center. Please help us -- I don't care what it costs or how long it
This article first appeared in Cornerstone Magazine
Margaret's adult daughter had joined a religious cult, and she was now talking to an exit
counselor, a professional who specialized in "interventions" for persons supposedly trapped under mind
control in cultic movements.
The exit counselor explained that Margaret's daughter was a victim of mind control and described
its four components: (1) behavior control, (2) thought control, (3) emotional control, and (4) information
control. He said these techniques had combined to rob her daughter of the ability to make responsible and
rational choices. The counselor informed them that neither the family nor the daughter were to blame for
this cult involvement: at the right time, mind control could bring anyone into a cult.
The exit counselor said he would seek to break through her daughter's bondage to the cult leader
and restore her to mental, emotional, and physical freedom. He assured her his work was not the same as
the deprogrammers of the 1980s who forcibly kidnapped cult members and held them against their will. If
the intervention were successful, Margaret's daughter would return to the mental stability she possessed
before joining. Away from the pressures of the cult, she would be free to make an informed religious
choice, unlike the controlled "choices" presented to her while in the group.
Finally, the terms of the agreement were discussed. Margaret assured the exit counselor that her
daughter had voluntarily agreed to come home for the weekend specifically to discuss her devotion to the
Center. The daughter understood that her mother and father would have a knowledgeable friend with
them to speak with her, though she did not realize that the "friend" would be the exit counselor. For the
fairly typical sum of $3,000 plus expenses, the exit counselor and his assistant would devote the next four
days to the intervention. Of course, there were no guarantees: some ex-cultists needed additional in-patient
counseling at a special "recovery" center, and one study put deprogramming failure rates at above 35
Margaret left her meeting with the exit counselor with confidence and optimism. With a trained
professional, a backlog support of sociological and psychological literature, and her own determination to
rescue her daughter, Margaret actually looked forward to the coming weekend.
Countless times across America scenes like this are played out for real as desperate parents of
adult cult converts seek to understand how their children could change so drastically and pledge their lives
to bizarre, exclusivistic religious movements. For many people, especially secular cult observers, the theory
of mind control is used to explain this phenomenon. The cult mind control model is so commonly raised
in explanation that many people assume its validity without question.
In this article, we look behind the
assumptions of the mind control model and uncover the startling reality that "cult mind control" is, at best,
a distorted misnomer for cult conversion that robs individuals of personal moral responsibility. While
mind control model advocates rightly point out that cults often practice deception, emotional manipulation,
and other unsavory recruitment tactics, we believe a critical, well-reasoned examination of the evidence
disproves the cult mind control model and instead affirms the importance of informed, biblically based
Assumptions Of Mind Control
The theory of cult mind control is part of a contemporary adversarial approach to many cults, new
religious movements, and non-traditional churches. In this approach sociological and psychological
terminology has been substituted for Christian terminology. Cult involvement is no longer described as
religious conversion, but as mind control induction. Cult membership is not characterized as misplaced
religious zeal but as programming. And the cultist who leaves his group is no longer described as
redeemed, but as returned to a neutral religious position. And rather than evangelism of cult members, we
now have "intervention counseling."
And biblical apologetics has been replaced by cognitive dissonance techniques. A parent's plea has
changed from "How can my adult child be saved?" to "How can my adult child revert to his/her pre-cult
personality?" Biblical analysis and evangelism of the cults has become overshadowed by allegedly "value
neutral" social science descriptions and therapy-oriented counseling.
The principal assumptions of the cult mind control model can be summarized under eight
- Cults' ability to control the mind supersedes that of
the best military "brainwashers."
- Cult recruits become unable to think or make decisions
- Cult recruits assume "cult" personalities and subsume
their core personalities.
- Cultists cannot decide to leave their cults.
- A successful intervention must break the mind control,
find the core personality, and return the individual to his/her
- Psychology and sociology are used to explain cult
recruitment, membership, and disaffection.
- Religious conversion and commitment may be termed "mind
control" if it meets certain psychological and sociological
criteria, regardless of its doctrinal or theological standards.
- The psychological and sociological standards which
define mind control are not absolute, but fall in a relative,
subjective continuum from "acceptable" social and/or religious
affiliation to "unacceptable."
According to most cult mind control model advocates, no one
is immune to the right mind control tactics used at the right
time. Anyone is susceptible. For example, Steven Hassan,
recognized as a premier source for the cult mind control model,
writes in his book, Combatting Cult Mind Control, "Anyone,
regardless of family background, can be recruited into a cult.
The major variable is not the person's family but the cult
recruiter's level of skill." Dr. Paul Martin, evangelical
director of a rehabilitation center for former cultists, writes,
"But the truth of the matter is, virtually anyone can get
involved in a cult under the right circumstances. . . .
Regardless of one's spiritual or psychological health, whether
one is weak or strong, cultic involvement can happen to anyone."
Evangelical exit counselor Craig Branch told us in an interview
that, even though he was extremely knowledgable and experienced
regarding cult mind control, he still could be caught by cult
mind control administered at the right time by the right person.
The cult mind control model is based on a fundamental
conviction that the cultist becomes unable to make responsible
and rational choices or decisions (particularly the choice to
leave the group), and that psychological techniques are the most
effective ways to free them to make decisions once more. This
foundation is non-negotiable to the mind control model, and is at
the root of what we consider so flawed about the mind control
We find this foundational conviction assumed in a 1977
article describing recovery from cult mind control by evangelical
sociologist Dr. Ronald Enroth, who quotes Dr. Margaret Singer, an
outspoken advocate of the cult mind control model:
In a situation removed from the reinforcing pressures of the
cult, the ex-members are encouraged to think for themselves
so that they are "once again in charge of their own volition
and their own decision-making."
Hassan asserts that, both from his personal testimony and his
field experience, cult recruits cannot think for themselves or
Members [of the Unification Church] . . . become totally
dependent upon the group for financial and emotional
support, and lose the ability to act independently of it.
Paul Martin asserts that cult mind control renders its
victims virtually unresponsible for their actions or beliefs:
. . . the process whereby he or she was drawn into the cult
was a subtle but powerful force over which he or she had
little or no control and therefore they need not feel either
guilt or shame because of their experience.
Cult mind control must be distinguished from "mere"
deception, influence, or persuasion. At the core of the
distinctive of mind control is the idea that the individual
becomes unable to make autonomous personal choices, not simply
that his or her choices have been predicated on something false.
British sociologist Eileen Barker, a critic of the mind control
concept, points out this difference:
Recruitment that employs deception should, however, be
distinguished from "brainwashing" or "mind control." If
people are the victims of mind control, they are rendered
incapable of themselves making the decision as to whether or
not to join a movement -- the decision is made for them. If,
on the other hand, it is just deception that is being
practised, converts will be perfectly capable of making a
decision -- although they might make a different decision
were they basing their choice on more accurate
Fundamentally, the mind control model assumes inability to
choose, while deception interferes with the accuracy of the
knowledge one uses to make a choice.
Objection: The Brainwashing Connection
Representatives of the mind control model contradictorily
both distance mind control from classic brainwashing and yet also
see continuity between cult mind control and the classic
brainwashing attempts in the 1950s by North Koreans and Chinese
among American prisoners of war and by American CIA researchers.
When critics of the mind control model point out the abysmal
failures of classic brainwashing (discussed later in this
article), advocates like Michael Langone say they have
"misrepresented the critics' [of the cults] [supporters of the
mind control model] position by portraying them as advocates of a
robotization theory of cult conversion based on The Manchurian
However, there is also concensus among mind control model
advocates that classic brainwashing is the precursor to
contemporary cult mind control. Psychologist Dr. Margaret Singer
underscores this connection in her preface to this same Langone
book, Recovery from Cults:
[M]y interest [in cult psychology and mind control]
began during the Korean War era when I worked at the Walter
Reed Army Institute of Research and studied thought-reform,
influence, and intense indoctrination programs. Since then,
I have continued the study of group influence.
In the 1960s I began to heed the appearance of cults
and heard the descriptions of hundreds of parents who
noticed certain changes in the personality, demeanor, and
attitudes of their young-adult offspring who had become
involved in cults. . . . The cults created programs of
social and psychological influence that were effective for
their goals. And I noticed especially that what had been
added to the basic thought-reform programs seen in the world
in the 1950s was the new cultic groups' use of pop
psychology techniques for further manipulating guilt, fear,
This contradictory embracing and rejecting of the
brainwashing connection is partially reconciled only by the
nonsubstantive differences pointed out by mind control model
supporters: (1) "Brainwashing" is considered primitive and often
ineffective; (2) "Mind control" is claimed to be extremely
powerful and compelling.
Hassan says, "Today, many techniques of mind control exist
that are far more sophisticated than the brainwashing techniques
used in World War II and the Korean War", and explains further:
Mind control is not brainwashing. . . .
Brainwashing is typically coercive. The person knows at
the outset that he is in the hands of an enemy. It begins
with a clear demonstration of the respective roles -- who is
prisoner and who is jailer -- and the prisoner experiences
an absolute minimum of choice. Abusive mistreatment, even
torture, is usually involved. . . .
Mind control, also called "thought reform," is more
subtle and sophisticated. Its perpetrators are regarded as
friends or peers, so the person is much less defensive. He
unwittingly participates by cooperating with his controllers
and giving them private information that he does not know
will be used against him. The new belief system is
internalized into a new identity structure.
Mind control involves little or no overt physical
abuse. . . . The individual is deceived and manipulated --
not directly threatened -- into making the prescribed
choices. On the whole, he responds positively to what is
done to him.
Even though the evidence shows the unreliability and
limits of hypnosis, Hassan also argues that "hypnotic processes
are combined with group dynamics to create a potent
indoctrination effect . . . . Destructive cults commonly induce
trances in their members through lengthy indoctrination sessions
. . . . I have seen many strong-willed people hypnotized and made
to do things they would never normally do." Hassan states that
hypnosis enables mind control perpetrators to increase their
success rates impressively above what is possible through other
mind control techniques.
Despite attempts to distinguish the generations of mind
control development, there are no qualitative differences and
what was once "brainwashing" became "snapping," which now is
"mind control," "coercive persuasion," "menticide," "thought
reform," etc. Each term focuses, however, on the power of the
cult recruiters and on the inability of the recruit to think
and/or decide independently from the cult.
However, it stretches one's credulity to believe that what
CIA, Russian, Korean, and Chinese highly trained and
technologically supported experts could not accomplish under
extremes of mental, emotional, and physical abuse, self-styled
modern messiahs like David hgate (high school dropout), Charles
Manson (grade school dropout), and Hare Krishna founder
Braphupada (self-educated) accomplished on a daily basis and on a
massive scale with control methods measurably inferior to those
of POW camp torturers. Do we really believe that what the
Soviets couldn't do to Alexander Solzhenitsyn during years of
forced labor and torture in the Gulag, Sun Myung Moon could have
done by "love bombing" for one week at an idyllic wilderness
retreat? Sociologists Bromley and Shupe point out the absurdity
of such a notion:
Finally, the brainwashing notion implied that
somehow these diverse and unconnected 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.
Objection: The Deterministic Fault
We believe the data presented here shows that people join,
stay in, and leave cults on their own responsibilities, even if
their decisions may have been influenced or affected by deceit,
pressure, emotional appeal, or other means. We do not believe
the evidence supports the mind control model. In this article we
express the concerns and fears of conservative, evangelical, and
knowledgable counter-cult apologists not only our own concerns
but those of other counter-cult workers (Christian and non-
Christian) who firmly believe that the mind control model
misdiagnoses the problem, mis-prescribes the solution, and (for
Christians) is contrary to a biblical cult evangelism model.
Those holding to the mind control model have made the
generalization that most cults have internal social pressures and
religious practices which, if not identical in nature, are
similar in effect; and that average cult members are similarly
affected by these teachings, techniques, and practices. We reject
this generalization, though we will grant -- and in fact have
stated publicly -- that many cults have made deceptive claims,
used faulty logic, misrepresented their beliefs, burdened their
followers with unscriptural feelings of guilt, and sought to
bring people into financial or moral compromise to unethical
demands. Yet it does not necessarily or automatically follow that
these pressures, practices, or demands remove an individual's
personal responsibility for his or her actions.
The cult mind control model assumes that a combination of
pressure and deception necessarily disables personal
responsibility. Exit counselor Hassan recognizes that the cult
mind control model (which he has adopted) is incompatible with
the traditional philosophical and Christian view of man as a
responsible moral agent:
First of all, accepting that unethical mind control can
affect anybody challenges the age-old philosophical notion
(the one on which our current laws are based) that man is a
rational being, responsible for, and in control of, his
every action. Such a world view does not allow for any
concept of mind control.
Objection: The Double - Bind
Hassan provides no means of knowing, testing, or proving
whether people who are under emotional pressure, personal stress,
or actual deception are in fact "not responsible" for their
actions or not making free choices. Nor does Hassan suggest any
way to clearly determine when techniques of "influence" or
"persuasion" might become so great that one being influenced is
no longer responsible, no longer rational, or no longer has a
personal will. Medical doctor J. Thomas Ungerleider and Ph.D.
David K. Wellish show the fallacious presuppositions used by the
deprogrammers (now exit counselors):
If the member never does renounce the cult then he or she is
regarded by the deprogrammers as an unsuccessful attempt or
failed deprogramming, not as one who now has free will and
has still chosen to remain with the cult.
Whether this is called this circular reasoning or a
"double-bind," the net result is that the "proof" that the
cultist has been coerced is unfalsifiable, and he cannot prove
that he has freely chosen to join his group. If you leave the
cult as a result of deprogramming (or exit counseling), that
proves you were under mind control. If you return to the cult,
that proves you are under mind control. The standard for
determining mind control is not some objective evaluation of
mental health or competency, but merely the assumed power of mind
control the critic accords to the cult.
Recently certain of the model's proponents seem to blur the
definition of mind control, perhaps because there is no
corroborating evidence that mind control techniques produce
qualitatively different results in religious conversion.
It appears that some evangelicals especially have problems
reconciling a classic cult mind control model with other
religious considerations and with later developments in this
area. For example, sociologist Ronald Enroth, an evangelical
professor at Christian Westmont College, is reluctant to be
perceived as a mind control model advocate, even though he his
support appeared clear in the late 1970s and continues at least
Enroth promoted the model in his 1977 book Youth,
Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults and also in a 1977
Christian magazine article, "Cult/Countercult." His most recent
book (1992), Churches that Abuse, is peppered with language
concerning victimization, lack of personal control, and
autocratic decision-making control. Additionally, he endorses
the work of other mind control advocates such as Hassan (1990)
and Singer, and serves on the editorial advisory board of the
pre-eminent mind control model journal, Cultic Studies Journal,
edited by Langone. In a personal letter to us he describes
Martin and Langone's Christian Research Journal "Viewpoint"
article as "a helpful correction to the earlier article and it,
too, reflects my own thinking re exit counseling, even though I
have never personally witnessed or engaged in formal exit
Despite these several apparent (sometimes tacit)
endorsements of the mind control model, in the same letter to us
he declared, "You do NOT have my permission to represent my 1977
writing about thought reform and brainwashing as my current
position on the topic. That doesn't mean that I necessarily
disavow what I said then; it means that it is not
academically/professionally current and I have not had time nor
inclination to update, in writing, in this area."
Geri-Ann Galanti and co-authors Philip Zimbardo and Susan
Andersen reflect this change in the recent book, Recovery from
Cults, edited by Michael Langone of the American Family
Galanti says that mind control (which she equates with
brainwashing) "refers to the use of manipulative techniques that
are for the most part extremely effective in influencing the
behavior of others." These influence techniques work to change
our beliefs and attitudes as well; we encouter these pressures
constantly "in advertising, in schools, in military basic
training, in the media." They are a part of the socialization
process, a part of life, Galanti maintains.
Yet when describing her own visit to a Moonie indoctrination
center, where contrary to expectations, she was allowed plenty of
sleep, food, and to observe horsing around among the Moonies
(some even joking about brainwashing!), Galanti concludes: "What
I found was completely contrary to my expectations and served to
underscore both the power and the subtlety of mind control."
While she was there, she felt much of the experience to be a
Later, Galanti decides that what she really
experienced, despite all evidence to the contrary, was an even
more seductive, subversive form of mind control than she'd
previously imagined could exist. It nearly fooled even her. In
short, the lack of evidence for mind control among the Moonies
was really evidence for just how insidious their methods of mind
control had become! Such argumentation points to the frustrating
nature of the belief in mind control; so often evidence offered
against the mind control model is mis-used to illustrate how true
it must be.
Zimbardo and Andersen offer a mind control definition
similar to Galanti's: a tool to "manipulate others' thoughts,
feelings, and behavior within a given context over a period of
time . . . " The chapter deals at length with common uses of
manipulation so that definitions of mind control techniques
multiple to include anything from flattery to social etiquette to
hard-of-hearing salesmen. Again, the move is apparently away from
seeing mind control as insidious, powerful techniques that rob
individuals of personal freedom, and toward a new, "broader"
definition which sees mind control as a synonym for "means of
persuasion." However, if mind control loses its distinctive
power and unique techniques, then it ceases to have any relevance
as a term descriptive of special cult indoctrination processes.
By almost interchanging the terms "persuasion" and
"manipulation," Zimbardo and Anderson gloss over ethical,
connotative differences between these two terms. Second, and more
important, the new trend to define mind control to include nearly
all "manipulative techniques" implicitly contradicts a key
element of the traditional model, namely, that mind control
renders its subjects unable to think rationally or choose
A definition of mind control that removes its involuntary
component is intrinsicaly at odds with the prevailing teachings
of Singer, Langone, Hassan, Martin, and others that cult victims
are unable to think for themselves or make decisions. Instead, it
is more in agreement with the case we have been arguing -- that
cult members are capable of independent thought and rational
choice-making, but because of factual and spiritual deception,
faulty presuppositions, fallacious reasoning, and improper
religious commitments, they make unwise choices and adopt false
Contemporary mind control model advocates want to have the
best of both worlds: They want to distinguish cult recruitment
techniques from normal socialization activities to substantiate
their claims about the insidious powers of the cults, even to the
point of pressing for anti-cult legislation; But as soon as
anyone asks for concrete evidence and qualitative definitions,
mind control becomes just another term for the myriads of forms
of non-candid persuasion.
Objection: The Brainwashing Evidence
In addition to philosophical and logical problems with the
cult mind control model, the evidence contradicts it. Neither
brainwashing, mind control's supposed precursor, nor mind control
itself, have any appreciable demonstrated effectiveness.
Singer and other mind control model proponents are not always
candid about this fact: The early brainwashing attempts were
largely unsuccessful. Even though the Koreans and Chinese used
extreme forms of physical coercion as well as persuasive
coercion, very few individuals subjected to their techniques
changed their basic world views or commitments.
The CIA also
experimented with brainwashing. Though not using Korean or
Chinese techniques of torture, beatings, and group dynamics, the
CIA did experiment with drugs (including LSD) and medical
therapies such as electroshock in their research on mind
control. Their experiments failed to produce even one potential
Manchurian Candidate, and the program was finally abandoned.
Although some mind control model advocates bring up studies
that appear to provide objective data in support of their
theories, such is not the case. These studies are generally
flawed in several areas: (1) Frequently the respondents are not
from a wide cross-section of ex-members but disproportionately
are those who have been exit-counseled by mind control model
advocates who tell them they were under mind control; (2)
Frequently the sample group is so small its results cannot be
fairly representative of cult membership in general; (3) It is
almost impossible to gather data from the same individuals before
cult affiliation, during cult affiliation, and after cult
disaffection, so respondents are sometimes asked to answer as
though they were not yet members, or as though they were still
members, etc. Each of these flaws introduces unpredicatiblity
and subjectivity that make such study results unreliable.
Objection: Low Recruitment Rates
The evidence against the effectiveness of mind control
techniques is even more overwhelming. Studies show that the vast
majority of young people approached by new religious movements
(NRMs) never join despite heavy recruitment tactics. This low
rate of recruitment provides ample evidence that whatever
techniques of purported mind control are used as cult recruiting
tools, they do not work on most people. Even of those
interested enough to attend a recruitment seminar or weekend, the
majority do not join the group. Eileen Barker documents that out
of 1000 people persuaded by the Moonies to attend one of their
overnight programs in 1979, 90% had no further involvement. Only
8% joined for more than one week, and less than 4% remained
members in 1981, two years later:
". . . and, with the passage of time, the number of
continuing members who joined in 1979 has continued to fall.
If the calculation were to start from those who, for one
reason or another, had visited one of the movement's centres
in 1979, at least 999 out of every 1,000 of those people
had, by the mid-1980s, succeeeded in resisting the
persuasive techniques of the Unification Church."
Of particular importance is that this extremely low rate of
conversion is known even to Hassan, the best-known mind control
model advocate whose book is the standard text for introducing
concerned parents to mind control/exit counseling. In his
personal testimony of his own involvement with the Unification
Church, he notes that he was the first convert to join at the
center in Queens; that during the first three months of his
membership he only recruited two more people; and that pressure
to recruit new members was only to reach the goal of one new
person per member per month, a surprisingly low figure if we
are to accept the inevitable success of cult mind control
Objection: High Attrition Rates
Additionally, natural attrition (people leaving the group
without specific intervention) was much higher than the
self-claimed 65% deprogramming success figure! It is far more
likely a new convert would leave the cult within the first year
of his membership than it is that he would become a long term
This data, confirming low rates of conversion and high rates
of disaffection, is deadly to the mind control model. The data
reveals that the theory of cult mind control is not confirmed by
the statistical evidence. The reality is that people who have
very real spiritual, emotional, and social needs are looking for
fulfillment and signficance for their lives. Ill-equipped to test
the false gospels of this world, they make poor decisions about
their religious affiliations. Poor decisions, yes, but personally
responsible decisions nontheless.
As Barker summarizes, "far more people have left the very
NRMs from which people are most commonly deprogramed than have
stayed in them, and the overwhelming majority of these people
have managed to leave without the need for any physical
Objection: The Anti-Religious Bias Of Mind Control Assumptions
Although most secular mind control model advocates deny that
they are critical of any particular beliefs, but only of
practices, Shupe and Bromley note, "It quickly became apparent
that brainwashing served as a conclusionary value judgment rather
than as an analytic concept."
A look at the historical evidence underscores the
anti-religious basis of the brainwashing/mind control model. As
sociologists Anthony and Robbins note,
[I]n a sense the project of modern social science,
particularly in its Enlightenment origins, has been to
liberate man from the domination of retrogressive forces,
particularly religion, which has often been seen as a source
of involuntariness and a threat to personal autonomy, from
which an individual would be liberated by "the science of
freedom" (Gay, 1969). This view of religion had been
present in the cruder early models of brainwashing such as
Sargant (1957), who saw evangelical revivalism as a mode of
brainwashing, and who commenced his studies after noting
similarities between conversions to Methodism and Pavlovian
experiments with dogs . . . (Robbins and Anthony, 1979).
William Sargant, approvingly cited by many cult mind control
model advocates, also made statements arguing that Christian
evangelistic preaching techniques are similar to communist
brainwashing methods. As Sargant wrote in his Battle for the
Anyone who wishes to investigate the technique of
brain-washing and eliciting confessions as practiced behind
the Iron Curtain (and on this side of it, too, in certain
police stations where the spirit of the law is flouted)
would do well to start with a study of eighteenth-century
American revivalism from the 1730s onward. The physiological
mechanics seem the same, and the beliefs and behavior
patterns implanted, especially among the puritans of New
England, have not been surpassed for rigidity and
intolerance even in Stalin's times in the U.S.S.R.
Sargant's anti-Christian bias is also reflected by Flo
Conway and Jim Siegelman, 1970s popularizers of the cult mind
control theory. Expressions of offense at the exclusive claims of
Christianity appear in their bestselling book, Snapping. Some
born-again Christians "shocked us considerably," they state, for
telling us that "we would be condemned to Hell for the opinions
we expressed and the beliefs we held." Among groups cited as
suspect by Conway and Siegelman was Campus Crusade for Christ.
The two miscontrues as a threat what Campus Crusade founder Bill
Bright describes as conversion to Christ: "surrender of the
intellect, the emotions, and the will -- the total person."
Conway and Siegelman conclude: "In its similarity to the appeals
of so many cult recruiters and lecturers, this traditional
Christian doctrine -- and the suggestion contained within it --
takes on new and ominous overtones."
"What is the line between a cult and a legitimate religion?"
Conway and Siegelman ask. "In America today that line cannot be
categorically drawn. In the course of our investigation, however,
it became clear to us that many Born Again Christians had been
severed from their families, their pasts, and society as a whole
as a result of a profound personal transformation. It is not in
keeping with the purpose of this investigation to comment on the
far-flung Evangelical movement in its entirety, but our research
raised serious questions concerning the techniques used to bring
about conversion in many Evangelical sects."
Conway, Siegleman, and many other anti-cult workers
presuppose the harmfulness of any religious allegiance that
includes exclusivity and total commitment. Looking back in
history, such anti-religious bias is not uncommon. There were
those who thought Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi were
mentally incompetent to make their religious commitments.
In short, there is no objective, evidential way to define
groups that are "good" (not using mind control) versus groups
that are "bad" (using mind control). Without evidence, the
accusation of mind control against any group or individual
becomes a matter of personal bias. Once one points to particular
doctrines, teachings, or practices as inherently bad, one has
abandoned the supposedly religiously "neutral" position of the
cult mind control advocates and must make religious judgments.
Although this is not the focus of this article, we note here that
as evangelical Christians we openly admit that we make religious
judgments regarding the cults, and that those religious judgments
are based on the Bible, not on our own subjective opinions or
some concensus of social science professionals.
Objection: Creating Victims
Many people who join cults want to help the needy, forsake
materialism, or develop personal independence from their
families, not necessarily bad goals, although misguided by false
cult teachings. The cult mind control model, however, attributes
cult membership primarily to mind control and thereby denigrates
or discounts such positive activities and goals, misaffiliated to
cults as they are.
The mind control model also fails to give proper weight to
the role natural suggestibility plays in making one vulnerable to
the cults. Highly suggestible people are especially susceptible
to religious salesmanship as well as many other "sales
The cult mind control model instead focuses on
victimization, that a cult member joins as a result of mind
control and not as the result of personal choice. Adopting a
"victimization" perspective actually strips the cult member of
his capacity for rational activity. The cult mind control model
epitomizes a "victim" mentality. Hassan explains his approach to
counseling a cult member:
First, I demonstrate to him that he is in a trap -- a
situation where he is psychologically disabled and can't get
out. Second, I show him that he didn't originally choose to
enter a trap. Third, I point out that other people in other
groups are in similar traps. Fourth, I tell him that it is
possible to get out of the trap.
This kind of victimization is very popular in our society
today, although it has not demonstrated any evidential validity
nor any ability to set the foundation for emotional or mental
Problems with the cult victimization idea can be illustrated
by looking at other areas outside the new religous movements. We
have the Bradshaw "model" of adults as "inner children" who never
grew up because of their "dysfunctional" families. We have the
many twelve-step spawned derivative groups where members seem to
focus more on their powerlessness against whatever addictive
"illness" they have than on another twelve-step maxim: personal
responsibility. And we have the many "Adult Children" support
groups where members uncover the sources of all their problems --
One of the most visible applications of the mind control
model today is in the area of repressed memories of early
childhood abuse (of satanic ritual abuse, simple child abuse,
alien or UFO abduction, past lives, etc.). Amazingly, the mind
control model is used to describe two contrasting portions of
this problem. First, therapists and clients who believe they
have uncovered previously repressed memories of early childhood
abuse believe that the original abusers practice mind control on
their victims. One of the most extreme examples of this is
psychologist Corry Hammond, who postulates a sophisticated system
of mind control he believes was developed from experimental Nazi
Second, falsely accused parents and other family members
often believe the mind control model, applied to the relationship
between the therapist and the accusing client, explains how adult
children could sincerely believe and accuse their own fathers,
mothers, brothers, uncles, and grandparents of performing
unspeakable horrors on them as children, including human
sacrifice, rape, incest, mutilation, etc. Many times these adult
children have publicly denounced their parents and refused any
contact with them for years. Surely to believe such outrageous
fictions, they must be under therapeutic mind control! Finally,
once adult "survivors" come to the realization that their
memories are false, they must deal with the reality that they
have accused their loved ones of horrible atrocities. One
alleged survivor, struggling to maintain belief in her alleged
recovered memories, acknowledged this painful responsibility:
I wish I could say that I knew [my memories] were 100
percent true. But I can't. If they are all based on
falsehoods, I deserve to be damned, and that is really
tough. I've made some really important decisions that
have affected a lot of people. I still get back to
[the feeling that] the essence of the belief has to be
How could they have ever caused their families such anguish?
They must have been victims of therapeutic mind control!
And yet, such a view fosters a crippling victimization that
says, in effect, "you couldn't do anything to prevent this
insidious mind control" and, consequently, what could you
possibly do to protect yourself or your loved ones in the future?
Speaking about cults, Barker makes this clear, saying,
Those who leave by themselves may have concluded that
they made a mistake and that they recognized that fact
and, as a result, they did something about it: they
left. Those who have been deprogrammed, on the other
hand, are taught that is was not they who were
responsible for joining; they were the victims of mind-
control techniques -- and these prevented them from
leaving. Research has shown that, unlike those who
have been deprogrammed (and thereby taught that they
had been brainwashed), those who leave voluntarily are
extremely unlikely to believe that they were ever the
victims of mind control.
An improper victimization model, whether used to understand
cult recruitment, repressed memories, adult emotional distress,
or false accusations of abuse does not provide the education,
critical thinking apparatus, or coping mechanisms necessary to
protect oneself from further victimization, and, most
importantly, such theories do not focus on the life-transforming
gospel as the ultimate solution.
Additionally, true victims, such as small children, victims
of rape, robbery, or murder, those who truly are unable to
predict or prevent their victimization, have their predicament
cheapened and obscured by those who are not truly defenseless
This model has become standard for many evangelical
Christians who have therapists, attribute their current problems
to "dysfunctional" relationships, and trace their personal
inadequacies to emotionally harmful childhoods (everyone's a
dysfunctional "adult child" of alcoholism, or abuse, or
isolationism, or authoritarianism). Everyone is a victim. One
doesn't need to be saved from one's own sins as much as from the
sins of others. Psychology and sociology have replaced Scripture
for understanding human behavior and developing emotionally and
spiritually healthy persons. Yet nowhere in Scripture do we
find support for the idea complaint first voiced by Eve that "the
devil -- or the cult leader -- made me do it." One cannot remove
human responsibility without also destroying human morality:
Some social scientists object to the idea that humans are
free to choose. They claim that man is nothing but the
result of biological, psychological, and sociological
conditions, or the product of heredity and environment.
Thus, B. F. Skinner holds that autonomous man is a myth. All
of man's so-called "decisions" are actually determined by
previous experience. Even some Christians believe that all
of men's actions are determined by God . . . . , and that
they have no free choice.
Such a view of man must be met head-on. If free choice
is a myth, so is moral obligation. C. S. Lewis notes that a
deterministic view brings about the abolition of man. In an
impassioned plea he argues that you cannot strip men of
autonomy without denuding them of responsibility: "In a sort
of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and expect of them
virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to
find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings
Objection: Theological Inconsistencies
If the cult recruiter's skill at manipulation is considered
so coercive that members are not responsible for their own
beliefs, actions, or even the decision to join/stay in the cult,
then many biblical affirmations about personal responsibility and
decision-making are jeopardized. To a secular mind control model
advocate, this may seem a trivial objection. But several
advocates are Christian evangelicals and must come to terms with
the theological inconsistencies introduced when the cult mind
control model is adopted.
For example, in the Garden, Satan personally appeared to
orchestrate the temptation of Eve -- and who could be more
persuasive? Our first parents succumbed to the temptation and
were cast out of the Garden, and all of humanity thereafter have
been penalized by this primal sin. If our first parents could be
held morally responsible when confronted by the Ultimate Tempter,
how is it that we seek to excuse ourselves or our offspring when
confronted by human tempters of far less power, skill, and
Moreover, we observe that both Adam and Eve were penalized
alike, even though the temptation was very well different for
each. Eve's temptation was mediated by the direct approach of
Satan; Adam's temptation occurred via his wife, and we are not
told that Satan appeared to Adam as he did to Eve. Yet,
regardless of whether Satan's presence was immediate or remote,
firsthand or secondhand, both shared ethical culpability for
It is also instructive to note that the second sin of Adam
and Eve was blameshifting, the attempt to elude personal
responsibility. Eve blamed the Serpent, and Adam blamed Eve.
Though God loved them deeply, He did not accept this
rationalization then, and He will not accept similar excuses made
today for our own wrong beliefs and behavior.
This carefully focused evaluation has shown that 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. The reality is that people who have
very real spiritual, emotional, and social needs are looking for
fulfillment and significance for their lives. Ill-equipped to
test the false gospels of this world, they make poor decisions
about their religious affiliations. Poor decisions, yes, but
decisions for which they are personally responsible nonetheless.
As Christians who believe in an absolute standard of truth
and religious reality, we cannot ignore the spiritual threat of
the cults. We must promote critical thinking, responsible
education, biblical apologetics, and Christian evangelism. We
must recognize that those who join the cults, while morally
responsible, are also spiritually ignorant. The power of the
gospel (Romans 1:16) erases spiritual ignorance and provides the
best opportunity possible for right moral and religious choices.
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