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"When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Debate

Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa! - 1/2


Index to Forum Debate   Original article   Rejoinder by Krent and Krebs

Regular readers of SKEPTIC scanning the article by Steven A. Kent and Theresa Krebs, "When Scholars Know Sin" (Vol. 6, No. 3, 1998Off-site Link), may have felt as if they were stepping into the middle of a debate without being aware of the stakes behind the arguments placed before them. In fact the paper, in a slightly more sanitized version, previously appeared as part of a set of papers concerning the problems faced by scholars of New Religions who must work in such a highly charged arena and whose every word is scrutinized by both members and critics of the more controversial groups. In that more professional context, one can assume that the readers were up on the issues. But here I begin my response with a little bit of history.

New Religions Studies emerged as a separate field of interest in the late 1960s as a variety of academics began to look at the phenomena surrounding the hippies. Following the passing of the new law concerning immigration from Asia in 1965, teachers from a variety of Asian groups began to arrive in the United States in search of converts. They were joined by a variety of homegrown prophets and preachers who ran the gamut from Moshe Rosen of Jews for Jesus to psychedelic guru Timothy Leary.

At first, the press and public treated the new groups as just additional forms of spiritual exotica. However, by the mid 1970s the climate began to change and charges were leveled that the new groups were disrupting families and diverting young people from their chosen paths to fame and fortune. Borrowing an old term from social studies, disappointed and angry parents began to label the groups "cults" and started utilizing a technique called "deprogramming" to get their offspring out of the New Religions they had joined.

Eventually, deprogrammings which involved the physical confinement of the victim of the person being deprogrammed, landed people in court. It is generally considered illegal to forcefully detain people and keep them locked up for days while subjecting them to a variety of unwelcome advances designed to convince them to change their religious opinions and affiliations. It was also the case that the attempt to locate a defense for deprogrammers coincided with the desire of parents and former members of the groups to discover a rationale for the members' supposedly irrational choice of a bizarre religion in the face of the far superior choice of college and career. The idea of brainwashing, a concept that had been dusted off for the defense in the Patty Hearst case, provided both. Although it did not help Hearst, it enjoyed some success in a series of cases involving New Religions. Not only was it used to justify deprogramming as the lesser of evils when compared to a person spending their life in a "cult," but explained to parents why their offspring had rejected their parental guidance for a guru. It also became an effective offensive weapon in the hands of former members who launched suits against cults hoping to collect money for having been brainwashed.

The brainwashing idea had been floated as a hypothesis by several psychologists but found its true champion in Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer, who wrote an early popular defense of the idea and subsequently developed it in her testimony in a number of court cases through the mid 1980s. Several of these cases resulted in multi-million-dollar judgments against some of the more well-known groups. Those opposed to "cults" found a popular response from juries to the emotionally charged word and it soon became the keystone of popular prejudice against New Religions (such prejudice being fueled by the events at Jonestown in 1978).

In the meantime, academics aware of the work on brainwashing following the Korean War challenged the new use of the term. Research on Chinese techniques utilized against the American prisoners of war, especially that of Edgar Shein, had concluded that those running the camps had no new sinister psychological techniques at their disposal. Prisoners had been responding to nothing more than simple ancient techniques of deprivation and torture. While their behavior had been affected, their thought processes remained clear. Those who chose to cooperate with the enemy had done so out of fear and physical need (or as Robert J. Lifton discovered in a few cases, a prior ideological proclivity), not because of any subtle mental manipulation. Singer had actually been Shein's student. In picking up the brainwashing hypothesis and using her credentials as his student, during her court appearances, she actually espoused the very idea her mentor had largely destroyed.

In the early 1980s, as social and psychological scientists debated the idea that New Religions used some form of mind control to recruit and hold their members, the American Psychological Association (APA) appointed Singer to head a committee to prepare a report on the ideas she and several colleagues had come to espouse. One could assume that this report included their best statement of the idea of "mind control" or "coercive persuasion," as it was termed, and the best evidence in its support to that point. The committee's report was presented in 1986 and blindly reviewed by four people. It was unanimously rejected. In the very kind reply of the person in charge of setting up the review, the committee's efforts were dismissed as being methodologically unsound and lacking in scientific rigor. The actual reviews were less kind in their assessment. As one of the reviewers, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, noted: "The term 'brainwashing' is not a recognized theoretical concept, and is just a sensationalist 'explanation' more suitable to 'cultists' and revival preachers. It should not be used by psychologists, since it does not explain anything. (The complete text of Beit-Hallahmi's statement and the other documents relevant to the APA action may be found on the website of the Center for Studies on New Religions, www.cesnur.orgOff-site Link.)

In terms most familiar to SKEPTIC readers, the popular notion of brainwashing was simply pseudoscience. The committee's review concluded, as had the great majority of social scientists who had examined the issue, that Singer's concept of cultic brainwashing lacked a coherent theoretical framework, was supported by only minuscule empirical evidence, and simply did not account for the wide range of observable phenomena, most importantly the large turnover in members experienced by all of the groups, which seemed unable to hold a steady base of adherents.

The response of the APA to Singer had two immediate results: First, it became the basis of a series of court rulings.In 1988, Singer and a colleague, sociologist Richard Ofshe, were kicked out of court in a case involving a Scientologist after the court ruled that the pair lacked the support of a body of science from which to speak. After several other courts followed suit, Singer and Ofshe, complaining that their livelihood had been taken from them as professional witnesses, filed suit against both the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association, as well as a number of scholars individually. They charged that there had been a conspiracy to destroy them professionally. They brought suit in federal court. Dismissed, the suit was refiled in California as a conspiracy and defamation action. It was not only dismissed, but Singer and Ofshe were ordered to pay the court costs of the defendants. (This author was a defendant in the California suit, though not of the prior federal case.)

Second, since the ruling by the APA, the study of New Religions has blossomed as an interdisciplinary area of research pursued by hundreds of scholars in North America and Europe, not to mention Japan. (Contrary to Kent and Krebs' complaint that few students take up the study of the field, it had grown tremendously through the 1990s). It now forms one of the most visible tracks of programming at both the Association for the Sociology of Religion and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and has secured a permanent place in the programming of the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion. The annual meeting sponsored by the Center for Studies on New Religions (headquartered in Turin, Italy) attracts several hundred scholars from around the world. These studies, while following a variety of perspectives contributed by the various disciplines (from anthropology to religious studies), have found little value in the brainwashing or related hypotheses and for the last 15 years have been pursued largely without reference to them. They have gone a long way toward mapping our increasingly pluralistic religious community (including those people who are religiously nonreligious).

The loss of the brainwashing hypothesis has, to the contrary, had a tremendous effect upon the popular prejudice against New Religions. Anti-cultists were left without their single most effective argument against the various groups. To charge a group with brainwashing has functioned quite nicely as a way to mobilize negative feelings against a community that had otherwise objectively done nothing wrong. It also knocked out the justification for deprogrammings. Eventually, stripped of the brainwashing defense, one set of deprogrammers was presented with a multi-million dollar judgment for their attempt to deprogram a member of a Pentecostal church. In addition, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), the major group supporting an activist approach against cults, shared in that judgment as a result of the court's perception of CAN's involvement in the case. As a result, deprogrammings have all but ended in North America and the CAN was forced into bankruptcy.

In the wake of the rejection of their idea by the APA and the resultant loss of authority in court, Singer and others began to label scholars of New Religions who had refuted her brainwashing theories as "cult apologists." In the face of their inability to mount a convincing argument for their position, they have turned to personal attacks upon their fellow scholars. A host of amateur anti-cultists picked up the refrain, and those who study New Religious movements have become used to complaints that our work does not simply describe the phenomena, but actually advocates the New Religious movements. The attacks have been notable for their lack of analysis of (or, in the case of Kent and Krebs, even seeming familiarity with) the body of work of the people under attack.

In fact, scholars of New Religions do not advocate for the groups (I have quite enough to do supporting my own religious community, the United Methodist Church). Some of us, myself included, do argue for the civil rights of groups and their members, but that is quite distinct from supporting their religious claims or whitewashing individual leaders' and members' actions (some of whose actions are reprehensible and immoral in the extreme). However, it is also the case that the huge body of scholarship that has been built over the last several decades simply does not lend support to the broad anti-cult attack upon New Religions as a whole. While academics have unanimously condemned those groups and individual members of groups who have committed illegal and violent acts, we cannot support public campaigns to condemn the overwhelming majority of New Religious communities in the name of some fictitious ability to control the mind of their members.

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