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Cult Conversion: Freewill Or Brainwashing

The controversy surrounding new religious movements seems to be foremost concerned with whether or not the members of these religions come of their own freewill or if they convert as a necessary and inevitable response to advanced coercion, or “brainwashing” techniques employed by the cult leaders.

The concept of brainwashing came into popular existence in the 1950s as the result of attempts to try and explain the behaviour of some American GIs who defected to the Communists during the Korean War (19 Oct 1999). Many people, including some professionals, found brainwashing to be an acceptable explanation for the otherwise unexplainable behaviour. However, the brainwashing theory did nothing to explain why hundreds of other captured GIs chose to remain true to their country even at the risk of being tortured. It could not accurately account for the behaviour of a select few GIs when it did not offer any explanation for the behaviour of the majority.

Since the 1950s, the concept of brainwashing has faded in and out of public consciousness with a tendency to flare up again in the face of public controversy. In the 1960s and 1970s the brainwashing debate again took center stage, this time in an attempt to explain the behaviour of so-called radicals who left behind a “normal” life and opted instead for a “cult” existence.

Although scholars of new religious movements would agree that religious groups often have substantial influence over their followers, they would also argue that the “influence exerted in “cults” is not very different from influence that is present in practically every arena of life,” (19 Oct 1999). Mainstream religions also exercise influence over their members concerning matters such as lifestyle choices, familial relations and monetary donations. Furthermore, most social scientists concede that some degree of influence is inevitable in each culture and facet of life even outside the arena of religious choice.

Despite the fact that there do not appear to be any studies that conclusively provide evidence of brainwashing as a legitimate explanation for joining an NRM, and in spite of the many studies that have refuted that brainwashing defense successfully, the brainwashing theory continues to be debated regularly. The concept of brainwashing is still often relied on to account for behaviour that is otherwise culturally unjustifiable.

If brainwashing is not an appropriate explanation for the conversion of people to NRMs than what is? A common theme on the anti-cult side of the conversion debate is the argument that members are, to varying degrees, predisposed to becoming cult members. This supposed predisposition is commonly thought to be a product of depression, grief, loneliness and a life filled with successive failures. However, as recent studies have shown, this is not entirely true. Although many people who seek out

NRMs are suffering with depression or have realized some setbacks the same could be said of some that seek out mainstream religions for the same reasons, namely to feel better about themselves and to find purpose and meaning in life.

Shelley Leibert, an instructor with the Unification Church, has discussed two main types of people that pass through the UC camps (Dawson, 1996:204). Leibert describes one type as being well rounded, successful and secure while the other is described as being drug users, dropouts and drifters. Leibert concludes that it is the latter that are most unlikely to dedicate themselves to the lifestyle of the UC.

Proponents of the predetermination theory often argue that it is these depressed and lonely people who are susceptible, predetermined and often targeted “victims” of cult brainwashing. They make these assumptions often lacking any firsthand knowledge of cult recruiting practices. While it is true that at times some cult members appear to be more vulnerable to cult recruiting (Dawson, 1996:205), it remains that vulnerability and predisposed are two different concepts. Furthermore, many of those who are deemed to be “vulnerable” (recent divorcees, the grieving, etc.,) frequently regard their cult experience as a positive and therapeutic experience, even after leaving the cult environment (Dawson, 1996:205).

Although, as Dr. John G. Clark suggests, these seemingly vulnerable people join NRMs in an attempt to “feel better about themselves” (Dawson, 1996:207), the same thing can be said of many who join mainstream religious organizations. Regardless of whether the vulnerable person chooses to join a mainstream religion or an NRM, it is, nevertheless, still a choice. The exercising of freewill, or choice, by cult inductees is evident but their frequent church, or cult, hopping done in order to find a group whose beliefs and practices best answer their questions (Dawson, 1996:205).

The brainwashing theory conveniently provides an outlet for the anti-cult movement to answer to the question of why some people chose NRMs over mainstream religions. It allows those who leave NRMs and regret their former connections to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and takes the blame for their “deviant” behaviour away from them. In doing so, the brainwashing theory negates the plausibility of freewill.

In closing, it could be argued that, if brainwashing were a legitimate theory, the anti-cult movement exhibits more “mind control” behaviours than do NRMs, when considering their participation in action such as “deprogramming” and their consistent use of propaganda and half truths.

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