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 “brainwashing” techniques used by the cult leaders.
The concept of brainwashing came into popular existence in the 1950’s as the result of attempts to try and explain the behavior of some American GI’s who defected to the Communists during the Korean War (19 Oct 1999). Many people, including some professionals, found brainwashing to be the explanation for the otherwise unexplainable behavior. However, the brainwashing theory did nothing to explain why hundreds of other captured GI’s who chose to remain true to their country even at the risk of being tortured or even murdered. It couldn’t accurately explain for the behavior of few GI’s when it didn’t offer any explanation for the behavior of the majority.
Since the 1950’s, the concept of brainwashing has faded in and out of public’s eyes with a tendency to flare up again in the face of public controversy. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the brainwashing debate again took center stage, this time in an attempt to explain the behavior of so-called radicals who left behind a “normal” life and choose instead for a “cult” existence.
Although scholars of new religious movements would agree that religious groups often have great influence over their followers, they would also debate that the “influence forced in “cults” is not very different from influence that is present in practically every aspect of life,” (19 Oct 1999). Mainstream religions also exercise influence over their members concerning matters such as lifestyle choices, family relations and financial donations. Furthermore, most sociologists concede that some degree of influence is expected in each culture and surface of life even outside the area of religious choice.
Despite the fact that there do not appear to be any studies that provide evidence of brainwashing as a legitimate explanation for joining a cult, 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 behavior that is otherwise culturally unjustifiable.
If brainwashing is not an valid explanation for the conversion of people to cults 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
Cult followers 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.
Proposals of the predictable theory often argue that it is these depressed and lonely people who are vulnerable, determined 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 disposed 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 cults 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 a cult 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 cults over mainstream religions. It allows those who leave cults and regret their former connections to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and takes the blame for their “unexpected” behavior away from them. Doing so, the brainwashing theory cancels out the possibility of freewill.
In conclusion, it could be argued that, if brainwashing was a relevant theory, the anti-cult movement exhibits more “mind control” behaviors than do cults, when considering their participation in action such as “breaking down” and their consistent use of propaganda and half truths.