Brainwashed! Scholars of cults accuse each other of bad faith

Rutgers University Sociology professor Benjamin Zablocki has been studying cults–now called, thanks to academic political correctness, new religious movements, or NRMs–since his graduate school days at Johns Hopkins during the mid-1960s, when he bought a ninety-nine dollar Greyhound bus pass and traveled around the country visiting all the religious communes he could find. “My style of research is participant observation,” he explains. “I live with the groups, wash dishes with them, pray with them, and immerse myself in their way of life.”

After years of intimate encounters with a variety of religious groups, one recurrent phenomenon stood out. “I saw people going through a very peculiar experience,” Zablocki recalls. “They would lose weight and withdraw. You couldn’t have a conversation with them–they seemed to be in a different world.”

At first Zablocki believed that the troubled cult members he talked to were experiencing spiritual crises–”the dark night of the soul, like Saint Teresa or Saint John of the Cross.” But after reading Robert Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961) and Edgar Schein’s Coercive Persuasion (1961), famous studies of the mind control and “reeducation” practiced by the Chinese on, among other groups, American prisoners of war captured in the Korean conflict, Zablocki embraced another explanation: brainwashing. Lifton’s and Schein’s theories of prisoner brainwashing–a process that entailed sensory deprivation, the extraction of confessions, and complete control of the prisoners’ environment as a means of manipulating them to share their captors’ outlook and do their captors’ will–struck him as an apt description of the behavior he’d observed among the theoretically voluntary members of religious groups. From group to group, Zablocki’s subjects had reported undergoing rituals more reminiscent of a prison camp than of your average Sunday school: They were deprived of sleep; they were asked to write confessions; they were told their confessions were not adequate.

Zablocki’s conversion to brainwashing theory may sound like common sense to a public brought up on TV images of zombielike cultists committing fiendish crimes or on the Chinese mind control experiments dramatized in the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate. But among social scientists, brainwashing has been a bitterly contested theory for some time. No one doubts that a person can be made to behave in particular ways when he is threatened with physical force (what wouldn’t you do with a gun pressed to your head?), but in the absence of weapons or torture, can a person be manipulated against his will?

Most sociologists and psychologists who study cults think not. For starters, brainwashing isn’t, as Zablocki himself admits, “a process that is directly observable.” And even if brainwashing could be isolated and measured in a clinical trial, ethical objections make conducting such a test almost unthinkable. (What sort of waivers would you have to sign before allowing yourself to be brainwashed?) In the last decade, while brainwashing has enjoyed a high profile in the media–invoked to explain sensational cult disasters from the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members to the twelve sarin deaths on the Tokyo subway attributed to the Aum Shinrikyo cult–social scientists have shunned the the term as a symptom of Cold War paranoia and anticult hysteria. Instead, they favor more benign explanations of cult membership. Alternatives include “labeling” theory, which argues there is simply nothing sinister about alternative religions, that the problem is one of prejudicial labeling on the part of a mainstream culture that sees cult members as brainwashed dupes, and “preexisting condition” theory, which posits that cult members are people who are mentally ill or otherwise maladjusted before they join. (A couple of scholars have even proposed malnutrition as a preexisting condition, arguing that calcium deficiency may make people prone to charismatic susceptibility.)

Thus, when Zablocki published an indignant two-part, sixty-page defense of brainwashing theory in the October 1997 and April 1998 issues of Nova Religio, a scholarly journal devoted to alternative belief systems, he ignited a furor in the field. Pointing to the “high exit costs” that some cults exacted from those who tried to defect–shunning, forfeiture of parental rights and property, and veiled threats–Zablocki argued that these were indications of brainwashing, signs that some groups were using psychological coercion to maintain total control over their members. Although he admitted he could not prove brainwashing empirically, he argued that at the very least brainwashing should not be dismissed out of hand. “It is not my aim…to claim that we currently possess evidence proving that brainwashing is the best explanation of commitment to NRMs,” he wrote. “It is my more modest aim to show that brainwashing is a precise and empirically testable conjecture about a very important social-psychological process that has been treated shabbily by majority opinion within the sociology of religion.”

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Zablocki’s colleagues were unimpressed. In a response also published in Nova Religio, David Bromley, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, complained that in Zablocki’s formulation brainwashing remained a vague, slippery, limiting, and ultimately untestable concept. Moreover, he pointed out, cults typically have low recruitment success, high turnover rates (recruits typically leave after a few months, and hardly anyone lasts longer than two years), and short life spans, all grounds for serious skepticism about the brainwashing hypothesis. Even if you overlook these facts, Bromley added, “the extraordinarily varied cultural origins, patterns of organizational development, and leadership styles of such groups pose a problem in explaining how they seem to have discovered the same ‘brainwashing’ psycho-technology at almost precisely the same historical moment.”

A quick survey of the field reveals that Bromley is far from being the only doubter. Eileen Barker, a sociologist at the London School of Economics who has also studied the Unification Church, says, “People regularly leave the Moonies of their own free will. The cults are actually less efficient at retaining their members than other social groups. They put a lot of pressure on them to stay in–love-bombing, guilt trips–but it doesn’t work. They’d like to brainwash them, but they can’t.”


Acrimony is typical of exchanges within the field of cult scholarship–one of the most divided in academe. Separated by ideology, training, and disciplinary history, the sociologists and psychologists who study cults confront each other over an enormous–some would say unbridgeable–cultural gulf. And the debate often gets personal. Though there are some recent signs of rapprochement, scholarly antagonists have frequently sought to discredit each other’s motives as well as their research. Competing to define the nature of cults, they have fought for control of their professional associations and quarreled bitterly in the courtroom.

“The field has been completely polarized,” observes Thomas Robbins, an independent sociologist of religion in Rochester, Minnesota. He explains: “You have the people, mostly sociologists of religion or people in religious studies, who tend to look at cults interpretively, from the point of view of their members. They get labeled as cult apologists. And there are those who view cults as fundamentally destructive–they’re mostly psychologists and social workers–and they get labeled as cult bashers. Most books on the subject take one side or the other, and the scholars on either side don’t read each other’s books.”

The word “cult” is itself a bone of scholarly contention, a term first used to describe religious movements that did not fall into German sociologist Max Weber’s classification of churches (organizations open to anyone born or baptized into them) and sects (separatist subgroups that demanded theological or moral purity as a condition of membership). In the view of most sociologists loyalty to a charismatic leader over adherence to a particular theology is one feature that distinguishes a cult from a sect. (Another defining feature is the tendency of cults to encapsulate or embed at least some of their members in a way of life and set of group values that are radically at odds with the surrounding culture.)

New religious movement” is a term of relatively recent vintage, a value-neutral designation coined in the wake of disasters like Jonestown and Waco as an effort by social scientists to distance themselves from popular anticult prejudice. In fact, the term is misleading: Many of the belief systems promoted by NRMs are not new at all but are eccentric offshoots of Christianity or the even more ancient Buddhism and Hinduism. Furthermore, some cults, such as Scientology, est, and Lifespring Inc., have minimal religious content and might be more accurately defined as secular therapy or self-realization organizations. (Even so, in 1993 Scientology won the Internal Revenue Service’s designation as a church.)

To further complicate matters, researchers often bring very different, even conflicting approaches to their work. Psychologists, for example, tend to emphasize how a repeated environmental stimulus can elicit a conditioned response–depriving subjects of their autonomy. Sociologists, by contrast, typically endorse a voluntarist conversion model for religion, which posits that people join cults for generally rational reasons connected to the group’s ability to satisfy their needs: for a transcendent theology; for strong bonds of kinship and solidarity; for enough social support to enable them to quit drugs or otherwise turn their personal lives around. (For example, one study has shown that schizophrenics who joined cults functioned better than those who tried drugs or conventional psychotherapy.)

All of these differences might have been merely academic were it not for the enduring popularity of cults themselves. By the end of the 1960s, contrary to the expectations of many secular academics, strange, radically separatist religious groups were beginning to proliferate. They attracted large numbers of recruits, often among young people from affluent families who had grown up without any religious beliefs. Horrified middle-class parents watched their college-educated children shinny down the social ladder to sell flowers on the street with the Moonies, shave their heads and beg with the Hare Krishna, or distribute Jesus-movement pamphlets on the subways. The media reported spurts of cult violence and instances of young people handing over large sums of money to the new religions.

Most alarming of all for parents, many of the cults enforced a rigid communal life that required members to cut off all ties to their pasts, including contact with their families. In response, there was a wave of deprogramming during the 1970s and 1980s: Young cult members were kidnapped, usually by freelance specialists hired by their parents, and held prisoner until they disavowed their cult affiliation and beliefs. Some parents even tried to have their adult children deprogrammed out of Roman Catholic convents and evangelical Christian churches. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil libertarians objected strenuously to deprogramming on the grounds that most of the recipients were legal adults, but the practice had the blessing of the Cult Awareness Network and other anticult groups. Moreover, judges in California, a bellwether state for legal trends, began allowing parents to obtain conservatorships over their adult children who had joined cults on the presumption that they were mentally incompetent, paving the way for the deprogrammers to move in.

Academics played a major role in the battles that ensued. In order to prove mental incompetence, the lawyers for the parents had to show that the young people had not joined the cults voluntarily. In the 1970s and 1980s, the thought-reform studies of Lifton and Schein suddenly found lucrative new life in the courtroom.

Two of the most prominent advocates of the mind-control hypothesis were sociologist Richard Ofshe and psychologist Margaret Singer, both affiliated with UC-Berkeley at the time. The two began hiring themselves out as expert witnesses on behalf of former cult members and their parents in several lawsuits brought against religious cults and secular therapy organizations, like Lifespring. Testifying to the reality of “coercive persuasion,” the two social scientists managed to snag a large portion of the expert-witness business in brainwashing cases. “In the thought-reform prisons in China, people were physically coerced into staying in that environment,” says Ofshe. “I think there are other things that can stand in the place of physical coercion, for example, misrepresentation that results in their believing that the cult is something other than what it is. You have to look at what occurs in the context of the group: exploiting one’s desires, one’s weaknesses. I’ve seen groups where people who were blemish-free were manipulated into acts of violence and terrorism.”

In the early 1980s, Ofshe and Singer’s brainwashing arguments proved persuasive to judges, juries, and the public. With horrific images of the Jonestown mass suicides and murders fresh in their minds, American juries were hostile to cults. Former cult members began winning multimillion-dollar jury verdicts against the religious movements to which they had belonged. In 1980 the New York state legislature, over objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, passed a bill that would have legalized deprogramming (it was vetoed by Governor Hugh Carey). “With deprogramming–with parents having their children abducted and held captive–the whole thing became intensely emotional,” says Thomas Robbins. “Who were the kidnappers: the parents, the cults, or the police? There were hard feelings on both sides.”

Among the most outraged were social scientists who had never believed that people could be brainwashed into joining cults and who, as good civil libertarians, were appalled by deprogramming. Ofshe and Singer’s scholarly testimony (and fat fees) distressed a number of these scholars, whose credentials were equally respectable and whose own research had led them to conclude that coercive persuasion was impossible in the absence of some sort of physical coercion such as prison or torture. “There clearly are groups that order people to kill,” concedes David Bromley. “There’s Aum, there was the Rajneesh, where they put botulism in the salad bar, there was Synanon, where they put a rattlesnake in someone’s mailbox. But in the end, the dispute over brainwashing isn’t a legal matter; it’s a political dispute over the legitimacy of high-demand religions. One side says: Don’t encapsulate your members so much. The other side says: Don’t demonize dissent from the prevailing norms.”

Bromley believes that Ofshe and Singer’s testimony encourages judges and jurors to leap too quickly to the conclusion that alternative religions are threats to individual freedom and traditional values. According to their logic, was the early Christian church a dangerous cult as well? Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John need deprogramming?


Zablocki also regards Ofshe and Singer’s testimony with skepticism, but for different reasons. “It usually takes months, even years to arrive at a full, uncompromising commitment to a cult,” he explains. “It’s then that the brainwashing can occur. In the Ofshe-Singer model, brainwashing takes place at the very beginning. I think very highly of Ofshe’s work, but I don’t agree with his thinking on some things.” Furthermore, Zablocki adds, “I’ve always refused requests to serve as an expert witness. I wouldn’t trust myself as a scholar when one side or the other side of a legal case is supplementing my income.”

In his article in Nova Religio, Zablocki was worried less about those academics who may stretch the brainwashing concept than about those, like Bromley, who reject it altogether. And in advancing his case, he took a hard look at such scholars’ intentions and tactics. (His title is deliberately provocative: “The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion.”) Not content merely to defend the brainwashing theory as viable social science, Zablocki argued that its degraded status in the profession had as much to do with the compromised attitudes of the scholars who studied cults as with inherent flaws in the theory itself. Brainwashing, Zablocki contended, had gone out of style in sociology not because it had been disproved scientifically but because the majority of scholars of alternative religions had crossed the line from objectivity to apology for the groups they researched. “The harm of squelching a form of free religious expression,” he concluded, “seems to many to be a far greater danger than any harm that might come to members of NRMs or their children.”

Although most scholars tend to be candid about cults’ bizarre practices–studies of the Unification Church do not omit the mass weddings arranged between strangers, the pressure to procreate, or Moon’s self-centric theology–too many sociologists, Zablocki wrote, downplay reports of defectors, on the theory that members who leave in anger have axes to grind. Such scholars, he contended, are more interested in “marginalizing opposing points of view” than in “collecting data and testing hypotheses.”

In the same issue of Nova Religio, Robbins addressed some of these complaints in a “friendly critique” aimed at other cult-friendly scholars in his own camp. While critical of the government’s handling of the Waco incident, which resulted in the deaths of seventy-six members of the Branch Davidian cult and four federal agents in 1993, Robbins faulted religion scholars for glossing over the group’s lethal response to the raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “Although both persecution and sectarian nastiness clearly exist,” Robbins wrote, “objective scholars may need to surrender any permanent investment in seeing the ‘cult’ or ‘new religion’ as either a victim or a destructive demon.”

Zablocki made another, potentially more damning charge, however–one that Robbins did not take up. A significant amount of cult money, he wrote, has gone to scholars–in support of research, publication, conference participation, and other services. Zablocki did not name names. But a number of professors freely admit that nontraditional religions (in most cases, the Unificationists and Scientologists) have cut them checks. The list includes some of the most prominent scholars in the discipline: Bromley, Barker, Rodney Stark of the University of Washington, Jeffrey Hadden of the University of Virginia, and James Richardson, a sociologist of religion at the University of Nevada at Reno. All five have attended cult-subsidized conferences, and Bromley, Hadden, and Richardson have occasionally testified in court on behalf of cults or offered their services as expert witnesses against brainwashing theory. “This is an issue,” Zablocki wrote sternly, “of a whole different ethical magnitude from that of taking research funding from the Methodists to find out why the collection baskets are not coming back as heavy as they used to.”

Justifications for accepting benefits from fringe faiths vary: “I can’t be bought with a free conference.” “Don’t scholars in many fields serve as consultants and expert witnesses?” And outside research grants for scholarship on alternative religions are difficult to obtain. Until recently, the government has funded very few cult studies, and private foundations that support religious scholarship–such as the Lilly Endowment and the Pew Charitable Trusts–prefer to pay for studies of more conventional churches. “Sure, I spent three days on a boat in the San Juan Islands with Eileen Barker and some other people–it was a conference on religious movements, and we had a great time, and the Moonies paid for it,” says Stark. “But I’ve gone to plenty of conferences paid for by Jewish organizations and Catholic organizations. The first big study I ever did, on religion and anti-Semitism, was a book for the Anti-Defamation League. I never felt that it was Jewish money. So I’m not so worried about that.”

Jeffrey Hadden once organized a Unification Church—sponsored conference on religion and politics in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and published the papers with a Unification Church— owned press. He explains: “There are all these anticultists, and they begin with the presumption that every religious movement is illegitimate, so anything you say is all right if it undermines the group. I say that religious freedom is a fundamental right. Are there things that happen in these groups that I don’t approve of? Have I pointed it out? You bet I have! Have some scholars gotten too close to the groups they study? Of course–if you study a group to understand the world through their eyes, you will understand the world through their eyes. It’s a real difficulty.”

Hadden insists that the Moonie money had no effect on his scholarship and that he eventually lost favor with some of the Unificationists. His fall from grace was partly because he said unflattering things about them in his papers and partly because he refused to sign a petition protesting the 1980 New York state legislation that would have legalized deprogramming. “I stood up at a conference and said, ‘Absolutely not!’” Hadden recalls. “But I reject the notion that our job as sociologists is to be watchdogs. Our job is to understand these groups so that there can be civil discourse about them, not bitter division.”

In fact, Hadden and his colleagues have frequently gone beyond understanding alternative religions into seeking to help them with their legal problems. Much of that activity has been inspired by their efforts to combat the anti-cult testimony of Ofshe and Singer, which they believe has been used to demonize alternative world views and deprive adults of their religious liberty. Inspired by a meeting of cult scholars and representatives from the Unification Church and the National Council of Churches, Hadden composed a memo in December 1989 that was aimed at counteracting the academic legitimacy of the brainwashing concept–as well as, implicitly, the expert witness status of Ofshe, Singer, and others.

Hadden’s memo, to which he attached Bromley’s and Barker’s names without their consent, suggested that the Unification Church and other nontraditional religions set up a foundation to fund research and help in “neutralizing anti-cult movements” such as the Cult Awareness Network and the Florida-based American Family Foundation. Hadden recognized that the Constitution’s church-state provisions precluded federal funding for such an organization; therefore he urged the creation a privately supported “legal resource center” to be funded initially with contributions from “individuals and groups targeted as probable primary users of the material”–in other words, lawyers and their cult clients.

“At that time two individuals were having a barnstorm of a good time in court,” says Hadden, referring to Ofshe and Singer. “They misrepresented themselves and the state of knowledge in the discipline. Every time they turned around, they were winning court decisions. I said, ‘Do we have an obligation to jump in and say that the state of the knowledge is not what they say?’ Of course we did.”

That obligation has been fulfilled.


In one long-running legal drama, cult-friendly scholars even went so far as to persuade national academic organizations to join–however briefly–their cause. The drama lasted a decade, and by the time it subsided, both sides were behaving in ways that seemed, well, almost cultish.

The conflict began in 1980, when David Molko and Tracy Leal, who had briefly belonged to the Northern California branch of the Unification Church, sued the Moonie group for fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Recruiters had brought Molko, then age twenty-seven, and Leal, then age nineteen, into the cult during the late 1970s by inviting them to communal dinners without revealing the identity of their organization. As was Moonie practice at the time, only after Molko and Leal were well along in a training program in a remote area did they learn what church they had joined. Both were eventually kidnapped by deprogrammers hired by their parents, at which point they recanted their beliefs and filed their lawsuit. Molko also sought return of the $6,000 he had given the Unificationists when he joined.

The allegation of deception fit the Ofshe-Singer brainwashing theory, and the lawyers who represented Molko and Leal hired Singer, along with a psychiatrist, to testify that the Unificationists had systematically misled and manipulated the two young people into joining their organization. The judge refused to let the case go to trial, arguing that there was no evidence brainwashing had occurred. Molko and Leal appealed the decision, but failed to convince an intermediate-level appeals court to overturn the ruling.

Still, the plaintiffs persevered, and when the California Supreme Court heard the case in 1988, it ruled that the case could go to trial after all. Because there were such “differing views” among social scientists on the theory of coercive persuasion, the court declared, the question of whether Molko and Leal had joined the church of their own free will was ultimately a factual one for a trial jury to determine. Hence, the expert witnesses could testify to aid the jury. The Unificationists promptly filed a petition to have the U.S. Supreme Court review the case on the grounds that constitutional guarantees of religious freedom preclude inquiries into the recruiting practices of religious groups.

Even before the case got to the California high court, the cult-friendly sociologist James Richardson began meeting with other social scientists and a Moonie lawyer to develop a strategy for defeating the Ofshe-Singer brainwashing theory. Richardson was not on the Unification payroll, but his name was on a list of expert witnesses whom the church intended to call if the case ever got to trial. Richardson’s group decided to lobby the American Psychological Association (APA), Singer’s own professional organization, to file a friend-of-the-court brief declaring that brainwashing theory was not generally accepted by the scientific community. Richardson and his allies eventually secured approval from the APA’s board of directors to file a brief on the case with the organization’s name attached. This was highly unusual: Most scholarly organizations do not take official positions on theories under debate, especially when there might be implications for public policy. A number of individual scholars also agreed to lend their names to the brief, including the cult-friendly Stark as well as the preeminent religion scholar Martin Marty of the University of Chicago.

Richardson’s victory was short-lived, however. After protests lodged by Singer and several other psychologists, the APA withdrew its name from the brief–even before the California high court issued its ruling. Because the case was now on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Richardson and the others tried the same tactic with two other professional organizations, the American Sociological Association (ASA) and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR). The SSSR’s board voted to endorse the brief, but the ASA’s executive director signed it on his association’s behalf without submitting it to the board, a procedural irregularity. The brief (whose language differed slightly from the original APA brief) emphatically declared that there was “no evidence” in the scholarly literature to support the theory that fraud and manipulation could amount to the same thing as physical force. This time the protest came from Ofshe and like-minded sociologists, and the ASA board voted to take its name off the brief. (The SSSR also eventually took a more noncommittal stance, passing a resolution in 1990 stating that “further appropriate research is necessary” to reach a scholarly consensus on brainwashing.)

By this time, the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to review the case. So, rather than let it proceed to trial, the Unification Church decided to settle with Molko and Leal out of court. Even though Ofshe and Singer did not testify in the case, it was a significant victory for them.

But if this was a highpoint of their careers, the lowpoint was soon to come. In 1990 the cult-friendly scholars secured a victory against Singer and Ofshe in a federal criminal case in California. A man named Stephen Fishman had been charged in 1988 with eleven counts of fraudulently obtaining settlement money in shareholder class-action suits by posing as an injured member of an affected class. His lawyer planned to have Singer and Ofshe testify that the Church of Scientology, to which Fishman had belonged for several years, had brainwashed him into believing that he was above the law. It was a novel legal defense: The cults made me do it.

The court was unpersuaded, however. Noting that the “scientific community has resisted the Singer-Ofshe thesis applying coercive persuasion to religious cults,” the judge in the Fishman case rejected expert testimony on the matter.

For Singer and Ofshe, the negative decision in the Fishman case set a precedent that meant the end of their lucrative sideline in providing expert testimony in criminal court. But that wasn’t their last word. Outraged, they were determined to retaliate. Alleging that Richardson and other cult-friendly scholars had manipulated the APA and the ASA into taking positions against the brainwashing theory, Singer and Ofshe filed a federal civil suit in New York City under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in 1992. The suit named as defendants the APA and the ASA, as well as numerous individuals connected with writing the Molko-Leal briefs. Treating those staid, scholarly organizations as though they were the Mafia (which was the original target of the RICO law), the suit alleged a complex conspiracy involving the APA and the ASA’s statements in the Molko-Leal case; various pieces of correspondence among the parties that reflected negatively on Ofshe and Singer; and a 1987 rejection by the APA of a task force report authored by Singer and critical of the Unification Church.

The suit never came to trial. A federal judge issued a lengthy opinion concluding that although the suit alleged a number of “seemingly overly zealous efforts” on the part of the cult-friendly scholars, a RICO action was not a proper forum for airing disputes over the merits of the theory of coercive persuasion. Ofshe and Singer then filed a second lawsuit in a California state court against most of the same group of defendants. This suit alleged conspiracy, intentional misrepresentation, and defamation, and charged that certain pro-cult scholars had further mischaracterized the Ofshe-Singer brainwashing theories in articles and papers presented to professional organizations. Soon enough, that second suit was dead as well, dismissed in a one-page 1994 decision by Judge James R. Lamden stating that the First Amendment protected debates over “matters both professional and academic.” Lamden ordered Ofshe and Singer to pay the various defendants $80,000 in attorneys’ fees under California’s SLAPP suit law, which penalizes those who harass others for exercising their First Ammendment rights.

For Singer and Ofshe, the itch to litigate persists. “We are suing our lawyer, Michael Flomenhaft, for malpractice,” says Singer. “There was no First Amendment issue in this case. We were saying that the APA and the ASA had been co-opted.”


The ugly mutual recriminations over the Molko-Leal lawsuit probably marked the lowest point of the cult wars. Though no scholarly faction won a decisive court ruling on the question of expert testimony, lately there are signs that the academic standoff is ending. The dust from the latest skirmish–sparked by Zablocki’s provocative 1997 defense of brainwashing theory–is beginning to settle, revealing a scholarly community making tentative steps toward reconciliation.

Developments outside academe have helped: While membership is increasing in some cults, many others are in decline. The Unification Church, for example, has lost members over the last decade and is unwilling or unable to finance expensive conferences and books to pay favorable court testimony. Deprogramming has been abandoned in favor of exit counseling for those who choose to leave cults voluntarily, and the legal system is much less sympathetic to parents who would like to remove adult children from cults and wrest huge damage award from NRMs.

Inside academe, exchanges amoung cult scholars show signs of becoming more collegial. Zablocki and robbins are collaborating on a collection of papers from scholars on both side of the cult conflict (including Bromely and Richardson), to be published by the University of Toronto Press in 1999. They hope the volume will include the first balanced debate over brainwashing since cult and brainwashing theory first surfaced during the 1960s. “We’ve all been a little blind to each other’s concerns” says Zablocki, expressing the field’s new mood of rapprochement. “The bashers tend not to see the potential harm to religion as a whole from what they do, and the apologists tend to be so worried about religious persecution that they ignore the harm that some religions have done. A lot of scholarship that’s been done in this field has been the context of litigation, and that’s not a very good way to do scholarship.”

Charlotte Allen is a Contributing Editor of Lingua Franca and the Authur Of The Human Christ: The search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press). Her Article, “As Bad As It Gets,” appeared in the March 1998 LF.

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Dec. 1998
Charlotte Allen

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday December 1, 1998.
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