Killing Fields: Lifton, Brainwashing, and Aum Shinri-kyo

A Review of Robert Jay Lifton’s "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global Terrorism" (Metropolitan Books - Henry Holt and Company, New York 1999) - by Massimo Introvigne

The name of Robert Jay Lifton, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the City University of New York, is so frequently associated with brainwashing controversies and cult wars, particularly in Europe, that many tend to overlook what makes his voice interesting and unique. The Belgian parliamentary report of 1987 and other documents of the recent European moral panic about cults repeatedly quote Lifton’s eight psychological themes of thought reform or ideological totalism. Lifton’s themes are then used to distinguish "bona fide" religions from "dangerous cults". The latter, we are told, are guilty of brainwashing, and laws should be passed (or existing laws amended) in order to protect society against them. These recent European documents tend to forget , firstly, that Lifton himself (The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age. New York: Basic Books, 1987, 211) cautioned not to "use the word brainwashing because it has no precise meaning and has been associated with much confusion", and that "thought reform, and totalism in general, are not necessarily illegal, however we may deplore them." Secondly, as Anthony has evidenced ("Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence: an Exploration of Admissibility Criteria for Testimony in Brainwashing Trials." Ph. Diss. Berkeley (California): Graduate Theological Union, 1996), brainwashing arguments (built around the idea that conversions to cults are involuntary, and caused by extrinsic and powerful techniques), and totalitarian influence arguments à la Lifton are not identical. The latter, unlike the former, "are built around the core idea that conversions to totalistic ideologies result primarily from predisposing motives, i.e. a genuine inner interest in such ideologies" (Anthony 1996, 125), and also require the conversion to take place in a particular milieu. This distinction is often lost in the European discussion. Thirdly, certainly not all the hundreds of groups listed as "dangerous cults" in the European reports would entirely satisfy the first of Lifton’s eight themes (Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China. 2nd ed.. Chapel Hill (North Carolina) and London: University of North Carolina Press,1989, 420), i.e. "milieu control", or separation of the individual from the outside world. This "most basic feature of the thought reform environment" is achieved through "group process, isolation from other people, psychological pressure, geographical distance or unavailability of transportation, and sometimes physical pressure" (Lifton 1987, 212). Chinese communists, we are reminded by Lifton (1989, 420), did not only control jails and revolutionary universities (where the thought reform processes he was studying actually occurred). "The milieu control exerted over the broader social environment of Communist China, while considerably less intense, is in its own way unrivalled in its combination of extensiveness and depth."

This is not the situation prevailing among French Jehovah’s Witnesses or Belgian members of the Soka Gakkai, to quote just two groups mentioned in the European reports. Those who still want to rely on Lifton in order to promote the worldview of these reports normally insist that milieu control can be achieved by means of psychological manipulation only, a manipulation effective for all sorts of different individuals. In doing so, they move, precisely, from Lifton’s totalitarian influence argument to the usual anti-cult brainwashing argument and, in fact, magnify the differences between the two. It is unfortunate that in the European cult wars Lifton’s works have been so often quoted in support of a crude brainwashing rhetoric. Some of his themes might otherwise have been useful in interpreting European phenomena (and tragedies) such as the Order of the Solar Temple.

Lifton himself revisits his criteria in this new book on Aum Shinri-kyo. He recognizes that there is "a controversy surrounding the use of the word ‘cult’ because of its pejorative connotation, as opposed to the more neutral ‘new religion’" (11). He still uses it, however, for "groups that display three characteristics: totalistic or thought-reform-like practices, a shift from worship of spiritual principles to worship of the person of the guru or leader, and a combination of spiritual quest from below and exploitation, usually economic or sexual, from above" (11). Two objections immediately come to mind when faced with this definition. Firstly, the second characteristic may easily be related to a Western bias: there is a whole, respectable trend of Hindu "bhakti" where, by definition "worship of the person of the guru or leader" is precisely the only way to enlightenment open to humans in this dark age of kali-yuga. That religion should be centered on "principles" seems to be a hopelessly Western idea. Secondly, so many groups (although, probably, less than those listed in the French or Belgian parliamentary reports) may be accused of being a "cult" by these standards, and so many leaders to be "gurus", that society cannot conceivably act, or be on its guard, against all of them.

Lifton quotes, for the concept of "guru type", Anthony Storr (a British psychiatrist who exhibits in his book Feet of Clay, New York: Free Press, 1996 an attitude quite hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular) - a quote that will not further endear Lifton to his Christian critics. To his credit he does recognize the problem, however, and, through his study of Aum Shinri-kyo, creates a sub-category: the "world-destroying cults", characterized by "totalized guruism" ultimately converted into "attack guruism" and violence (202-203).

This is, in my opinion, the most useful part of Lifton’s book. In fact, he enters the debate about what new religious movements are more likely to engage in violent or terrorist actions. This is a debate that most scholars not associated with the anti-cult movement regard as extremely important, and in fact keep carrying out, occasionally in conversation with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies throughout the world. (Lifton, in fact, quotes mostly mainline scholars of new religious movements: there is just one endnote reference to Margaret Singer in the whole book). While the distinction between a "religion" and a "cult" (in general) remains elusive (and Lifton confines it to a footnote), the distinction between what Lifton calls "world-destroying cults" and everything else in the religious scenario is crucial for both theoretical and practical purposes. Lifton lists seven characteristics of "world-destroying cults" as typified by Aum Shinri-kyo (202-213):

  1. "totalized guruism": the principle "no deity beyond the guru" is carried out to the extreme of "desymbolization", and loss of the perception of the difference between reality and metaphors for both guru and disciples (so that the guru is no mere con man or woman but to some extent believes his or her megalomanic claims);
  2. "a vision of an apocalyptic event or series of events that would destroy the world in the service of renewal";
  3. an "ideology of killing to heal, of altruistic murder and altruistic world destruction" (before Aum Shinri-kyo, Lifton quotes "the Thugs of India" as a group who believed that their victims, strangled and robbed, will obtain "entrance to paradise" as reward);
  4. "the relentless impulse toward world-rejecting purification";
  5. "the lure of ultimate weapons" (here, Lifton returns to his longtime concern with "nuclearism");
  6. "a shared state of aggressive numbing" (where scruples toward violent and illegal actions go away); and
  7. "extreme technocratic manipulation", associated with both a "claim to absolute scientific truth" and the use of technical devices to transform disciples (in the case of Aum, hallucinogenic drugs).

While Aum combined, according to Lifton, all seven characteristics, they also exist in other groups. In fact, while devoting a chapter to Aum’s unique Japanese roots, Lifton ends the book with a parallel to U.S. movements such as the Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and the most lunatic fringes of the militia movement . Again to his credit, he does not add the Branch Davidians to the list; they are mentioned only insofar as they are regarded as martyrs by the fringe extreme right movement, and described as "an armed but not violent small apocalyptic religious sect led by a guru, David Koresh, many of whom were killed by FBI and BATF agents in a tragically ill-advised assault after a long siege in Waco, Texas, in 1993" (329). While this description of Waco would meet the approval of most scholars of new religious movements, other details about American groups would raise eyebrows. On Charles Manson, particularly, Lifton seems to take Bugliosi very seriously, and derives from him and other dubious sources a one-line assessment of the Process Church of the Final Judgement as "a satanist group that revered Hitler" (276). Things were much more complicate with The Process, as readers of Bill Bainbridge’s classic Satan’s Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) - a book unfortunately not quoted here by Lifton - may easily recognize.

Another question is whether Lifton’s assessment of Aum Shinri-kyo is really definitive. Certainly, it is a story well told and illustrative of his general thesis of what distinguishes "world-destroying cults". On the other hand, Lifton does not speak Japanese. He interviewed ten former members of Aum and had "less structured" discussions with two additional ex-members and one present member, besides interviewing a number of outside observers (6-7). Studying Aum is not an easy task, and this is serious homework. However, it remains somewhat limited and cannot match the extensive access to data of specialized, Japanese-speaking scholars of Japanese religion such as Ian Reader, whose Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo (London: Curzon Press, and Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000) will be a better place to look at for a detailed reconstruction of Aum’s history and worldview. The main point in Reader’s book, not entirely captured by Lifton, will be a study of the shift from Aum’s initial optimism and hope in a general salvation (1984-1988) to the pessimistic and apocalyptic idea of salvation only for the chosen people within a scenario of universal war and destruction.

Lifton is a psychiatrist, and we should perhaps not ask from his book more than it can conceivably deliver in terms of history, theology and sociology of an obscure (if notorious) Japanese group. On the other hand, Lifton’s handling of sources and general caution make him a potentially interesting resource (and partner) in the dialogue currently taking place between scholars of new religious movements concerned with religious liberty issues, the moderate sector (to be distinguished from the lunatic fringe of the "anti-cult terrorists") of the cult awareness community, and international law enforcement agencies. While discussions on what distinguishes a "religion" from a "cult" will probably remain inconclusive, and not particularly useful, focusing on violent movements (or "world-destroying cults") may be more interesting and generate useful comparative data for both scholars and law enforcement personnel.

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Revised last: 16-07-2001