CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


A Letter to the Members of the Knesset



Dear Sirs:

We are scholars who have devoted a substantial part of our career to the study of new religious movements, sometimes referred to as “cults” in the media. Indeed, one of the most studied topics in our field is the so called “cult wars” of the late 20th century in the United States and Europe, when a societal reaction developed against the success in the West of new religious movements, either imported from Asia or domestic ones. Parents and the media did not understand why youths might be willing to sacrifice their careers in order to spend their lives in an exotic religious organization. A handful of psychologists imported from Cold War American propaganda against Communism the notion of “brainwashing,” arguing that these youths did not join the groups voluntarily but were manipulated by sinister “gurus” using mysterious mind control techniques. These therapists and their supporters labeled the groups allegedly using “brainwashing” as “cults.” Lawsuits were instituted against “cults” for the assumed use of “brainwashing” and anti-cult statutes were proposed in several U.S. states.

Sociologists and other social scientists reacted against the “brainwashing” theories, claiming that they were not part of accepted science and were used as a simple tool to deny religious liberty to unpopular groups labeled as “cults.” The argument, they claimed, was circular: we know that certain groups are “cults” because they use “brainwashing,” and we know that they use “brainwashing” because, rather than persuading young people to embrace “reasonable” spiritual teachings, they spread bizarre forms of belief, i.e. they are “cults.” Anti-cult activists and therapists countered that public opinion and governments should not believe academic social scientists, who were often “cult apologists” or “hired guns” for the “cults,” but instead give credence to the “victims” accounts. The latter were the disgruntled ex-members who had left the “cults,” either spontaneously or after the forcible intervention – called “deprogramming” – of self-styled “counselors,” who kidnapped the “cultists,” kept them confined, and submitted them to various forms of psychological and often physical violence.

In the end a massive number of studies proved that “cults” accused of using the so called “brainwashing” techniques obtained a very low percentage of conversions, proving that these techniques, if they existed at all, were not very successful. Scholars also explained why “apostates,” i.e. ex-members who left a group and had a score to settle, were not the most reliable witnesses about what happened in their former organizations. They added that only a few ex-members became militant “apostates,” i.e. active opponents of the groups they had left. Most ex-members quietly pursued other interests and when they were interviewed, remembered their past experience with no particular ill feelings. However, since only apostates contacted the media, their point of view came to be wrongly regarded as representative of the average ex-members, while in fact it reflected the views of a minority only. It should be added that the word “apostate” is used by sociologists as a technical term and does not imply any derogatory judgement.

In 1990 in the case U.S. v. Fishman, a federal court in California concluded that “brainwashing” was not a scientific concept and that testimony about “cults” based on the brainwashing theory was not admissible in American courts of law. Fishman was the beginning of the end for the American anti-cult movement’s social relevance, and proposals for anti-cult or anti-brainwashing statutes were quietly dropped by their proponents. Deprogramming was considered illegal in most court cases, and some deprogrammers went to jail. Nevertheless, “brainwashing” theories and anti-cultism remained popular in other countries, although similar academic criticism prevented anti-cult laws from being passed in most countries of the world. One exception was the French About-Picard law of 2001, but once it was passed, it was rarely applied.

Viewed from abroad, what is going on in Israel appears as a curious remake of the “cult wars” that we witnessed decades ago in the United States and Europe. As it happened during the “cult wars” a small number of apostates, who were not typical of the majority of members who left the new religious movements harboring no particular grievance against them, were promoted by the moral entrepreneurs of the anti-cult movement. They were mistaken for typical ex-members and received a disproportionate attention by certain media.

Esteemed members of the Knesset:

You have now in front of you a law proposal based on the faulty notions of “cult” and “brainwashing,” discredited long ago among scholars, which would introduce the possibility of declaring the members of new religious movements mentally incompetent, thus opening the way to the practice of deprogramming, which most courts around the world have declared illegal and criminal.

Those who support the law rely on the experiences of a few disgruntled ex-members. In some cases, less than ten ex-members are regarded as the only reliable sources about groups including thousands of followers. This approach is not part of social science, nor is it part of common sense. Militant anti-cultists have a very limited and partial experience of the groups they criticize based on the anecdotical stories of a few former members, unlike professional scholars who use broader quantitative and qualitative methods and whose works, before being published, are thoroughly reviewed by their peers.

In the few countries where they have been passed, laws based on theories such as “brainwashing” have been used to discriminate against minority groups whose ideas are regarded as unpopular or marginal. Under the guise of punishing deeds rather than creeds, in fact, it is precisely creeds that are judged and punished. We certainly do not deny that some new religious movements commit crimes or harm their followers. They should be investigated and prosecuted according to the general laws. Special laws that make “being a cult” a crime, or that punish the imaginary wrongdoing of “brainwashing” are tools aimed at denying basic religious freedoms to groups that have committed no real crimes.

We respectfully urge you not to pass the proposed law,

Yours faithfully

Massimo Introvigne
Professor of Sociology of Religions
Pontifical Salesian University, Torino, Italy
Managing Director, CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), Torino, Italy

Milda Alisauskiene
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania

Phillip Arnold
The Reunion Institute, Houston, Texas

Torang Asadi
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

David V Barrett
Author, The New Believers, London

David G. Bromley
Professor, Religious Studies and Sociology
Director, World Religions and Spirituality Project
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia

George D. Chryssides
Honorary Research Fellow in Religious Studies, York St John University, UK
Formerly Head of Religious Studies, University of Wolverhampton, UK

Carole M. Cusack
Professor of Religious Studies
The University of Sydney, NSW, Australia

Régis Dericquebourg
Groupe de Sociologie des Religions et de la laïcité
Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), Paris, France

Bernard Doherty
School of Theology
Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia

David Frankfurter
Professor of Religion
Boston University

Liselotte Frisk
Professor in Religious Studies
Dalarna University, Sweden

Ann Gleig
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Editor, Religious Studies Review
University of Central Florida, Orlando

John R. Hall
Research Professor
University of California - Davis

Jean-Pierre Laurant
Groupe Société, Religions, Laïcité
École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, France

Scott Lowe
Professor Emeritus, Philosophy and Religious Studies
University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire

Philip Lucas
Professor of Religious Studies
Stetson University, DeLand, Florida

J. Gordon Melton
Distinguished Professor of American Religious History
Baylor University, Waco, Texas

Timothy Miller
Professor of Religious Studies
University of Kansas

Rebecca Moore
Reviews Editor
Nova Religio

Alex Norman
Division of Social Sciences
University of California – Davis

Susan Jean Palmer
Professor of Religious Studies
Dawson College, Montréal, Québec

James T. Richardson
Foundation Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies
Director, Judicial Studies Program
University of Nevada, Reno

Bernadette Rigal-Cellard
Professor of North American Literature and Civilization
Université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux 3, France

Jean E. Rosenfeld
Retired scholar
Formerly with University of California – Riverside

Richard C. Salter
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York

Rodney Stark
Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences
Baylor University, Waco, Texas

James D. Tabor
Department of Religious Studies
University of North Carolina at Charlotte 

Catherine Wessinger
Rev. H. James Yamauchi, S.J., Professor of the History of Religions
Loyola University New Orleans

Donald A. Westbrook
Professor (Hoogleraar)
Faculty for the Comparative Study of Religion and Humanism (FVG), Antwerp, Belgium
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Church History
Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena

Stuart A. Wright
Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Social Work & Criminal Justice
Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas

PierLuigi Zoccatelli
Deputy Director
CESNUR, Torino, Italy