"Brainwashing": Career of a Myth in the United States and Europe


"Ethno-definitions", "the working definitions that social actors themselves use in an attempt to make judgements in everyday life" (Greil 1996: 48), are different from scholarly definitions. They may, occasionally, interact with scholarly definitions, but the impact of theories advanced by scholars on ethno-definitions is dubious at best. This contribution will focus on how brainwashing and mind control theories are used in order to distinguish religions from "cults", and how ethno-definitions of religion are produced and negotiated in the course of social and legal interaction. As Greil has observed, "when focus is on ethno-definitions, 'religion' is examined not as a characteristic which inheres in certain phenomena, but as a cultural resource over which competing interest groups may vie. From this perspective, religion is not an entity but a claim made by certain groups and -- in some cases -- contested by others to the right to the privileges associated in a given society with the religious label" (Greil 1996: 48). Greil also proposed a distinction between "popular" and "institutional" definitions of religion. The popular definitions of religion in the West are normally based on Christianity, and appear to tolerate only a certain amount of deviation from the Christian paradigm. Institutional definitions of religion, by governmental agencies or courts of law, may try to mediate between popular and scholarly definitions, but the process is difficult, and the results unpredictable. Religion is a claim particularly in countries where there are definitive advantages in being a religion rather than a mere cultural or philosophical association (not to mention a for-profit corporation). A number of international conventions also protect freedom of religion in terms broader than the larger freedom of opinion, or of association. It should also be considered that "religion" is normally associated in popular discourse with something positive and benign, although this perception may have changed in recent years following the controversies about "cults", Islamic terrorism, wars involving religious issues, and fundamentalism.

From a legal point of view, very few if any legislative texts and international conventions hint at a definition of religion. They enumerate the protected rights of religions, but do not explain what a religion is (or is not). Recent laws - particularly in Eastern Europe - go to some detail in stating that the status of religion should be certified through an administrative process. They explain how the process should take place and which administrative bodies should be involved. Conspicuous for its absence, is, however, any mention of the criteria to be adopted by the administrative bodies in determining whether a group is a "genuine" religion[1]. The Italian Supreme Court, in an important decision of October 8, 1997 where Scientology was recognized as a religion[2], stated that the non-existence of a legal definition of religion "is not coincidential" and may serve a useful purpose. It is much better, according to the Italian Supreme Court, "not to limit with a definition, always by its very nature restrictive, the broader field of religious liberty". "Religion", the Supreme Court said, is an ever-evolving concept, and courts may only interpret it within the frame of a specific historical and geographical context, taking into account the opinion of the scholars (Corte Suprema di Cassazione 1997: 44). On the other hand, criteria are occasionally suggested by other sources in order to determine what groups are "pseudo-religions" or "cults". These criteria largely rely on brainwashing or mind control theories.

From the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 to at least early 20th century, Mormons were discriminated, persecuted and (before they decided to remove themselves to the wilderness of Utah in 1847) occasionally killed by fellow Americans. Writing in the Scribner's Monthly for July 1877, anti-Mormon author J.H. Beadle had to admit that "Americans have but one native religion [i.e. Mormonism] and that one is the sole apparent exception to the American rule of universal toleration". "Of this anomaly -- Beadle wrote - two explanations are offered: one, that the Americans are not really a tolerant people and that what is called toleration is only such toward our common Protestantism, or more common Christianity; the other, that something peculiar to Mormonism takes it out of the sphere of religion" (Beadle 1877: 391).

Beadle's astute observation effectively blackmailed American readers into concluding that Mormonism was not a religion. In fact, readers were presumably committed to an ideal of religious tolerance as part of a "shared American mythology". As Givens observed in a fascinating book devoted to the image of Mormonism in 19th century fiction, "it is precisely the casting of Mormonism in non-religious terms that explains why anti-Mormonism is not an exception to the rhetoric of toleration; the dissociation of Mormonism from religion, in fact, reinforces the authority of tolerance as a value that constrains and shapes the terms of social conflict". One should not believe, according to Givens, that such labels as "religion" "are objective realities, outside of negotiation or manipulation, rather than the products of political conflict and ideological construction. The how and why of the process by which Mormonism came to be defined as something other than, or in addition to, a religion, tends to be elided in scholarly disputes about what that definition is" (Givens 1997: 21).

The history of anti-Mormonism shows that Mormons, in order to be categorized as a deviant threat to the fabric of American society, were first excluded from the sphere of religion.

Separating Mormonism from Christianity is not difficult, by adopting an appropriately restrictive definition of Christianity. Separating Mormonism from religion seems to be another matter. Although disapproved by most 19th-century Americans, polygamy, given its prevalence in a number of non-Christian religions, was hardly a discriminating factor. The main rhetorical tool used in order to claim that Mormonism was not a religion came from popular psychology and became the trademark of anti-Mormon fiction. Anti-Mormons concluded that nobody joined Mormonism willingly. Becoming a Mormon was not the result of conscious choice. "Magnetic attraction, compulsion, captivity, enslavement, kidnapping -- these words and images pervade virtually the entire gamut of works in which Mormons figure as characters" (Givens 1997: 138). Accounts of being "lured" by the Mormon Church, thus, become captivity narratives. This does not mean that Mormon converts were supposed to be necessarily held captive by physical means. The fear of Mesmerism was effectively used to persuade the American public opinion that conversions to Mormonism could be reconstructed according to a hypnotic paradigm. At first sight, the Mormon seduction may be described as witchcraft. Maria Ward, an anti-Mormon author who claimed to base her account on personal experience, has one of her female characters explain that Mormon founder Joseph Smith (1805-1844) "exerted a mystical magical influence over me -- a sort of sorcery that deprived me of the unrestricted exercise of free will"(Ward 1855: 38). However, in the progressive 19th century witchcraft was hardly an acceptable explanation of how respectable American citizens may be deprived of their "free will". Finally, Ward's heroine discovers that the Mormons' secret is what "is now popularly known by the name of Mesmerism". Joseph Smith "came to possess the knowledge of that magnetic influence, several years anterior to its general circulation throughout the country". The Mormon prophet "obtained his information, and learned all the strokes, and passes and manipulations, from a German peddler, who, notwithstanding his reduced circumstances, was a man of distinguished intellect and extensive erudition. Smith paid him handsomely, and the German promised to keep the secret" (Ward 1855: 230).

The idea of a German Mesmerist teaching what in the 20th century will be called brainwashing techniques to the Mormons is not confirmed by any historical source, but travelled for decades in anti-Mormon literature. Although similar allegations were made even without recurring to mysterious German peddlers, the story shows nicely how a group perceived as deviant is denied the status of a religion. Since religion is, by rhetorical definition, an exercise of free will, a non-religion may only be joined under some sort of coercion. The hypnotic paradigm is connected with a form of otherness (the Mesmerist is a foreigner -- a "German"), which mirrors the perceived otherness of the Mormon worldview. And the argument is somewhat circular. Only Mesmerism explains why apparently normal Americans may join a group of such intolerable otherness. But, on the other hand, we know that Mesmerism is being used here (while it is not used by Baptist, Methodist and other "respectable" preachers) precisely because this otherness is so extreme that, by definition, it may not be embraced voluntarily.

For almost one century Mormonism was the main target of hundreds of American Christian ministries devoted to expose the "danger of cults". Although other groups, from the Jehovah's Witnesses to the Theosophical Society, were also targeted, Mormons remained by far the "cult" perceived as most dangerous (Melton 1995). Christian ministries, however, did not really claim that "cults" were not religions. They were more concerned with clarifying that "cults" were not Christian, and therefore part of a larger category of "false religion". Evangelical enemies of the "cults" did not seek the co-operation of the government, nor claimed that "cults" should lose their tax-exempt status as religions. Their main concern was to warn fellow Evangelicals about the un-Christian character of the "cults". Social scientists usually call these Evangelical ministries "counter-cult movements" (see Introvigne 1995) in order to distinguish them from the secular anti-cult movement. The latter claims to care about deeds, not creeds, and seeks the co-operation of public powers against groups perceived as deviant and subversive. Unlike the Evangelical counter-cult movement, the secular anti-cult movement (ACM) claims that "cults" are not religions. Focusing on deeds rather than creeds[3], the ACM concludes that "cults" are not entitled to the privileged status of religion because they are guilty of a variety of criminal acts. The ACM, however, does not claim that legitimate religions may lose their status by committing a certain number of crimes. It suggests that "cults" are based on a crime of their own, unfortunately not (yet) recognized as such by the law. This crime was originally called brainwashing, but -- since the label has been discredited by mental health scholars -- has been renamed as mind control, mental manipulation or mental destabilization. The latter labels, in fact, simply cover "second generation" brainwashing theories (Richardson 1996), where the label "brainwashing" is abandoned, but the substance remains. Brainwashing narratives offer a powerful and user-friendly tool to distinguish between religions and "cults". "Cults" use brainwashing (or "mind control", or "manipulation"). Religions -- once again, by definition -- respect freedom, and joining them is an exercise in free will.

The modern ACM was organized in the early 1970s in the United States by parents of young adult members of the Children of God (called today The Family). They were quickly joined by mental health professionals and lawyers who supported brainwashing theories, but their success was limited. The suicides and homicides of more than 900 members of the People's Temple in Guyana (1978) projected the ACM into the national spotlight. Two umbrella organizations, the American Family Foundation (AFF) and the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), emerged, and for some years the ACM was taken seriously by politicians and law enforcement professionals. In the 1980s, however, the American ACM slowly declined, largely because of the opposition by academics (who rejected the brainwashing models as barely disguised ideological tools), and by mainline churches, who came to feel that by focusing on alleged brainwashing rather than doctrines and heresy the ACM may easily end up attacking as "cults" organizations within the churches[4].

The ACM also had trouble in disassociating itself from the illegal activities of "deprogrammers", self-styled "rescuers" who kidnap members of new religious movements, keep them under a sort of private imprisonment and subject them to a variety of "counter-brainwashing" techniques. Having lost a case connected to the deprogramming of a young Pentecostal, CAN filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Ironically, after the bankruptcy, the trademark CAN and its telephone number were purchased by religious liberty activists largely associated with the Church of Scientology[5]. The decision against CAN is in itself hard evidence of the ACM's decline in the United States. In fact, in the meantime, the "crude" brainwashing and mind control theories had been fully discredited. Social scientists never really accepted the distinction between "religions" and "cults" based on the alleged opposition between free will conversions and mind control. They observed that the most controversial groups criticized as "cults" (including Scientology, the Hare Krishnas, and Reverend Moon's Unification Church) have an important turnover, a fact hardly compatible with their possession of "magical" techniques for keeping members within the fold (Barker 1984; Anthony & Robbins 1992). Mental health academics reacted more slowly. The American Psychological Association (APA) in 1984 allowed Margaret Singer, the main proponent of anti-cult mind control theories, to create a working group called Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC). In 1987 the final report of the DIMPAC committee was submitted to the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the APA. On May 11, 1987, the Board rejected the report and concluded that its kind of mind control theories, used in order to distinguish "cults" from religions, are not part of accepted psychological science (American Psychological Association 1987). Although the APA memorandum only dismissed the theories of brainwashing and mind control as presented in the DIMPAC report -- without prejudice to theories of influence and control other than those advocated by the DIMPAC committee - the results of the APA document were devastating for the ACM[6]. In fact, the DIMPAC theories rejected by APA largely corresponded to the anti-cult position as a whole. Starting from the Fishman case (1990), where a defendant accused of commercial fraud raised as a defense that he was not fully responsible since he was under the mind control of Scientology, American courts consistently rejected testimonies about mind control and manipulation, stating that these were not part of accepted mainline science (Anthony & Robbins 1992: 5-29). Margaret Singer, and her associate Richard Ofshe filed suits against the APA and the American Sociological Association (who had supported APA's 1987 statement) but they lost in 1993 and 1994.

By 1996, mind control theories -- although still used by marginal anti-cult groups -- had ceased to be a dominant factor in American court cases involving new religious movements (Melton 1996). A well-known college textbook on sociology of religion could list a number of reasons why the brainwashing and mind control theories had been rejected by the scholarly community. These include lack of empirical evidence, and exposure as a mere tool used in order to deny the status of religion to groups perceived as deviant or subversive (Bainbridge 1997: 235-236). Interestingly enough, Christian scholars concurred claiming that brainwashing and mind control theories are "anti-Christian" because they are incompatible with categories such as responsibility, choice, and sin (Hexham & Poewe 1997: 10).

It is in fact in connection with European controversies -- and with the vocal support of European anti-cultists -- that a very small minority of North American scholars have recently tried to resurrect the dead horse of brainwashing (see Zablocki 1997; Kent & Hall 1997; Kent 1997). Their proposals raise serious methodological questions, insofar as they rely almost exclusively on the testimony of disgruntled ex-members turned apostates. While no serious scholar suggests that apostates should be ignored, brainwashing theorists confuse apostates and ex-members. Not all ex-members are apostates, if an apostate is defined as an ex-member militantly opposed to the movement he or she has left and regarding it as evil. Some ex-members are - in Bromley's terms - "defectors" who maintain a not entirely negative assessment of their former movement (Bromley 1998b), and many are "ordinary leavetakers" with mixed feelings about their former affiliation. Empirical case studies suggest that apostates are between ten and twenty percent of all ex-members and that most ex-members are ordinary leavetakers (see Bromley 1998). Apostates, of course, are more willing to interact with the ACM and the media, but they are not necessarily representative of the average ex-members. On the other hand, these "new" theories of brainwashing, flawed as they may be, do not really contradict the received scholarly wisdom on the issue. They claim that some religious movements use extreme physical coercion and torture (Kent & Hall 1997; Kent 1997), or maximize exit costs for members who have originally joined without coercion (Zablocki 1997). Even if true -- but claims resting mostly on apostates can hardly be regarded as prima facie true -- these are not instances of "brainwashing" in the once current meaning of the world.

An ACM was active in Europe since the mid-1970s: ADFI, the largest French and perhaps European anti-cult group, was founded in 1974. Given the different legal situation of minority religions in Europe, its success was somewhat greater than in the United States, but still limited. Things changed in 1994, with the suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple in Quebec and Switzerland. Repeated in 1995 in France and 1997 in Quebec, these tragedies played the same role as catalyst as Jonestown did in the United States[7]. The media, continuously fed by the ACM, started running lurid exposures of the "danger of the cults", and Parliaments instituted enquiry commissions in several countries. In the French and Belgian commissions politicians did collaborate with anti-cult activists and vocal disgruntled ex-members of some new religious movements. Academics got only a minimal audience, and the reports produced by the commissions were largely based on information supplied by the ACM[8]. Although with different nuances, and dismissing the word "brainwashing" as inadequate and old-fashioned, these documents rely on the ACM model distinguishing between religion and "cults" on the basis of manipulation and mind control. The Belgian report quotes the deposition of the president of the French ADFI, stating that a "cult" could be distinguished from a religion because the former is "a group where a mental and affective manipulation is present" (Chambre des Représentants de Belgique 1997: I, 138). According to a militant anti-cult psychiatrist quoted by both the French and the Belgian report, it is not difficult to distinguish between a religion and a "cult". Although some features may be similar, a religion is founded on "free will" and there is no "manipulation", while manipulation and mind control are the trademarks of the "cults" (Abgrall 1996: 16). Absent from these reports is a discussion of the American scholarly criticism of the mind control model, and how this criticism was accepted by the courts of law after the 1987 APA statement and the 1990 Fishman decision. When U.S. case law is quoted at all, the reports only mention decisions rendered before 1987 (see Chambre des Représentants de Belgique 1997: 123). Also largely ignored is the fact that in 1981 the Italian Constitutional Court cancelled Section 603 of the Criminal Code, considering it incompatible with the democratic Constitution. Section 603, dating back to 1930, had created a felony called "plagio". Occasionally mistranslated by non-Italians as "undue influence", "plagio" was in fact the functional equivalent of "brainwashing" or "mind control". Rarely enforced, the statute came under criticism from the left when homosexuality became legal and some courts used "plagio" as a weapon to incriminate older gay men accused to have brainwashed younger partners into homosexual relationships. In 1969 prominent left-wing novelist Alberto Moravia made fun of the whole "brainwashing" and "plagio" theory, equating it to "spirit possession", "witchcraft" or the "evil eye" (Moravia 1969). Section 603 was, however, eliminated by the Constitutional Court in a case unrelated to homosexuals and involving a Catholic charismatic priest (Corte Costituzionale 1981). The Italian Constitutional Court decision of 1981 was crucial for preventing the formation of a significant anti-cult movement in Italy.

Scholarly criticism of recent parliamentary reports has focused on the fallacy of the mind control criteria as tools for distinguishing between religions and "cults"[9] and on the selective use of narratives. Since, obviously, members of the Parliamentary commissions have no direct experience of "cults", they can select only from competing social narratives about each group and problem. They have chosen to take narratives elaborated by the ACM and by apostates at face value, as the "truth" on "cults", rather than comparing them with different narratives produced by other social actors, including scholars and members of the movements themselves (see Introvigne & Melton 1996). The laundry lists of movements included in the French and Belgian report are evidence that distinguishing between religions and "cults" based on the mind control model is less easy than the ACM claims. The lists have in fact included mainline Catholics (including the Office Culturel de Cluny, a church-sponsored theatrical and cultural group in France, and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Belgium) and Protestants (many Pentecostal groups in both Belgium and France, and even the Young Women's Christian Association in Belgium), against the protests of the Catholic hierarchy and the Protestant federations. Quakers, Baha'i, and Satmar Hasidic Jews are also listed in the Belgian report. In this latter document, words such as "mental manipulation" and "mind control" seem to function as a sort of mantra. It is enough to mention these words -- without much elaboration -- in order to summarily conclude that a group is not a legitimate religion but a "cult". In the French report, although a number of criteria are suggested, the conclusion is that the 172 groups listed as "cults" have in common the use of mind control or "mental destabilization" techniques (Assemblée Nationale 1996: 76).

In countries like France and Belgium (happily, somewhat less in Germany), the ACM currently enjoys an institutional and media legitimation unknown in the English-speaking world. Scholarly criticism of the ACM and of the Parliamentary reports is dismissed as the work of "cult apologists", or as a misguided attempt to import into Western Europe "American" ideas about religion. However, when international scholarly literature questioning the very existence of mind control becomes more well-known, both the European academic community and courts of law realize that the popular definition of the distinction between religion and "cult" does not rest on anything more than the usual ACM rhetoric. This, of course, does not mean that new religious movements are always innocent of the illegal activities they are prosecuted for. In fact, it has been proved in the courts that they are, at least occasionally, guilty. But the fact that new (and old) religious movements use illegal means to pursue their aims does not mean that they are able to magically control their members according to the hypnotic paradigm, nor that the experience they offer is not "truly" religious. Their illegal activities, when they occur, may be prosecuted more effectively on a case by case basis, without trying to legislate about the elusive mind control, or entering into endless debates about the "true" definition of religion.

Ethno-definitions of religion are social constructions, produced by competing interest groups. They bear little resemblance with scholarly definitions of religion. Ethno-definitions are result-oriented in a particular way. Their function is not to increase knowledge about religion, but to solve specific legal, fiscal, political or social problems. Scholarly definitions are also result-oriented, but are aimed at solving cognitive (rather than practical) problems. When an organization is perceived as deviant, counter-subversive strategies are used to deny it the status of religion. These strategies are aimed at preserving the idea that society is committed to religious tolerance and open to pluralism. The rhetorical tool used in order to achieve this aim -- as early controversies about Mormonism show -- consists in denying that the deviant group is a religion. Once the group is excluded from the sphere of religion, it could be discriminated against without jeopardizing the principle of religious tolerance. The selection of a definition of religion by institutional actors is also result-oriented. Contemporary governments, parliamentary commissions and courts are more or less aware that competing scholarly and popular definitions of religion exist. Confronted with a specific problem, they often shop for a definition allowing a reasonable exclusion of the group perceived as subversive.

Scholars are increasingly part of this complex social scenario. Not only do they elaborate their own definitions of religion. Governments, courts, and new religious movements call them to sanction or dispute their own ethno-definitions. Scholars' influence is however limited, and they may be castigated by the media if they fail to sanction the most popular ethno-definitions perceived as socially useful. On the other hand, scholars may occasionally influence institutional definitions. The American scholarly criticism of distinctions between religions and "cults" based on the mind control model had a crucial impact on subsequent legal developments. Particularly when confronted with the contemporary cult wars, scholars face difficult problems. They should avoid being perceived as a party, and other social actors should be made aware that scholars are not unanimous on issues like "cults", "sects" or the definition of religion. They share some methodological presuppositions, but their conclusions may be very different from each other (Champion & Cohen 1996). Scholars should also be able to perceive themselves as social actors, and their results as culturally conditioned, at least by their interest in protecting their own field from amateurs and claiming their social relevance. After all, scholars should be able to apply their sociology of knowledge to themselves (Bromley & Shupe 1993).

With these cautions, there are some unique contributions that scholars may offer to the ongoing process of producing meaningful institutional ethno-definitions of religion. Scholars may advise institutional actors that - perhaps outside the realm of theology - there is not such a thing as a "true" essentialist definition of religion, and any quest of it is meaningless. Although some definitions may be more useful than others, they remain socially constructed and culturally negotiated tools. Scholars could also tell institutions and the media that some cheap definitions of religion are less useful than others, and may easily be misleading. A case in point is precisely the distinction between religions and "cults", based on the opposition between free will and mind control. Although in the wake of the Order of the Solar Temple this may have become more difficult in Europe than in the United States, scholars may point out that "crude" theories about brainwashing and mind control have been debunked by both social and psychological science. They should not be considered as empirically testable scientific theories, but rather as rhetorical tools used within the frame of counter-subversive political strategies. Scholars may promote a more sober reflection on aims and means. Definitions of religion should have to do with aims rather than with means. Religious aims may be pursued through illegal means, occasionally or systematically. Illegal means deserve prosecution and should not be condoned because the aim is religious. On the other hand, the religious nature of the aims should not be excluded by the mere fact that illegal means are used. Skirmishes with the law may, in fact, persuade the groups to abandon the illegal means and pursue what remain religious aims in a law-abiding manner.

Although brainwashing and mind control as commonly understood by "crude" theories do not exist (while, of course, illegitimate pressures and influences are a reality), a number of illegal activities do exist among new religious movements and should be prosecuted. Common fraud, sexual harassment, manipulation of minors or persons with psychiatric problems, or false advertisement are something different from magical brainwashing techniques. They are however common felonies, and common criminal laws shall be enforced against new religious movements, or "old" religious movements, or anybody else.

It is certainly not for scholars to recommend what definition of religion (if any) is more socially or culturally acceptable. Scholars, however, may evaluate the likely results of the legal and administrative use of broader or narrower definitions. A broader definition of religion[10], while not more "true" than others, is perhaps more consistent with the aims of religious liberty embodied in a number of national constitutions and international declarations and conventions. In a pluralist, multi-religious society narrow definitions of religion (including those based on the elusive brainwashing model) could often discriminate against religions simply because they are "foreign", new, small, or "unusual" when compared to the prevailing paradigm.

Massimo Introvigne


Abgrall, J.-M., 1996, La mécanique des sectes. Paris: Payot.

American Psychological Association, Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology, 1987, "Memo to the DIMPAC Committee". Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Anthony, D. & T. Robbins, 1992, "Law, Social Science and the 'Brainwashing' Exception to the First Amendment", in Behavioral Sciences and the Law 10 (1992): 5-30.

Assemblée Nationale, 1996, Les sectes en France. Rapport fait au nom de la commission d'enquête sur les sectes. Paris: Documents d'Information de l'Assemblée Nationale.

"Audit sur les derives sectaires. Rapport du Groupe d'experts genevois", 1997. Geneva: Editions Suzanne Hurter.

Bainbridge, W.S., 1997, The Sociology of Religious Movements. New York and London: Routledge.

Barker, E., 1984, The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? Oxford: Blackwell.

Beadle J.H., 1877, "The Mormon Theocracy", in Scribner's Monthly 14, 3 (July 1877): 391.

Bromley, D.G. (ed.), 1998a, The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements. Westport (Connecticut): Praeger Publishers.

Bromley, D.G., 1998b, "The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles: Defectors, Whistleblowers and Apostates", in Bromley 1998a.

Bromley, D.G. & L.F. Carter (eds.), 1996, The Issue of Authenticity in the Study of Religion. Greenwich (Connecticut): JAI Press.

Bromley D.G. & J.K. Hadden (eds.), 1993, Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich (Connecticut): JAI Press.

Bromley D.S. & A. Shupe, 1993, "Organized Opposition to New Religious Movements", in Bromley & Hadden 1993: 177-198.

Chambre des Représentants de Belgique, 1997, Enquête Parlementaire visant à élaborer une politique en vue de lutter contre les pratiques illegales des sectes et le danger qu'elles représentent pour la société et pour les personnes, particulièrement les mineurs d'âge. Rapport fait au nom de la Commission d'Enquête, 2 voll. Bruxelles: Chambre des Représentants de Belgique.

Champion, F. & M. Cohen, 1996, "Les sociologues et le problème des dites sectes", in Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 41, 96 (1996): 5-15.

Corte Costituzionale, 1981, Grasso, decision n. 96 of June 8, 1981, in Giustizia Penale, 1981, I, 226.

Fautré, W., 1997, "Overview of Religious Freedom in Eastern Europe. Right of Association: the Religious Dimension". Paper read at the conference organized by the Rutherford Institute on 21st Century Challenges to Religious Liberty in Europe, Paris, August 2-3, 1997.

Givens, T.L., 1997, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths and the Construction of Heresy. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Greil, A.L., 1996, "Sacred Claims: The 'Cult Controversy' as a Struggle over the Right to the Religious Label", in Bromley & Carter 1996: 47-63.

Hexham, I. & K. Poewe, 1997, New Religions as Global Cultures: Making the Human Sacred. Boulder (Colorado) and Oxford: Westview Press.

Introvigne, M. & J.G. Melton (eds.), 1996, Pour en finir avec les sectes. Le débat sur le rapport de la commission parlementaire, 3rd ed. Paris: Dervy.

Kent, S., 1997, "Brainwashing in Scientology's Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF)". Paper read at the yearly conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, San Diego (California), November 7, 1997.

Kent, S. & D. Hall, 1997, "Brainwashing and Re-Indoctrination Programs in the Children of God / The Family". Paper read at the yearly conference o the Association for the Sociology of Religion, August.

Melton, J.G., 1995, The Modern Anti-Cult Movement in Historical Perspective. Santa Barbara (California): The Institute for the Study of American Religion.

Melton, J.G., 1996, "Historique des associations modernes anti-sectes aux Etats Unis". Paper read at the conference organized by CESNUR-France, Les controverses en matière de "sectes" ou nouveaux mouvements religieux: un regard sur les mouvements anti-sectes, Paris, Surbonne, September 17, 1996.

Moravia, A., 1969, "La cultura sotto accusa" in Moravia & Eco 1969: 7-15.

Moravia, A. & U. Eco (eds.), 1969, Sotto il nome di plagio. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Richardson J.T., 1996, "Une critique des accusations de 'lavage de cerveau' portées à l'encontre des nouveaux mouvements religieux: questions d'éthique et de preuve", in Introvigne & Melton 1996: 85-97.

Ward, M., 1855, Female Life Among the Mormons. London: Routledge.

Zablocki, B., 1997, "The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion", in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 1 (1997): 96-121.


Recent controversies about "cults" confirm that ethno-definitions of religion (the working definitions used by social actors) are oriented at practical results. Since religion is a claim advanced in order to obtain some specific legal, fiscal and political advantages, courts and administrative agencies are often requested to determine whether a group is a "genuine" religion. The corresponding criteria are uncertain at best. Mormons in the 19th century, as "cults" in contemporary Europe, were denied the status of religion based on the argument that deviant groups are not joined voluntarily but because of hypnotism, brainwashing, or mind control. Brainwashing theories have been debunked by social scientists, mental health scholars, and courts in the United States between 1987-1997, and have today only a handful of committed apologists in the American scholarly community. They are however still popular in some European countries, where the American debate on the issue is largely ignored.


[1] See Fautré 1997 for an overview including Bulgaria, Armenia, Romania, Russia, and other countries. Most of these countries were influenced by the Bulgarian Amendment to the Law of Persons and Family, which was passed on February 3, 1994 and came into force on February 21, 1994. The Amendment requests that, in order to be recognized as a religion, a group "should be registered after the approval of the Council of Ministers".

[2] By this decision the Supreme Court annulled for the second time a decision of the Court of Appeal of Milan against Scientology. This means that the case shall now go back -- for the third time - to the Court of Appeal of Milan for re-examination.

[3] See Introvigne 1995 for some theoretical problems in keeping deeds and creeds really separate.

[4] This in fact happened when the ACM started targeting Opus Dei, some communities of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, and Evangelical organizations such as the Jews for Jesus or the Campus Crusade for Christ.

[5] The deprogrammed Pentecostal later changed his mind and settled with the deprogrammers. By that time, however, CAN's trademark was gone. CAN's former Board of Directors is now trying to emerge from bankruptcy but it is not probable that it can resume operations under its old name as confirmed by legal developments as recent as 1998.

[6] In Germany and elsewhere anti-cultists often claim that the APA only rejected the DIMPAC report and not the anti-cult position on brainwashing. Those making these allegations have simply not read the DIMPAC report. The latter's position, rejected by APA, is the anti-cult theory of brainwashing. Anti-cultists accusing CESNUR of misrepresenting the APA position obviously also did not read the complaint of Margaret Singer in the case she later filed (and lost) against APA.

[7] Due to the decline of the ACM in the United States, the incidents in Waco (1993) and Rancho Santa Fe, California (1997) -- the latter involving the suicide of the UFO group Heaven's Gate -- somewhat failed to re-energize the American anti-cult organizations.

[8] Reports published before 1998 include Assemblée Nationale 1996 and Chambre des Représentants de Belgique 1987. In Switzerland the Canton of Geneva obtained a similar report from a group of lawyers and law professors ("Audit sur les derives sectaires", 1997). The remarks in the text do not apply to the German report (1998) whose position on brainwashing is quite different and evidences a more in-depth consideration of the scholarly objections against the prevailing anti-cult model.

[9] The French word "secte" plays the same role as the English derogatory word "cult". It should not be translated as "sect", a somewhat less derogatory term in contemporary English language.

[10] "Broader" definitions of religion, of course, are different from simply accepting at face value the claims of any and all groups declaring themselves "religious".

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