Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa!

J. Gordon Melton answers his critics - © J. Gordon Melton, 1998

Regular readers of Skeptic scanning the article by Steven A. Kent and Theresa Krebs, "When Scholars Know Sin" (vol. 6, no.3, 1998), may have felt as if they were stepping into the middle of a debate and hence not be aware of the stakes in the arguments placed before them. In fact the paper, in a slightly more sanitized version, previously appeared as part of a set of papers concerning the problems faced by scholars of New Religions who must work in such a highly charged arena and whose every word is scrutinized by both members and critics of the more controversial groups. In that more professional context, one can assume that the readers were up on the issues. But here I begin my response with a little bit of history.

New Religions studies as a separate field of interest really emerged in the late 1960s as a variety of academics began to look at the phenomena surrounding the hippies. Following the passing of the new law concerning immigration from Asia in 1965, teachers from a variety of Asian groups began to arrive in the United States in search of converts. They were joined by a variety of home grown prophets and preachers who ran the gamut from Moshe Rosen of Jews for Jesus to psychedelic guru Timothy Leary.

At first, the press and public treated the new groups as just additional forms of spiritual exotica. However, by the mid 1970s the climate began to change and charges were leveled that the new groups were disrupting families and diverting young people from their chosen paths to fame and fortune. Borrowing an old term from social studies, disappointed and angry parents began to label the groups "cults" and started utilizing a technique called "deprogramming" to get their offspring out of the New Religions they had joined.

Eventually, deprogrammings, that involved the physical confinement of the victim of the person being deprogrammed, landed people in court. It is generally considered illegal to forcefully detain someone and keep them locked up for days while subjecting them to a variety of unwelcome advances designed to convince them to charge their religious opinions and affiliations. It was also the case that the attempt to locate a defense for deprogrammers coincided with the desire of parents and former members of the groups to discover a rationale for the members' supposedly irrational choice of a bizarre religion in the face of the far superior choice of college and career: The idea of brainwashing, a concept that had been dusted off for the defense in the Patty Hearst case, provided both. Although it did not help Hearst, it enjoyed some success in a series of cases involving New Religions. Not only was it used to justifiy deprogramming as the lesser of evils when compared to a person spending their life in a "cult," but explained to parents why their offspring had rejected their parental guidance for a guru. It also became an effective offensive weapon in the hands of former members who launched suits against cults hoping to collect money for having been brainwashed.

The brainwashing idea had been floated as an hypothesis by several psychologists but found its true champion in Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer, who wrote an early popular defense of the idea and subsequently developed it in her testimony in a number of court case through the mid 1980s. Several of these cases resulted in multi-million dollar judgments against some of the more well-known groups. Those opposed to "cults" found a popular response from juries to the emotionally charged word and it soon became the keystone of popular prejudice against New Religions (such prejudice being fueled by the events at Jonestown in 1978).

In the meantime, academics aware of the work on brainwashing following the Korean War challenged the new use of the term. Research on Chinese techniques utilized against the American prisoners of war, especially that of Edgar Schein, had concluded that those running the camps had no new sinister psychological techniques at their disposal. Prisoners had been responding to nothing more than simple ancient techniques of deprivation and torture. While their behavior had been effected, their thought processes remained clear. Those who chose to cooperate with the enemy had done so out of fear and physical need (or as Robert J. Lifton discovered in a few cases, a prior ideological proclivity), not because of any subtle mental manipulation. Singer had actually been Schein's student, In picking up the brainwashing hypothesis, and using her credentials as his student, during her court appearances, she actually espoused the very idea her mentor had largely destroyed.

In the early 1980s, as social and psychological scientists debated the idea that New Religions used some form of mind control to recruit and hold their members, The American Psychological Association (APA) appointed Singer to head a committee to prepare a report on the ideas she and several colleagues had come to espouse. One could assume that this report included their best statement of the idea of "mind control" or "coercive persuasion" as it was termed and the best evidence in its support to that point. The committee's report was presented in 1986 and blindly reviewed by four people. It was unanimously rejected. In the very kind reply of the person in charge of setting up the review, the committee's efforts were dismissed as being methodologically unsound and lacking in scientific rigor. The actual reviews were less kind in their assessment, As one of the reviewers, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, noted:

In terms most familiar to Skeptic readers, the popular notion of brainwashing was simply pseudoscience. The committee's review concluded, as had the great majority of social scientists who had examined the issue, that Singer's concept of cultic brainwashing lacked a coherent theoretical framework, was supported by only miniscule empirical evidence, and simply did not account for the wide range of observable phenomena, most importantly the large overturn in members experienced by all of the groups which seemed unable to hold a steady base of adherents.

The response of the APA to Singer had two immediate results: First, it became the basis of a series of court rulings. In 1988, Singer and a colleague, sociologist Richard Ofshe, were kicked out of court in a case involving a Scientologist after the court ruled that the pair lacked the support of a body of science from which to speak. After several other courts followed suit, Singer and Ofshe, complaining that their livelihood had been taken from them as professional witnesses, filed suit against both the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association as well as a number of scholars individually. They charged that there had been a conspiracy to destroy them professionally. They brought suit in federal court. Dismissed, the suit was refiled in California as a conspiracy and defamation action. It was not only dismissed, but Singer and Ofshe were ordered to pay the court costs of the defendants.(2)

Second, since the ruling by the APA the study of New Religions has blossomed as an interdisciplinary area of research pursued by hundreds of scholars in North America and Europe, not to mention Japan. (Contrary to Kent and Krebs complaint that few students take up the study of the field, through the 1990s it had grown tremendously). It now forms one of the most visible tracks of programming at both the Association for the Sociology of Religion and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and has secured a permanent place in the programming of the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion. The annual meeting sponsored by the Center for Studies on New Religions (headquartered in Turin, Italy) attracts several hundred scholars from around the world. These studies, while following a variety of perspectives contributed by the various disciplines (from anthropology to religious studies), have found little value in the brainwashing or related hypotheses and for the last fifteen years have been pursued largely without reference to them. They have gone a long way toward mapping our increasingly pluralistic religious community (including those people who are religiously nonreligious).

The loss of the brainwashing hypothesis has, to the contrary, had a tremendous effect upon the popular prejudice against New Religions. Anti-cultists were left without their single most effective arguments against the various groups. To charge a group with brainwashing has functioned quite nicely as a way to mobilize negative feelings against a community that had otherwise objectively done nothing wrong. It also knocked out the justification for deprogrammings. Eventually, stripped of the brainwashing defense, one set of deprogrammers were presented with a multi-million dollar judgment for their attempt to deprogram a member of a Pentecostal church. In addition, the Cult Awareness Network, (CAN) the major group supporting an activist approach against cults, shared in that judgment as a result of the court's perception of CAN's involvement in the case. As a result, deprogrammings have all but ended in North America and the CAN was forced into bankruptcy.

In the wake of the rejection of their idea by the APA and the resultant loss of authority in court, Singer and others began to label scholars of New Religions who had refuted her brainwashing theories as "cult apologists." In the face of their inability to mount a convincing argument for their position, they have turned to personal attacks upon their fellow scholars. A host of amateur anti-cultists picked up the refrain, and those who study New Religious Movements have become used to complaints that our work does not simply describe the phenomena, but actually advocates for the New Religious Movements. The attacks have been notable for their lack of analysis of (or, in the case of Kent and Krebs, even seeming familiarity with) the body of work of the people under attack.

In fact, scholars of New Religions do not advocate for the groups (I have quite enough to do supporting my own religious community, the United Methodist Church). Some of us, myself included do argue for the civil rights of groups and their members, but that is quite distinct from supporting their religious claims or whitewashing individual leaders' and members' actions (some of whose actions are reprehensible and immoral in the extreme). However, it is also the case that the huge body of scholarship that has been built over the last several decades simply does not lend support to the broad anti-cult attack upon New Religions as a whole. While academics have unanimously condemned those groups and individual members of groups who have committed illegal and violent acts, we cannot support public campaigns to condemn the overwhelming majority of New Religious communities in the name of some fictitious ability to control the mind of their members.

With the demise of the brainwashing hypothesis during the last decade, attacks upon the scholarship on New Religions has largely been confined to gatherings of anti-cultists and their in-house publications. However, within the past year, suddenly the attack has again gone public. It has found its way into several periodicals and can be found on several prominent websites. It became a matter of discussion at the 1997 American Academy of Religion's session on methodology. And as might be expected, there is a reason for this sudden spurt of tabloid scholarship, that goes far beyond Kent's and Kreb's altruistic concern to save the scholarly community from our biased reporting.

While the debate over brainwashing ended in the 1980s in the English-speaking countries, it has arisen anew in continental Europe where several governments, most notably Austria, Germany, Belgium, and France, have invoked brainwashing ideas to support a popular campaign of suppression of minority religions. It is here that the general attack upon the credibility of the work done by those academics who have specialized in the study of New Religious Movements has its immediate impact. Following the incident of the Solar Temple, France, Belgium, the canton of Geneva, Austria, Germany, and the European Parliament established inquiry committees to assess the threat posed by New Religions in their country. Ignoring scholarship in their own countries, France and Belgium led the way with very negative reports that included a lengthy list of harmful groups ("sectes" being the operative term in Europe). Those lists included not only the more expected groups such as the Moonies, Krishnas, and The Family, but a wide array of groups relatively new to both countries including such generally tolerated groups at the Quakers and the Mormons, and even more mainline Protestant churches. Austria and the Canton of Geneva followed suit. The committees of the German government and the European Parliament both sought the testimony of scholars in the field and in the summer of 1998 concluded that no action was necessary. The German report (written in the face of the wave of anti-cult sentiment in the Kohl government) actually included a denouncement of brainwashing, and following the German election, the anti-cult hysteria has quieted.

While Germany was backing off (3) from its campaign against the "sekten" in the summer of 1998 (largely because of scholarly objections to the brainwashing perspective), France and Belgium have moved ahead to fund efforts to monitor and attack a wide variety of religious minorities. Kent has been one of the few North American scholars who has staunchly identified himself with the actions of these European countries. So egregious have their actions been that in October 1998, the United States, through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission), moved to condemn their actions as a violation of basic human rights. The American statement was joined by one from the Netherlands. Independently, in September 1998, Sweden criticized the French stance, and the Swiss Canton of Ticino called for an end to "anti-cult terrorism."

It is the refusal to give credence to the brainwashing hypotheses that forms the connecting thread in Kent' and Krebs' charge that the book which James Lewis and I edited on the Family (incorrectly tied to AWARE) and the study we led on the Church Universal and Triumphant, which was conducted under AWARE's auspices, were biased. In the case of the volume on the Family, they bolster their charges with the reports of a few former members of the Family, none of whom were around either to observe the research that I and the other scholars conducted, or possess any awareness of the extensive research on the Family that I and several other scholars have pursued over the last decade. Kent and Krebs have simply constructed a naive fantasy of media homes and managed information. This fantasy is unfortunately supported by Kent's own lack of direct contact with the Family and a rather limited and spotty access to its massive literature. The Family certainly has a few media homes; it also supports other atypical homes that serve a variety of specialized interests, and scholars would indeed be naïve if they did not realize the distinct flavor of these distinct homes.

New Religions scholars generally favor studies anchored in direct observation of a particular group (including the reading of its publications) supplemented with outside sources, including the accounts of former members. Both sets of sources have to handled in a critical manner. This data then has to be placed in the larger framework of what we know about religious groups in general and New Religions in particular. In the case of The Family, over the past six years the group has opened its doors to the most intense scrutiny. I personally have visited more than 50 Family homes, including all the homes in Eastern Europe. I possess a complete set of its literature published over the thirty years of its existence. I have an extensive collection of material (much of it quite hostile) produced by former members and have interviewed a host of former members. Additionally, I have had the benefit of the insights of a half dozen other scholars who have also given The Family their serious attention. These studies now stand in stark contrast to Kent's own rather shallow studies based as they are almost entirely on the accounts of a small number of hostile ex-members and a very selective choice of citations from the literature.(4)

In contrast to the volume on the Family, the study led by James Lewis and myself on the Church Universal and Triumphant was from the beginning an interdisciplinary study project which emerged from conversations between the Church's international leadership and Mr. Lewis, the head of a small organization called AWARE (the Association of Academics for Research and Education) and the Church's desire for some scholarly insights into their community. While the hiring of academic consultants is common place for many religious organizations, it was a first for CUT. We involved a variety of scholars, some identified with New Religions studies, and others not. Following standard practice, to help insure that the results of the study were not tied to the funding, the finances for the study were received before the study was launched.

The study of CUT was conducted in a manner similar to that on other religious groups of other churches with each of a variety of scholars selected to look into an important aspect of the church's life. Unfortunately, between the time when the project was initiated and funded in 1992, and the primary phase of research conducted in the summer of 1993, the incident at Waco occurred. Even though the study was set up prior to Waco, many (especially some of the church's critics) saw it as a part of a church campaign of public relations in light of Waco. The study proved quite the opposite. It turned out to be a significant catalyst for change in the church. As we discovered only several years later, the church's board were startled and even upset by the very different image of themselves offered by the report, and reacting to the critique of the movement, they initiated a series of changes beginning with the phasing out of their parochial school in Montana. Possibly the primary reaction to the report was their hiring of a management consultant to make a further in-depth look at the church's structure and make recommendations for change. That report has resulted in a wholesale transformation of the church's organization, a transformation as startling as those gone through by The Family through the 1990s.

Kent and Krebs reminded us of the 1983 warning of Louis Horowitz who feared that scholars attending the old Moonie conferences would slip into unabashed support for the New Religions. Happily, Horowitz's fears were never realized. Those same scholars who attended some of those conferences, including James Lewis, Anson Shupe, and myself, have gone on to write some of the most damning of critiques of various groups (including the Unification Church) when it seemed called for. Thus Lewis and I remain proud of the work we have done on The Family and the Church Universal and Triumphant and have been pleased that the two volumes have been found useful by our fellow scholars as launching pads for further research and insightful introduction to the groups about whom we have written. It is also our hope that our work will help end the current wave of repressive actions by the several European governments.

Amidst the personal attacks upon Shupe, Lewis (and each of them can respond to those attacks as they see fit) and myself,(5) Kent and Krebs do raise one valid and important issue under the heading "Academics and Doctrinal Secrets." They complain that I signed a document supporting Scientology's efforts to keep its upper level teachings confidential. In fact, I have signed several documents in that regard. Very often when scholars research religious groups, especially if they are esoteric in nature, they become privy to confidential inner teachings. In some cases, these inner teachings and the keeping of their content secret, have a significant role to play in the group's life. This is a aspect of the larger issue of being invited into the realm of what a group considers the most sacred and holy aspect of their life.

Not just sociologists, but all researchers whether they be anthropologists, psychologists, or religious scholars, have to make some personal decisions about how they as outside observers and unbelievers will relate to what is considered most holy by the group under scrutiny. This is an issue about which we disagree. In the case of the Church of Scientology, whose life is structured into a series of ascending steps, the teachings of their higher levels (like most esoteric groups) are held to be their most sacred. While I would like to be privy to those teachings, they have not chosen to share them with me, and those who currently possess copies and/or have attempted to publish them abroad, have been working ultimately from copies taken without permission from the church. Although I have no great love for the Church of Scientology, I respect its right to establish a holy realm for its members. Fortunately, as it turns out in the case of Scientology, there is ample nonconfidential material (including accounts of their experience of the upper levels by former members) readily available to the researcher, so that little is lost in not having access to the several secret documents.

Although my position on Scientology's right to keep their inner teachings confidential was set from my having to deal with similar issues over the years with a number of other groups, I cannot help but speculate that Kent's choosing to raise this particular issue in relation to Scientology derives from the broad attack upon it by several of the Church's self-designated enemies. They have been attempting to make Scientology's secret material public, not in any desire to further sociological or religious analysis, but simply to embarrass and hopefully destroy the church. One tactic they have employed has been the dumping of stolen copies of the Scientology materials into public records (from which sources copyright laws could be bypassed, a fact that should send a chill through anyone who lives off their writings). Thus in supporting Scientology on this one matter, like the ACLU supporting any controversial group when a matter of principle is at stake, on those occasions where my particular study and expertise is relevant, I have stepped in as an advocate of the principle, not particularly of the group.

As Kent noted, since 1994, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, scholars concerned about issues of methodology in the study of New Religions, including issues of bias and objectivity, gather for a lengthy and frank discussion of our work. It is a pity that Kent has, until this past year, not been a part of those discussions. He would have a much better handle on the directions being taken by this growing field.


1. The complete text of Beit-Hallahmi's statement and the other documents relevant to the APA action may be found on the website of the Center for Studies on New Religions,

2. This author was a defendant in the California suit, though not of the prior federal case.

3. Germany has not backed off on its anti-Scientology stance, which it views as a special case not tied to the rest of the "sect" groups.

4. Quite apart from any attempts at public relations, given the British court's recent three year in-depth investigation of The Family, it has become next to impossible for The Family to conceal anything of importance from investigators. Both The Family's lurid past and rather mundane present is wide open.

5. Space does not allow me to comment upon the number of factual errors spread throughout the article that at times become crucial to their argument. I bypass these in favor of trying to focus upon what I see are the key issues raised by Kent and Krebs.

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