Posted in: Cults and Religions

Overcoming The Bondage Of Victimization A Critical Evaluation of Cult Mind Control Theories

© 1994 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.
This article first appeared in Cornerstone Magazine

“You’ve got to get my daughter back,” Margaret pleaded. “She was such a beautiful girl, such a good student! It’s like she’s another person. She used to think for herself, she used to spend time with us. Now her whole life is consumed by the Center. Please help us — I don’t care what it costs or how long it takes!”

Margaret’s adult daughter had joined a religious cult, and she was now talking to an exit counselor, a professional who specialized in “interventions” for persons supposedly trapped under mind control in cultic movements.

The exit counselor explained that Margaret’s daughter was a victim of mind control and described its four components: (1) behavior control, (2) thought control, (3) emotional control, and (4) information control. He said these techniques had combined to rob her daughter of the ability to make responsible and rational choices. The counselor informed them that neither the family nor the daughter were to blame for this cult involvement: at the right time, mind control could bring anyone into a cult.

The exit counselor said he would seek to break through her daughter’s bondage to the cult leader and restore her to mental, emotional, and physical freedom. He assured her his work was not the same as the deprogrammers of the 1980s who forcibly kidnapped cult members and held them against their will. If the intervention were successful, Margaret’s daughter would return to the mental stability she possessed before joining. Away from the pressures of the cult, she would be free to make an informed religious choice, unlike the controlled “choices” presented to her while in the group.

Finally, the terms of the agreement were discussed. Margaret assured the exit counselor that her daughter had voluntarily agreed to come home for the weekend specifically to discuss her devotion to the Center. The daughter understood that her mother and father would have a knowledgeable friend with them to speak with her, though she did not realize that the “friend” would be the exit counselor. For the fairly typical sum of $3,000 plus expenses, the exit counselor and his assistant would devote the next four days to the intervention. Of course, there were no guarantees: some ex-cultists needed additional in-patient counseling at a special “recovery” center, and one study put deprogramming failure rates at above 35 percent.

Margaret left her meeting with the exit counselor with confidence and optimism. With a trained professional, a backlog support of sociological and psychological literature, and her own determination to rescue her daughter, Margaret actually looked forward to the coming weekend.

Countless times across America scenes like this are played out for real as desperate parents of adult cult converts seek to understand how their children could change so drastically and pledge their lives to bizarre, exclusivistic religious movements. For many people, especially secular cult observers, the theory of mind control is used to explain this phenomenon. The cult mind control model is so commonly raised in explanation that many people assume its validity without question.

In this article, we look behind the assumptions of the mind control model and uncover the startling reality that “cult mind control” is, at best, a distorted misnomer for cult conversion that robs individuals of personal moral responsibility. While mind control model advocates rightly point out that cults often practice deception, emotional manipulation, and other unsavory recruitment tactics, we believe a critical, well-reasoned examination of the evidence disproves the cult mind control model and instead affirms the importance of informed, biblically based religious commitment.

Assumptions Of Mind Control

The theory of cult mind control is part of a contemporary adversarial approach to many cults, new religious movements, and non-traditional churches. In this approach sociological and psychological terminology has been substituted for Christian terminology. Cult involvement is no longer described as religious conversion, but as mind control induction. Cult membership is not characterized as misplaced religious zeal but as programming. And the cultist who leaves his group is no longer described as redeemed, but as returned to a neutral religious position. And rather than evangelism of cult members, we now have “intervention counseling.”

And biblical apologetics has been replaced by cognitive dissonance techniques. A parent’s plea has changed from “How can my adult child be saved?” to “How can my adult child revert to his/her pre-cult personality?” Biblical analysis and evangelism of the cults has become overshadowed by allegedly “value neutral” social science descriptions and therapy-oriented counseling.

The principal assumptions of the cult mind control model can be summarized under eight categories:

  1. Cults’ ability to control the mind supersedes that of the best military “brainwashers.”
  2. Cult recruits become unable to think or make decisions for themselves.
  3. Cult recruits assume “cult” personalities and subsume their core personalities.
  4. Cultists cannot decide to leave their cults.
  5. A successful intervention must break the mind control, find the core personality, and return the individual to his/her pre-cult status.
  6. Psychology and sociology are used to explain cult recruitment, membership, and disaffection.
  7. Religious conversion and commitment may be termed “mind control” if it meets certain psychological and sociological criteria, regardless of its doctrinal or theological standards.
  8. The psychological and sociological standards which define mind control are not absolute, but fall in a relative, subjective continuum from “acceptable” social and/or religious affiliation to “unacceptable.”

According to most cult mind control model advocates, no one is immune to the right mind control tactics used at the right time. Anyone is susceptible. For example, Steven Hassan, recognized as a premier source for the cult mind control model, writes in his book, Combatting Cult Mind Control, “Anyone, regardless of family background, can be recruited into a cult. The major variable is not the person’s family but the cult recruiter’s level of skill.” Dr. Paul Martin, evangelical director of a rehabilitation center for former cultists, writes,

“But the truth of the matter is, virtually anyone can get involved in a cult under the right circumstances. . . . Regardless of one’s spiritual or psychological health, whether one is weak or strong, cultic involvement can happen to anyone.”

Evangelical exit counselor Craig Branch told us in an interview that, even though he was extremely knowledgable and experienced regarding cult mind control, he still could be caught by cult mind control administered at the right time by the right person.

The cult mind control model is based on a fundamental conviction that the cultist becomes unable to make responsible and rational choices or decisions (particularly the choice to leave the group), and that psychological techniques are the most effective ways to free them to make decisions once more. This foundation is non-negotiable to the mind control model, and is at the root of what we consider so flawed about the mind control concept.

We find this foundational conviction assumed in a 1977 article describing recovery from cult mind control by evangelical sociologist Dr. Ronald Enroth, who quotes Dr. Margaret Singer, an outspoken advocate of the cult mind control model:

In a situation removed from the reinforcing pressures of the cult, the ex-members are encouraged to think for themselves so that they are “once again in charge of their own volition and their own decision-making.”

Hassan asserts that, both from his personal testimony and his field experience, cult recruits cannot think for themselves or initiate decisions:

Members [of the Unification Church] . . . become totally dependent upon the group for financial and emotional support, and lose the ability to act independently of it.

Paul Martin asserts that cult mind control renders its victims virtually unresponsible for their actions or beliefs:

. . . the process whereby he or she was drawn into the cult was a subtle but powerful force over which he or she had little or no control and therefore they need not feel either guilt or shame because of their experience.

Cult mind control must be distinguished from “mere” deception, influence, or persuasion. At the core of the distinctive of mind control is the idea that the individual becomes unable to make autonomous personal choices, not simply that his or her choices have been predicated on something false. British sociologist Eileen Barker, a critic of the mind control concept, points out this difference:

Recruitment that employs deception should, however, be distinguished from “brainwashing” or “mind control.” If people are the victims of mind control, they are rendered incapable of themselves making the decision as to whether or not to join a movement — the decision is made for them. If, on the other hand, it is just deception that is being practised, converts will be perfectly capable of making a decision — although they might make a different decision were they basing their choice on more accurate information.

Fundamentally, the mind control model assumes inability to choose, while deception interferes with the accuracy of the knowledge one uses to make a choice.

Objection: The Brainwashing Connection

Representatives of the mind control model contradictorily both distance mind control from classic brainwashing and yet also see continuity between cult mind control and the classic brainwashing attempts in the 1950s by North Koreans and Chinese among American prisoners of war and by American CIA researchers. When critics of the mind control model point out the abysmal failures of classic brainwashing (discussed later in this article), advocates like Michael Langone say they have “misrepresented the critics’ [of the cults] [supporters of the mind control model] position by portraying them as advocates of a robotization theory of cult conversion based on The Manchurian Candidate.”

However, there is also concensus among mind control model advocates that classic brainwashing is the precursor to contemporary cult mind control. Psychologist Dr. Margaret Singer underscores this connection in her preface to this same Langone book, Recovery from Cults:

[M]y interest [in cult psychology and mind control] began during the Korean War era when I worked at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and studied thought-reform, influence, and intense indoctrination programs. Since then, I have continued the study of group influence.In the 1960s I began to heed the appearance of cults and heard the descriptions of hundreds of parents who noticed certain changes in the personality, demeanor, and attitudes of their young-adult offspring who had become involved in cults. . . . The cults created programs of social and psychological influence that were effective for their goals. And I noticed especially that what had been added to the basic thought-reform programs seen in the world in the 1950s was the new cultic groups’ use of pop psychology techniques for further manipulating guilt, fear, and defenses.

This contradictory embracing and rejecting of the brainwashing connection is partially reconciled only by the nonsubstantive differences pointed out by mind control model supporters: (1) “Brainwashing” is considered primitive and often ineffective; (2) “Mind control” is claimed to be extremely powerful and compelling.

Hassan says, “Today, many techniques of mind control exist that are far more sophisticated than the brainwashing techniques used in World War II and the Korean War”, and explains further:

Mind control is not brainwashing. . . .Brainwashing is typically coercive. The person knows at the outset that he is in the hands of an enemy. It begins with a clear demonstration of the respective roles — who is prisoner and who is jailer — and the prisoner experiences an absolute minimum of choice. Abusive mistreatment, even torture, is usually involved. . . .

Mind control, also called “thought reform,” is more subtle and sophisticated. Its perpetrators are regarded as friends or peers, so the person is much less defensive. He unwittingly participates by cooperating with his controllers and giving them private information that he does not know will be used against him. The new belief system is internalized into a new identity structure.

Mind control involves little or no overt physical abuse. . . . The individual is deceived and manipulated — not directly threatened — into making the prescribed choices. On the whole, he responds positively to what is done to him.

Even though the evidence shows the unreliability and limits of hypnosis, Hassan also argues that “hypnotic processes are combined with group dynamics to create a potent indoctrination effect . . . . Destructive cults commonly induce trances in their members through lengthy indoctrination sessions . . . . I have seen many strong-willed people hypnotized and made to do things they would never normally do.” Hassan states that hypnosis enables mind control perpetrators to increase their success rates impressively above what is possible through other mind control techniques.

Despite attempts to distinguish the generations of mind control development, there are no qualitative differences and what was once “brainwashing” became “snapping,” which now is “mind control,” “coercive persuasion,” “menticide,” “thought reform,” etc. Each term focuses, however, on the power of the cult recruiters and on the inability of the recruit to think and/or decide independently from the cult.

However, it stretches one’s credulity to believe that what CIA, Russian, Korean, and Chinese highly trained and technologically supported experts could not accomplish under extremes of mental, emotional, and physical abuse, self-styled modern messiahs like David hgate (high school dropout), Charles Manson (grade school dropout), and Hare Krishna founder Braphupada (self-educated) accomplished on a daily basis and on a massive scale with control methods measurably inferior to those of POW camp torturers. Do we really believe that what the Soviets couldn’t do to Alexander Solzhenitsyn during years of forced labor and torture in the Gulag, Sun Myung Moon could have done by “love bombing” for one week at an idyllic wilderness retreat? Sociologists Bromley and Shupe point out the absurdity of such a notion:

Finally, the brainwashing notion implied that somehow these diverse and unconnected movements had simultaneously discovered and implemented highly intrusive behavioral modification techniques. Such serendipity and coordination was implausible given the diverse backgrounds of the groups at issue. Furthermore, the inability of highly trained professionals responsible for implementing a variety of modalities for effecting individual change, ranging from therapy to incarceration, belie claims that such rapid transformation can routinely be accomplished by neophytes against an individual’s will.

Objection: The Deterministic Fault

We believe the data presented here shows that people join, stay in, and leave cults on their own responsibilities, even if their decisions may have been influenced or affected by deceit, pressure, emotional appeal, or other means. We do not believe the evidence supports the mind control model. In this article we express the concerns and fears of conservative, evangelical, and knowledgable counter-cult apologists not only our own concerns but those of other counter-cult workers (Christian and non- Christian) who firmly believe that the mind control model misdiagnoses the problem, mis-prescribes the solution, and (for Christians) is contrary to a biblical cult evangelism model.

Those holding to the mind control model have made the generalization that most cults have internal social pressures and religious practices which, if not identical in nature, are similar in effect; and that average cult members are similarly affected by these teachings, techniques, and practices. We reject this generalization, though we will grant — and in fact have stated publicly — that many cults have made deceptive claims, used faulty logic, misrepresented their beliefs, burdened their followers with unscriptural feelings of guilt, and sought to bring people into financial or moral compromise to unethical demands. Yet it does not necessarily or automatically follow that these pressures, practices, or demands remove an individual’s personal responsibility for his or her actions.

The cult mind control model assumes that a combination of pressure and deception necessarily disables personal responsibility. Exit counselor Hassan recognizes that the cult mind control model (which he has adopted) is incompatible with the traditional philosophical and Christian view of man as a responsible moral agent:

First of all, accepting that unethical mind control can affect anybody challenges the age-old philosophical notion (the one on which our current laws are based) that man is a rational being, responsible for, and in control of, his every action. Such a world view does not allow for any concept of mind control.

Objection: The Double – Bind

Hassan provides no means of knowing, testing, or proving whether people who are under emotional pressure, personal stress, or actual deception are in fact “not responsible” for their actions or not making free choices. Nor does Hassan suggest any way to clearly determine when techniques of “influence” or “persuasion” might become so great that one being influenced is no longer responsible, no longer rational, or no longer has a personal will. Medical doctor J. Thomas Ungerleider and Ph.D. David K. Wellish show the fallacious presuppositions used by the deprogrammers (now exit counselors):

If the member never does renounce the cult then he or she is regarded by the deprogrammers as an unsuccessful attempt or failed deprogramming, not as one who now has free will and has still chosen to remain with the cult.

Whether this is called this circular reasoning or a “double-bind,” the net result is that the “proof” that the cultist has been coerced is unfalsifiable, and he cannot prove that he has freely chosen to join his group. If you leave the cult as a result of deprogramming (or exit counseling), that proves you were under mind control. If you return to the cult, that proves you are under mind control. The standard for determining mind control is not some objective evaluation of mental health or competency, but merely the assumed power of mind control the critic accords to the cult.

Recently certain of the model’s proponents seem to blur the definition of mind control, perhaps because there is no corroborating evidence that mind control techniques produce qualitatively different results in religious conversion.

It appears that some evangelicals especially have problems reconciling a classic cult mind control model with other religious considerations and with later developments in this area. For example, sociologist Ronald Enroth, an evangelical professor at Christian Westmont College, is reluctant to be perceived as a mind control model advocate, even though he his support appeared clear in the late 1970s and continues at least tacitly today.

Enroth promoted the model in his 1977 book Youth, Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults and also in a 1977 Christian magazine article, “Cult/Countercult.” His most recent book (1992), Churches that Abuse, is peppered with language concerning victimization, lack of personal control, and autocratic decision-making control. Additionally, he endorses the work of other mind control advocates such as Hassan (1990) and Singer, and serves on the editorial advisory board of the pre-eminent mind control model journal, Cultic Studies Journal, edited by Langone. In a personal letter to us he describes Martin and Langone’s Christian Research Journal “Viewpoint” article as “a helpful correction to the earlier article and it, too, reflects my own thinking re exit counseling, even though I have never personally witnessed or engaged in formal exit counseling.”

Despite these several apparent (sometimes tacit) endorsements of the mind control model, in the same letter to us he declared, “You do NOT have my permission to represent my 1977 writing about thought reform and brainwashing as my current position on the topic. That doesn’t mean that I necessarily disavow what I said then; it means that it is not academically/professionally current and I have not had time nor inclination to update, in writing, in this area.”

Geri-Ann Galanti and co-authors Philip Zimbardo and Susan Andersen reflect this change in the recent book, Recovery from Cults, edited by Michael Langone of the American Family Foundation.

Galanti says that mind control (which she equates with brainwashing) “refers to the use of manipulative techniques that are for the most part extremely effective in influencing the behavior of others.” These influence techniques work to change our beliefs and attitudes as well; we encouter these pressures constantly “in advertising, in schools, in military basic training, in the media.” They are a part of the socialization process, a part of life, Galanti maintains.

Yet when describing her own visit to a Moonie indoctrination center, where contrary to expectations, she was allowed plenty of sleep, food, and to observe horsing around among the Moonies (some even joking about brainwashing!), Galanti concludes: “What I found was completely contrary to my expectations and served to underscore both the power and the subtlety of mind control.” While she was there, she felt much of the experience to be a positive one.

Later, Galanti decides that what she really experienced, despite all evidence to the contrary, was an even more seductive, subversive form of mind control than she’d previously imagined could exist. It nearly fooled even her. In short, the lack of evidence for mind control among the Moonies was really evidence for just how insidious their methods of mind control had become! Such argumentation points to the frustrating nature of the belief in mind control; so often evidence offered against the mind control model is mis-used to illustrate how true it must be.

Zimbardo and Andersen offer a mind control definition similar to Galanti’s: a tool to “manipulate others’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior within a given context over a period of time . . . ” The chapter deals at length with common uses of manipulation so that definitions of mind control techniques multiple to include anything from flattery to social etiquette to hard-of-hearing salesmen. Again, the move is apparently away from seeing mind control as insidious, powerful techniques that rob individuals of personal freedom, and toward a new, “broader” definition which sees mind control as a synonym for “means of persuasion.” However, if mind control loses its distinctive power and unique techniques, then it ceases to have any relevance as a term descriptive of special cult indoctrination processes.

By almost interchanging the terms “persuasion” and “manipulation,” Zimbardo and Anderson gloss over ethical, connotative differences between these two terms. Second, and more important, the new trend to define mind control to include nearly all “manipulative techniques” implicitly contradicts a key element of the traditional model, namely, that mind control renders its subjects unable to think rationally or choose independently.

A definition of mind control that removes its involuntary component is intrinsicaly at odds with the prevailing teachings of Singer, Langone, Hassan, Martin, and others that cult victims are unable to think for themselves or make decisions. Instead, it is more in agreement with the case we have been arguing — that cult members are capable of independent thought and rational choice-making, but because of factual and spiritual deception, faulty presuppositions, fallacious reasoning, and improper religious commitments, they make unwise choices and adopt false beliefs instead.

Contemporary mind control model advocates want to have the best of both worlds: They want to distinguish cult recruitment techniques from normal socialization activities to substantiate their claims about the insidious powers of the cults, even to the point of pressing for anti-cult legislation; But as soon as anyone asks for concrete evidence and qualitative definitions, mind control becomes just another term for the myriads of forms of non-candid persuasion.

Objection: The Brainwashing Evidence

In addition to philosophical and logical problems with the cult mind control model, the evidence contradicts it. Neither brainwashing, mind control’s supposed precursor, nor mind control itself, have any appreciable demonstrated effectiveness. Singer and other mind control model proponents are not always candid about this fact: The early brainwashing attempts were largely unsuccessful. Even though the Koreans and Chinese used extreme forms of physical coercion as well as persuasive coercion, very few individuals subjected to their techniques changed their basic world views or commitments.

The CIA also experimented with brainwashing. Though not using Korean or Chinese techniques of torture, beatings, and group dynamics, the CIA did experiment with drugs (including LSD) and medical therapies such as electroshock in their research on mind control. Their experiments failed to produce even one potential Manchurian Candidate, and the program was finally abandoned.

Although some mind control model advocates bring up studies that appear to provide objective data in support of their theories, such is not the case. These studies are generally flawed in several areas: (1) Frequently the respondents are not from a wide cross-section of ex-members but disproportionately are those who have been exit-counseled by mind control model advocates who tell them they were under mind control; (2) Frequently the sample group is so small its results cannot be fairly representative of cult membership in general; (3) It is almost impossible to gather data from the same individuals before cult affiliation, during cult affiliation, and after cult disaffection, so respondents are sometimes asked to answer as though they were not yet members, or as though they were still members, etc. Each of these flaws introduces unpredicatiblity and subjectivity that make such study results unreliable.

Objection: Low Recruitment Rates

The evidence against the effectiveness of mind control techniques is even more overwhelming. Studies show that the vast majority of young people approached by new religious movements (NRMs) never join despite heavy recruitment tactics. This low rate of recruitment provides ample evidence that whatever techniques of purported mind control are used as cult recruiting tools, they do not work on most people. Even of those interested enough to attend a recruitment seminar or weekend, the majority do not join the group. Eileen Barker documents that out of 1000 people persuaded by the Moonies to attend one of their overnight programs in 1979, 90% had no further involvement. Only 8% joined for more than one week, and less than 4% remained members in 1981, two years later:

“. . . and, with the passage of time, the number of continuing members who joined in 1979 has continued to fall. If the calculation were to start from those who, for one reason or another, had visited one of the movement’s centres in 1979, at least 999 out of every 1,000 of those people had, by the mid-1980s, succeeeded in resisting the persuasive techniques of the Unification Church.”

Of particular importance is that this extremely low rate of conversion is known even to Hassan, the best-known mind control model advocate whose book is the standard text for introducing concerned parents to mind control/exit counseling. In his personal testimony of his own involvement with the Unification Church, he notes that he was the first convert to join at the center in Queens; that during the first three months of his membership he only recruited two more people; and that pressure to recruit new members was only to reach the goal of one new person per member per month, a surprisingly low figure if we are to accept the inevitable success of cult mind control techniques.

Objection: High Attrition Rates Additionally, natural attrition (people leaving the group without specific intervention) was much higher than the self-claimed 65% deprogramming success figure! It is far more likely a new convert would leave the cult within the first year of his membership than it is that he would become a long term member.

This data, confirming low rates of conversion and high rates of disaffection, is deadly to the mind control model. The data reveals that the theory of cult mind control is not confirmed by the statistical evidence. The reality is that people who have very real spiritual, emotional, and social needs are looking for fulfillment and signficance for their lives. Ill-equipped to test the false gospels of this world, they make poor decisions about their religious affiliations. Poor decisions, yes, but personally responsible decisions nontheless.

As Barker summarizes, “far more people have left the very NRMs from which people are most commonly deprogramed than have stayed in them, and the overwhelming majority of these people have managed to leave without the need for any physical coercion.”

Objection: The Anti-Religious Bias Of Mind Control Assumptions

Although most secular mind control model advocates deny that they are critical of any particular beliefs, but only of practices, Shupe and Bromley note, “It quickly became apparent that brainwashing served as a conclusionary value judgment rather than as an analytic concept.”

A look at the historical evidence underscores the anti-religious basis of the brainwashing/mind control model. As sociologists Anthony and Robbins note,

[I]n a sense the project of modern social science, particularly in its Enlightenment origins, has been to liberate man from the domination of retrogressive forces, particularly religion, which has often been seen as a source of involuntariness and a threat to personal autonomy, from which an individual would be liberated by “the science of freedom” (Gay, 1969). This view of religion had been present in the cruder early models of brainwashing such as Sargant (1957), who saw evangelical revivalism as a mode of brainwashing, and who commenced his studies after noting similarities between conversions to Methodism and Pavlovian experiments with dogs . . . (Robbins and Anthony, 1979).

William Sargant, approvingly cited by many cult mind control model advocates, also made statements arguing that Christian evangelistic preaching techniques are similar to communist brainwashing methods. As Sargant wrote in his Battle for the Mind:

Anyone who wishes to investigate the technique of brain-washing and eliciting confessions as practiced behind the Iron Curtain (and on this side of it, too, in certain police stations where the spirit of the law is flouted) would do well to start with a study of eighteenth-century American revivalism from the 1730s onward. The physiological mechanics seem the same, and the beliefs and behavior patterns implanted, especially among the puritans of New England, have not been surpassed for rigidity and intolerance even in Stalin’s times in the U.S.S.R.

Sargant’s anti-Christian bias is also reflected by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, 1970s popularizers of the cult mind control theory. Expressions of offense at the exclusive claims of Christianity appear in their bestselling book, Snapping. Some born-again Christians “shocked us considerably,” they state, for telling us that “we would be condemned to Hell for the opinions we expressed and the beliefs we held.” Among groups cited as suspect by Conway and Siegelman was Campus Crusade for Christ. The two miscontrues as a threat what Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright describes as conversion to Christ: “surrender of the intellect, the emotions, and the will — the total person.” Conway and Siegelman conclude: “In its similarity to the appeals of so many cult recruiters and lecturers, this traditional Christian doctrine — and the suggestion contained within it — takes on new and ominous overtones.”

“What is the line between a cult and a legitimate religion?” Conway and Siegelman ask. “In America today that line cannot be categorically drawn. In the course of our investigation, however, it became clear to us that many Born Again Christians had been severed from their families, their pasts, and society as a whole as a result of a profound personal transformation. It is not in keeping with the purpose of this investigation to comment on the far-flung Evangelical movement in its entirety, but our research raised serious questions concerning the techniques used to bring about conversion in many Evangelical sects.”

Conway, Siegleman, and many other anti-cult workers presuppose the harmfulness of any religious allegiance that includes exclusivity and total commitment. Looking back in history, such anti-religious bias is not uncommon. There were those who thought Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi were mentally incompetent to make their religious commitments.

In short, there is no objective, evidential way to define groups that are “good” (not using mind control) versus groups that are “bad” (using mind control). Without evidence, the accusation of mind control against any group or individual becomes a matter of personal bias. Once one points to particular doctrines, teachings, or practices as inherently bad, one has abandoned the supposedly religiously “neutral” position of the cult mind control advocates and must make religious judgments. Although this is not the focus of this article, we note here that as evangelical Christians we openly admit that we make religious judgments regarding the cults, and that those religious judgments are based on the Bible, not on our own subjective opinions or some concensus of social science professionals.

Objection: Creating Victims

Many people who join cults want to help the needy, forsake materialism, or develop personal independence from their families, not necessarily bad goals, although misguided by false cult teachings. The cult mind control model, however, attributes cult membership primarily to mind control and thereby denigrates or discounts such positive activities and goals, misaffiliated to cults as they are.

The mind control model also fails to give proper weight to the role natural suggestibility plays in making one vulnerable to the cults. Highly suggestible people are especially susceptible to religious salesmanship as well as many other “sales pitches.”

The cult mind control model instead focuses on victimization, that a cult member joins as a result of mind control and not as the result of personal choice. Adopting a “victimization” perspective actually strips the cult member of his capacity for rational activity. The cult mind control model epitomizes a “victim” mentality. Hassan explains his approach to counseling a cult member:

First, I demonstrate to him that he is in a trap — a situation where he is psychologically disabled and can’t get out. Second, I show him that he didn’t originally choose to enter a trap. Third, I point out that other people in other groups are in similar traps. Fourth, I tell him that it is possible to get out of the trap.

This kind of victimization is very popular in our society today, although it has not demonstrated any evidential validity nor any ability to set the foundation for emotional or mental health.

Problems with the cult victimization idea can be illustrated by looking at other areas outside the new religous movements. We have the Bradshaw “model” of adults as “inner children” who never grew up because of their “dysfunctional” families. We have the many twelve-step spawned derivative groups where members seem to focus more on their powerlessness against whatever addictive “illness” they have than on another twelve-step maxim: personal responsibility. And we have the many “Adult Children” support groups where members uncover the sources of all their problems — dysfunctional parents.

One of the most visible applications of the mind control model today is in the area of repressed memories of early childhood abuse (of satanic ritual abuse, simple child abuse, alien or UFO abduction, past lives, etc.). Amazingly, the mind control model is used to describe two contrasting portions of this problem. First, therapists and clients who believe they have uncovered previously repressed memories of early childhood abuse believe that the original abusers practice mind control on their victims. One of the most extreme examples of this is psychologist Corry Hammond, who postulates a sophisticated system of mind control he believes was developed from experimental Nazi systems.

Second, falsely accused parents and other family members often believe the mind control model, applied to the relationship between the therapist and the accusing client, explains how adult children could sincerely believe and accuse their own fathers, mothers, brothers, uncles, and grandparents of performing unspeakable horrors on them as children, including human sacrifice, rape, incest, mutilation, etc. Many times these adult children have publicly denounced their parents and refused any contact with them for years. Surely to believe such outrageous fictions, they must be under therapeutic mind control! Finally, once adult “survivors” come to the realization that their memories are false, they must deal with the reality that they have accused their loved ones of horrible atrocities. One alleged survivor, struggling to maintain belief in her alleged recovered memories, acknowledged this painful responsibility:

I wish I could say that I knew [my memories] were 100 percent true. But I can’t. If they are all based on falsehoods, I deserve to be damned, and that is really tough. I’ve made some really important decisions that have affected a lot of people. I still get back to [the feeling that] the essence of the belief has to be true.”

How could they have ever caused their families such anguish? They must have been victims of therapeutic mind control!

And yet, such a view fosters a crippling victimization that says, in effect, “you couldn’t do anything to prevent this insidious mind control” and, consequently, what could you possibly do to protect yourself or your loved ones in the future?

Speaking about cults, Barker makes this clear, saying,

Those who leave by themselves may have concluded that they made a mistake and that they recognized that fact and, as a result, they did something about it: they left. Those who have been deprogrammed, on the other hand, are taught that is was not they who were responsible for joining; they were the victims of mind- control techniques — and these prevented them from leaving. Research has shown that, unlike those who have been deprogrammed (and thereby taught that they had been brainwashed), those who leave voluntarily are extremely unlikely to believe that they were ever the victims of mind control.

An improper victimization model, whether used to understand cult recruitment, repressed memories, adult emotional distress, or false accusations of abuse does not provide the education, critical thinking apparatus, or coping mechanisms necessary to protect oneself from further victimization, and, most importantly, such theories do not focus on the life-transforming gospel as the ultimate solution.

Additionally, true victims, such as small children, victims of rape, robbery, or murder, those who truly are unable to predict or prevent their victimization, have their predicament cheapened and obscured by those who are not truly defenseless victims.

This model has become standard for many evangelical Christians who have therapists, attribute their current problems to “dysfunctional” relationships, and trace their personal inadequacies to emotionally harmful childhoods (everyone’s a dysfunctional “adult child” of alcoholism, or abuse, or isolationism, or authoritarianism). Everyone is a victim. One doesn’t need to be saved from one’s own sins as much as from the sins of others. Psychology and sociology have replaced Scripture for understanding human behavior and developing emotionally and spiritually healthy persons. Yet nowhere in Scripture do we find support for the idea complaint first voiced by Eve that “the devil — or the cult leader — made me do it.” One cannot remove human responsibility without also destroying human morality:

Some social scientists object to the idea that humans are free to choose. They claim that man is nothing but the result of biological, psychological, and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment. Thus, B. F. Skinner holds that autonomous man is a myth. All of man’s so-called “decisions” are actually determined by previous experience. Even some Christians believe that all of men’s actions are determined by God . . . . , and that they have no free choice.Such a view of man must be met head-on. If free choice is a myth, so is moral obligation. C. S. Lewis notes that a deterministic view brings about the abolition of man. In an impassioned plea he argues that you cannot strip men of autonomy without denuding them of responsibility: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Objection: Theological Inconsistencies

If the cult recruiter’s skill at manipulation is considered so coercive that members are not responsible for their own beliefs, actions, or even the decision to join/stay in the cult, then many biblical affirmations about personal responsibility and decision-making are jeopardized. To a secular mind control model advocate, this may seem a trivial objection. But several advocates are Christian evangelicals and must come to terms with the theological inconsistencies introduced when the cult mind control model is adopted.

For example, in the Garden, Satan personally appeared to orchestrate the temptation of Eve — and who could be more persuasive? Our first parents succumbed to the temptation and were cast out of the Garden, and all of humanity thereafter have been penalized by this primal sin. If our first parents could be held morally responsible when confronted by the Ultimate Tempter, how is it that we seek to excuse ourselves or our offspring when confronted by human tempters of far less power, skill, and charisma?

Moreover, we observe that both Adam and Eve were penalized alike, even though the temptation was very well different for each. Eve’s temptation was mediated by the direct approach of Satan; Adam’s temptation occurred via his wife, and we are not told that Satan appeared to Adam as he did to Eve. Yet, regardless of whether Satan’s presence was immediate or remote, firsthand or secondhand, both shared ethical culpability for their action.

It is also instructive to note that the second sin of Adam and Eve was blameshifting, the attempt to elude personal responsibility. Eve blamed the Serpent, and Adam blamed Eve. Though God loved them deeply, He did not accept this rationalization then, and He will not accept similar excuses made today for our own wrong beliefs and behavior.


This carefully focused evaluation has shown that the Bogey Man of cult mind control is nothing but a ghost story, good for inducing an adrenaline high and maintaining a crusade, but irrelevant to reality. The reality is that people who have very real spiritual, emotional, and social needs are looking for fulfillment and significance for their lives. Ill-equipped to test the false gospels of this world, they make poor decisions about their religious affiliations. Poor decisions, yes, but decisions for which they are personally responsible nonetheless.

As Christians who believe in an absolute standard of truth and religious reality, we cannot ignore the spiritual threat of the cults. We must promote critical thinking, responsible education, biblical apologetics, and Christian evangelism. We must recognize that those who join the cults, while morally responsible, are also spiritually ignorant. The power of the gospel (Romans 1:16) erases spiritual ignorance and provides the best opportunity possible for right moral and religious choices. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).


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