The Cult Mind-Control FAQ

Mind-control is a central notion in the cult issue, and many superstitions exist about it. This FAQ tries to answer the most common questions.

What is cult mind-control?

The cult mind-control theory holds that "cults" recruit and maintain members within their group by annihilating their power of choice or free will. The reason this is referred to here as "cult mind-control" and not simply "mind-control" is that anti-cultists believe that cults can exert such a control without the use of physical coercion. Check any of the anti-cult sites for the way they think this is achieved (deception, exhaustion, etc). Others, among which the vast majority of scholars who studied this question, think that there is no ground for such a theory and that it merely amounts to a fear-inducing and superstitious belief.

Q&A on Question 1 (Definition of Mind-control and basis for the statement that the vast majority of scholars who studies the cult mind-control issue think that there is no ground for such a theory.)

Why is the notion of mind-control so central in the cult issue?

The main basis for the interpretation of cult involvement in terms of mind-control comes in effect from the deprogramming efforts of Ted Patrick in the early 70s. Patrick forcefully retrieved members of "cults" and subjected them to an intensive counter-indoctrination. When the members suddenly "snapped" out of it, they themselves believed they were under mind-control and testified to that effect. This, coupled with the apparent effectiveness of the method in achieving parent’s wish of retrieving their offspring from the group, "converted" many parents, ex-members, and outside observers to the cult brainwashing views.

Even thought forcible deprogramming has virtually stopped as a result of the thorough debunking of the cult mind-control theory by scholars and its subsequent rejection as a legitimate justification by the courts, mind-control remains an integral part of anti-cultists’ definition of cults, often under less discredited names, such as "undue influence", "stress induction symptoms", etc. It also remains a key factor in anti-cultists’ attempts to bring authorities to enact discriminatory measures against new religious movements, as well as a key factor in the effective creation of cult phobia among the public.

Does cult mind-control exist?

When discussing this issue, one has to be extremely careful in defining what he understands by "mind-control". The objections that have been made against the mind-control theory refer to the notion that helped sustain the forcible deprogramming of cult members, i.e. the notion that one’s ability to choose, or free will, has been effectively impaired. Such a form of "mind-control" simply does not exist and a large consensus has been reached on that point among scholars as far back as the 1980s.

Of course, this doesn't’t mean that there isn't’t such a thing as a strong, even cultic, influence, and some cult observers have that unconsciously in mind when referring to "mind-control". This kind of religious, doctrinal, cultic influence, of course, exists, but is hardly a new phenomenon.

What is new with the mind-control theory is the attempt to explain it as a pathology, or, in other words, the attempt to medicalize what is hardly anything else than the age-old phenomenon of religious fanaticism. In reality, the pseudo-scientific theory of "mind-control" that sustain this attempt at medicalization doesn’t have any ground when closely and dispassionately examined by scholars. It amounts effectively to nothing else than a superstitious and dangerous myth, akin to the myth of Devil’s possession used to justify the burning of witches during the Middle-age.

If cult mind-control does not exist, how come deprogramming can work at all, and how come ex-members believe they have been under the influence of mind-control?

The belief of having been "brainwashed" is eminently a subjective one. The internal influence (need to believe) and various external influences from the environment can play an important role at this level. During a forcible deprogramming, for example, deprogrammers constantly repeat to the person that he is under mind-control, while at the same time proceed to show him failings with his group, the leaders, the belief system, etc. When the cult member realizes the true aspects of these failing, he also buys the false assertion that he has been under mind-control. Because he didn’t realize these failings by himself but through a coercive process, he comes to the false conclusion that he could not have seen these failings on his own, and sometimes even becomes a deprogrammer himself.

For ex-members who don’t go through forcible deprogramming but nevertheless indiscriminately accept the mind-control theory, the social pressure may be less intense, but its effect is similar in that the mind-control theory offers them a "rational" framework to explain their experience. Studies have shown indeed a direct correlation between the belief in mind-control and ex-members who have been deprogrammed, those who are influenced by the anti-cult explanation, and those who simply walked out on their own. Most often, the later do not interpret their experiences in terms of mind-control (as defined by anti-cultits), but more as a step in their spiritual quest, a step from which they have now moved on. The later strata constitute the majority of ex-members, but since those who have an axe to grin with their former group are more vocal and their testimony constantly repeated by anti-cult activists, one may get the impression that they represent all of them.

Isn’t there any truth in the cult mind-control theory?

The mechanism anti-cultists describe is quite simply the mechanism of fanatical addiction. Since this is a phenomenon no one can deny, it certainly has a basis in truth. The fallacy enters in, however, when anti-cultists seek to 1) limit this phenomenon to certain groups, as opposed to similar behavior within mainstream religions or, for that matter, outside of any religious context, and 2) medicalize it in such a way as to justify coercive intervention.

If, however, the phenomenon is understood in its own right and not used to ostracize certain groups or to support intolerable infringement to basic freedom of beliefs and association, then even the mind-control allegory could contain elements that may reveal themselves interesting to shed a new light on the issue. The important aspect, thus, is that it should be used as a metaphor, and not, as it is being used currently as a myth to be taken quasi-literally. If it is used as a metaphor, I for one, as an ex-member myself, can certainly recognize certain heuristic values to this approach, that I will hopefully develop some day in my section on the cultic mindset.

What are the dangers entailed in the mind-control belief?

The direct consequences of the mind-control theory being taken literally are forcible deprogrammings, abuses of the conservatorship laws, State laws that would allow the "legal" detention and forcible "therapy" of anyone labeled as being under "mind-control", and other extremely serious civil right abuses. All things that anti-cultists have largely proven to be able and willing to commit and have defended vigorously (see my anti-cult movement page). The atmosphere of irrational fear and phobia this creates, together with fanatical reactions of cultic groups themselves, can lead to mass tragedies such as Jonestown and Waco and, less dramatically, plays an important role in today’s discriminatory measures in Europe.

Even though anti-cultists have been forced by law to stop with their forcible practices, and now claim they don’t indulge in them anymore, they never changed the theoretical background that in their eyes legitimized such acts. It is somewhat akin to Nazis claiming they don’t kill Jews anymore, but continue to stick to the fallacious theory they used to justify their crimes in the past. Even in their latest and more moderate declaration, the main anti-cult activists retain some opening in the secret hope that some day they may resume their abusive practices under cover of law.

Where can I get further information?

For a step by step debunking of the mind-control notion in debates with anti-cultists see Diane Richardson on Mind-Control.

For an example on the type of delusions ex-members are under when they believe they have been "brainwashed" see Peter McDermott on Mind-Control.

For a summary of the arguments on both sides, see Daniel G. Hill report to the Ontario Governement.

For a detailed overview on how the cult mind-control notion became a central part of anti-cult beliefs, see Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory O(link doesn't work anymore), by Gordon Melton.

For a summary of the arguments used in the consensus reached by scholars, see the brief of amici curiae in the case David Molko and Tracy Leal vs Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, et al.