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.
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
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
For an example on the type of delusions ex-members are under when
they believe they have been "brainwashed" see
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
http://cesnur.org/testi/melton.htm 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.