Debunking the Myth of Religious “Brainwashing”

Brainwashing cartoon

The practice of deprogramming is one of the sad - and sinister - topics denounced by FOB and other friendly organization and part of the battle for the respect of freedom of belief. Recent reports recounting the abuses suffered by believers of Shincheonji  in South Korea, (see also other articles on deprogramming), have brought the practice back into the public eye. In a ruling issued on November 27, 2020, the Hiroshima High Court confirmed that the abduction and detention of believers for the purpose of coercively "de-converting" them, is a crime. In Japan, as well as in other nations of the Far East (China above all), deprogramming is a very common practice. Also in the West deprogramming has had its moments of glory, including Italy. But what is deprogramming? It is a practice based on the scientifically discredited "brainwashing" theory that, through another "washing", tries to remove the "stain" of an unwanted religious affiliation from someone else, usually some family member. An article outlining its history in general terms follows.

Debunking the Myth of Religious “Brainwashing”

A significant area of misinformation perpetuated by anti-religious social scientists and others is the subject of so-called “religious brainwashing.”

This is the completely biased inference that someone who joins a religious group disfavored by whoever is speaking could only have done so as a result of “religious brainwashing.” The shorthand equation is, “I am right. No correct-thinking individual could possibly disagree with me. You must be brainwashed.” The concept was utterly rejected by social scientists years ago, but it underlies much of the propaganda against religious minorities and is worth examination.

The use of the term is much more sinister than simply disagreeing with someone’s life choices. “Brainwashing” is the concept that an individual’s entire personality can be wiped out and replaced through the use of physical torture and drugs. Since the 1940s, the United States government has spent millions of dollars attempting to manufacture deployable agents whose personality and free will have been destroyed—to create the so-called “Manchurian Candidate” popularized in fiction. While many lives have been destroyed in the process, total success has never been documented.

The term was popularized in the 1950s by psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, who reportedly studied American Korean War soldiers captured by the North Koreans and subjected to torture to attempt to change their political affiliation and to denounce capitalism and America. While some social scientists have argued that the brainwashing paradigm was developed originally by the CIA as a propaganda device to explain why a few POWs appeared to convert to communism while imprisoned, the term “brainwashing” became firmly embedded in American culture.

In the 1980s, psychologist Margaret Singer, a self-proclaimed “authority” on New Religious Movements, used Lifton’s work in order to hire herself out as an expert witness in civil damages cases against minority religions—for a substantial fee.

Singer’s theories were “not based on systematic research on new religions, but rather simply transferred this pseudoscientific brainwashing theory to an ideological attack on new religions.”

As noted by Dr. Dick Anthony in the December 1999 issue of Social Justice Research, Singer’s theories were “not based on systematic research on new religions, but rather simply transferred this pseudoscientific brainwashing theory to an ideological attack on new religions.” In other words, she simply adopted the CIA brainwashing theory and applied it to new religions.

No religious minorities were exempted from her expansive opinion that the brainwashing theory applied to the voluntary participation of persons in new religious movements.

Singer’s theories were also used by anti-religious deprogrammers to justify kidnapping members of various faiths (Christian as well as new religious movements) and beating them into renouncing their faiths. The justification was that if members of these faiths had been “brainwashed” and had no free will, then it was perfectly acceptable to beat their religious conversion out of them.

Deprogramming is a criminal practice that has resulted in numerous criminal convictions and multimillion-dollar judgments against many individuals in the anti-religious movement. The original leaders of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) were involved in the criminal activity of deprogramming which led to a $4.875 million damages verdict against the group and deprogrammer Rick Ross in a case brought by a Pentecostal Christian, Jason Scott. Scott was brutalized, handcuffed, silenced with duct tape across his mouth, abducted and forcibly held against his will for days in a failed attempt to destroy his beliefs. The jury in the Scott case found that the conduct of some of the defendants was “so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency… atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” U.S. District Judge John Coughenour noted, “The maliciousness of their conduct towards Mr. Scott” and ruled, “Thus, the large award given by the jury against both CAN and Mr. Ross seems reasonably necessary to enforce the jury’s determination on the oppressiveness of the defendants’ actions and deter similar conduct in the future.”

Singer’s half-baked theories were soon debunked by the scientific community. On May 11, 1987, the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the American Psychological Association (APA) formally dismissed Singer’s notions of coercive persuasion after she and several of her associates had submitted a report and formed a task force within the APA on “deceptive and indirect methods of persuasion and control” by minority religions. The APA Board stated that “In general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach needed for APA imprimatur.” The APA Board warned Singer and her cohorts not to imply that the APA in any way supported the positions she had put forward. Nevertheless, because it was lucrative to do so, Singer continued to assert the opinion that newer religions “brainwashed” their members. The scientific community responded quickly to definitively debunk the “religious brainwashing” theory.

On May 11, 1987, the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the American Psychological Association (APA) formally dismissed Singer’s notions of coercive persuasion after she and several of her associates had submitted a report.

In May 1989, the American Sociological Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and individual sociologists and psychologists (including members of an executive council of the APA), reiterated the APA’s position in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of the United States. They argued that Singer’s theories of religious brainwashing have “no scientific validity,” and noted that “to the extent that the [theory of coercive persuasion from minority religious practice] can be said to have any empirical foundation at all, that foundation is so methodologically inadequate to be worthless.”

After the APA’s rejection of their findings, Singer and her disciples were prohibited by courts from testifying as experts concerning their discredited theories of “coercive persuasion” and “brainwashing” by religious minorities exercising their faith.

In 1988 Singer and her theories were rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which noted that the plaintiff in the case had “failed to provide any evidence that Dr. Singer’s particular theory, namely that techniques of thought reform… have a significant following in the scientific community, let alone general acceptance.”

Out of work by virtue of these rejections, Singer and an associate responded by filing two lawsuits against the APA and several social scientists for allegedly trying to run them out of business. The first suit was dismissed as having no merit. The second lawsuit, asserting defamation and conspiracy, was dismissed under a California law prohibiting baseless, vindictive and harassing litigation.

Thus, it is evident that the scientific “debate” about whether any religion “brainwashes” its adherents was concluded and relegated to historical commentary as an incident of prejudicial hysteria brought on by a quack psychologist.

Respected sociologists and experts in religion have also closed the door on this ignorant and archaic view. Dr. J. Gordon Melton, Distinguished Professor of American Religion, Baylor University, and Founder of Institute for the Study of American Religion, writes:

Since the late 1980s, though a significant public belief in cult-brainwashing remains, the academic community—including scholars from psychology, sociology, and religious studies—have shared an almost unanimous consensus that the coercive persuasion/ brainwashing thesis proposed by Margaret Singer and her colleagues in the 1980s is without scientific merit. To date, no one has come forward to refute the arguments, especially those advanced by Dick Anthony a decade ago, nor has the situation that Perry London found concerning articles providing an empirical base for the theory been reversed. Through the 1990s, it has been difficult to locate any scholar in the English-speaking world who has been willing to attempt a defense of it, and even Singer herself has appeared to back away from her earlier position. 
Brainwashing and Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory published by the Center for Studies on New Religions

Other leading experts in the field share Dr. Melton’s view. A noted scholar of comparative religion and former Franciscan monk, Dr. Frank K. Flinn, when Adjunct Professor in Religious Studies at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, undertook an examination of the Church’s program for religious rehabilitation of members of the ministry and unilaterally found the Church’s program to be consistent with similar practices in Jesuit Orders and in some eastern religions such as Buddhism—and milder by comparison.

Likewise, acclaimed religious scholar Dr. Juha Pentikäinen, former Professor and Chair of the Department of the Study of Religions, University of Helsinki, Finland, and the Institute of Social Science, University of Tromso, Norway, and Dr. Jürgen Redhardt, a Doctor of Theology and Diplomate in Psychology, a minister and former Professor of Religious Psychology at the University of Giessen for 26 years, teaching Protestant Theology, conducted and published their own study debunking these theories.

In 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected an attempt to resurrect the “religious brainwashing” theory. In Headley v. Church of Scientology International and Religious Technology Center, no. 10-56266, (Ninth Circuit July 24, 2012), the plaintiff attempted to put forward evidence in the form of a declaration by Dr. Robert Levine, a self-proclaimed expert in the psychology of persuasion and mind control and a proponent of Singer’s discredited “religious brainwashing” theories. Dr. Levine offered a purported expert opinion about the psychological coercion that the plaintiff allegedly endured while with the Church of Scientology. The Federal District Court for the Central District of California rejected this evidence as inherently unreliable and summarily struck it from the record.

“Religious brainwashing” is a fantasy; it is nothing but the invention of an uninformed minority used to spread anti-religious sentiments about new religions.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed. It, too, determined to summarily reject Dr. Levine’s “mind control” theories as unreliable and to strike his declaration from the record in deciding in favor of the Church and dismissing the specious claims.

This 2012 Scientology decision by the Ninth Circuit reaffirms that “religious brainwashing” is an unscientific theory that has no basis in fact, lacks credibility and cannot be accepted as reliable evidence in Court.

“Religious brainwashing” is a fantasy; it is nothing but the invention of an uninformed minority used to spread anti-religious sentiments about new religions.

Be aware that when someone accuses another of having been “brainwashed” by their church or synagogue, they are speaking from a deep well of prejudice and manufactured hysteria.