Blind, or Just Don't Want to See? Brainwashing, Mystification, and Suspicion

Alberto Amitrani, Raffaella Di Marzio, GRIS, Roma


This paper examines selected points of dispute among scholars and professionals interested in new religious movements: the degree to which the reports of former group members should be accorded credibility; the meaning and existence of the concept of brainwashing; the proper interpretation of certain actions taken by European governmental committees; and the degree to which ideology and/or money provided by new religious movements has or may in the future corrupt scholarly research in this area. The paper concludes by embracing a pastoral letter on this subject by the Italian Bishops' Conference.

From a letter written by a mother:

I am a desperate mother. Ten years ago, I lost my daughter to a ferocious "cult"…. The unfortunate people whom we meet are completely taken over… they tell them that their mothers are devils who give out negative energy, thus hindering their perfect introduction into cult life… I hardly ever hear from my daughter now. She doesn't take part in our family meetings and calls me only when she needs money. You can well imagine the tragedy of this poor mother… Please do something to help these poor people who are in danger and want to live the life that Our Lord Jesus gave us… I am afraid she will commit suicide like the others… do something, I repeat, we cannot leave these kids at the mercy of gaolers, of murderers of the worst kind… I pray the Lord will help you in your work to help all these kids who are prisoners of murderous cults.

Says a former member:

I then started to write a farewell letter to my spiritual guide. This cost me a lot: every word was like a dagger blow, and every now and then I had to stop since the tears would block my vision. I wasn't able to do it all in one stroke, but every now and then I went back to what was a small calvary for me, a deserved one however, unlike that of the Lord. My mind went back to the Good Thief and I hoped Jesus would answer me the same way. When I got to the end of the letter, I had a feeling of liberation… It had been a long trail, lasting over 20 years, but this was what had happened… What I thought was heaven was actually a pink-coloured hell, painted over with falsehood… I got hold of my ancestors and my roots again. For years, everything which makes a person free and conscious of what he is doing had been stolen from me. I was picking up my pieces one by one, slowly but surely. However, many wounds would never close again. It was still hard for me to free myself from what I had thought was reality but actually was conditioning: the notion of being one of the elect, somebody different, one of the Eternal's chosen… The feeling I had deep inside is hard to describe: like being a flower which slowly raises its petals again after having spent a long time without any water and having risked death… When we realised that what we had been through was a true cult, we understood we could no longer go on this way, pretending nothing had happened, as other former members had done before… All my fears went away one by one and were replaced by a single, increasingly clear awareness: that diabolical thing, that tremendous octopus, must stop, or at least we had to make others know it existed… you can defend yourself from an enemy only when you know you have one.

Who Says "Apostates" are Unreliable?

According to a certain current of scholars of new religions, these two testimonies - the first by a mother whose daughter belongs to a magical-occultist group, the second by a person who left a pseudo-mystical group - are not worthy of consideration by scholars of new religions.

In the first case, with all due respect to the person involved, some might say that this is the typical attitude of a parent who, upset by her daughter's making a choice that does not agree with her mother's ideas, sees the "cult" as the source of all evil. This attitude does of course exist among families of members of New Religious Movements (henceforth NRM), but one cannot generalize. When considering the suffering of a mother (which appears clearly from the dramatic and even aggressive tone of this testimony), who can no longer recognise her daughter, who has lost emotional contact with her, who sees her suffer from a human and a spiritual point of view, we cannot simply say: "Young people often make different choices from their parents." Each case should be looked into individually. While it is true that there have always been cases of authoritarian interference by parents in the spiritual life of their children, without any respect for their freedom of choice in such a delicate field as that of spirituality, it is also true that there have been cases of young and less young people taken into psycho-physical slavery inside certain organizations that call themselves "religious." Those who are aware of this issue also meet with cases of young people who, after difficulties and hesitation and thanks to far-sighted and respectful help from their parents, realise that the group they had joined was not actually what they thought it was. In such cases, the young person leaves the group freely, but support and help from parents are an indispensable element. We must therefore avoid pronouncing summary judgement, and must keep to the facts. Facts sometimes do not confirm what the parents say; in other cases they most definitely do.

In the second case, we have a former member who denounces the state of "psychological imprisonment" in which the group kept him. For a certain current of thought, this testimony would not be reliable either, since this individual is certainly inspired by resentment against the group he belonged to. Since the former member says he intends to denounce the "atrocities" of the group, according to the scholars we have in mind, this would be a case of "apostasy," that is, a case in which the person who has left the group starts a war against it for personal reasons or interests, or because he/she belongs to an "anti-cult" movement.

Once the unreliability of this kind of testimony has been settled, to whom must we refer to have the simple, objective, clear, and "scientific" truth about the cult or NRM, always following these same scholars? To the movement itself, of course, which will be happy to cooperate, providing its own followers for interviews, its own documents for a study of the doctrine, and everything else that may be needed for a successful scientific study! Is there something out of place or wrong in this happy picture of loving concord? First of all, let us ask, is it scientifically correct to study a movement only on the basis of its own sources and of the documents it provides? Is it possible that our scholars never suspect that somebody in the movement might have an interest in "forgetting" some document? And what if those who have left a group, showing authentic documents and using evidence, had something to say too? And why should "apostates" always be unreliable? What philosophical dogma lays this down? Where is the evidence that every "apostate" is associated with an anti-cult movement? And even if some really were, does this mean that merely because they belong to such a group, they lose their human value, so much so that they cannot be believed even when they present proof. We are dealing here with bigotry, not science.

Luckily, not all scholars agree with this attitude. For example, Benjamin Zablocki, Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, who has studied NRM's for about 30 years, says he has:

visited hundreds of religious communes and talked with or interviewed over a thousand members and ex-members of these groups. Enough of these people have explained their experiences by something like a brainwashing model to convince me that the weapon exists. Some of them probably are lying or confabulating, but it is unlikely that all of them are. Most had no particular ax to grind, nor were the majority associated with any anti-cult organization. [1]

The same author says:

Since many NRM apostates were sources of evidence about brainwashing, a tendentious campaign was begun to define the apostate role as one whose accounts were inherently unreliable. Instead of letting the issue of the reliability of apostate accounts be settled empirically, an attempt was made to settle it definitionally… By definition, they are all now following the ideological line of some opposing group, usually an anti-cult organization. [2]

It is true that people who leave such groups do not always do so dramatically; nor do they always bear a negative memory of the group; indeed, they sometimes recognize that there were positive as well as negative features in it. It is also true that only a few denounce the "injustices" they suffered.

The fact that the former are less numerous than the others does not necessarily imply that they are exceptions. It could mean that other former members, who could testify to the same facts, do not do so for other reasons, including:

1. Fear due to the continued presence inside the group of a relative one has to go on living with or whom one is afraid of losing once and for all, or whom one hopes to help "recover."

2. Blackmail of various kinds, both emotional and financial.

3. Shame for taking part in not entirely "transparent" activities when one was involved in the group.

4. A psychological reaction of total rejection of the past experience, felt to be foreign to one's own picture of oneself, a defensive desire not to mention this part of one's past any more.

5. Involved minors are not always able to testify suitably to any psychological or physical abuse they may have suffered.

6. A left-over phobia induced by the leadership, which leads to the notion that those who do not keep secrets may suffer mishap or disaster of some kind

Who can decide whether the silence of the majority of former members is more reliable than the dramatic testimony of a minority of "apostates"? Who can decide that "apostates" are "bad" former members, and that all the others are "good"? Can some percentages here and there in one hurried study finally prove a principle which can then be generalized to all groups and all situations? And what about the statement that "apostates" accuse the groups they used to belong to in court only to be awarded damages, or in order to get publicity for their story, or to publish their autobiography for money? Who can establish the intentions of people? Could it not be that an "apostate" decides to testify or to ask for an indemnity or to write a book simply because he considers it to be a useful action for mankind? One could say the same thing about a couple who decides to sue a doctor who, in their opinion, has caused the death of their child through negligence. They will certainly ask to for damages, but are they doing so because they want to get rich, or because they want to see justice enforced and want to prevent the doctor from repeating the same mistake with others? In terms of principle, why is such a notion not also applicable in the case of "apostates"?

When the conscience of a person is involved, the scholar might do best to bow his head and say, "this is a task for God and not for me." While one can investigate the actions of a person, it is much harder to establish the real reason why he performs them. And this holds true for the members and leaders of NRM's. While one may criticize their actions, statements, and doctrines, nobody can reliably and easily judge their intentions. The history of mankind is replete with examples of people who did a great deal of damage to others, thinking to do well.

As we see it, there is a tendency to be very indulgent towards the organizations involved, but ferocious towards so-called "apostates," even though the latter - while denouncing the abuses they have suffered - rarely deny, in their often very painful confessions, having made serious mistakes themselves. Considering the complex and delicate nature of this issue, it would perhaps be best to establish some objectivity and formulate research hypotheses that are not prejudiced and which use diverse methods of investigation.

Who Wants the Funeral of "Brainwashing"?

What is the basic issue behind this matter? It is what is commonly called "brainwashing." This expression, coined by a journalist named Hunter, today is merely a metaphor, and like all metaphors expresses a complex notion by using a picture, in this case images reminiscent of Frank Sinatra's role in the movie, The Manchurian Candidate.

Some people are scandalised by the very mention of this expression; others, like Benjamin Zablocki, are not afraid to use it because "It may also be the most misunderstood of all these terms, but I see that as an advantage, since using the term impels us to face these misunderstandings head-on instead of avoiding them with linguistic sleights of hand." [3]

What causes so much distrust among scholars is not simply the metaphor, but what it means. Admitting the possibility that some form of mind conditioning might be practised on members within an NRM is something of a holy monster to be exorcised, in order to achieve the noble purpose of defending religious freedom at all costs.

We agree entirely with those who wish to defend religious freedom, but not at all costs, not at the cost of closing an eye to violations of other, equally fundamental, human rights. First of all, we should establish what a "religion" is, and what, on the other hand, is mystifcation, exploitation, abuse of credulity, etc. These issues, however, would take a thorough investigation, and they are not the purpose of this article. Zablocki says:

I am convinced, based on more than three decades of studying NRMs through participant-observation and through interviews with both members and ex-members, that these movements have unleashed social and psychological forces of truly awesome power. These forces have wreaked havoc in many lives - in both adults and in children. It is these social and psychological influence processes that the social scientist has both the right and the duty to try to understand, regardless of whether such understanding will ultimately prove helpful or harmful to the cause of religious liberty. [4]

He then concludes that "the real sociological issue ought not to be whether brainwashing ever occurs but rather whether it occurs frequently enough to be considered an important social problem." [5] This scholar, however, suggests focusing the study of this phenomenon, not on the recruiting methods used by groups, but on the processes which make it enormously difficult to leave them, and which continue to condition people even after they have left: "Does something occur to create, in the mind of the person, a social-psychological prison without guards or walls?" [6]

These suggestions can help serious scholars avoid confusing ideology, philosophy, and culture with a scientific approach. Why after all should we totally deny the possibility that certain groups, under certain conditions, can actually practice some form of mental conditioning? How can we otherwise explain cases of collective suicide or mental illnesses which recur constantly among people who join such groups, or why "normal" people can firmly believe absurd and unimaginable things and go on doing so even when it is proved that these do not exist?

What is worrying is the attempt to minimise such episodes and to downplay their enormous seriousness. Unfortunately, even the case of Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out a poison gas outrage in the Tokyo subway, has received this "softening down" treatment from religion scholars who raised an outcry about persecution of the group led by Shoko Asahara.

Here are the words of Haifa University psychologist Benjamin Beit Hallahmi, who, after describing the sarin outrage in Tokyo on March 20, 1995, which led to the death of 13 people and injury to many others, says:

According to media reports, four Americans arrived in Tokyo to defend Aum Shinrikyo against charges of mass terrorism. Two of them were NRM scholars. According to these reports, they stated that Aum Shinrikyo could not have produced the gas used in the attack, and called on Japanese police not to "crush a religion and deny freedom" (Reid, 1995; Reader, 1995). [7]

Actually, the author of the article says, the Japanese authorities had been rather negligent before, if not actually conniving with, the criminal operations of Aum Shinrikyo, precisely because it was an NRM. The author complains of the ostentatiously favorable attitude of his colleagues, and says that this kind of behavior not only involved Aum Shinrikyo, but recurs constantly among NRM scholars, and is in his opinion deplorable. [8] A Cult Observer summary of a Washington Post article indicated that the American scholars' "visit was not well received in Japan" [9] because it had been widely reported that Aum had paid for their ticket to Japan and because the Japanese public believed it already knew more than enough to consider Aum guilty.

Concerning this matter, it should be said that "actually, at the opening of the press conference held in Japan, J. Gordon Melton [one of the American scholars to whom Beit-Hallahmi refers] stated that the travelling expenses - 'but no kind of fee' - had been paid for by Aum Shinrikyo." [10] Whoever gave out the news, the facts stand and speak for themselves.

What we wish to stress is that tragedies like those we have just mentioned invite all of us, scholars included, to look for a plausible explanation of the phenomenon and for possible ways to prevent others from happening. Sticking one's head in the sand like an ostrich is of no use. One should lift up one's head, open up one's eyes and ears, and use one's brain without making exceptions for anybody, if the safety of human lives, and their psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being depends on this.

Going back to those who are trying to understand and investigate these issues honestly and without prejudices, we find a proposal by Zablocki interesting. He says that the notion of "brainwashing" should be defined again, and then treated like any other notion of social psychology. The idea that "brainwashing" must involve the denial of free choice is based on wrong premises. "Brainwashing" does not in fact state that people are not able to choose freely, but they choose freely on the basis of values that are different and which have been totally restructured according to the viewpoint of the group and its leader. Zablocki holds that there is a sequence of events that can be observed in the notion of "brainwashing" and that sometimes lasts for years. "This visible and relatively unambiguous sequence consists of four steps: (1) affiliation, (2) lifestyle modification, (3) disaffiliation, and (4) disenchantment." [11]

Zablocki's main hypothesis is that under certain circumstances a person can be subjected to a form of persuasion that can transform his or her values of reference and notion of personal identity. This is a special kind of persuasion that is performed within a strongly united group, which largely or totally controls the environment around the individual, and which uses stress and disorientation to exercise its influence. The peculiarity of this kind of persuasion lies in the fact that it persists even after the individual has left the group, as well as in the terror of leaving the group it brings about, as if the very life of the individual depended on his or her belonging to the group. Of course, even though these aspects are easy to observe, there is no reason to think they are present, or have the same intensity, in every group. There may also be individuals who are hard to condition, since the process varies from individual to individual.

Zablocki also says that, in his opinion, "…brainwashing is likely to always remain a relatively rare phenomenon because of the difficulty of achieving the high degree of mileu control and charismatic influence necessary to make it effective. [12]

We believe that the problem is that of identifying the level of conditioning a person must be subjected to before we can speak of brainwashing. This problem of definiton arises because there are several levels or degrees of conditioning inside different movements, as well as different sensitivities and reactions on the part of individuals subjected to environmental stimulation. Zablocki holds that "brainwashing" is a relatively rare affair, and he does so on the basis of his experience and of his assessment categories. Other scholars hold that it does not exist at all, yet others imply that it happens quite frequently. The frequency of this phenomenon is still harder to establish when we are dealing with children or very young people, or with people who have psychological problems. The controversy about the existence, frequency, and intensity of mental manipulation inside NRM's has also been dealt with in committees of various European parliaments, which have drawn up reports after the recent mass suicides.

European Governmental Committees

Concerning this issue, it is worth while to remember what Massimo Introvigne had to say about the committee of the Belgian Parliament:

This committee claims to have "taken note of the division in the academic world," and to have decided to choose sides. "On the basis of its own proceedings (and especially on hearings of dozens of former victims) the committee comes to the conclusion that it cannot share the conclusions of the group of sociologists of religions, since the latter clearly underestimate the potential dangers which cultic organizations pose, due to a restrictive and unilateral approach that such sociologists adopt." Especially, the sociologists - and CESNUR - deny the existence of "mental manipulation," whereas the committee has "been presented with several testimonies on this matter" which have convinced them that the opposite holds true. The committee also takes the liberty of preaching to the sociologists, since it "deplores the conclusions of this type of analysis which refer to 'new religious movements' being published without a thorough examination. From an ethical point of view, it is highly disputable to consider a cultic organization as a 'new religious movement (…). Analyses of this kind, which ignore one side of reality, end up by justifying to a certain extent harmful cultic organizations. The result is to give them carte blanche, or at least to allow them to perform their dangerous activities more easily." [13]

We find another mention of the attitude of the Committee towards CESNUR in an article by Julien Ries :

The Committee severely reprimanded the first group, CESNUR, for having published the book, Pour en Finir Avec les Sectes, where 22 authors discredit the "Report by the Committee of Inquiry of the French National Assembly, judged not to be scientific" since it provided moral justification for numerous representatives of cult organizations during the hearings in Brussels, because of its support for the new religious movements. [14]

The Belgian parliamentary report was severely criticised for having included some perfectly "orthodox" Catholic groups in its list of 189 movements. Some used this to try to alarm the public, saying more or less: "Catholics, beware, if we approve the methods of the Belgian Parliament Committee (which accepts testimonies by 'apostates'), some Catholic groups could also be labelled as cults!"

This of course would, quite rightly, cause a chorus of indignation in the Catholic world. As a result, people of faith would start to embrace the same positions of total distrust towards "apostates" and towards "anti-cult" movements, which are a resource for families trying to "recover" loved ones who belong to various kinds of "cults." This could lead to a new opinion crusade, which, however, we believe would be entirely out of place.

We believe no such possibility existed, exists, or will exist. The Belgian parliament report issued on April 28, 1997, does include some Catholic groups in its list of 189 movements, but a note on the side makes a very important point:

… this list in no way expresses any judgement or any stand on the part of the committee; further examination of these movements must be made and the chart must be updated constantly.

Moreover, on page 209, the text says that the commitee was able to make a census of 189 organizations that "might belong to one of the three categories it laid down within the framework of a definition," i.e., harmless sects or new religions, a sect or new religion which is harmful for individuals and societies, and criminal associations. In other words, the committee de facto admits having mixed all groups together, leaving various people or bodies free to make further classifications. [15]

So the 189 movements (which also include some Catholic groups) are not distinguished within the three categories chosen by the Committee, which obviously did not want to take the responsibility of putting on paper which groups are dangerous and which are not. Of course, the fact that Catholic movements were listed together with truly dangerous cults led to protests from the bishops as well. The parliament finally approved the Report, but decided not to place the list of movements in its conclusions, but only to consider an Appendix. [16]

We believe this is sufficient to prove that it is simply not true that the Belgian Parliament called Opus Dei or other Catholic groups dangerous cults. It is also a manipulation of facts to blame the "anti-cult" movements, the "apostates," or anybody who believes brainwashing exists in NRM's for the fact that Catholic groups too were listed. If the Committee drew up such a list, it was because of testimonies and evidence which they found to be credible. And in any case, when a Parliament Committee is established after massacres like that of the Solar Temple, the people who have the most right to be heard are the victims, and States have the duty to investigate the dangerousness of groups. The fact that the Committee kept to general terms, not fitting the various groups into the three categories, is certainly a pity, since it seems to confuse them with each other, and this appears to be a justified criticism. However, it does not allow anybody to pick and falsely represent facts in order to "grind his own axe."

We think a few comments should be made here. The Catholic Church is certainly not a cult, since it has none of the features of one, even when the religious experience is lived most intensely. However, it is impossible to deny that during its long history, there have been deviations on the edge of the Church, doctrinal deviations and cases of sectarian groups (today generally called pseudo-Catholic). The Bishops have often taken steps in such cases, sometimes also against priests, members of religious orders, nuns, or even other Bishops who have strayed from the authentic doctrine. Who can deny that in such deviant groups, there may have been cases of small or large "cults" with manipulative methods of recruitment and indoctrination similar to those of other "cults"? The Pastors themselves have often warned the faithful not to believe blindly in seers, prophets, or "holy men" of various kinds, who blend the authentic faith the Church has in the existence of supernatural phenomena with fanaticism and sectarianism. We must acknowledge that the Church is both saintly and sinful, and we must all take steps so as not to stick our heads in the sand like ostriches, but to see, warn, and help those who are confused or led astray by deviant doctrines.

For a believer, this does not mean kidnapping, threatening, imprisoning or blackmailing; that is, forcing those who are making a mistake to go back to the authentic faith. It means respectfully engaging in dialogue and telling the person the truth clearly, advising him or her of the possibly serious consequences of the choice he or she is about to make or has made. Afterwards, the person will freely choose and his brothers in the faith can only pray and witness the Gospel with greater determination and courage than before. Perhaps someone will be able to find a denial of religious freedom even in these words. We believe, however, that it is simply a form of the "fraternal correction" that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel.

The same blend of charity and truth must be used, albeit in a different form, with all those who - even outside the Catholic world - are involved in groups and movements of various kinds where some elements can be found which can make one suspect so-called "brainwashing." If this notion is interpreted and used in a balanced form, moderately and with respect for others, it can help us to understand the inside dynamics of certain NRM's better, and provide help according to the circumstances.

Brainwashing and Deprogramming

So it seems to us neither useful nor honest to want the "funeral" of this notion at all costs so as to be able to justify the abuse of personal freedom which exists in certain groups. According to Zablocki, this is what many of his colleagues have done: the notion of "brainwashing" has been treated without respect, declared guilty, and set aside without a decent scientific trial. This improper treatment has been called "blacklisting" by Zablocki. [17] He claims that most scholars have not been able to refute this theory; they have simply swept it under the carpet. Others have used it in a distorted fashion in court, and this distortion has led to prejudices against those scholars who do want to investigate the phenomenon and who are accused, for this reason only, of belonging to "anti-cult" movements.

We have personally seen this bad habit of labeling others simplisticly, unfairly, and disrepectfully. However, because of the loose fashion with which some label people or associations with derogatory terms such as "anti-cult," this adjective has lost much of its power. This happens whenever a category or a definition is abused. Equal over-use has been made of the term "deprogramming." Nobody denies that in the past, some made use of violent techniques and kidnapped people in order to make them leave a "religious" group. Those who used such methods merely put another kind of "brainwashing" into practice, equally unacceptable and injurious to personal freedom. But, without going so far, there are also people who - while entirely disapproving of deprogramming - believe that certain "religious" organisations apply a high degree of conditioning on their followers. One could also ask those who refuse to believe in the reality of "brainwashing" to consider what deprogrammers do to people. How can one accuse deprogrammers of using coercive techniques similar to "brainwashing" when these techniques are not supposed to exist? What kind of scientific theory is this, which claims a phenomenon exists only when applied by a certain category of people (deprogrammers in this case)? If "brainwashing" exists, it exists, whether it is applied by charismatic leaders or by deprogrammers; if it does not exist, then we can accuse nobody of practicing it.

Someone might object that, whereas deprogrammers kidnap their "prey," people who join a religious movement do so freely. We believe this method of affiliation, which Zablocki considers to be unimportant in terms of defining "brainwashing," deserves some comments. If it were true that joining a group always took place with full respect for the freedom of the individual, we would certainly agree with this approach. But things are actually quite different. Let us consider a few concrete examples:

1. A person looking for a job lands up in an employment agency, where he is put through "capacity" tests, in order to investigate his capacities for a future job. If he then found himself, without realising it, a member of a psycho-religious group, he could walk away, but what if he has already been conditioned, and has already been subjected to pressure from the group, which has become his emotional point of reference? Can we still say the individual has joined the group freely? And what if part of the doctrine were kept hidden from the person, to be revealed only when he is held to be "ready" by the leaders? In this case, could we still say that the person was fully aware of what lay ahead of him at the moment he made his choice?

2. A student with problems studying a foreign language receives an attractive invitation with cartoons to a church where he will receive language lessons from mother-tongue teachers. He goes there, and after a while, he is presented with "strange" texts in the foreign language, which tell the life of the founder of a religion, and how he was granted the "great revelation," and the teachers begin to praise the virtues of this figure, saying they are his followers. If this were followed up by kind invitations to take part in religious services, chant special prayers, would it not be right to say that the person approached the group for entirely different reasons, and was then gently (i.e., without kidnapping) led elsewhere?

3. A Christian is approached by a friendly "missionary" who offers him a free home study of the Bible. This Christian could well accept in order to try to take a deeper look at his own faith. But suppose the "bible" studied at home were not the Bible after all, and the homeowner too uninformed to realize it? If the alterations in the text led him to abandon his previous religion to embrace the one offered by his "teacher," in such a case could we still say that the person freely and with awareness chose a religion, or would it be better to say he had simply been tricked?

Countless examples of this sort could be made. They lead us to think that "kidnapping" may take many forms. Current laws rightly punish some kinds of kidnapping, others (unfortunately, in our opinion) do not. However, they take place every day, right under our eyes.

Who Finances Research on New Religious Movements?

Scientific research is always partial because it is human and hence limited; however, one can well imagine how partial it can be when, as in this case, it is affected by prejudices or when some suspicions exist even as to its integrity and objectivity. Zablocki says:

With regard to finances, a major obstacle toward the sort of progress desired is the cloud of secrecy that surrounds the funding of research on NRMs. The sociology of religion can no longer avoid the unpleasant ethical question of how to deal with the large sums of money being pumped into the field by the religious groups being studied and, to a lesser extent, by their opponents. Whether in the form of subvention of research expenses, subvention of publications, opportunities to sponsor and attend conferences, or direct fees for services, this money is not insignificant, and its influence on research findings and positions taken on scholarly disputes is largely unknown…I know there will be great resistance to opening this can of worms, but I do not think there is any choice. This is an issue that is slowly but surely building toward a public scandal…I am not implying that it is necessarily wrong to accept funding from interested parties, whether pro or anti, but I do think there needs to be some more public accounting of where the money is coming from and what safeguards have been taken to assure that this money is not interfering with scientific objectivity. [18]

To provide an example, Zablocki gives some details on the funds he himself used for his research. [19] Some might say that such insinuations are unfounded and are part of a campaign of defamation against certain scholars. Zablocki, however, bases his statements also on a document dated December 20, 1989, which he received himself:

I was one of the recipients on the mistaken belief that I would be sympathetic to the ideas expressed. Even though the email message has been widely distributed and is famous throughout the discipline, I see no need to embarass the author by citing his name. [20]

This message includes an account of

a meeting of a few sociologists of religion in 1989 shortly after an incident (discussed below) which resulted in their failure to get the American Sociological Association to endorse a statement to the United States Supreme Court denying the scientific validity of the brainwashing conjecture.[21]

In fairness, it should be noted that this memo was prepared by one of the meeting's participants and sent to others, some of whom disagreed with certain points in the memo. Nevertheless, the tone of the memo and the subject matter of the meeting clearly indicate that this was not a group of dispassionate scholars seeking truth, but advocates seeking to promote a point of view that tends to gloss over, if even acknowledge, the destructive aspects of some new religious movements.

Beit-Hallahmi mentions this same message:

I have before me a piece of evidence which reveals significant collusion between researchers and NRMs. This is a confidential memorandum, dated December 20, 1989, and authored by an NRM researcher, who stated that he was writing on behalf of two other leading researchers, all of them sociologists. Copies of this document have been circulated by an anti-NRM group, and its authenticity is beyond any doubt. It is significant that this document has been sent to a long list of sociologists by email, and has been cited before. It is embarrassing to refer to a confidential memo written by a dear colleague, but no less embarrassing has been the experience of witnessing dear colleagues act as collaborators and shills for a variety of masquarading organizations. This document reports on a series of meetings and activities involving several NRM scholars, NRM attorneys, NRM leaders, and some other scholars…What is striking is the clear sense in which the leading members of the NRM research network regarded NRMs as allies, not subjects of study. It seems that the scholars were more eager than the NRMs to lead the fight for NRM legitimacy. [22]

Immediately after, Beit-Hallahmi, quotes a few lines from the email:

Our meetings with the members of the Unification Church confirmed our earlier impressions that … their response is very substantially confined to ad hoc responses to crises. I pressed them on the question of whether it might be possible for the UC in collaboration with several other NRMs to raise a significant amount of money - no strings attached - to an independent group, which in turn, would entertain proposals and fund research on NRMs. NRMS were less than enthusiastic, the writer thought, and "The cooperative funding of the American Conference on Religious Freedom would appear to be about as far as they are prepared to go at this time" (Confidential, 1989, p. 4). In addition to the idea of creating an NRM-funded research organization…we spent a good deal of time considering whether the time might be right to import … INFORM or create a US organization that would perform a similar function … INFORM has taken a very significant step in neutralizing anti-cult movements in the UK (Confidential, 1989, p. 5). [23]

Beit-Hallahmi then reminds his readers of the foundation in 1992, of AWARE, the Association of World Academics for Religious Freedom, which includes among its founding purposes the promotion of the defense of freedom of religion. After a few comments, the author says: "In light of what we have witnessed we are forced to re-read, our eyes fresh with suspicion, the whole corpus of NRM literature." [24]


We would like to finish with the words of our Pastors, who - in their sensitivity for the spiritual health of their flock - are interested in the new challenge posed by cults, a challenge typical of our times, and who on May 30, 1993, approved the Pastoral Note of the Secretariat for Ecumenism and Dialogue of the Italian Bishops' Conference. The Bishops, after listing certain reasons why people join cults and stay in them, say the following:

Other motivations are to be sought in a psychological context. Belonging to a cult is an easy refuge for people who are psychologically disturbed, who need a kind of safety which does not demand the price of a personal search. Sometimes, members of cults are bound by forms of emotional and psychological coercion, of control and vigilance, so much so that this can lead to an actual limitation of personal freedom. [25]

This Pastoral Note also stresses what we believe to be an indisputable reality: that the right attitude towards the phenomenon of cults must be based on dialogue, "without falling into eirenism or sectarianism." The Note goes on to provide pastoral advice that is rich in opportunities for dialogue, charity, and respect for individuals.

We fully embrace these pastoral instructions, trusting that they will be shared by all men and women of good will, whatever their religious orientation.


[1] Benjamin Zablocki, "The blacklisting of a concept. the strange history of the brainwashing conjecture in the sociology of religion," Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, vol. 1, n. 1 (October, 1997), pp. 96-121 (p. 98). This article was published in October 1997. The second article, a continuation of the first, was published in April 1998 always in Nova Religio. A reply by D. Bromley and Zablocki's reply to him were also published.

[2] Ibid., p. 113.

[3] Ibid., Note 17 - p. 117.

[4] Ibid., p. 97-98.

[5] Ibid., p. 99.

[6] Ibid., p. 101.

[7] Benjamin Beit Hallahmi, "Dear collegaues: integrity and suspicion in NRM research," paper presented at the 1997 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, p. 1.

[8] cfr. Ibid.

[9] "American Aum Apologists Not Believed." Cult Observer, July/August, 1995, p. 10. (Based on T. R. Reid, "U.S. Visitors Boost Cause of Japanese Cult." The Washington Post, May 9, 1995, A8.)

[10] M. Introvigne, "Movimenti anti-sette e ricerca scientifica," in Giovanni Cantoni e M. Introvigne, Libertà religiosa, "sette" e "diritto di persecuzione, Cristianità, Piacenza 1996, p. 142.

[11] Benjamin Zablocki, Ibid., p103.

[12] Ibid., p. 103.

[13] M. Introvigne, "Il ritorno dei giacobini: il rapporto della commissione parlamentare belga d'inchiesta sulle sette," 2. Il metodo, CESNUR, 1997. Le retour des Jacobins, Massimo Introvigne et CESNUR,

[14] Julien Ries, "Sette e nuovi movimenti religiosi davanti alla Commissione Parlamentare Belga," Religioni e Sette nel mondo: Rivista Trimestrale di Cultura Religiosa, Anno 3, n. 2 (giugno 1997), pp. 175-193 (p. 183)

[15] Ibid., p. 185-186.

[16] Cfr. Ibid., p. 187.

[17] cfr. Benjamin Zablocki, Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p. 116.

[19] Ibid., p. 121. - nota 70.

[20] Ibid., p. 118. - nota 29.

[21] Ibid., p. 107. This is the well-kown episode of the Amicus brief (a statement by some scholars who claimed there was no reason to claim that physical coercion could be replaced by another form of coercion in the process of "brainwashing"), first signed and then withdrawn by ASA. An executive officer of ASA appears to have simply signed the brief, arbitrarily taking the place of the entire ASA, and delivered it to the Supreme Court (as if ASA had approved it officially) before discussing it with the Council. He later admitted having made a mistake in good faith, believing the discussion had already taken place. However there is no trace of this assumed discussion in his documents. The hurried and secretive nature of these operations shows something of the atmosphere in the late '80s. (Benjamin Zablocki, personal e-mail communication; also asserted in documents submitted to ASA at the time by Richard Ofshe).

[22] Benjamin Beit Hallahmi, Ibid., p. 4.

[23] Ibid., p. 4.

[24] Ibid., p. 5.

[25] Segretariato per l'ecumenismo e il dialogo della CEI, "L'impegno pastorale della Chiesa di fronte ai nuovi movimenti religiosi e alle sette,,Nota Pastorale del 30 Maggio 1993, Edizioni Paoline, Milano, 1993, pag. 16.


Earlier versions of this article were originally published first on the GRIS-Roma Web site ( and then on the first issue of AFF's Internet journal ( It is reprinted here with permission of the authors.

Alberto Amitrani is the former president of GRIS Rome, Italy. GRIS (Group for Research and Information about Sects [Cults]) is a non-profit cultural and religious association, organised on February 8, 1987 and involved in researching, studying, and disseminating information concerning "new religious movements." On September 25, 1990, the articles of association of GRIS received the approval of the Italian Bishops' Conference. Raffaella Di Marzio is President, GRIS Rome. She set up a support and counseling centre in Rome, for all those troubled, directly or indirectly, by experiences associated with belonging to a cult. Dr. Di Marzio and her husband, Dr. Amitrani, both have two degrees, one in Psychology (University "La Sapienza" of Rome, 1981) and one in Educational Science (Pontifical Salesian University, 1981). Moreover they both have the Superior Diploma in Religious Science from the Institute for Religious Studies Ecclesia Mater, linked to the faculty of theology of Pontifical Lateran University. They have been teachers in a Senior High School in Rome since 1981.

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 122-142. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.