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Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2002

Can Scholars Be Deceived? Empirical Evidence from Social Psychology and History

Steve K. D. Eichel, Ph.D.


NRM apostates who have been deprogrammed or exit-counseled have been largely discounted by scholars in the fields of religion and the sociology of religion. I submit that this is a result of bias and is in effect throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is a fact that the simplistic "brainwashing" paradigm adopted by some deprogrammed or exit-counseled apostates did not predict or explain the large number of voluntary defectors, or the inability of NRMs to effectively recruit and retain new members. Eileen Barker is correct when she states that (and I am paraphrasing), if cults are trying to brainwash people, they are doing a lousy job of it.

But the fact - and I admit to this fact - that the majority of cultists do not appear to be harmed by their involvement does not necessarily mean that their group is harmless, or that they have not been exposed to harmful influence. History is replete with examples of the poor judgment and even tyranny of majorities; it is why we have checks and balances in our republic. Perhaps we need to be more like biochemists and physicians in our research strategies. When a drug works on 90% of patients, but seems to be associated with harmful side effects in the other 10%, medical researchers do not simply discount the complaints of the minority. The FDA and the courts do not accept these kinds of percentages, either. Rather, these researchers work hard to determine what is causing the harmful effects, and if the effects cannot be remedied, the drug may be pulled off the market. Although First-Amendment rights preclude "pulling cults off the market," these rights certainly do not, as some researchers seem to imply, ban criticisms of cults. Indeed, the added protection the First-Amendment gives to religious cults obligates us to be forthright and bold in our criticisms in order to safeguard the rights of cult victims.

I wish to end my comments with some thoughts that might allow for future cooperation in our respective fields of research and study. I believe anyone who studies highly controversial and polarizing social movements needs to be especially respectful of how prior biases impact on subsequent research strategies and interpretations of data. In fact, I go so far as to state that it is not enough to rely on ourselves and our like-minded peers; we need to routinely employ critical consultants from "the opposing side" to keep us honest. This advice applies to cult critics as well as so-called cult apologists.