Critiques of the ‘Brainwashing’ Thesis
1998 Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements | Lorne L Dawson
An excellent easy-to-read introduction to the sociology of New Religious Movements, notable for the 125 page discussion in Chapter Four: “Are Converts to new Religious Movements ‘Brainwashed’? which contains a 12-point critique of the concept of brainwashing’.
The rest of the book is well worth the effort for Scientology-watchers, as it provides background information about general features of New Religious Movements.
1980 The New Vigilantes | Anson D Shupe Jr and David G Bromley
In the 1970s a new occupation briefly emerged – that of ‘deprogrammer’. At this time, there was a widespread belief that emerging religious movements (such as the ‘Moonies’, which were prominent at the time) owed their converts to a programme of ‘brainwashing’. This implied that converts were not responsible for their actions.
Deprogrammers took this belief to its logical conclusion, and were prepared (for payment) to kidnap people who had joined New Religious Movements and submit them to coercive ‘brainwashing’ tactics to remove their allegiance. Unqualified individuals set themselves as vigilantes, and their activities did at least as much harm as the new religions themselves.
The authors critique the ‘brainwashing’ thesis, examine the strange period when anti-cultist ‘deprogrammers’ behaved at least as badly as the cults that they opposed, and consider the most appropriate response to the rise of controversial religious movements.
1981 Strange Gods | David G Bromley and Anson D Shupe Jr
When this book was published, New Religious Movement were first beginning to appear in US society, causing considerable controversy and not a little moral panic.
This book briefly outlines the history and beliefs of a number of the New Religious Movements that were current at the time, including the Unification Church (the ‘Moonies’) and Scientology – including their manipulative behaviour and controversial finances.
However, it of interest here for the author’s description of inappropriate and repressive social responses to this development – especially their insightful critiques of early ‘anti-cultist’ and ‘deprogramming’ movements (which were, potentially, as harmful as the cults themselves).
Books which discuss ‘Brainwashing’
1961 Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism | Robert Jay Lifton
Lifton (a qualified psychiatrist) based this book on interviews with US servicemen who had been subjected to coercive ‘thought reform’ as POWs during the Korean war, and Chinese Citizens who fled their country after experiencing similar treatment during the cultural revolution.
It is significant that almost all of the POWs, although often traumatised, resumed their pre-war personalities when they returned home, and the Chinese interviewed managed the difficult feat of escaping a closed country while actually being ‘brainwashed’.
The techniques identified by Lifton, on their own, seem to be ineffective in ‘ideal’ circumstances, and rely on having the victim under complete physical control. Consequently, ‘brainwashing’ does not explain personality change among Cult members who are rarely imprisoned, and never during the early stages of involvement.