Cult Conversion: Freewill Or Brainwashing?

This essay has a total of 959 words and 5 pages.

Cult Conversion: Freewill Or Brainwashing?


The controversy surrounding new religious movements seems to be foremost concerned with
whether or not the members of these religions come of their own freewill or if they
convert as a necessary and inevitable response to advanced coercion, or “brainwashing”
techniques employed by the cult leaders.


The concept of brainwashing came into popular existence in the 1950’s as the result of
attempts to try and explain the behaviour of some American GI’s who defected to the
Communists during the Korean War (19 Oct 1999). Many people, including some professionals,
found brainwashing to be an acceptable explanation for the otherwise unexplainable
behaviour. However, the brainwashing theory did nothing to explain why hundreds of other
captured GI’s chose to remain true to their country even at the risk of being tortured. It
could not accurately account for the behaviour of a select few GI’s when it did not offer
any explanation for the behaviour of the majority.


Since the 1950’s, the concept of brainwashing has faded in and out of public consciousness
with a tendency to flare up again in the face of public controversy. In the 1960’s and
1970’s the brainwashing debate again took center stage, this time in an attempt to explain
the behaviour of so-called radicals who left behind a “normal” life and opted instead for
a “cult” existence.


Although scholars of new religious movements would agree that religious groups often have
substantial influence over their followers, they would also argue that the “influence
exerted in "cults" is not very different from influence that is present in practically
every arena of life,” (19 Oct 1999). Mainstream religions also exercise influence over
their members concerning matters such as lifestyle choices, familial relations and
monetary donations. Furthermore, most social scientists concede that some degree of
influence is inevitable in each culture and facet of life even outside the arena of
religious choice.


Despite the fact that there do not appear to be any studies that conclusively provide
evidence of brainwashing as a legitimate explanation for joining an NRM, and in spite of
the many studies that have refuted that brainwashing defense successfully, the
brainwashing theory continues to be debated regularly. The concept of brainwashing is
still often relied on to account for behaviour that is otherwise culturally unjustifiable.


If brainwashing is not an appropriate explanation for the conversion of people to NRM’s
than what is? A common theme on the anti-cult side of the conversion debate is the
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