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 “brainwashing” techniques used
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 behavior 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 the explanation for the otherwise unexplainable behavior.
However, the brainwashing theory did nothing to explain why hundreds of other captured
GI’s who chose to remain true to their country even at the risk of being tortured or even
murdered. It couldn’t accurately explain for the behavior of few GI’s when it didn’t offer
any explanation for the behavior of the majority.
Since the 1950’s, the concept of brainwashing has faded in and out of public’s eyes 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
behavior of so-called radicals who left behind a “normal” life and choose instead for a
Although scholars of new religious movements would agree that religious groups often have
great influence over their followers, they would also debate that the “influence forced in
"cults" is not very different from influence that is present in practically every aspect
of life,” (19 Oct 1999). Mainstream religions also exercise influence over their members
concerning matters such as lifestyle choices, family relations and financial donations.
Furthermore, most sociologists concede that some degree of influence is expected in each
culture and surface of life even outside the area of religious choice.
Despite the fact that there do not appear to be any studies that provide evidence of
brainwashing as a legitimate explanation for joining a cult, 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 behavior that is otherwise culturally unjustifiable.
If brainwashing is not an valid explanation for the conversion of people to cults than
what is? A common theme on the anti-cult side of the conversion debate is the argument
that members are, to varying degrees, predisposed to becoming cult members. This supposed
predisposition is commonly thought to be a product of depression, grief, loneliness and a
life filled with successive failures. However, as recent studies have shown, this is not
entirely true. Although many people who seek out
Cult followers are suffering with depression or have realized some setbacks the same could
be said of some that seek out mainstream religions for the same reasons, namely to feel
better about themselves and to find purpose and meaning in life.
Shelley Leibert, an instructor with the Unification Church, has discussed two main types
of people that pass through the UC camps (Dawson, 1996:204). Leibert describes one type as
being well rounded, successful and secure while the other is described as being drug
users, dropouts and drifters. Leibert concludes that it is the latter that are most
unlikely to dedicate themselves to the lifestyle of the UC.