Brainwashing in New Religious Movements

Brainwashing in New Religious Movements


In Emine Saner’s article “I was a Moonie Cult Leader”, The Guardian, September 3, 2012  ( Steven Hassan confesses that he was a cult leader. He joined the unification church when he was 19 and was a part of it for just over two years. In the article, he makes it very clear that he felt as though he was brainwashed, “I did not think I was vulnerable to being brainwashed by a cult.” He also makes it clear that he believes brainwashing is the only reason why someone would join a cult, “people don’t knowingly join cults.” Steven is not alone in this view, most people today would still associate cults with brainwashing.

The Fifth Estate (CBC) put on a documentary about the unification church. In the documentary, the reporter went to San Francisco and encountered first-hand what the unification church is like. He spent an evening in their base right in San Francisco and then also spent a weekend at their camp outside the city. Throughout all of this was mixed interviews with current members, former members, and parents of members. The obvious objective of the film was to point out how this group brainwashes people into joining the church, giving the church all their possessions, and then working 16 (and sometimes more) hours a day for the church. The reporter seems to put a negative spin on almost everything that has to do with the unification church and makes it seem as if the people in it are in need of help.

This is a very dangerous mentality that can result in serious harm to people who are a part of new religious movements. If people truly believe that their loved ones are being brainwashed, then they may go to extreme measures to “bring them back to reality”. This most often takes the form of deprogrammization which is a process of convincing someone that what they’re doing is wrong and making them believe the alternative. In the article, Steven makes mention of a commonly used deprogramming technique, “They hired former members to do an intervention with me.”  Often deprogrammers will bring in former cult members to talk with their clients in hopes that their client will see that others have questioned and left the cult before them.

I find the idea of brainwashing fairly interesting because as a member of a religious group (Christianity) I have been asked before if I felt as though I’ve been brain washed by the church. Even though Christianity is a very large and well-respected religion, people have still felt that there are aspects of it that cause brainwashing. When people ask me that question, my first response is usually to get defensive. However, I sometimes wonder if there is an amount of truth to it. I think that the word brainwashing is much too strong but when I look at some people who are a part of my religious community, I often see an incapability to think for themselves. All too often people will blindly follow those who are in leadership (of any kind, not just religious) without thinking for themselves. This is very different from brainwashing but they are somewhat related.

I believe that although members of religions (including cults) may not be brainwashed, they may be blindly following someone who is in a position of influence or leadership, making it appear as though they are brainwashed.


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