Something to Think About: The Psychological Impact of New Religious Movements
Many new religious movements tend to have a negative connotation attached to them. Scholars of the discipline have strived to present and study them in an objective, neutral manner, and have done so quite successfully. For instance, hypotheses on brainwashing and deprogramming for the most part have been disregarded, as the plethora of knowledge has evolved. However, this does not mean these groups are exempt of having psychological impact on their members. On November 1, 2014, Julia Llewellyn Smith published the article, “How a cult stole my life,” for The Telegraph . In the article, Smith presents her interview with author, Taylor Stevens, who was born and raised in the cult, Children of God also known as The Family (2014). Stevens delves into many hardships she faced such as, the limited education, being forced to beg for money as a means of financial income for the group, and being separated from her family (Smith, 2014). Not to mention, being sexually abused, which she chooses not to discuss in any depth, as she believes the other issues receive little attention, and were still of profound influence (Smith, 2014). The now successful author also discusses escaping the cult and how even after her exit, there was still a looming fear (Smith, 2014).
In Irving Hexham’s and Karla Poewe’s book, Understanding Cults and New Religions (1987) they briefly discuss the evidence against the likelihood of brainwashing and deprogramming, and state their personal rejection of both. Stevens neither claims to have been brainwashed or to have needed deprogramming. Herself and her husband left The Family by their own choice, when the appropriate opportunity presented itself, after the death of the leader, David Berg (Smith, 2014). However, the author does mention that it was not a choice of hers to be a member; rather she was born into The Family (Smith, 2014). She mentions living in fear and having the feeling of always being watched (Smith, 2014). She was raised in this environment and did not have experience outside of it. Even though brainwashing did not occur, there was control placed over the individual through fear and manipulation.
Hexham and Poewe mention that the search for a resolution to major crises in a person’s life is a reason for joining new religious movements (1987). Although not a crisis, early childhood socialization is highly influential and has extreme importance in an individual’s life. Therefore being raised in an environment such as The Family, can impact a person’s ideology. Even when she escaped in her late twenties, it took a great deal of time for her to learn to exist freely and without fear (Smith, 2014).
Therefore, even though brainwashing and deprogramming have greatly been debunked and have little support, the role of psychological influence can still play a part in these new religious movements. However, that is not to say, that control over individuals’ mental states does not exist within mainstream religions, it may just be more accepted or subtle.