"When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Debate

Article excerpt


Regular readers of SKEPTIC scanning the article by Steven A. Kent and Theresa Krebs, "When Scholars Know Sin" (Vol. 6, No.3, 1998), may have felt as if they were stepping into the middle of a debate without being aware of the stakes behind the arguments placed before them. In fact the paper, in a slightly more sanitized version, previously appeared as part of a set of papers concerning the problems faced by scholars of New Religions who must work in such a highly charged arena and whose every word is scrutinized by both members and critics of the more controversial groups. In that more professional context, one can assume that the readers were up on the issues. But here I begin my response with a little bit of history.

New Religions Studies emerged as a separate field of interest in the late 1960s as a variety of academics began to look at the phenomena surrounding the hippies. Following the passing of the new law concerning immigration from Asia in 1965, teachers from a variety of Asian groups began to arrive in the United States in search of converts. They were joined by a variety of homegrown prophets and preachers who ran the gamut from Moshe Rosen of Jews for Jesus to psychedelic guru Timothy Leary.

At first, the press and public treated the new groups as just additional forms of spiritual exotica. However, by the mid 1970s the climate began to change and charges were leveled that the new groups were disrupting families and diverting young people from their chosen paths to fame and fortune. Borrowing an old term from social studies, disappointed and angry parents began to label the groups "cults" and started utilizing a technique called "deprogramming" to get their offspring out of the New Religions they had joined.

Eventually, deprogrammings which involved the physical confinement of the victim of the person being deprogrammed, landed people in court. It is generally considered illegal to forcefully detain people and keep them locked up for days while subjecting them to a variety of unwelcome advances designed to convince them to change their religious opinions and affiliations. It was also the case that the attempt to locate a defense for deprogrammers coincided with the desire of parents and former members of the groups to discover a rationale for the members' supposedly irrational choice of a bizarre religion in the face of the far superior choice of college and career. The idea of brainwashing, a concept that had been dusted off for the defense in the Patty Hearst case, provided both. Although it did not help Hearst, it enjoyed some success in a series of cases involving New Religions. Not only was it used to justify deprogramming as the lesser of evils when compared to a person spending their life in a "cult;" but explained to parents why their offspring had rejected their parental guidance for a guru. It also became an effective offensive weapon in the hands of former members who launched suits against cults hoping to collect money for having been brainwashed.

The brainwashing idea had been floated as a hypothesis by several psychologists but found its true champion in Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer, who wrote an early popular defense of the idea and subsequently developed it in her testimony in a number of court cases through the mid 1980s. Several of these cases resulted in multi-million-dollar judgments against some of the more well-known groups. Those opposed to "cults" found a popular response from juries to the emotionally charged word and it soon became the keystone of popular prejudice against New Religions (such prejudice being fueled by the events at Jonestown in 1978).

In the meantime, academics aware of the work on brainwashing following the Korean War challenged the new use of the term. Research on Chinese techniques utilized against the American prisoners of war, especially that of Edgar Shein, had concluded that those running the camps had no new sinister psychological techniques at their disposal. …