"When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Debate

Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

"When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Debate


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

"When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Debate


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?