"Mind Control" in New Religious Movements : clarifying some issues

ALL SMOKE and no fire
A reply to CESNUR's press release of April 22, 1998.

From http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/8393/Apa_english.htm (now a dead link), 1998
By Alberto Amitrani and Raffaella Di Marzio

Massimo Introvigne, head of CESNUR

Here are our comments on the CESNUR press release dated April 22, 1998, and titled "Carta canta e villan dorme".

First of all, the "serious accusations" mentioned in the Press Release do not refer to the opinions of M. Introvigne, P. Zoccatelli and G. Melton (the latter was only mentioned for not having sent us the fax he "promised" us by e-mail both on January 8 and February 4, 1998) concerning "mind control". If these authors deny the existence of "mind control" in New Religious Movements, they are free to do so and we respect their opinion, even though we may not share it. In democracy and in scientific debate, everyone is free to express and promote his own point of view.

As far as having put the expression "experts" between quotation marks, we intended no offence and apologize for the misunderstanding. The people whose articles and interviews we referred to are generally recognized as experts in the field of New Religious Movements. The reason we used quotation marks was because, in the specific issue we were dealing with - the quotation and interpretation of the "Memo to the DIMPAC Committee" - the authors we quoted had not behaved like experts, since they had acted naively (there is always somebody who will check the sources!) : real experts, in fact, always refer the whole idea of a source they quote. Nobody has denied this, simply because this is how the matter stands.

When the "anonymous" author of the CESNUR press release refers to "vulgar personal attacks" received during a radio programme, we do not know what he is referring to (if he refers to the transmission of Radio Maria on March 28, 1998, also attended by Raffaella Di Marzio, we suggest he listens to the tape again more carefully, since this author made no personal attack). We also do not know what he means by "written incivilities" (what are these incivilities?) or by people affected by "personal psychological problems" (if the latter refers to us, we must express our compliments to the "anonymous" author : he has obviously discovered a new method for remote diagnostics without even needing to know his patients personally… it is a pity that such diagnostics are not accepted by scholars or courts). Perhaps there was a little mistake when drawing up the reply: the author's eyes must have fallen on the such expressions as "thanks to the brilliant genius", "improvised epigones", "sleeping boors"… but these "vulgar personal attacks" were not written by us: they were penned by the usual "anonymous" author !

It is not up to us to answer the statement that "CESNUR has so far avoided attacking GRIS", and that "people and the environment of GRIS are sliding towards anti-cult positions".

However, his statement that we have now received "the anti-cult driving licence" (which he would now take away from us), confirms what we said in our article: that an aggressive and intolerant atmosphere is growing in a certain "academic world" on these issues, an atmosphere which certainly does not help in carrying out healthy and balanced research. In such an atmosphere, where all we did was to define the actual content of a document, without even touching the issue of "mind control", we have been labelled as people who are "sliding towards anti-cult positions". Anybody saying so shows he has a limited point of view, and believes it is necessary always to attack anyone who says that the possibility of techniques of mental manipulation in certain groups exists. Techniques which can damage people psychologically, materially and spiritually. People who think this way believe it is impossible to reconcile the notion that manipulation may exist within certain groups, with respect for freedom of religion. This is not our opinion. We have the greatest respect for religious freedom, because we are believers. However this does not exclude the fact that human rights are violated within certain organizations which call themselves "religious". We cannot ignore this fact, and we must "denounce" it. If we did not, we would in some way become accomplices, and guilty of serious omission. Do the gratuitous accusation of "sliding towards anti-cult positions" hide the nervousness of somebody who is unable to reply to documented and precise objections?

We are grateful for the use of the term "epigones", a word meaning "descendants and continuers" (although it may have a negative implication), which in Greek mythology referred to the seven heroes who assaulted Thebes. After the death of their fathers, they again moved against the city and destroyed it (see UTET, Grande Dizionario Enciclopedico, n. VII, Torino, 1968, p. 116). We therefore accept this definition, without however any reference to "assaults". We are against nobody, and we do not intend to conquer any "city" (our positions are never, and can never be, "against" anyone, but are always "for" the human person).

We shall not go into the reference, taken out of context, to the article by B. Zablocki The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion, to whom the "anonymous" author attributes whatever he wishes, without any respect - in our opinion - for Zablocki's ideas. Prof. Zablocki needs no defence: we leave it up to him to defend his article from dubious interpretations. Phillip C. Lucas, of Stetson University, General Editor of Nova Religio , an open minded person who respects scientific debate, has stated that he hopes his review will become a place for the much-needed dialogue between different positions.

We are however left unconvinced by the statement according to which B. Zablocki is "one of four scholars of social sciences of religions… who, in different ways, uphold the theory of brainwashing". Where were these data taken from? Did CESNUR publish a census were every single sociologist of religion (in the world) was asked to express his opinion (in writing maybe)? Is the percentage of "four… out of several thousand" based on facts or only on the author's opinion? Whatever may be said, there are serious scholars who study the issue of thought reform in New Religious Movements: and the fact that somebody tries to deny this means this is a "hot" issue; it means avoiding even speaking about it. One thing is to say: "I do not agree with you"; quite another to say: "You do not exist, nor do your ideas". It seems that the "anonymous" author considers only those scholars who agree with him as belonging to the "scientific community", and this is simply not the real situation. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists who are not entirely contrary or favourable to the existence of mental manipulation techniques inside New Religious Movements are invited, together with those of opposite views, to attend Conferences or to write in scientific publications promoted, inter alia, by APA.

For this, and other, reasons we do not agree with the statement that "The thesis… of brainwashing, applied to new religious movements, is a mythological notion…". It may be so for someone, but this someone has no right to claim to represent all scholars or all sociologists around the world.

We are aware of the fact that the theory of "brainwashing", as it was formulated originally, cannot be applied to New Religious Movements. Physical constraint cannot be compared in its effects to psychological constraint, and no general accusations of use of such techniques should be hurled at all groups. We know Zablocki's moderate theory and find it interesting, just as we acknowledge a certain validity in the studies of M. Singer and R. Ofshe, although they appear to be partly affected by the "hot" atmosphere of the years they were drawn up in. As far as the supposed scientific invalidity of Zablocki's moderate hypothesis, we invite the reader to read Nova Religio.

But let us get back to the main issue we posed: the Press Release rejects the accusation of having misquoted the "Memo to the Dimpac Committee". Since such a rejection cannot be based on the text itself, finally available on the GRIS Web Site and only later on the CESNUR Web Site (better late than never!), the "anonymous" CESNUR author preferred to change the subject and go off topic. When a student writes a composition which does not respect the heading giving by the teacher, the latter will give a bad mark, since there is no worse mistake than going "off-topic", even if the content of the composition may be quite interesting. We think that CESNUR's press release has definitely gone off-topic. The author, in fact, does not reply to any of our documented objections, simply because the only reply he could give was to say that we were right.

How did he sideskip and throw up a smoke curtain?

Bringing up a few sentences of US courts: "Luckily - but unluckily for Amitrani and Di Marzio - the problem of the meaning of the APA document has already been thoroughly dealt with and settled in an appropriate place: a court of law". This is where we do not agree: how can courts of law become "appropriate places" for settling controversial scientific issues or for deciding the meaning of a scientific document? If this were so, we could close down the Universities and go to sociology and psychology lessons in a courtroom. Why set up Study Centres on New Religions or Research Centres? If judges are able to settle such matters with their sentences, we could save millions of dollars used to finance research, pay teachers, etc… Obviously, the "anonymous" author confuses jurisprudence with science.

We were quite aware of the "Molko" and "Fishman" cases. We did not mention them, since they had nothing to do with the heart of the matter. But since the "anonymous" author mentions them, we would like to clarify some issues. It is true that "the case turned into a fierce discussion over the 1987 Memorandum 1987 and the APA stand in general (as well as over parallel issues concerning ASA)". We agree that the "stakes were very high, and that the problem was analysed for months". But this does not change what we have said at all, indeed it confirms it. If the Memo, as Introvigne states in his article Ma il cattolico non va alla setta in Avvenire, January 2, 1997, "... back in 1987, the American Psychological Association officially stated that "brainwashing" theories - of the first or second generation - applied to religious movements are not scientific...", what need was there to analyse the issue for months, or to create a "fierce debate" around the Memo? All these difficulties arose just because the Memo was no official and final document on "mind control" theories; it did not settle the matter in any way, but left the door open, as we clearly showed in our article.

The Fishman case must be placed in its context. Judge Jensen was asked to express an opinion on the possibility of accepting the testimony of two scholars who claimed that the accused "... was not responsible at the time he acted ...". His verdict certainly did not involve the scientific validity of the theories in question, but whether the witnesses should be heard or not. In order to give a complete picture, we quote a sentence which does not appear in the text which is quoted, and which precedes this part : " Although the record before the Court is replete with declarations, affidavits and letters from reputable psychologists and sociologists who concur with the thought reform theories propounded by Dr. Singer and Dr. Ofshe, the government has submitted an equal number of declarations, affidavits and letters from reputable psychologists and sociologists who disagree with their theories..." The judge then goes on to tell the APA case, and ends up saying: "... At best the evidence establishes that psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists disagree as to whether or not there is agreement regarding the Singer-Ofshe thesis. The Court therefore excludes defendants' proffered testimony" (the emphasis is ours). In such an uncertain situation, Judge Jensen could only behave like King Solomon.

In the same way, California Supreme Court judge Mosk, in the "Molko and Leal vs. The Holy Spirit Association" case, after having taken note that some scholars were favourable, and others contrary, to "mind control" theories, said " We need not resolve the controversy ..." In other words, the judge was aware that his job was not that of deciding which position was scientifically correct, but only of issuing a verdict on the Association under trial.

Text and context show that Judge Jensen's decision, in the Fishman case, was taken in an atmosphere of great uncertainty. He decided to issue this verdict because he had to take many factors into account. We would never dream of referring to Judge Jensen as a "judge" between quotation marks, or call the Northern California US District Court "a pack of liars" - this is not our style. Judges do their job, but we all know that sentences are sometimes overturned, or innocent people sentenced, often because of unintentional mistakes. Judges simply are not God, and we must accept their fallibility, as with any other human being.

These sentences do not, therefore, change our views. Unfortunately for the author of the CESNUR press release, we are not easily put to rest by big name. It is not by wielding expressions in Latin that he can refute what we said about the Memo.

The same words of the judge clearly show that the atmosphere the trials mentioned above took place in was not the most serene. The fact that both APA and ASA first presented the Amicus brief (which completely denied the existence of mind control) to the Supreme Court, and then withdrew it, clearly shows that such a document did not reflect the views of all the scholars of both organizations. Rather, it seems like a manoeuvre by a faction which (like our "anonymous" author) was in a hurry to close the matter.

A positive sign of a return to a quieter debate, and to a certain willingness to deal with these issues in a balanced fashion, appears, as Zablocki says in his article The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion a p. 114, in a decision taken by the Society for Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) which, in a meeting in November 1990, passed a more moderate resolution. Here are the words : " This association considers that there is insufficient research to permit informed, responsible scholars to reach a consensus on the nature and effects of nonphysical coercion and control. It further asserts that one should not automatically equate the techniques involved in the process of physical coercion and control with those of nonphysical coercion and control. In addition to critical review of existing knowledge, further appropriately designed research is necessary to enable scholarly consensus about this issue."

One last note : in our reply, we would have preferred to answer to people who sign with their name and surname, as we did and do. This would have been a sign of respect for those people, who, even if not "world-famed experts… whose writings… fill libraries and international scientific journals…", are still human beings (and also have specific titles for dealing with these issues), but are looked down upon. On our side, all we can do is remember how one need not be Goliath to reach one's aims - being so can at time even become an obstacle (1 Sam 17:49-50).

If this discussion has degenerated (and this is the only point that we agree with the Press Release on), this cannot be attributed to us.

We respectfully suggest, in the future, that the "short" time that has been given to us in this life be used in a more constructive fashion, and not for sterile polemics.

This would allow us to work more with people, who are - ultimately - the only real reason which drives us to spend our lives in the daily service of our brothers. The "anonymous" CESNUR author could use his energy - we believe, more usefully - by seeking at last a serene and open dialogue with positions different from his own.

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