A Response to Academics Who Say There Is No Undue Influence in Destructive Cults

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June 28, 2018

This Influence Continuum graphic describes my model for evaluating influence–from the healthy to the unhealthy. My BITE model offers a list of concerning practices that represent unhealthy mind control: Behavior, Information, Thought and Emotional control designed to create dependent and obedient slaves to a person or ideology. One example of many is the lack of informed consent when recruiting new members. Healthy groups are honest, destructive cults lie–by withholding vital information, distorting information to make it seem more palatable or outright lies. It is my assertion that any academic who writes about controversial groups and insists that there is no destructive social influence in groups like Scientology, the Moonies, the Family (Children of God), Twelve Tribes, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the FLDS and LDS, TM, the World Mission Society Church of God and others, referring to them as New Religious Movements (NRMs), is being disingenuous academically and downright harmful. Besides, my work covers a much broader category than religious cults: pimps, traffickers, terrorist groups, controlling individuals, political cults, multi-level marketing groups and more.

Cult apologists, especially sociologists, who publish about NRMs confuse the public by promoting a primitive, robotic conception of mind control which is inaccurate. In rhetoric, it is called the straw man fallacy. No cult critic has ever said that mind control is 100% effective on 100% of the people 100% of the time.

Irving Hexham and his wife Karla Poewe, in their book New Religions as Global Cultures: Making the Human Sacred, criticize my book Combating Cult Mind Control. They wrote that I did not define “rights” or “abusive techniques” or “mind control.” Nonsense. They obviously did not read my book! It is filled with many examples of what I mean by human rights and abusive techniques. I devoted an entire chapter defining the four components of mind control. Their critique fails any test for academic integrity and scholarship.

Books like The Science of Social Influence (2007) edited by Anthony Pratkanis, Influence (1984) by Robert Cialdini, The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence (1991) by Zimbardo, and Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control (2004) by Taylor are just a few volumes of many on how people can be influenced to be changed for the good or for the bad. Robert Lifton, Margaret Singer, Edgar Schein, and Louis Jolyon West were all military intelligence mental health professionals who studied Chinese Communist brainwashing programs of Mao and wrote about the processes.

Response to Criticism

I wanted to write this blog to respond to a post on Reddit regarding my recent podcast interview I did with psychologist John Dehlin, an excommunicated Mormon. The writer raises some typical points I have heard over the decades.

Here are some clarifying points about J. Gordon Melton, who is largely credited with coming up with the term “New Religious Movement.” When questioned in 1988 about the Jim Jones group, Melton said, “This wasn’t a cult. This was a respectable, mainline Christian group.” Melton also appeared on the now-defunct Scientology front group “The New Cult Awareness Network’s” online list of “Professional Referrals.” Melton, along with James R. Lewis, flew to Japan to defend the notorious Japanese Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas cult when the attacks first occurred by the group’s behest. Aum’s leader, Shoko Asahara, and top followers were convicted and remain on death row in Japan.

There are researchers who have gone to considerable effort to document many of the unethical activities of cult defenders and accuse many of the sociologists of bias inherent with doing participant behavioral sociological research with destructive cults. For example, Stephen Kent and Theresa Krebs wrote a wonderful article: “When Scholars Know Sin Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters.” In an issue of Nova Religio, Benjamin Zablocki, a Rutgers professor of Sociology and veteran cult scholar, wrote: “The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion.” In it, he exposed how cult funding often creates bias in studies of controversial groups. This page on J. Gordon Melton is from a Dutch Christian Apologetic website which exposes destructive cults. This is that same website’s page on cult apologists. Irving Hexham, too, has a page.

Eileen Barker, the founder of INFORM, made her reputation in a book saying that the Moonies, my former cult, used no brainwashing or mind control methods at all. She reportedly attended at least 18 Moon conferences all over the world and had all of her expenses paid in 5-star hotels. I talked with Barker at the very beginning of her career and told her that as a former Moonies leader when we knew sociologists like Tom Robbins were coming to a workshop, it was altered. She flatly denied it and she didn’t believe me.

From my experience, destructive groups have an “ends justify means” mentality and will lie to outsiders to appear to be more normal and positive. They also have an “insider doctrine” and an “outsider doctrine”–what they say to the public. One of the most egregious errors of sociologists researching cults is that they almost uniformly ignore and dismiss former members and former leaders as “biased.” They also proffer an erroneous picture of the viewpoints of both cult critics and ex-members. A popular argument among cult defenders is that the testimony of former members, or “apostates,” should not be considered reliable because such people may have been prejudiced by their departure from the group. According to Melton, “hostile ex-members invariably shade the truth. They invariably blow out of proportion minor incidents and turn them into major incidents.”

In reality, there are prominent sociologists including Stephen Kent, Benjamin Zablocki, and Janja Lalich who have researched and published about destructive cults. Dominiek Coates was specifically mentioned by the Reddit poster as someone doing valuable work. In my doctoral program at Fielding Graduate University, I read Coates journal article, “Life inside a deviant ‘religious’ group: Conformity and commitment as ensured through ‘brainwashing’ or as the result of normal processes of socialisation” (2015), and I wrote a brief critique of it for a class paper.

I wrote:

“This article (Coates, 2015) attempts to paint a picture denying the reality of brainwashing and mind control, stating that lives are improved as a result of membership. It is filled with experiences of horrible abuse, yet, contrarily provides positive comments by current members. Asking a current cult member if they are happy is questionable for its truthfulness. The study presented had only twenty-three former members, less than half have had any contact with a cult-aware organization. Although respected works of many in the field were mentioned, there is no evidence that Coates (2015) actually read the cited material. Furthermore, she relies heavily on former members, whom she selected, that claim their membership in the group was valuable and informative. One major weakness is that Coates (2015) does not reference any of Robert Jay Lifton’s work (Lifton, 1961, 1987, 1991, 1999, 2011), which is still widely regarded as the seminal work on brainwashing. Also not mentioned is the work of renowned sociologist Stephen Kent (Kent, 1994, 1997, 2003).”

Authentic Self

Regarding my model of authentic self and cult self, it is my operating theory that people are born with an authentic self, even if they are born in a mind control cult. I have found myself able to assist those raised in unhealthy environments by helping them learn what is healthy and “normative” and encouraging them to build a healthy sense of identity in the present time.

The bottom line is that people want love, truth, connection, and meaning. The internal locus of control, for their sense of self, needs to develop. They need to make conscious decisions about what they choose to believe, what makes sense, and what helps them feel free to be themselves.

Empirical Evidence

Finally, the Reddit poster raised the point that cult researchers lack empirical evidence. Saldana, Rodriguez-Carballeira, Almendros & Escartin, 2017, have been doing empirical research in an effort to develop a Group Influence Scale that is very promising. I recently conducted an online Influence Survey on the BITE model of mind control with about 1000 respondents in connection to my doctoral work. It is my hope to be able to offer empirical evidence to help define undue influence in a court of law in the next few years. (see freedomfromundueinfluence.org)

Update: There is an article published by a cult apologist that is full of disinformation. Read the truth here.


Video Exchange Between Steven Hassan and Jon Atack Regarding Cult Apologists

After you view the video, please read Jon Atack’s additional statement where he clarifies his statement about Melton’s lack of footnotes in his booklet The Church of Scientology.

Explanatory Statement by Jon Atack Regarding Cult Apologists & Poorly Investigated Claims


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