Freedom of Mind is the True Basis of Religious Freedom

Freedom of mind is the true basis of religious freedom.

The death of Sun Myung Moon (2012) presented a rare—and largely missed—opportunity to open a real public conversation about the way that high-demand groups, such as cults, exert their influence over people’s minds and behaviors.

Moon was the epitome of a cult leader during the 1970s—his followers were even known as ‘Moonies.’ I was one of them. I was a college sophomore when I was deceptively lured into the group: three attractive young women invited me to join them for ‘philosophical discussions.’ I would use the same deceptions and manipulations to recruit hundreds of new followers. After a life-threatening van accident, I was rescued by my family and ultimately—after a grueling deprogramming—left the group. Humbled and outraged, I set out to learn all that I could about how groups exert their power and how mind control works. I have spent the past 36 years developing and applying those lessons to rescue hundreds of people trapped in authoritarian groups and relationships. I and my colleagues have also tried to spread the message to the general public—that cults are real and dangerous.

For a while the message seemed to catch. Tragedies—the Jonestown mass murder, the Waco massacre, the Aum Shinrikyo subway gassing and the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide—brought home the power that destructive groups can have. Lately, the lesson has fallen on increasingly deaf ears. Thankfully there has been no mass loss of life to bring the issue to the fore but I believe there is another reason for the apathy. Over the past decade or so, a small but vocal group of people, drawn from academia and other areas, has been arguing that groups once deemed dangerous are actually ‘new religious movements’ and deserve the same right to exist as any church, mosque, or temple. Some of these ‘cult apologists’ have even argued that undue influence—let alone outright mind control—do not exist.

Yet study after study has demonstrated the power of social influence. For decades, undergraduates have been learning about the famous experiments of Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo. Books on the topic of group-think are on the best-seller list. Social influence is often benign—much is even helpful and even necessary. We are after all social animals whose existence depends on our conforming to social rules and expectations. Advertisers play upon this susceptibility—why not gurus and other group leaders? Yet many seem to have a hard time with the idea of mind control.

When I was in the Moonies, I experienced such mind control techniques as hypnosis, thought-stopping, and phobia installation. We were told that doubts or questions about Moon were actually Satanic spirits trying to invade us and that horrible things would happen if we entertained such thoughts.We were trained to chant, pray, and sing to chase away such feelings and thoughts—essentially short-circuiting our ability to reality-test. I practiced these techniques avidly and taught others to do the same. It is no wonder that members, upon leaving a group, feel like they have been spiritually violated or ‘raped.’ (Physical rape is not uncommon in many groups.) Some recover and go on to lead fulfilling lives—they may even go on to find a new spiritual practice or belief system. Many others are deeply scarred and are unable to trust again and so avoid the whole realm of spirituality. In my opinion, there is no more profound violation of religious freedom than to take away someone’s desire and their ability to seek out their own beliefs.

For true religious freedom to exist, there must be respect for freedom of mind—and for the ways in which it can be manipulated. The fact is, some groups lie. They deceptively recruit. They induce hypnotic states to keep members obedient. They instill fear and manipulate emotions. They prevent people from leaving. They haunt those who do leave with entrenched fears and phobias. They rob them of their ability to trust.We must be wary of those who use undue influence to usurp people’s abilities to find their own truth. There are people living in almost every corner of America, in cities, towns and rural areas, who are spiritual prisoners. They are not free to explore for themselves the wonders of the cosmos. By shining a light on the mind control phenomenon, we can help them to find freedom of mind—the basis for true religious freedom.