The Words of the Reverends Corcoran

The Myth of Brainwashing and Mind Control

Chris Corcoran
Public Affairs Director
Unification Church of America
June 23, 1999

The charge that members of new religious movements (NRMs) are brainwashed has perhaps been the most widely publicized of all the allegations against them.

The concept of "brainwashing" originated as an attempt to explain what took place in prisoner of war camps during the Korean War. American soldiers were subjected to attempts by the Communists to change their political ideas about communism and capitalism through various depravations, group discussions and written confessions. This, of course, was done while they were being held under total physical coercion. As a result, during captivity, some gave the appearance of having been changed, but only a few were genuinely changed in their political views. 1

With the growth of NRMs in the US in the 1960s and 70s, many parents became alarmed at the sudden lifestyle change exhibited by their adult children after they had converted to a new faith. Many of these young adults left college and dedicated themselves to full-time work in their new faith community, oftentimes changing the manner of their appearance (as in the eastern robes of the Hare Krishna), and donating all of their money to the groups. Unable to accept this natural occurring conversion experience of their children, some parents hired professional faith breakers to illegally kidnap their adult children, confine them and "break them" until they recanted their new faith.

Thus was born in the early 1970s a new cottage industry which came to be called "deprogramming", undoubtedly borrowing a term from the emerging computer industry. More accurately, these "guns for hire" were professional "faith breakers" who assailed their victims with countless hours of imprisonment, restricted bathroom use, theological harangues, social vilification, sleep and food depravation, guilt and physical pain. In essence, the victim was spiritually raped until they "confessed" that they no longer believed in their new faith.

Despite the emotional appeal of the of the "brainwashing" theory, it has been repeatedly discredited and dismissed by a wide variety of sociologists, psychiatrists, theologians and others. Noted psychiatrist Thomas Szasz of the State University of New York in Syracuse says simply that no one can "wash brains". Instead, "brainwashing", like many dramatic terms, is a "metaphor." He adds: "A person can no more wash another's brain with coercion or conversation than he can make him bleed with a cutting remark. If there is no such thing as brainwashing, what does the metaphor stand for? It stands for one of the most universal human experiences and events, namely, for one person influencing another. However, we do not call all types of personal of psychological influences "brainwashing." We reserve this term for influence of which we disapprove." 2

The well known Harvard theologian Harvey Cox has this to say about "brainwashing": "The term "brainwashing" has no respectable standing in the scientific or psychiatric circles, and is used almost entirely to describe a process by which somebody has arrived at convictions that (another person) disagrees with." 3

There have been several well executed academic studies of Unification Church members during the last 20 years (see The Odyssey of New Religions Today, by John T. Biermans, The Edwin Mellon Press, Lewiston, NY, 1988.) After careful analysis and study by leading sociologists and psychiatrists, the conclusion reached was that there is no such activity that could be remotely construed as "brainwashing" in the Unification Church. In fact, several studies cited in the same book recount the beneficial aspects of being a member of a dynamic faith community.

Finally, after several highly publicized court cases involving the "kidnapping and deprogramming" controversy, courts have ruled and continue to rule against allowing the theories about "brainwashing" to be admitted as evidence. The theories have been dismissed as pseudo-science and no longer have any merit in the academic community.

Also, at the same time, courts and law enforcement began to recognize that individuals' rights were being trampled upon and stiff sentences were being handed down on the kidnappers and their associates.

Hundreds of members of NRMs suffered at the hands of these professional faith breakers and many families were torn apart by them. This social phenomenon of the 1970s and 80s will surely be remembered as one of the worst instances of gross human rights violations in US history. Fortunately, science and the law has prevailed to bring about justice on this issue.

1 Donald T. Lunde and Thomas E. Wilson, "Brainwashing as a Defense to Criminal Liability: Patty Hearst Revisited", Criminal Law Bulletin, vol. 13, 1977, 347-48.

2 Thomas Szasz, "Some Call It Brainwashing", The New Republic, March 6, 1976.

3 "Interview With Harvey Cox", in Steven J. Gelberg, ed. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, (New York: Grove Press, 1983) 50.

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