A controversial report on Scientology and their disciplinary measures has revived a debate on “brainwashing.”
Charges of brainwashing were not unusual during the 1970s and `80s when discussing cults, but since then mostly anti-cult leaders have made this charge against new religious movements. That is until University of Alberta sociologist Stephen Kent delivered a paper at the conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in November.
Kent asserted that the Church of Scientology operates a Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) for wayward members where they are confined and subject to physical hardship involving excessive exercise. Through interviewing former members who were either in the RPF or witnessed the program in action, Kent found that some of the methods of the RPF use brainwashing techniques that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard borrowed from Communist brainwashing literature.
Kent says the RPF’s activities violate human rights, and adds that “ironically, as the United States Department of State heightens its criticism against Germany’s handling of the Scientology affair, at least three of these abusive programs continue to operate on American soil.” He claims that his charges of brainwashing fall within the boundaries of social science, since one accepted definition implies that confinement and coercion are two earmarks of most brainwashing cases.
Kent’s paper drew considerable fire at the SSSR conference in San Diego.”I thought it was pretty strange…We were taken aback by it,” says James Richardson, professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada. Richardson told RW in an interview that Kent provided little corroborating evidence for his claims and that his use of brainwashing theories are an “ideological weapon against Scientology” that have not been proven by social science.
More to the point, Richardson says that by relying on former members’ testimonies, Kent was using information that has rarely been viewed as credible by social scientists. “Former members’ explanations are shaped by their negative experiences…The vast majority that have left Scientology and other new religious movements have reported experiences that were okay or neutral.”
Rutgers University sociologist Benjamin Zablocki says, with some minor qualifications, that Kent delivered “quite a good paper.” He told RW that Scientologists present at the session were given a chance to rebut Kent’s findings and didn’t do so. Zablocki says that there has been a “campaign to discredit a whole class of ex-members’ accounts [without a hearing].
It’s argued that anyone who has left an [NRM] has an ax to grind.” He adds that it is “ridiculous to disqualify a whole population’s point of view.” In his own research Zablocki has sought to test the reliability and validity of apostate accounts of life in new religious movements. He compared accounts of apostates with those who were current members. There was “no statistical difference” in the consistency of such accounts” and no significant difference between such apostate observations of life in NRMs with Zablocki’s own “outsider” observations of such groups.
Sociologist Thomas Robbins says that while Kent’s paper may be important if his facts are borne out, it will be more ground-breaking and controversial if it is shown that brainwashing, or what Robbins says should more accurately be called “thought reform,” can happen voluntarily rather than through confinement or punishment. Robbins points to research (such as by Zablocki) which suggests that such a process is possible in groups that make it difficult for members to leave their ranks.
For their part, the Church of Scientology asserts that RPF programs are purely voluntary and edifying for erring members and that no coercion or hardship takes place. Al Buttnor, a public affairs official of the Toronto office of the church, says members have a free choice of going on RPF or in leaving. “To say that it’s not voluntary is like saying Catholic monasteries are prisons,” he said.