Releasing the Bonds by Steven Hassan

Portion from Steven Hassan's second book, Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People
to Think for Themselves (FOM Press, 2000) 

Chapter 7
Understanding Cult Beliefs and Tactics


To find the truth, you have to be able to distinguish between reliable information
and misleading disinformation. This skill is especially
important when seeking information about destructive cults, because one way a
cult defends itself is by spreading lies and blurring the line between fact and
fiction. By the late 1970s, the question of cult mind control was intertwined
in the public eye with the issue of forcible deprogramming. This was partly due
to a multi-million dollar public relations campaign financed by the major cults
in an attempt to smear critics and divert the debate from
the cults themselves. This was also due to the fact that deprogrammers were,
in many cases, acting like vigilantes. In the propaganda campaign, cults
have labeled deprogramming ³the greatest threat to religious liberty.²  In cult
lectures, booklets, and pamphlets, and on cult Web sites, deprogrammers
are portrayed as money-hungry thugs who tie their victims to chairs, beating
and raping them until they recant their religious beliefs.8

The Cult Awareness Network changes hands

The Cult Awareness Network (CAN), the largest grassroots organization for families
with loved ones in cults, was falsely portrayed by the cults as a
group of fascists who wanted to deprive people of religious freedom. In 1994,
CAN lost one of scores of harassment law suits filed by cult members
across the country, and the $1.875 million jury verdict sent the organization
into bankruptcy court. Ultimately, CANıs trade name, post office box number,
help line phone number, and service mark were sold at auction for $20,000 to
Steven Hayes, a member of the Church of Scientology.9  CAN is now part of the
problem. The wolf is wearing Grandmaıs clothes. If you call the CAN number today,
most likely a cult member will answer, although that person will not reveal his
cult affiliation. Any information offered by family members could be used against
them in their efforts to liberate their loved one. The CAN Web site  (
it is operated by the Foundation for Religious Freedom and denies that mind control
exists. The CAN site offers up a confusing mix of truths, half-truths and lies
and attempts to equate anti-cult² with ³anti-religious.²  When a cult member
visits the CAN site, cult-instilled phobias of anti-religious deprogrammers are
reinforced. There are many other web sites being created to bolster cult groupsı
agendas to recruit and indoctrinate people around the world.

One of the most common disinformation tactics used by cults is a logical fallacy
known as the ³straw man,² where a person weakens his opponentıs
position by misrepresenting his arguments and attacking an indefensible ³straw
man,² rather than addressing the real issues. For example, cults
frequently create a false image of mind control as a mystical force that can
overpower any person in any situation. Naturally, this all-or-nothing straw
man is easier to knock over than the actual positions taken by informed, experienced
professionals and effectiveness, and that while mind control is never absolute, it can nevertheless
have devastating consequences.

I question the motives of any individual or group that takes the extreme position
that under no circumstances can people be manipulated into adopting new beliefs.
Whose interests are advanced by the notion that mind control is entirely implausible?
If mind control is nothing but a hoax, why does professor and former Western
Psychological Association President Philip Zimbardo teach a course at Stanford
University called ³The Psychology of
Mind Control²?10

Cult propagandists love to try to convince members that ³mind control is not
recognized by mental health professionals.² One simple retort is to cite the
DSM-IV, American Psychiatric Associationıs diagnostic manual that specifically
mentions cults and brainwashing under 300.15, ³Dissociative
Disorder NOS.²  Of course, you can also cite the favorable reviews of Combatting
Cult Mind Control
in The Lancet and The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1990.12

Another tactic cult public relations people like is to misquote legal decisions
involving cults. When talking with your loved ones, ask them for
the case, citation, and even better, the official ruling. When it comes to legal
decisions, it is best to ask a lawyer familiar with cult-related
litigation to help you get the documents to show and explain to the cult member.

Cult Defenders

In addition to cult propaganda, disinformation is being spread by cult members
themselves, as well as by cult defenders religious freedom as a justification for the existence of mind control groups.
Some high-profile researchers have accepted funds or other perks
from the cults they were studying. For instance, The Washington Post reported
that Aum Shinrikyo paid the airfare, lodging, and other ³basic expenses² of four
Americans who came to the defense of the cult when
Japanese police began investigating a 1994 poison gas attack on the Tokyo subways.13
One of these Americans was J. Gordon Melton who writes books and
articles on ³new² religions and who has a history of defending controversial
groups such as Jim Jonesı Peopleıs Temple. When questioned in 1988 about the
Jim Jones group, Melton said, ³This wasnıt a cult. This was a respectable, mainline
Christian group.²14 Melton also appears on the Cult Awareness
Networkıs online list of ³Professional Referrals.²15 In a recent issue of Nova
, Benjamin Zablocki, a Rutgers professor, and thirty-year cult
scholar, exposed how cult funding often creates bias in studies of controversial

Cult defenders confuse the public by promoting a primitive, robotic conception
of mind control. 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 ³apostates,² should not be considered
reliable, because such people may have been prejudiced by their departure from
the group. According to Melton, ³hostile ex-members invariably shade the truth.
They invariably blow out of
proportion minor incidents and turn them into major incidents.²17  Ironically,
cult defenders appear to ignore the possibility that the testimony of cult members
and leaders might be partisan.

The demonization of cult critics

When Combatting Cult Mind Control was first published in 1988, I became one of
the most visible targets of cult disinformation campaigns. There are cult leaders
who lecture their members on the evils of speaking with me and even reading the
book. Scientology has a ³Dead Agent Pack² about me. This folder contains material
designed to assassinate my character a respected person. Countless times, Iıve been threatened with lawsuits and have
even received death threats from cult members. Several groups, such as the Moonies,
tell their members that I am Satanıs agent. Specific phobias about me have been
planted in membersı minds. Cult members are indoctrinated to believe that Steven
Hassan is a ³deprogrammer² who endorses and associates with people who kidnap,
beat, and torture members of new religions until they renounce their faith in
God. Cult web sites portray me as an evil, anti-religious bigot who is out to
destroy religious freedom.

When a cult member raises such an accusation about any cult critic, I recommend
that the family ask for proof: ³Show us the evidence. Have your leaders documented
the charges with names, dates, and places? Were any charges filed?² The leaders
of the group will not want their accusations examined or challenged. Family members
and friends should ask to speak with the individuals who purportedly wrote negative
affidavits. Questions can be asked, and facts can be communicated. The deprogramming
phobia can be dismantled piece by piece, exposing the lies and deception. This
is a vital and effective strategy to promote reality testing.

Father: Iım looking at the cult Web site, and there are pages that criticize
Dr. Robert Lifton, Dr. Louis West and Dr. Margaret Singer. What is this all
about?  How can we judge if this information is harmful or helpful? When evaluating
any piece of information, ask yourself:

? What is the source of the criticism?
? How is the source funded?
? Who, exactly, is making the accusations?
? What are this personıs verifiable credentials?
? What is his standing in the academic and scientific community?
? What is his training? His experience? His reputation?
? What has this person published?
? Have you read his work?
? Does what he or she says make sense to you?
? When you question him, does he answer honestly and responsibly?

I have known Dr. Lifton,  the late Dr. West, and Dr. Singer for many years. While
I donıt agree with everything they have written or done, I have great
respect for their positive contributions to humankind, which have been substantial.18
They were all United States military intelligence officers
who studied Chinese ³brainwashing² in the 1950ıs, and all were brave enough to
publicly attest that such a phenomenon exists. Read the information and
disinformation for yourself about these individuals. Form your own opinion. We
Americans tend not to realize that our Constitutional rights mean nothing
unless we are willing to stand up and affirmatively assert them. Cults force
many of us to act because they have shown a willingness to deprive people of
their rights. Speaking personally, I refuse to surrender my rights. The stories
of abuse, betrayal, harassment, intimidation, fear, broken families,
neglected children, financial ruin, and personal and emotional devastation that
Iıve heard from so many ex-members over the years impels and inspires
me in that struggle. I believe one of the most effective strategies to counter
the disinformation and slander is to help ex-members tell their
story, and I encourage former members reading this book to do so for their own
good as well as the good of others. I also advise those with loved ones
in a cult to seek out ex-members with stories to tell.

Do I believe every ex-member's story without seeking verification? No, of course
not. Is it possible that some ex-members exaggerate their stories? Of course.
Believing that all ex-members are credible or that no ex-member is credible is
too extreme. I seek to evaluate each personıs story and obtain verification.
Naturally, when there are many people telling of similar experiences with a particular
group, the information usually proves to be
trustworthy. Most ex-members speak out at great personal risk and with little
or no personal gain, other than the therapeutic effects of standing
up to expose an injustice, and perhaps to help others.

Former cult members and their friends and family are survivors, and their testimony
is powerful evidence that a person can walk away from a destructive group and
go on to a lead a contented, productive life. Hearing their supportive and inspiring
words can help set a confused, discontented cult member on the road to becoming
a healthier, more fulfilled ex-member. By putting a face to the other side of
the story, former members show your loved one that leaving is an option. Once
this becomes a viable choice, it is usually only a matter of time before the
person decides to leave the group.

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