The Fact Pattern behind the Deprogramming Controversy: An Analysis and an Alternative


This article will review the controversy surrounding legal support of deprogramming and anti-cult psychotherapy as remedies for the mental health problems associated with new religious movements. The “anti-cult” movement, comprised primarily of concerned relatives of converts and led by mental health professionals and lawyers, has developed an analysis of these issues which has dominated media coverage. This analysis, however, ignores the social and cultural background of the widespread motivation for conversion to these groups.

According to the anti-cult movement, individual motives for conversion are nonexistent. Instead, the proselytization techniques used by the cults are allegedly so seductive that the individual is “brainwashed” by the cult and has no control over his or her decision to join. Constitutional protection of freedom of religion therefore does not apply to these groups, or so the argument goes, because freedom of religion requires freedom of thought as a prior condition.

This anti-cult argument has been developed most persuasively in the legal literature by Professor Richard Delgado. Professor Delgado bases his legal justification for governmental enforcement of deprogramming on a distinction between those religious movements which brainwash and those which do not. Delgado cites mental health professionals and social scientists who support this conclusion. The plausibility of Delgado’s argument rests on his contention that the authorities he cites represent a consensus of informed scholarship on the issue of line-drawing between groups which brainwash and those which do not.

These authorities, however, represent only a small minority of the scholars concerned with these issues. Most authorities on new religions recognize that individual motives for conversion do exist and that the development of these motives is related to contemporary cultural and social trends. Because Delgado ignores these authorities and concentrates on the views of a controversial few, the accuracy of the line he draws between religions which brainwash and those which do not cannot be assured, and his subsequent legal reasoning therefore is suspect. In fact, most recent court decisions have held that the government cannot enforce nonvoluntary deprogramming.

Although these decisions undermine the legitimacy of state intervention and deprogramming as an appropriate response to the cult problem, other remedies are available to treat the mental health problems associated with the new religions. Private remedies which do not require governmental intervention are both available and desirable; it is not necessary that the government interfere. This article will discuss one available remedy: the voluntary participation by cult members in nonideological counseling sessions about both the new religions and their members’ motives for joining them. A project to develop such a counseling program is being organized at the Center for the Study of New Religions of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

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Panel I: Defund Means Defund Andrea Ritchie (she/her) is a Black lesbian immigrant whose writing, litigation, and advocacy has focused on policing of women and LGBT people of color for the past two decades. She is currently a researcher with