Brainwashing was debunked by scholars of new religious movements as pseudoscience already in the 20th century. It now returns in Japan.
by Massimo Introvigne
The new Japanese law on donations includes a very problematic Article 3.1, which mentions the possibility that donations may be obtained by “suppressing the free will” of the donors.
How these words came to be included in the law is a story that has been told by Japanese media. According to one account, while the law was being discussed, “Some opposition parties and lawyers, meanwhile, called for a clause that would allow for the cancellation of donations and the punishment of members of suspicious organizations if the money was paid as the result of ‘brainwashing.’ In response to such calls, the [Prime Minister] Kishida administration decided to incorporate a clause asking groups ‘not to suppress the free will’ of donors…”
I find here a confirmation that my initial understanding that Japan wanted to introduce in its legislation something similar to the discredited concept of “brainwashing” was correct. The question is whether it is really possible, in the context of a dialogue between a religionist soliciting a donation and the potential donor, to “suppress the free will” of the latter. I would exclude the case where the donors are mentally incompetent, because in this case their will is, generally speaking, not “free,” and there is thus no free will to be suppressed.
If we speak of normal, mentally competent individuals, the question of “brainwashing” as allegedly practiced by religious movements is one of the most debated among scholars of religions. An overwhelming majority of them concluded, already in the past century, that brainwashing is a pseudo-scientific theory used to discriminate against unpopular religious minorities.
In ancient times, it was argued that some religions were so strange that they could not conceivably be joined by people in their right mind. Converts should have been bewitched through the use of black magic. This theory was used in Medieval and early modern Europe against heretics, in China against movements labeled since the Middle Ages as “xie jiao” (“heterodox teachings,” now often translated as “evil cults”), and later in Japan against Christians. In the 19th century, black magic was secularized as hypnotism, and it was alleged for example that Mormons obtained their converts by hypnotizing them.
“Brainwashing” was a word coined by the CIA during the Cold War for its propaganda against China and the Soviet Union. Edward Hunter, a CIA operative who had a cover job as journalist at the “Miami Daily News,” created the word “brainwashing” in 1950, claiming it was a mysterious technique the Soviets and the Chinese used to convert “normal” citizens into Communist fanatics.
Ironically, as the heated controversies of the first years of the Cold War subsided, left-wing psychiatrists and Communists used the word “brainwashing” in subsequent decades to attack not Communism but religion. They claimed that most religious conversions cannot be explained without positing that a sinister technique of mental manipulation is at work.
While psychiatrist William Sargant in his 1957 book “Battle for Mind” argued that brainwashing was used by all religions, although he singled out Christianity as the most egregious example, in the following decades, which saw the growth of the anti-cult movement, anti-cultists such as the American psychologist Margaret Singer claimed that not all religions use brainwashing. Only some do: they are “cults,” while legitimate “religions” do not brainwash their followers.
Furious controversies followed, both in the academia and in courts of law. Most scholars of religion accused Singer and her followers of an intellectual fraud, arguing that what anti-cultists did not like were not the techniques of persuasion of certain religious movements but their doctrines. Since attacking doctrines in courts of law of democratic countries was impossible, they started claiming that the movements they disliked damaged their followers through brainwashing—ostensibly a secular rather than a religious accusation.
Eileen Barker, who founded the modern scientific study of new religious movements, has recently written that, “Those who use a concept such as brainwashing are frequently judging the outcome rather than the process by which the outcome is reached. They are really arguing that it is difficult to accept that anyone could reach that outcome of their own free will.”
Barker had also demonstrated in the seminal study of the Unification Church she published in 1984 that the percentage of converts among those approached by Reverend Moon’s movement and the percentage of those who leave spontaneously after a few years are similar to those found in mainline religions, and comparatively low. These data are not compatible with the theory, now revamped in Japan, that the Unification Church is able to “suppress the free will” of its “victims.”
The battle was ultimately won by the scholars who had demonstrated that there was no “brainwashing” and no suppression of the free will. In most democratic countries, courts of law rejected theories of brainwashing. In Italy, the Constitutional Court eliminated in 1981 the article of the Criminal Code on “plagio” (a crime similar to “brainwashing” introduced into Italian law by the Fascist regime). In the United States, the 1990 “Fishman” decision of the US District Court for the Northern District of California effectively put an end to the use of brainwashing theories to attack new religious movements. In the academia, as William Ashcraft stated in his 2018 authoritative textbook on the academic study of new religious movements, the tiny minority of scholars believing in “brainwashing” and supporting the anti-cult movement had to secede from the mainline field of religious studies and establish a dissident branch of “cultic studies,” which however are “not mainstream scholarship.”
France was an exception because of its strong secular humanist traditions, but even there when a law against “cults” was passed in 2001, widespread protests by academics, mainline religions, and senior judges persuaded the Parliament to drop the references in the original draft to “mental manipulation,” although unfortunately a mention to the state of “psychological subjection” in which some “victims” may be put was kept. As Susan Palmer and other scholars have demonstrated, the enforcement of the French law was strong with the weak and weak with the strong. It led to the conviction and imprisonment of leaders of small groups with no resources to mobilize the best lawyers and experts, while larger organizations were able to resist and persuade the courts that claiming that religious movements use powerful techniques to suppress the free will of their followers is just a pseudo-scientific myth.
Not surprisingly, Japanese anti-cultists have suggested that Japan follows the bad example of France and its 2001 law, rather than the virtuous example of the United States and other countries with a stronger tradition of religious liberty.
Is “suppressing the free will” of converts, believers, or donors possible through techniques one may call “brainwashing,” “mind control,” or perhaps “spiritual sales”? The answer of the overwhelming majority of the scholars who have seriously studied new religious movements is no. The reference to the suppression of free will in the new Japanese law will only create confusion, endless litigations, and serious threats to religious liberty.