A theologian and a historian of religion examine “the new bigotry.”
In a misguided attempt to make sense of the exit of thousands of young adults from mainstream society into new and alternative religious movements, “anticultists” began in the midseventies to invoke a new and frightening imagery: the “cultist” as “brainwashed zombie” or “mindless robot.” The result was a new kind of inquisition, one couched in psychiatric rather than theological jargon—the “victims” being now “brainwashed” by evil cult leaders rather than “possessed” by evil spirits. This new imagery also led to a new kind of exorcism: “deprogramming,” or forcible deconversion.
What follows are excerpts from interviews with Dr. Harvey Cox, the noted Harvard theologian, and Dr. Larry Shinn, Danforth Professor of Religion at Oberlin College. They discuss the implications of the “brainwashing” issue, especially as it affects the Krsna consciousness movement. The full interviews appear in Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West, a book just published by Grove Press (paper, $7.95). The interviewer, and the book’s editor, is Steven J. Gelberg, a senior editor of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust who is known within the Hare Krsna movement as Subhananda dasa.
Dr. Harvey Cox
Subhananda dasa: Why do many Americans seem to fear the Krsna consciousness movement? Why the often negative public reaction?
Harvey Cox: I think the main thing is plain unfamiliarity, the apparent strangeness of the movement. You find an underlying fear in many people that they could easily be lured in, and therefore they’re afraid of it. All the hysterical talk about people getting brainwashed and converted against their will has as its underlying psychological dynamic the fear that “That could happen to me too; I’m not really in full control of my own mind.”
I think the reason that fear is there is that there is an underlying wish that I didn’t have to be in control of my own mind. We fear the thing we hope for. This is the old concept of ambivalence. People are attracted to authority against their own better judgment, and they’re surprised, occasionally, at how often and how marked the need is. I think the only way to explain this underlying, constant fear is to point out that it springs from an insufficiently well grounded authority structure in one’s own life, and I would say that that has to do with not being related to God in a way that requires one’s full devotion and that produces authentic freedom.
So the Krsna consciousness movement is another of what my colleague Krister Stendahl calls the “hot religions” (as opposed to the “cool religions”), where there is a high degree of devotional involvement. This devotion frightens people because it makes them aware of something in themselves. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be frightened. Why should they be frightened? Just walk away, ignore it, go home. Why should they have to stop and shake their heads when they see people chanting? There’s something that bothers them, and one has to ask what that is.
Subhananda dasa: So, you’re saying that they fear coming under the influence of some unknown external power, that they lack confidence in their own psychological autonomy?
Harvey Cox: “I’m not really all that free,” they’re saying. “I say I’m free, but I could also become a marionette, a puppet, a zombie.” This is not such an uncommon theme in literature and in science-fiction movies—that is, people’s minds or bodies being taken over by alien, malevolent forces, people being turned into “pod people,” “the living dead,” “zombies,” “robots.” I think the fear that I am not really in control of myself—that I should be in control, but I’m not—is deep-seated in the modern psyche, very deep-seated.
Subhananda dasa: So what is it about the Krsna consciousness movement that makes some people think that its members are being controlled by some mysterious, malevolent power?
Harvey Cox: Well, they’re told that. They’re told that constantly by the press and, in addition, they see people doing things that appear irrational—shaving their heads, wearing unusual costumes, dancing, and playing instruments. What else could have happened to these people except that they must have been possessed? That’s the only category observers have to deal with what they see.
Subhananda dasa: Why should people be so resistant to the idea that the Hare Krsna devotees have made a choice to do these things out of free will? Why do people tend to opt more for the “brainwashing” paradigm?
Harvey Cox: I think it’s because there aren’t many examples around of people who choose a path of religious asceticism and devotion. There are so few examples of this that they don’t have any models for it within their own repertoire of personal experiences. The people who understand the Hare Krsna movement better than many others are people who have a relative who’s become a Benedictine monk or a nun. They know somebody who has chosen to do something that appears to the world to be crazy: giving up television, giving up family life, leaving professional careers and going off to live in a monastery. But that’s legitimated in the Catholic system. I’ve talked with people about the Hare Krsna movement in this way, and they can easily make the connection.
There are so few examples, in most people’s lives, of anybody who does anything other than simply drift along with the existing current and the existing options of more or less similar lifestyles—a little bit more or a little bit less accumulation, a little bit more or a little bit less sexual promiscuity, and never much discipline or intellectual rigor. They just drift along. The heroic choice is a rare one. Few people make heroic choices.
Subhananda dasa: Could you take a closer look at this notion of “brainwashing”? Does it have psychiatric validity? How do you see it functioning culturally?
Harvey Cox: Well, perhaps I can offer some random comments. First of all, the term “brainwashing” has no respectable standing in scientific or psychiatric circles and is used almost entirely to describe a process by which somebody has arrived at convictions that I do not agree with. If a person has changed in the last few years, or months, or weeks, and we like the change, we say that this person has “improved.” We say they’ve learned something, or they’ve grown, or they’ve seen the light, or they’ve had some remarkable, effective therapy. If we don’t happen to like the outcome, we say they must have been “brainwashed.”
I think it’s Thomas Szasz who said that a brain cannot be washed any more than a cutting remark can draw blood. The term is obviously a metaphor, and it’s so flexible in the possibilities for its application that I would again want to plead for care in not using it indiscriminately. I think it’s such an ambiguous and loaded term that it shouldn’t be used at all.
Of course, we live in a society in which the effort to control other people’s ideas, preferences, and values is an overwhelming feature. In fact, our society probably spends more money and expends more energy and technology to control other people’s minds than any in history. We have a multibillion dollar industry that is designed specifically to stimulate needs, preferences, and tastes, and to persuade: the advertising industry. And besides commodity advertising, we also have the general socialization process that goes on in I’ society, enacted through its various institutions—the family, the educational system, the religious establishment, and so on. The act of persuasion, along with its fruits, is noticed only when people, through one or another process of persuasion, socialization, or conversion—especially alternative systems—find themselves, or are seen to be, in a situation that other people don’t like for one reason or another. Then the term “brainwashing” is used.
I personally am made very uncomfortable by coercive forms—even mildly coercive forms—of persuasion. I don’t like them at all. I object to them when they’re used by advertisers, by military recruiters, by salesmen, by evangelists, by anyone. I have a strong distaste for them. However, I see absolutely no way that one can preserve freedom of inquiry and freedom of open interchange in society without preserving the rights of people to try to sell me or persuade me about things. And I think that’s a valuable enough freedom to maintain that I’m willing to pay the price for maintaining it.
In my mind, coercive persuasion has to include at least some element of physical isolation and of forced imprisonment. If in any movement—religious, political, or otherwise—people were being physically prevented from getting out, I would be the first to lead the charge and rescue them and demand their right to leave. However, short of a critical situation of actual imprisonment, you cannot take matters into your own hands and force a person to leave a movement that they sincerely feel they joined voluntarily.
I do object, both aesthetically and ethically, to any form of browbeating or the use of some psychological knowledge to manipulate other people. But I would object more strongly to putting the power into the hands of a government, a court, or the police to prevent this from happening. The cost would be too high. I think allowing for strong forms of persuasion is simply the cost we pay to live in a tree society, and I’m willing to pay that cost.
Subhananda dasa: There’s an old tradition within psychology, especially since Freud, that tends to equate religious, mystical, or conversionary experience with mental illness. Do you think that perhaps this sort of antireligious bias is coming into play here? Isn’t there a tendency to view any expression of spirituality that goes beyond socially accepted religious norms as a sign of psychopathology or, more colloquially, as “brainwashing”?
Harvey Cox: Yes, as a symptom of brainwashing, or as a symptom of psychotic, schizophrenic, paranoic, or some other deranged or unhealthy form of behavior. I think that’s true. To some extent, this is a result of a severe limiting of the range of possible forms of behavior to that which is publicly acceptable, over even what we were previously allowed in our society. You have to remember that if you had been there at the early Methodist frontier revivals here in America, where the grandparents of some of our present psychiatrists were saved, you would have seen some very ecstatic behavior. Right in Martha’s Vineyard, where I have my summer home, there are pictures of people at the campground jumping up and down and singing. This sort of ecstatic religious behavior is, of course, associated with religious devotion from time immemorial in virtually every culture. We happen to be living in a culture that is very restricted, unimaginative, and narrow in this regard.
A lot of this, I think, has to do with the real underlying goal of America, which is production, efficiency, and accumulation. You can’t allow too much eccentricity and ecstasy if everyone has to be geared into the productive process all the time. One of the criticisms that people sometimes make of the Hare Krsna devotees is that they’re wasting their time. “They’re just out there chanting. Why aren’t they working? Why aren’t they doing something productive?” There’s some suspicion even of people who live in monasteries—that they’re just sitting around, kneeling around, praying. They’re not doing anything really useful.
Now, there’s something curious about this. It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing productively. You could be manufacturing hand grenades or bottling liquor; but if you’re working somehow or other, that’s commendable. I think it’s a curious idea that it’s better to be working at destructive things than it is to be singing or dancing or praying.
So, what we have here is a set of cultural assumptions that are not self-evident. They are a particular set of assumptions that are drawn upon, often by people who pretend to be very scientific and therapeutic, in order to enforce on other people a particular view of reality or a particular standard of behavior. And all this applies in the face of our insistence that we are a free and open society.
Subhananda dasa: Sometimes the repetitive chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra, or for that matter any type of devotional practice, is viewed as a kind of “self-hypnosis.” What parallels do we find for this kind of contemplative discipline in religious traditions other than Krsna consciousness?
Harvey Cox: Almost every religious tradition I know of has formulae, prayers, chants, or hymns in which the repetition of sound, the repetition of names, sometimes with musical intonations, is used for a devotional purpose. Now, again, if you’re operating from a different paradigm, you can call that “self-hypnosis.” It’s a little bit like the term “brainwashing”—nobody quite knows what “self-hypnosis” really is. But it’s evident to me that human beings are capable of a wide variety of different forms of consciousness and awareness and, again, we have certain forms that are declared to be okay and others that are suspect, depending on what the underlying goals of the dominant culture are.
But I think that these criticisms of chanting or repetition of prayers as somehow mentally destructive are frankly some of the most uninformed and ignorant of the criticisms that I’ve run across. These sorts of criticisms cannot possibly be made by people who know anything about the history of religions, unless they want to come right out and say that they’re against all religion, or all devotional practices, all prayer—which I think many of them are. At least they ought to be honest and not conceal their personal bias under allegedly scientific language.
Subhananda dasa: Consider, for example, Dr. John Clark’s testimony before the Vermont Senate, which at one time was investigating the “cult” phenomenon. While delineating the psychological dangers of cults, he offers several interesting examples of pathological aberrations found therein: The belief, held by some cults, that one is not the physical body but the soul, he diagnoses as “ego-loss”; living in any sort of a religious community is “loss of autonomy”; acceptance of religious authority, such as a guru or scripture, is “loss of critical thinking”; and so forth. Since these particular criteria of psychological pathology can be applied to virtually any religion, I suspect they betray a real bias against any sort of spiritual lifestyle, especially a more intensive one.
Harvey Cox: Using the term “ego-loss” as a therapeutic value judgment is unwittingly accepting the Western understanding of ego. If you accuse the Buddhists of encouraging ego-loss, they would say, “That’s right, that’s what our whole tradition of five hundred million strong is about. Ego is a mistake; ego is an illusion, and we happen to be trapped by this illusion.” What disturbs me is the uninformed provinciality of such comments, which are then escalated into what appear to be scientific or medical judgments. And they’re not. They’re simply opinions based on a particular culture’s understanding of what ego or self is, what autonomy is, what rational thought is.
The coercive forcing of people into treatment, psychiatric or otherwise, or coercive persuasion to do anything—to join a religious movement, to leave a religious movement, to join a political movement, to leave one—is reprehensible, destructive to human personality, and in every way evil. I’m especially shocked at the way some professionals allow themselves to be used and even enter into this kind of thing. I’m strongly opposed to it. It has, of course, its parallels in the history of religions. We’ve had our Star Chamber and the Inquisition and so on. So it’s not new. The motive and the language now is more psychiatric than theological, but the process is similar.
Dr. Larry Shinn
Subhananda dasa: There has developed an image, reflected in or even defined by the popular press, of the “brainwashed cultist,” whose mind is controlled by nefarious cult leaders and who becomes a sort of unthinking “zombie.” This stereotype has at times been applied to the Hare Krsna movement. Now, what is the source of this image? How did it develop?
Larry Shinn: Well, it comes from a number of different sources. One source is the media. For example, some reporters have gone incognito into one group in particular and have discovered what appeared to them to be techniques of coercion: sleep deprivation, food deprivation, and so on, and have then come out and written exposes. Because the public is largely ignorant of the great differences between the various groups referred to as “cults,” it’s assumed that if one group is doing that then they all are. So there’s guilt by association.
A second reason the public has this impression is because there are some former members of these groups—people who have been “deprogrammed” out of them or have left for any one of a variety of reasons—who will describe life in these groups in very bleak terms. Such people, of course, often don’t want to accept responsibility for having joined these groups “From my experience of the lifestyle within the Hare Krsna in the first place, and thus they find it convenient to attribute their involvement in them to a coercive outside influence, such as brainwashing. Under the auspices of anticult and deprogramming organizations, such people will often describe how they lived in a brainwashed state while in the group. It just seems to me, therefore, that one of the causes of the popular brainwashing stereotype is the allegation of extreme regimentation and conformity coming from people who have left the movement, people who, for a variety of reasons, have questionable motives for the way in which they describe life within the movement.
Now, from my experience of the practices and lifestyle of the Hare Krsna movement, far from conformity I find nonconformity much more the norm. I could explain that at great length, but let it suffice for now to say that there is a tremendous variety of different modes of life and behavior in the movement.
A third reason—and this perhaps is the most important and most complex reason—is that parents of new members encounter their children, whom they thought they knew, and experience virtually new people. So already, because of this, a parent feels a sense of distance, a feeling of “What are they doing with my child?”
When there is an encounter, and the son in the movement begins to speak, what does he say? “Hare Krsna.” The mother starts talking with her son, who identifies himself by his new Sanskrit name: “I’m Subhananda now; I’m not Steven.” The parents try to appeal to the child’s logic, and in response they get preached at from a very enthusiastic and, to a great extent, yet uninformed novice. So, what are the parents hearing? The parents are hearing their child, who has given up the name that they had given him, a child who, because of his lack of expertise and his apprehension about the parents’ response to the radical step he’s taken, sounds nervous, who is preaching a strange philosophy that he has only partially absorbed. If I as a parent were to hear one of my children come at me with that kind of approach, 1 would feel that I was encountering a very different person.
How does one explain, then, that radical transformation? One way to explain it is, “Somebody has done this to my child. Somebody has brainwashed him.” I would say that this is probably the most immediate reason why many people find brainwashing a believable notion—because what they encounter is, in fact, a person who has changed radically.
Now, let’s point out immediately that throughout history, parents have made the same kind of response to their children who have made those kinds of choices. In the early years of his ministry, the Buddha had to make a requirement that every underage member had to have a written consent from his parents, because the parents were absolutely up in arms that he was taking away their children—often from middle-class or upper-class economic surroundings, the royalty classes, from lives of leisure and luxury—into an austere, ascetical lifestyle. That was a real problem for parents. It was also a problem in the days of Jesus. It was a problem in the early days of some of the early Muslim saints. And so I don’t think we should find it surprising that parents—who in most cases have invested a tremendous amount of psychic energy in their children and who love them dearly—feel threatened by their children joining the Hare Krsna movement. Loving them dearly, they wish for their children things that they as parents view as being valuable and meaningful, and thus they can almost totally misunderstand their child’s adoption of a new and different way.
Subhananda dasa: Is there anything the movement could do to minimize parents’ fears in this regard?
Larry Shinn: I think one thing that has gone a long way to minimizing these fears has been the movement’s encouragment of contact between the new devotee and his parents from the very beginning, both by inviting the parents to the temple and by having the new devotee return home to visit his or her parents, unless the parents have expressed such extreme adversity to the movement that it seems likely they may try to kidnap and deprogram the devotee. It’s been much more the case in recent years that young people have kept closer contact with their parents all the way along the line.
Subhananda dasa: We’ve been discussing why the idea of “brainwashing” comes up at all in the public mind. What is your personal view of the matter?
Larry Shinn: As far as I can tell, “brainwashing”—in the classical or technical sense of taking a person who holds one set of attitudes and ideas and forcibly eradicating those attitudes and ideas and supplanting them with others—simply is not common anywhere. I take this from people who have studied brainwashing extensively, such as Robert J. Lifton and J.A.C. Brown, who argue that even in cases where you find radical changes in attitudes or ideas, there was an inclination to accept those changes in the first place. So, I’m adopting that as a basic assumption. From this point of view, “brainwashing,” in the sense of wiping out previous memories, clearing the slate of the mind, and imprinting something totally new, just can’t be done.
What you can do is to exert various kinds of persuasion on people, and that persuasion can be coercive. That’s what happens in the case of some political indoctrination, as was found, for instance, during the Korean War. In these classical cases, persuasion becomes coercive because it is accompanied by imprisonment, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, fear of potential loss of life, punishments, and even torture. That sort of physical and psychological pressure is used in the attempt to have people “confess” their previousmode of thought and behavior as being terrible and wrong and to have them accept as a tutor the person who is subjecting them to that coercive process, who then reeducates them in a new mode of thought and behavior. Even with all these forms of extreme coercion, “brainwashing” is effective in less than thirty percent of the cases, according to Lifton and Brown.
So it’s ludicrous to talk about “brainwashing,” even in the least restrictive sense, in regards to the new religious groups in America—at least any of whom I’m aware, even the ones I find to be destructive cults. Brainwashing just is not taking place. I think persuasion, a milder form of indoctrination, does take place—persuasion that does involve convincing someone that the view they’ve held is wrong and that another is correct. But, as I’ve said, now we’re talking about someone making a personal decision to change his way of life and his view of the world. That happens in a wide variety of circumstances, including the Hare Krsna movement.
Your movement happens to be among those which I would call the “low-key movements”—low-key in terms of recruiting people into the movement. The attempt to bring someone from the outside into the movement docs not involve any of the classical features of political indoctrination or any heavy kind of coercive persuasion. It’s just not present here. But more importantly, the style of preaching tends much more to be just that: preaching—certainly preaching hard and preaching enthusiastically, preaching with all the powers of intellect on full throttle—but it’s just that: it’s preaching.
Subhananda dasa: Have you found any other evidences against the notion of “brainwashing” as applied to the Hare Krsna movement?
Larry Shinn: “Brainwashing” means two different things. One is the process itself, the process by which someone becomes “brainwashed.” Secondly, you have the supposed state of mind that is achieved through the process. And that’s the state referred to when people speak of “glazed eyes” and so forth. Well, I don’t see any “glazed eyes” in the Hare Krsna movement. I shouldn’t say I don’t see any. I see very few “glazed eyes.” When I do see “glazed eyes,” it’s often when devotees are chanting on the streets or in the temple during the arati ceremony and are sort of lost in the ecstasy of dancing and chanting and singing. Sure they are lost in their dancing and singing, just as people can get “lost” in a Beethoven symphony or in watching football on television. What might be misinterpreted from the outside as being a symptom of a brainwashed state might be, in fact, the joy of someone who is just really deeply into his religious music or dance. From the outsider’s point of view he may seem to have “glazed eyes,” but from the insider’s point of view he is experiencing ecstasy derived from intense religious worship.
Subhananda dasa: Now, what about the much publicized attempts at “rescuing” people from brainwashing through what is popularly called “deprogramming”?
Larry Shinn: I’ll be brief. If anything approximates the process of brainwashing, in the sense of coercive political indoctrination—those processes which include inducement of fear for one’s own emotional or even physical well-being, and which also include intense verbal haranguing and harassment—deprogramming fits that description.
Likewise, the state that people achieve after having been deprogrammed, if that deprogramming is successful, is very much a zombielike state, if by “zombielike state” we mean parroting what your master has told you to parrot. Deprogramming, certainly, does not mean giving one the ability to “think freely again,” as its proponents often claim. It means making people think the way you think they ought to think, again. And so, to that extent, deprogramming comes the closest to brainwashing of any of the processes and any of the results I’ve seen in these new religious movements.
One interesting point is that those people who are engaged in deprogramming have a much tougher time, for the most part, with Krsna devotees than they do with members of most other groups, because few of the deprogrammers know anything about the movement’s theology and very little about what actually goes on in the movement. So, when they make exaggerated allegations to the devotee whom they are trying to deprogram, such as that the Hare Krsna children are pulled out of bed at two in the morning and thrown into cold showers and forced to dance before idols, the devotee is just sitting there laughing to himself or herself, because these things just don’t go on. So the deprogrammers often come off looking like total buffoons, because they don’t know what in the devil they’re doing. It’s almost a humorous situation, in which people who are terribly paranoid about the Hare Krsna movement have so exaggerated their claims against the movement that they become ineffectual in trying to deprogram someone out of it.
Deprogramming will continue to be mostly unsuccessful, I believe, among those devotees who have any serious level of commitment to the movement. My suspicion—and it’s a suspicion which I think can be borne out by the evidence—is that those people who are successfully deprogrammed are people who would probably have dropped out anyway, somewhere along the line.
Reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc. Copyright 1983 by Steven Gelberg.