Spiritual Quest or Mind Control?

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A Half-Century of Controversy
This illustrated chronology gives a historical overview of controversial religious and other New Age groups through dozens of Post stories.
The Stories: 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s

The Faces of Charles Manson
Charles Manson Mugs

Essence of Totalism
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton probes extremism in a chapter from his book "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'Brainwashing' in China."

The Debate: Free Will vs. Mind Control
Patty Hearst
Patricia Hearst
A Primer
Questions and answers about high-control groups.
One Man's Opinion
Religious belief systems should not be dismissed as "cults."
From the Inside
A 1979 account from a member of the Hare Krishna.

mericans call them "cults." Europeans call them "sects." Both are loaded words in cultures that have been shocked repeatedly by the mass suicides and terrorist acts of fringe groups.

This special report brings together 50 years of Post photographs and news clips about some of the religious and other movements whose techniques have drawn criticism. It includes an annotated chronology tracing trends among these groups, along with analysis and opinion about methods used by many of these groups.

The intense media focus on the extreme acts of a few groups overshadows a deeper controversy over tactics employed by many, including methods used to win and hold converts. Critics charge that a growing number of religious, political and commercial groups are using deceptive psychological techniques to control and exploit members.

Looming in the debate are broader questions about the nature of free will and mind control. Critics charge that high-control groups "brainwash" members. Others counter that no "mind control" can occur without physical coercion. Both sides acknowledge there is a continuum of control that starts with the relatively mild influence of education and advertising. The spectrum extends to the stronger techniques of indoctrination and propaganda in the middle and, at the far end, the more extreme measures of totalistic environments, in which individual thinking and freedom are said to be squashed.

Clearly, though, one person's cult
Followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh dance in a ritual.
can be another person's religion, and history has proven that yesterday's small sect can mushroom into today's mainstream religion. Christianity, like the Mormon religion, started as a fringe messianic group. Paroxyms of spiritual fervor have punctuated American history, with the First Amendment spawning a stunning array of new religious movements that often seem more peculiar than dangerous. In the United States, even religious beliefs perceived
A revival in Florida. By Cathy Woods.
as heretical or dangerous are protected. That's not the case everywhere.

Nowhere is the debate over religious freedom more fierce than in Europe, where governments have been less reluctant than in the United States to impose restrictions on religious movements they consider dangerous. While France appointed a parliamentary commission to investigate new religious sects, Germany has been roiled over the Church of Scientology, which claims to have 30,000 members in Germany and 8 million worldwide.

Scholars who study zealotry say people tend to be more susceptible to manipulation in times of major change and crisis.

"Totalism is likely to emerge during periods of historical --or psychohistorical --dislocation, in which there is a breakdown of the symbols and structures that guide the human life cycle," Robert Jay Lifton, the well- known American psychiatrist, wrote recently.
Waco, Tex.
The headquarters of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex.

The human craving for stability and meaning is cited as a contributing factor in the rise of thousands of new religious, political and psycho-social sects in the second half of this century.

The turbulent 1960s were a time of such change in the United States, providing fertile ground for neo-Christian and Eastern-style groups such as Hare Krishna and Transcendental Meditation.

A decade later, the human potential movement emerged, teaching self-awareness and consciousness expansion. Groups such as Lifespring and est had no strong ties to religion. And as the millennium approaches, self-styled messiahs like David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite have flourished, teaching impending doom with doctrines cobbled from Christianity, millennialism and even science fiction.

--By WashingtonPost.com staff
April 26, 1997

Editor's note: None of the articles from The Post archives has been changed; nor has any material been updated. Some of the information published many years ago may no longer be valid today. The articles and photos in the illustrated chronology are meant to be representative, not inclusive, of trends.

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