From Academic Kids

Deprogramming is a form of coercive persuasion in which professional "faith breakers" attempt to persuade a person to leave a religious group regarded as spurious (i.e. a "cult"). Commonly this is done for a child or teenager at the request of their parents. Sometimes relatives join the deprogramming team, but in other cases deprogrammers insist on being in sole command of the operation.

Advocates of deprogramming describe it as a last resort for families who feel that their loved ones have been taken away from them.

Deprogramming has been attacked by current and ex-members of controversial new religious movements (NRM), by professor Eileen Barker, and others. Their common argument asserts that it is dangerous and illegal to kidnap someone from any organization in which they voluntarily participate. Barker further argues that if the deprogramming fails then it will only widen the rift between the member of the NRM and his or her family.

"The number of forcible deprogrammings had diminished by the end of the 1980s. Not only did the anticult movement lose the academic battle to make its theories accepted, the legal battle to make its activity excusable, and the legislative battle to pass laws that would allow it to 'legalize' its activity, but it also became obvious how easy it was to defeat deprogramming. The person just had, at some point, to pretend to go along with deprogrammers. The deprogrammer then 'recognized' that the person had snapped out of the cult 'mind-control' (which proves that this notion is based on nothing else than animus towards the person's choice) and switched to the 'rehabilitation' phases, then released him - after which the deprogrammer found himself in front of the Court." [1] (

Sometimes the word deprogramming is used in a wider sense, to mean the freeing of someone (often oneself) from any previously uncritically assimilated idea.


Is deprogramming violent?

Defenders of deprogramming often maintain that it is an entirely non-violent process. It's merely a process of talking to the cult member and revealing to him the bad things the cult had concealed to him. They deny that beatings or rape have ever taken place.

Sociologist Eileen Barker wrote:

Numerous testimonies by those who were subjected to a deprogramming describe how they were threatened with a gun, beaten, denied sleep and food and/or sexually assaulted. But one does not have to rely on the victims for stories of violence: Ted Patrick, one of the most notorious deprogrammers used by CAGs (who has spent several terms in prison for his exploits) openly boasts about some of the violence he employed; in November 1987, Cyril Vosper, a Committee member of the British cult-awareness group, FAIR, was convicted in Munich of "causing bodily harm" in the course of one of his many deprogramming attempts; and a number of similar convictions are on record for prominent members of CAGs elsewhere. [2] (

Controversy and Related Issues

Deprogrammers generally operate on the assumption that the persons they are paid to extract from religious organizations are victims of mind control (or "brainwashing"). Books written by deprogrammers and exit counselors assert that the most essential part of "freeing the mind" of the person is to convince him that he had been under "control".

In practice, the vast majority of the time spent during deprogramming sessions is the marshalling of evidence aimed at proving that the "cult" deceived and manipulated the recruit into joining. Once the person accepts this premise, the remainder of the process is relatively easy.

One of main objections raised to deprogramming (as well as to exit counseling) is the contention that they begin with a false premise. Lawyers for some groups who have lost members due to deprogramming, as well as some civil libertarians, sociologists and psychologists, argue that it is not the religious groups but rather the deprogrammers who are the ones who deceive and manipulate people.

Public support for deprogramming hinges on the degree to which people agree or disagree with the mind control model. In the United States, from the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s mind control was widely accepted, and the vast majority of newspaper and magazine accounts of deprogrammings assumed that recruits' relatives were well justified to hire seek conservatorships and to hire deprogrammers. It took nearly 20 years for public opinion to shift.

One aspect that gradually became disturbing from a civil rights point of view, was that relatives would use deception, or legal dealings or even kidnapping to get the recruit into deprogrammers' hands, without allowing the person any recourse to a lawyer or psychiatrist of their own choosing. In the old days, there would be a sanity hearing first, and only then a commitment to an asylum or involuntary therapy. But with deprogramming, judges routinely granted parents legal authority over their adult children without a hearing.

After 10 or 15 years of this, some adult children began suing their parents or deprogrammers. Also, in the mid-1980s, psychologist Margaret Singer lost her status as an expert witness when the APA declined to endorse the DIMPAC report. From this point on, deprogramming's legal basis almost immediately vanished, and some deprogrammers re-styled themselves as "exit counselors". See also Brainwashing controversy in new religious movements.

Since that time, deprogramming has been virtually unknown in the United States.

Deprogrammers claim that the voluntary participation is due to "mind control," a controversial theory that a person's thought processes can be changed by outside forces. They justify this intervention or "therapy" as necessary to bring the person out from under the influence of the group's "mind control." The existence of mind control is widely disputed, and sometimes dismissed as pseudoscience by the psychiatric establishment. Modern behavorist psychology, however, can do much to explain the ability of external forces to control actions even if it has studied little regarding the internal thought processes associated with them (although relational framing and other theoretical constructs hedge into such territory). Present-day psychological principles suggest that traditional deprogramming approaches would almost certainly be inferior to other forms of intervention. Even supposing mind control is possible, it would be extremely difficult to prove to a legal standard that any individual person's mind has been controlled. In light of the legal and psychological issues, less intrusive and more patient-oriented interventions will likely replace this practice completely.

People and Places

During the 1990s, Rick Ross, a noted cult intervention advocate who allegedly took part in a number of deprogramming sessions, was sued by a former member of a group called the Life Tabernacle Church after an attempt at intervention was unsuccessful. He was ordered to pay damages of about $5 million, though this amount was later rescinded. This legal case was expanded to include a prominent anti-cult group called the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). The judgement was used to force CAN into bankruptcy, and its name and assets were purchased by a representative of the Church of Scientology, which had been frequently criticized by CAN, shortly afterwards. This case was seen as effectively closing the door on the practice of deprogramming.

Ted Patrick, a pioneer of deprogramming in America, said,

When you deprogram people, you force them to think. ... But I keep them off balance and this forces them to begin questioning, to open their minds. When the mind gets to a certain point, they can see through all the lies that they've been programmed to believe. They realize that they've been duped and they come out of it. Their minds start working again.

Patrick was found guilty of kidnapping a 25-year old woman of Tucson, Ariz., in order to "deprogram" her in 1980.

Steve Hassan, author of the book Combatting Cult Mind Control, states that he took part in a number of deprogrammings in the late 1970s, but he no longer approves of the practice and has not participated in any deprogrammings since then. He is one of the major proponents of exit counseling as a form of intervention therapy, and he refers to his method as "strategic intervention therapy."

Deprogramming has fallen into disfavor because of its controversial aspects. As a result of the CAN judgement, a number of prominent anti-cult groups and persons have distanced themselves from the practice, noting that a less intrusive form of intervention called exit counseling has been shown to be more effective, less harmful, and less likely to lead to legal action. Organizations often referred to as cults, such as the Church of Scientology, insist that the practice is still commonplace, and they often make statements that their critics and opponents are "deprogrammers."

The American Civil Liberties Union published a statement in 1977 in which they position deprogramming as a violation of constitutional freedoms:

"ACLU opposes the use of mental incompetency proceedings, temporary conservatorship, or denial of government protection as a method of depriving people of the free exercise of religion, at least with respect to people who have reached the age of majority. Mode of religious proselytizing or persuasion for a continued adherence that do not employ physical coercion or threat of same are protected by the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment against action of state laws or by state officials. The claim of free exercise may not be overcome by the contention that 'brainwashing' or 'mind control' has been used, in the absence of evidence that the above standards have been violated."

In the 1980s in the United States, namely in New York (Deprogramming Bill, 1981), Kansas (Deprogramming Bill, 1982), and Nebraska (conservatorship legislation for 1985), the anti-cult movement attempted several times to pass laws that would allow to legalize deprogramming. These attempts were unsuccessful.

See also


  • Holy Smoke! 1999 movie based on the book with the same name


  • Conway, Flo & Jim Siegelman, Snapping (1978), excerpt ( ISBN 0964765004

External links

Cult | List of purported cults
Opposition to cults and NRMs | Christian countercult movement | Anti-cult movement
Religious intolerance | Post-cult trauma | Apostasy | Witch hunt | Bigotry
Cult of personality | Cult checklists | Charismatic authority
Mind control | Exit counseling | Deprogramming

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