Conversion and “Brainwashing” in New Religious Movements

Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins

in The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements

Published in print July 2008 | ISBN: 9780195369649
Published online September 2009 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Conversion and “Brainwashing” in New Religious Movements

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  • Alternative Belief Systems



A substantial amount of research has transpired regarding patterns of conversion to “alternative religions” or new religious movements (NRMs). A disproportionate amount of this research and related theorizing has concerned the assertion that recruitment to certain “cults” has been essentially involuntary in the sense that powerful techniques of “brainwashing,” “mind control,” or “coercive persuasion” have rendered the processes of conversion and commitment psychologically coercive and nonconsensual, notwithstanding its formally voluntary status. Although various forms of the mind control thesis have been supported by self-proclaimed “cult experts,” most scholars who have actually done research on the topic view their results as contradicting the thesis. This article focuses on the issue of involuntary conversion of the “brainwashing thesis.” It summarizes research on the topic and presents a theoretical critique that will identify its cultural significance.

Keywords: brainwashing; coercive persuasion; mind control; recruitment; consent; religious conversion

Article.  24380 words. 

Subjects: Religion ; Alternative Belief Systems

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