The controversy surrounding new religious movements seems to be foremost concerned with whether or not the members of these religions come of their own freewill or if they convert as a necessary and inevitable response to advanced coercion, or "brainwashing" techniques employed by the cult leaders.
The concept of brainwashing came into popular existence in the 1950's as the result of attempts to try and explain the behaviour of some American GI's who defected to the Communists during the Korean War (19 Oct 1999). Many people, including some professionals, found brainwashing to be an acceptable explanation for the otherwise unexplainable behaviour. However, the brainwashing theory did nothing to explain why hundreds of other captured GI's chose to remain true to their country even at the risk of being tortured. It could not accurately account for the behaviour of a select few GI's when it did not offer any explanation for the behaviour of the majority.
Since the 1950's, the concept of brainwashing has faded in and out of public consciousness with a tendency to flare up again in the face of public controversy. In the 1960's and 1970's the brainwashing debate again took center stage, this time in an attempt to explain the behaviour of so-called radicals who left behind a "normal" life and opted instead for a "cult" existence.
Although scholars of new religious movements would agree that religious groups often have substantial influence over their followers, they would also argue that the "influence exerted in "cults" is not very different from influence that is present in practically every arena of life," (19 Oct 1999). Mainstream religions also exercise influence over their members concerning matters such as lifestyle choices, familial relations and monetary donations. Furthermore, most social scientists concede that some degree of influence is inevitable in each culture and facet of life even outside the arena of religious choice....
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