Question and answers from Maynooth Conference: Mick Farrell 2 Eileen Barker

Question and answers from Maynooth Conference: Mick Farrell 2 Eileen Barker

As a result of a question and answer interaction, between myself and guest speaker Eileen Barker, (at the Maynooth conference on “Alternative spirituality’s, the New Age and New Religious Movements in Ireland”, last Saturday the 31st of October, a number of issues arose which I feel need to be addressed.  As can be appreciated, if you contribute to a discussion through a question and answer format, and you feel, or it’s not made clear, you will be given the opportunity to respond, you can be left in a very vulnerable position.  I believe such a situation arose last Saturday, when Eileen Barker instead of confining herself to answering the questions posed, made some comments and statements, which I felt, were more about discrediting my professional integrity than indulging in truth finding discourse.  This left me no option but to continually object to her assertions, a development which led to the break down of communication.  I don’t wish to dwell on this issue, but use it as an opportunity, to state, where I was coming from and give some enlightenment with respect to the broader issues concerning cultism, and the problems associated with the dispersal of objective information.

To put readers in the picture, Eileen Barker is a well recognized international figure in the field of cultism. A professor of sociology, she is founder and present chairperson of INFORM, a charity, supported by the British Home Office and mainstream Churches in Britain.   At an international level of scholarship, her work has been highly controversial.  I think it is fair to say, those who accept her theoretical position and fully approve her research methods will tend not to accept concepts such as: brainwashing, mind control or thought reform as real phenomena’s.  Barker has published many papers, and her book “Making of a Moonie” received both much acclaim and criticism.    On the other side of the divide, respected scholars of International esteem such as: Robert J Lifton, (Publisher of the classic “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism”) Philip Zimbardo, publisher of “The Lucifer Effect” and Leon Festinger, publisher of “ A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance”, are independent scholars who are used by critics of Barker to support the idea that people can be consciously and unconsciously influenced to act against their own: beliefs, values and best interests.

Obviously this article is not sufficient to deal with the issue of Cultism in a holistic manner.  Nevertheless, I think a lot  can be learned by a brief  analysis  of some key issues of contention in Eileen Barkers presentation; some extracts from her web site paper titled ”What Should We Do About Cults” penned in 2006; and a brief summary of how those issues impacted on my interaction with the presenter.  The key points of contention revolved around the following: Beliefs, Naming the subject, Sociological frame work, interpreting the problem, Representation of perspectives, scientific analysis of the subject. Since my views on cultism are consistent with the mind control model and influence by the disciplines of anthropology and psychotherapy I think you will find this a useful analytic and comparative exercise.  I will use the letters B. for Baker and F. for Farrell as index markers.


B. The presentation began with a quote from Louise Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”  “Curioser and Curioser! cried Alice.  ‘Well yes and no,’ replied the sociologist”.  The presenter then indulged in a narrative which emphasized that people could hold the strangest and most curious of beliefs, but were only curious to those who did not understand or subscribe to them.  The central message was that people’s beliefs should not be a threat to anybody because they were new or different.  Also, beliefs are not a threat in themselves and should be “Value Free”.  New Religious Movements should therefore not be perceived as a threat, because they are new and a curiosity.

B. The  same theme surfaces on her web page in this Quote : If they (NRMs) live within the law, they should not be subject to special treatment because of their beliefs any more than Methodists or Catholics in contemporary Western society are subject to special regulation purely because of their beliefs, When the Manson family or Aum Shinrikyo murdered innocent members of the public , it was because of the murders, not because of Manson’s or Asahara’s religious beliefs, that the law needed to be brought to bear. Web paper, p 372

F. From a psychological perspective, this raises important questions. Such as, how do people come to accept beliefs, which are: false misleading or simply dangerous? I would argue that in the context of a cultic environment, beliefs are not embraced through a system of open learning, but, by a combination of cultic processes. In other words, there is a serious ethical question here, which is not “Value Free”.

The beliefs of the Aum Shinrikyo group raise a different question. To quote Robert Lifton: “The Guru Asahara and his small cult, went close to making a poor mans atomic bomb. Had they succeeded the consequences could have been devastating”.

( Lifton, R. 1999, “Destroying the World to Save It”) I believe if a group expresses such beliefs as mass suicide or genocide, and there is clear evidence of cultic processes taking place, the law should have the power to disperse members to safe environments.  Environments, where they would be away from the influence of the group, and where they could be counseled about the characteristics of mind control. The need to separate can be understood by an examination of Leon Festinger’s “social support Theory” (Festinger, L. 1957 “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance)

Barker seems to miss the point, beliefs and values of a particular genre can give rise to particular mind control processes and actions which are not reversible.  I am not speaking just about the belief in the need to destroy the world, but a combination of other cultic beliefs which might include: the Guru has special knowledge; devotees are not spiritually realized enough to understand Gods messages, etc.  To people outside a mind control environment such ideas might sound suspect. But for those who have internalized the beliefs as: literal truth; sacred and unquestionable; and understood within the context of reward and punishment, not acting upon them may not be an option.

Also, as will become apparent in other discourses, there is the ever present message in Barkers narrative, which is, “Not So Value Free”.  Namely, those interpreting the beliefs of NRMs are somehow assumed to be: afraid of the unfamiliar, ignorant or badly informed.


B. After some dialogue with a fellow traveller in the audience, the presenter informed us, that the term New Religious Movements originated, from a discourse with sociologists, who wanted to find a less judgmental term than cult.  There was the argument that the more pejorative name of “cult,” was not appropriate; as there was no evidence that NRMs were any more harmful because they were “new”. She pointed out that some movements claimed to go back thousands of years, but were still new to the West.

F. The difference arises here because the term New Religious Movements has no relevance in the context of understanding cultism, from a mind control perspective.  As I explained to Eileen Barker, during our interaction, you may as well use the term “New Ice Skating Movement”.  The point from my perspective is we are not referring to any specific group or sphere of society whether new or old, when speaking about cultism.   We are essentially talking about “Destructive Processes” which may be present in one to one relationships, or any collectivities of people, whether big or small.  From a time perspective, I believe, the historical roots of “Cultism” can be found in the classical religious and political systems of the world, and are by no means absent from contemporary expressions of the same.


B. History is full of instances in which citizens with a vested interest in preserving the status quo have greeted anything new with suspicion and distrust.  This is certainly true so far as new religious movements (NRMs) are concerned.  Once alternatives to traditional beliefs and practices emerge, it is not long until the cry goes up insisting something ought to be done about the ‘cult’ or ‘sect’ that is threatening not only individuals but the very fabric of society.  The old Testament is full of instances testifying to this: the early Christians were thrown to the lions; the catarrhs were burned at the stake; ———–etc., etc. etc. — and no doubt will continue as long as there are those who claim to know (or deny) an Ultimate Truth.( Barker. web page 371)

F. Consistent with her introductory approach to writing and verbalizing on this subject, Barker uses a sociohistorical frame in which she draws analogies with past conflictual events and contemporary responses to that of new religious movements.  The question is: how accurate is the analogy? In the first instance, she has NRMs portrayed as victims.  Their only crime is that they are “NEW” and don’t comply with the status quo.   Their beliefs are described as simply, “unorthodox” a fairly neutral term, or to use her own words a “Value Free” term.  On the other hand, the concerned outsiders who object to cultic activities are portrayed as the villains, ready to turn on anybody who upsets the status quo. They are accused of claiming to know (or deny) an Ultimate Truth.  In other words, these categories are guilty of beliefs consistent with what Robert J Lifton describes as Ideological totalism, a key component of mind control or thought reform processes.  Sounds familiar, oh yes, this is the very thing NRMs are accused of by the concerned outsiders.

To make an analogy; of cause and effect relationships of division and conflict events, over such a wide expanse of geocultural spaces and historical epochs, based on the simple criteria, that the “new”, provokes the preservers of the status quo, to rebel with violence, must be open to serious critical analysis.  I think a more appropriate rationale for division and conflict in this context might be the Psychology documentary “Five Steps To Tyranny” Namely:  Create difference, Obedience to authority, Dehumanize the enemy, Suppress dissenting or opposing opinions, Suppress individuality, Foster the development of a group identity, while suppressing the individuals. This documentary is a must for anybody studying this subject, and is easily found on U Tube.


B. In the context of information seeking about NRMs or Cults, Barker gives the following examples of questions an inquirer might ask: A mother might, for example be worried to learn that the NRM her daughter had joined follows a strict vegetarian diet, but is reassured to learn that it promotes celibacy.  The girl’s father might be unconcerned about the diet, but, hoping to have a grandchild be upset about the practice of celibacy.  Another parent is anxious that her son will not achieve eternal salvation as he has rejected the Christian faith in which he was raised, yet she might be relieved he has stopped taking dangerous drugs.

F. What is interesting here is the choice of questions Barker suggests might be asked.

After twenty years in this field I can guarantee that: parents, children of parents, siblings, concerned friends, of those who are exposed to mind control environments will want to ask questions relating to the following:  changes in personality, life goals, sense of identity and social interaction. Also, questions might take the form of will they drop out of the education system; donate their savings to the group; develop a one world perspective; marry somebody at the whim of a so called guru, see the world as a battlefield between good and evil forces; develop irrational fears about the nature of reality;  feel unnecessary guilt and shame for not living up to some puritanical principles; come to expect that the most horrific things will happen to them if they leave the group; allow their activities to be monitored by other members of the group; come to believe that chanting will guarantee their future needs, without making concrete plans; vacillate between cult and precult identities, suffer loss of personal autonomy; shift their source of influence from family and friends to those within the hierarchal system of the group.


B. During our interchange the presenter stated. By and large people in NRMs are decent, kind, people.

F. As I stated during the interchange that is something we can agree on.  However I would qualify that by saying. This is mostly true when people are expressing their pre- cult or true identity, it is just not always the case, if they are expressing a ‘cultic or group identity’.

B. Under the title “What Should Be Done” on her web paper Barker states: Opinions about what exactly needs to be done about NRMs vary according to time and place and individuals.  For some the movements and their members should be obliterated altogether; they should be outlawed or “liquidated” which frequently results in members going underground, risking imprisonment or even death.  A second position is that NRMs should be subject to special laws which restrict their practices (not allowing them to become legal entities— Barker, 372-373

B. Yet another position ( generally held by the governments of North America, Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries- and Inform) is that of NRMs should be treated in just the same way as all other citizens in a democratic country.

F. My experience and research in this field would indicate that those who advocate extreme responses would be in a small minority particularly amongst the concerned, who realize, it’s their own kin or friends, that are as much part of the groups as anybody else.  The enemy here is not people or groups per se; it is about debilitating psychological dynamics and subtle unethical systems of influence within an environment.  I would also contend that: denial, diminishing or trivializing the problem is not helpful to anybody. If the problem can be properly identified and named for what it is, those affected can at least make appropriate responses.  I believe this is why Eileen Barker, Inform and those of similar persuasion have contributed greatly to the problem, and the suffering of all concerned.

With respect to equality of citizenship, there is no argument, there are no special categories if their is to be regulation or laws, introduced to curtail mind control activities. Barker, has asked the question: Why Scientology is banned in Germany and nowhere else? They may not be banned but I expect many have become aware of their cultic activities. Besides, Germany is probably more aware, of the dangers of authoritarian type groups than anybody else.

B. In her analysis of responses to NRMs, Barker accused those who attributed terms such as, mind control and brainwashing, of using bland generalized explanations. She further stated there was no diagnostic or scientific evidence to support these claims. Claims which she dismissed with a tone and wave of the hand, which would suggest they belonged to the Looney bin.  On the other hand she presented research carried out by her and others, as scientifically objective to a point, where they were beyond reproach.

F. Now, I am more than acutely aware that terms like: cult, brainwashing and mind control can be like red rags to a bull, when in dialogue with a member of a mind control group.  However, when a professional scientist responds to such a central theme and plank in the research findings of significant others in this field; without even the slightest attempt at explanation of the terms; it can only be interpreted as deliberate misrepresentation by way of denigration and omission.  As pointed out in my introduction, the scholars who have researched and written most extensively on this subject are amongst the most respected in the world in their field.  I confronted Baker about these issues in the following dialogue.

F. In your hour long presentation there was a noticeable lack of balance:  You dismissed the issue of mind control without any attempt to explain what the term might signify.  For example you could have simply listed Lifton’s eight psychological themes and their relevance to thought reform or brainwashing.

B. Lifton— “never’ used the term brainwashing

F. Yes he did. This is not true.

B. No matter what I say, you are not going to listen.

F. What about Festinger’s “Cognitive Dissonance Theory” could you not have given just a short description of why mind control theorists claimed; Emotional control, thought control, behaviour and information control were relevant to the understanding of a cultic environment.  What about Zimbardo’s “situational theory and the pressure to role play. Or simply say something of the controversial process’s which might be going on in a group.

B. You have not read my writings. I do include processes in my writings.

F. I tried to interrupt to make the point that it was not her work that was at issue in this context but her failure to give a balanced representation of the work of others.  There was an attempt to incorporate here, rather than address the issue of balanced presentation.  With respect to the accusation that I had not read her work, I have read and researched extensively in this field. Research which included attending talks given by Inform delegates. As I pointed out, in the context of finding information, her work was the first recommended to me by Fr. Martin Tierney of ‘Dialogue Ireland’.  Unfortunately as I related to her, the writings did not resonate with my experience.  As regards the accuracy of Lifton’s use of the term brainwashing, I will let the quote speak for itself:

“A discussion of what’s most central in the thought reform environment can lead us to a more general consideration of the psychology of human zealotry.  For in identifying, on the basis of this study of thought  reform, features common to all expressions of ideological totalism, I wish to suggest a set of criteria against which any environment may be judged- a basis for answering the ever recurrent question “ Isn’t this just like brainwashing’?”  (Lifton, R. 1989, “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Ch 22, P 420)

On the issue of Zimbardo’s work, and its association with mind control I provide the following Quote: “ Effective mind control exists in the most mundane aspects of human existence: the inner pressure to be bonded to other people, the power of group norms to influence behaviour, and the power of social rewards such as smiles, praise, a gentle touch, “ (Zimbardo, P. 1980,  Reprinted from USA TODAY)


F. Since understanding cultism, is something of a mine field for those seeking Information and Inform is such an influential player, I posed the following Question to Eileen Barker: “Have you considered the possibility that your research method might lack the anthropological depth and psychological awareness to reveal the true nature of the phenomenon?”

B. She explained that her research was most scientific, impartial and objective in the most glowing of terms. In her visual presentation she showed the mass wedding of Moonie followers in a most favourable light.

F. You account for mass weddings and suicides by using statistics based on quantitative analysis which show that these events occur in no less a scale in the rest of society.  If I were to stand outside the gates of Maynooth College next Monday morning and asked a thousand students if they would participate in a mass wedding and marry somebody they never met in their life; what do you suppose the statistics would reveal? Do you not think they would have to go through some type of process before accepting such an arrangement?

B. Arranged marriages are common in many cultures and are on no bigger or less a scale.

F. My contention here is: Barkers use of qualitative data to explain what extreme events in cultic environments are simply inappropriate or at the least inadequate. As anthropologists are aware arranged marriages among kin are bound up with all kinds of kinship relationships, survival, and the reproduction of the collective clan.  The gathering of eight hundred people, to marry at the behest of a guru, is of a totally different genre, and requires a separate type of research.  Likewise,  assisted mass suicides as happened in Jonestown, Waco, Heaven’s Gate, California, etc. cannot simply be rationalized by simple statistical data. I would also question the validity of using such methods for ascertaining how many people stay in groups and over what periods as a method of refuting mind control. From my experience it’s not a numbers game.  It is more a questions of discovering who is internalizing the belief systems; how that is achieved, and the consequences for the same.  From my observation of what occurs in cultic environment, I would argue that these events are a gross abuse of human freedom and human rights.


To say that Eileen Baker’s presentation on NRMs was biased against those who oppose her position would be a gross understatement of fact.  I will summarize with my key objections.

1. There was a strong message in her narrative that her research was of the highest scientific quality, presented almost entirely as facts, rather than findings. Informs web site is presented in a similar vein.

2. No attempt was made to balance the information presented, by even the smallest objective commentary, from the writings of those, with an opposing point of view.

3. Concepts such as brainwashing and mind control were presented as unproved concepts with no scientific validity.   Kind of hair brained ideas, presented in opposition to her own scientifically validated research.  This was done with no reference to the esteemed academics who have written extensively on the subject or the classic experiments which support how people can be controlled or otherwise manipulated, against their best judgments and self interests. For Example: ( Milligram, “obedience to authority” Asche, “ group compliance”  Zimbardo, “Stanford Prison Experiment” situational compliance, How the human mind can be influenced to act creatively or destructively. Lifton: “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism” Ch 22, Eight psychological themes present in a thought reform or brainwashing environment.

4. No attempt was made to give any explanation of what thought reform processes might consist off. Even a few sentences in an hour long presentation would suffice to give balance. No attempt, to give the names of professional scholars who have written on the subject, from a position of experience, and not of her point of view. Scholars such as Margaret Singer, Stephen Hassan, Janja Lalich, etc.

5. Claims that “people who oppose new religious movements make exaggerated statements. Such as:  people who join new religious movements are so brainwashed and zomped they can’t leave, or, can never recover from the brainwashing”.  The point here is I am sure people have made such claims, but if it’s used as a general comment, about people who oppose her position, it is a misrepresentation of facts. For Example,  the above authors have given very measured information with respect to the issue of recovery, from involvement, with closed authoritarian groups.

6. A visual presentation of the mass Moonie wedding was presented as a kind of mass cupid like celebration.  It was pointed out that the marriages were arranged by Moon, but no reference to the ethics of such behaviour.

7. A graphic image of the bombing of an Iskcon temple. No images of atrocities committed by cultic groups, or no psychological explanation of how a cycle of violence can be created.

The presentation got a very warm reception. And I have no doubt; many would have formed the view that NRMs are as benign as any other section of society.

I hope I have addressed the balance somewhat by posting this article

I make no apology for my open criticism of Eileen Barker’s and the Inform position on this subject. However, I do not claim to have all the answers and would agree that an interdisciplinary approach to the study of this subject is the only way forward.

I will also finish with a quote I heard from Louis Carroll:

“You have a fine way with words said Alice to the March Hare, you seem to be able to make words mean, whatever you want them to mean. Oh said the March Hare, you see:  The only question is, “Who Is Master”.

Michael Farrell MA NUI Maynooth

Cultic Support Ireland

Email: Garde&comment_limit=0&condense_comments=false#comment261788

One Response

  1. It is a sad truth that those at the furthest extremes on both sides of the field, ‘Anti Cultists’. Barker type research ‘academics’ have a tendency to totally demonise the other camp. Yet there is much overlap in the views of the two groups.
    Rather than look at this, members of each tend to look at the grounds where they differ.

    While they argue over the existence or otherwise of various phenomena, such as brainwashing, innocent people are the subject of abuse in groups born of impure intent.

    This is a little like fiddling while Rome burns.

    Wouldnt it be nice if someone from each side of the debate sat down and worked out what they agreed on, That would at least have the potential to produce something more acceptable to both.

    Academics could then inform Government even more accurately, based on more definitive profiling, rather than their being presented with the limited aspect of only one school of thought.

    I sometimes think the UK government use Inform simply because they wont use the term ‘cult’ (popular sense) This saves the government a lot of trouble-once youve got ‘cults’ youve got to protect people from them. What government want is a sanitised response which does not impose any further responsibilty/culpability on them.And that often seems to be exactly what they get
    (It can be frustrating nowadays trying to get anyone academic to say anything bad about anything.A morally neutral stance however, sometimes overlooks serious faults that should not be ignored …remember ‘right and wrong’?)

    Anyway, since each side of the debate is full of people holding equally extreme views, it seems obvious that we should unify and move dforward together based on common ground (cue ‘Land of Hope and Glory’)

    If we dont, we will just be standing by, continuing to argue over nuances, while vulnerable individuals fall victim to predatory, abusive groups. Intellectual ego massage more important than protecting the vulnerable? Could be; sure looks like.


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