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Deprogramming: from private self-help to governmental organized repression


This paper examines deprogramming, a multi-faceted form of derecruitment from unpopular religious groups (“cults”) developed in the United States and then spreading to other nations, as a form of social control of new religious movements. The early history of deprogramming in the United States is discussed, and then its more recent application in Japan against members of the Unification Church is detailed. A continuum is presented that has self-help remedies at one end, and governmental repression at the other. Self-help forms of deprogramming are illustrated mainly by the United States which has First Amendment protections for religious groups which afford some protection from governmental intervention. Governmental forced derecruitment is illustrated by China’s effort to stamp out the Falun Gong through a very systematic official governmental program involving many institutions operating with full support of the government and the Chinese Communist Party. In between these extremes are cases such as Japan’s social control efforts, and some within the United States, where governmental officials and agencies turn a “blind eye” to self-help remedies, allowing them to operate, or even engage in covert activities to suppress unpopular religious groups.

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  1. Some researchers have linked new religious movemnts with terrorism in other ways. See Olsen and Richardson [20] and Dawson [11] for discussions of similarities between NRMs and terrorist groups.

  2. See the Jane Campion movie Holy Smoke starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Kietel of a deprogramming that took place in Australia, with Kittel playing the role of the visiting American deprogrammer.

  3. Such actions by the State are a matter of degree, of course, and examples of state sanctioned overt action against a minority faith can be found in the United States. Included in a list of such examples are the Waco tragic episode [37] and the carefully planned and implemented actions against the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints group in Texas [38]. Also see Richardson [25] for such actions against The Family, formerly known as the Children of God, in various countries around the world.

  4. See James Tong [35] for a thorough discussion of the events leading up to this fateful decision to demonstrate at Chinese Communist Party headquarters. Also see Ian Johnson, “China’s Rigid Policies on Religion Helped Falun Dafa for Years,” Wall Street Journal, 13 December 2000. The 25 April 1999 demonstration was one in a series of a dozen or more mass demonstrations that Falun Gong had launched against media outlets and governmental bodies that had been critical of the movement. Most of the earlier demonstrations had been successful in that the authorities had capitulated to Falun Gong demands. Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his thorough coverage on the Falun Gong movement and efforts to suppress it.

  5. See [35, pp 32–51] for details of the covert actions that took place over this 3 month period, and an analysis of why the campaign was organized in this manner.

  6. Tong [35, pp 78–101] for details of this impressive effort that made use of all forms of media. Tong notes, for example (p. 211) that 31 anti-Falun Gong books were produced during this 3 month period which appeared in book stores within a week of the ban on July 22. Another 50 titles were available within a month. He also reports (p. 78) that within 4 weeks of the official ban the state news agency issued 1,650 press releases and 290 articles promoting the government’s view of the Falun Gong and the China Central Television Corporation aired 1,722 news items totaling over 100 h of programming on the Falun Gong.

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  8. Amnesty International, People’s Republic of China, 18.

  9. Amnesty International, People’s Republic of China, 19.

  10. Amnesty International, People’s Republic of China, 20.

  11. See Amnesty International, People’s Republic of China, 21. The term translated here as “heretical organization,” xiejiao zuzhi, is often translated into English as “evil cult,” or “destructive cult.” Amnesty International explains that xiejiao zuzhi “refers to a large variety of groups and has a far broader meaning than ‘cult.’ ‘Xiejiao zuzhi’ is the expression used in Chinese legislation, in official statements and by the state media to refer to a wide range of sectarian and millenarian groups, or unorthodox religious or spiritual organizations, and other groups, which do not meet official approval. ‘Xiejiao zuzhi’ can be translated as ‘heretical organization,’ or ‘evil,’ ‘heterodox’ or ‘weird religious organization.’” See Amnesty International, People’s, Republic of China, 43, note 1. “Heretical organizations” spread superstitious beliefs, threatening the development of the socialist state and hindering efforts to educate the people in the sciences.

  12. Amnesty International, People’s Republic of China, 22.

  13. Amnesty International, People’s Republic of China, 22.

  14. Erik Eckholm and Elisabeth Rosenthal [12]. Meetings such as this are very rare. With the President (Jiang), Premier (Zhu), and NPC Chairman (Wan) set to step down from power in 2002, it is important for the ruling conservative faction in the Party to maintain control over the Party and for Jiang to solidify his legacy.

  15. Tyler Marshall and Anthony Kuhn [17], “China Goes One-on-One With the Net,” Los Angeles Times, 27 January 2000.

  16. The action against the Davidians quickly became much more overt, of course, with the raid by the ATF and subsequent 50 day siege by the FBI.


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Correspondence to James T. Richardson.

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Richardson, J.T. Deprogramming: from private self-help to governmental organized repression. Crime Law Soc Change 55, 321–336 (2011).

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  • Social Control
  • Religious Group
  • Chinese Communist Party
  • Religious Freedom
  • Religious Movement