Beyond Brainwashing

Perspectives on Cultic Violence

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Rebecca Moore
Elements in Religion and Violence
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , May
     86 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Beyond Brainwashing, Rebecca Moore has done a great service to students and scholars of New Religious Movements (NRMs) by providing a detailed and succinct analysis of the field since the 1960s. Moore traces the development of both the study of new religions and the three major events that shaped wider public opinion about them in the United States: 1) the murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 orchestrated by Jim Jones and members of the Peoples Temple; 2) the state sponsored raids on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1993; and 3) the 9/11 terrorist attacks carried out by members of jihadist group, al Qaeda on September 11, 2001. To this day, Moore argues, media coverage of NRMs, state investigations, and activism in the Anti Cult Movement (ACM) or similar networks known as the Cult Awareness Movement (CAM) or Counter Cult Groups (CCG) harken back consistently to these events, at least in the United States and Western Europe. As Moore states bluntly, “The treatment of violence in popular literature and the media tends to written from either the CAM or CCG perspective” (14).

Because of the events at Jonestown, Waco, and on 9/11, various sociologists, religious studies scholars, historians, and state actors have utilized the tools of their respective fields to attempt to understand these events and why they occurred as they did. Many have also attempted to theorize how and why some groups turn violent and others do not in the hopes of stopping such tragedies from happening in the future. Moore categorizes this type of work on new religions as Research Oriented Groups (ROG) (13).  While various media outlets will always turn to older, and incorrect, notions of brainwashing, the control of a charismatic leader, and psychological deformity to explain why people join cults and, by extension, act violently. This work is often based on the works of various “cult watcher” networks: CAM, CCG, or ACM.  Cultural theorists, sociologists, and scholars of religion have been more sophisticated in their explanations. Moore does a fine job of detailing these theorists in an easily digestible way while staying true to both their content and their historical context. Furthermore, Moore does a tremendous service to the stressed-out graduate student or faculty member by providing an appendix with an easy-to-follow breakdown of all of the major theorists relevant to this work. For those, such as myself, who are about to swim through the raging river that is comprehensive exams, this is a godsend.

Perhaps, the only real disadvantage of this work lies in the subterfuge that the title Beyond Brainwashing implies. For those hoping to read a work that details the history of the idea of brainwashing throughout the 20th century, it is not contained within these pages. It is rather, as stated above, a historiographical analysis of the theorists of religion and violence with respect to new religious movements—those that go beyond the concept of brainwashing as a means of explanation. While brainwashing does come up, it is by no means a focal point or even side point to the main body of text. This is somewhat disappointing, as undergraduates being introduced to the field of new religions often have trouble dismantling preconceived notions surrounding this issue.

Nevertheless, the work done by Moore in such a scant space, only 71 pages including the appendix, is impressive and will no doubt be a continually edifying resource for scholars and students doing research in this subfield.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Wilson Dean is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
December 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rebecca Moore is Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University.


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