Stephen Kent

Stephen Kent is a biased sociologist of religion who adopted the universally debunked theories of psychologist Margaret Singer and sociologist Richard Ofshe of “coercive persuasion” and “brainwashing” as applied to religions and made a career as a paid witness for litigants against new religious movements. In abdicating academic integrity and methodology for pseudoscientific anti-religious vilification, Kent earned the disrespect and ire of professionals in the field.

Experts Review Kent

Professor Lorne L. Dawson, Full Professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies and the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and author of numerous books and papers, gives this analysis of Kent, who is affiliated with the University of Alberta:

Kent’s essays suffer from methodological flaws so grievous as to call into question the validity and reliability of Kent’s conclusions, especially as the foundation for sound legal or legislative action…. In fact the methodological inadequacies detected are indicative of a prejudice inappropriate to the practice of the social sciences.

Professor Irving Hexham, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary in Alberta and author of 23 books and numerous articles, in 2001 wrote in a new religion journal:

The one exception to the generally neutral tone of Canadian academics and their rejection of anti-cult rhetoric is Stephen Kent, who has been outspoken in his criticism of many new religions, particularly Scientology, and he works closely with various anti-cult groups. Although Kent’s views are widely known, few Canadian academics agree with his findings and most disagree quite strongly because of his tendency to use the testimony of ex-members.

A notable example of Kent’s work provoking such negative peer reviews is a study of the Rehabilitation Project Force, a redemptive program offered to members of the Scientology religious order, the Sea Organization. The methodology and conclusions of this “brainwashing study” have been decisively rejected and discredited by every responsible scientific organization that has looked into the subject. Scientific evidence dismissing and discrediting “coercive persuasion” allegations directed at new religions is voluminous, well-documented and published in numerous leading professional journals and books. No scientific studies support Kent’s theories.

Kent’s paper is devoid of legitimacy for a number of reasons. First, the information he relied on to justify his conclusions is false. It consists of spurious and unsubstantiated accounts from just six individuals regarding their supposed experiences from as long ago as three decades. Second, a strong consensus of scientific and professional opinion has thoroughly and emphatically rejected the validity of this very claim of “religious brainwashing.” Third, the underlying methodology and scientific principles from which his “brainwashing” theory purports to be drawn do not even remotely support application of the theory in this context.

Despite criticism of Kent’s work by Professor Dawson and others on the grounds that he uses ex-members as sources, Kent’s conclusions are based solely on interviews with the six apostates and on self-serving documents supplied by them and a few others seeking large payments from the Church. Kent interviewed only these individuals, with no attempt to interview any Scientologists, the only valid sources of firsthand knowledge of his subject matter.

Experts note that individuals disaffected from a religion are routinely biased and unreliable witnesses. The late Bryan Ronald Wilson of Oxford University, a world-renowned scholar in the sociology of religion, wrote in The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1990:

Informants who are mere contacts and who have no personal motives for what they tell are to be preferred to those who, for their own purposes, seek to use the investigator. The disaffected and the apostate are in particular informants whose evidence has to be used with circumspection. The apostate is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates. Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an ‘atrocity story’ to explain how, by manipulation, trickery, coercion, or deceit, he was induced to join or remain within an organization that he now forswears and condemns. Apostates, sensationalized by the press, have sometimes sought to make a profit from accounts of their experiences in stories sold to newspapers or produced as books (sometimes written by ‘ghost’ writers).

Common sense suggests—and scientific analysis confirms—an inevitable bias in reliance upon these sources. Individuals who have been rejected by their religious community for their misconduct might be expected to provide lurid, false and hostile accounts of their experience and to seek self-serving rationalizations justifying their past misconduct. Coached to explain their prior affiliation as “brainwashing,” former members can place responsibility for their past actions on the organization rather than on themselves.

Many of these sources also had a substantial monetary stake in making the false claims relied on by Kent. They had filed civil suits against their former religion, demanding compensation. Scientific commentary on the unreliability of such biased claims is substantial.

Attempting to cloak his assumptions in the neutral abstractions of science, Kent relied on highly tainted information, even while authoritative and distinguished experts committed to the dispassionate application of scientific methods to the study of religion resoundingly discredited such assumptions. In their consensus view, the allegation of “brainwashing” has no scientific validity whatever. Not a single methodologically sound study supports the theory, and a host of such studies refute it.

The American Psychological Association and American Sociological Association have both rejected the theory of “coercive persuasion” in relation to voluntary participation in new religions. Attempts to qualify mental health and sociological professionals as “experts” based on this discredited theory have been denied repeatedly by courts in the United States. See, e.g. United States v. Fishman. 743 F. Supp. 713, 719 (N.D. Cal. 1990); State of Ohio v. Luff 85 Ohio App. 3d 785, 798-800 (1993).

The “brainwashing” theories advanced by Kent were borrowed from the late discredited psychologist Margaret Singer and psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and their studies of American prisoners held captive by Chinese armed forces during the Korean War. Several scientists who studied the conditions of these prisoners concluded that extreme physical hardship, torture, prolonged confinement and fear of death might temporarily induce some individuals to accept belief systems antithetical to those previously held.

In United States v. Kozminski the Judge stated:

The brainwashing techniques employed by the Chinese as studied by Dr. Lifton were scientifically implemented, and scientifically monitored around the clock. The techniques were professionally structured into a planned, systematic, progressive program calculated to totally pervert and/or destroy an individual and to change his behavior and his beliefs. Essential to effective metamorphosis of the prisoner was an environment of physical captivity, a realization of the futility of escape or rescue, and the use of force or the ever-present threat of force and even death. 821 F. 2d 1186, 1204 (6th Cir. 1987) affd. 108 S. Ct. 2751 (1988).

For obvious reasons, the consensus view of scholars repudiates the effort to extend the POW mind control hypothesis to the context of new religious movements. [See, e.g., G.G. James, “Brainwashing: The Myth and the Actuality,” Thought: Fordham University Quarterly, Volume 61, at 254: “It is absurd to compare this to the fear of death in prisoners held by the Chinese and North Koreans”; Elaine Barker, The Making of a Moonie 134 (1984): “Comparison cannot be taken seriously”; John A. Saliba, “Psychiatry and the New Cults: Part 1,” 7 Academic Psychology Bulletin, 51 (1985); Dick Anthony, Religious Movements and Brainwashing Litigation, In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America, Anthony, 263, 264-265.]

Kent’s study is not only suspect because it is premised on misinformation and constitutes spurious pseudoscience. It also is suspect because of Kent’s inherent bias on the subject of new religions. Kent traveled to Germany at the invitation of German government officials and the Lutheran Church on several occasions in the 1990s as a featured speaker at anti-religious events and press conferences organized by the German Socialist Party, Christian Democratic Union, members of the Enquete Commission and the Lutheran Church.

Thus, at the foundation of his purportedly scholarly studies is a fixed mindset with a vested interest in supporting a German government propaganda campaign and litigants against new religions. At bottom, Kent’s work is permeated with unfounded assumptions premised on false allegations advanced by noncredible sources. To reach his conclusions, Kent ignored voluminous scientific research by accomplished and respected scholars who have objectively reached a consensus that “brainwashing” claims have no scientific validity. He also ignores factual, firsthand data available from many religious organizations, including the Church of Scientology.

Stephen Kent’s pronouncements in the arena of new religious movements run counter to meaningful scholarly work and provoke discord rather than discourse.

Sign Up for Updates