Gulf News

July 20, 2018

Psychologists Have No Standing to Judge Religions

The basic thrust of your article is to dissuade people from religion and religious groups based on the atheistic assertions of a two clinical psychologists—members of a group notorious for their lack of understanding in religious matters.

July 20, 2018

Karishma Nandkeolyar
Gulf News (India Edition)

Dear Karishma,

I read your piece in Gulf News from the other day and was shocked at the extent your views parrot psychological propaganda.

The basic thrust of your article is to dissuade people from religion and religious groups based on the atheistic assertions of two clinical psychologists—members of a group notorious for their lack of understanding in religious matters.

Psychology (meaning “study of the spirit”) purged itself of spiritual matters in 1879 and since then has had no right to comment on matters of religion.

The mantra of the anti-religious movement of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s revolved around the now-debunked theory of “cultic coercive persuasion” devised by psychologist Margaret Singer and sociologist Richard Ofshe. The theory, used to justify the practice of violent deprogramming of members of new religions, flew in the face of one of the most fundamental rights protected by the American First Amendment and international human rights law: freedom to exercise the religion of one’s choice.

Repeated over and over by anti-religious groups of that era and their media spokespersons, Singer’s fallacious theories persisted until challenged and then exposed as unscientific bunkum by real experts, including religious leaders, scholars and Singer’s own peers.

The American Psychological Association (APA) rejected Singer’s theories as lacking scientific foundation. Several courts forbade Singer from testifying as an expert on her spurious theories because, as one court stated,

her coercive persuasion theory did not represent a meaningful concept.

The APA formally dismissed Singer’s ideas in the 1980s after she and her associates from the American Family Foundation (AFF), an anti-religious hate group, formed a task force within the APA on “deceptive and indirect methods of persuasion and control.” This task force submitted its report to the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the APA.

The Board rejected the task force report in May 1987, declaring that:

in general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach needed for APA imprimatur.

Prior to its rejection of Singer’s report, the APA had already endorsed a position contrary to Singer’s “coercive persuasion” theory in an amicus brief before the California Supreme Court in Molko v. Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity.

The forward to the amicus brief contained a stinging comment that forecast the repudiation the APA would later deal to Singer:

[The] APA believes that this commitment to advancing the appropriate use of psychological testimony in the courts carries with it the concomitant duty to be vigilant against those who would use purportedly expert testimony lacking scientific and methodological rigor.

While this theory initially gained some popularity in the 1970s and 1980s among civil litigants who were seeking large damages awards for their voluntary participation in religious activity, the theories were unable to withstand scientific scrutiny.

As Professor of Divinity, Harry Cox of Harvard University observed:

The term ‘brainwashing’ has no respectable standing in scientific or psychiatric circles, and is used almost entirely to describe a process by which somebody arrived at convictions that I do not agree with.

There is more that can be said about this, but I felt it important that you know some of the factual findings by real experts in this field and not perpetuate someone else’s bigoted slant against religions.

A more preferable stance, by far, would be to uphold religious commitment, which is known to bring incredible joy and enormous benefit to believers and non-believers alike.

Sincerely,

Rebecca Blair
State College, Penn

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