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Cults and Terrorism: Can We Establish Parallels Between Noxious Belief Systems?

Robert J. Lifton, a psychiatrist known principally for his theory of thought reform and his studies on war, terrorism and their relationship to psychology, coins precise terminology to explain the processes behind coercive techniques used in mind control in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. Through his research on tactics employed by Chinese communists to effect drastic changes in personality and opinion, he delineates what he refers to as the “Eight Criteria for Thought Reform,” criteria that have since been applied to cult dynamics: (1) Milieu Control, (2) Mystical Manipulation, (3) Demand for Purity, (4) Confession, (5) Sacred Science, (6) Loading the Language, (7) Doctrine over Person, and (8) Dispensing of Existence. What emerges is an elucidation of an almost methodised scheme to successfully control thought and behaviour, a scheme Orwell masterfully recognised and fictionalised in the ever-popular 1984.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the topic of recent discussion surrounding religious freedom. With Russia’s decision to ban the sect under pretences labelling it ‘extremist,’ many rushed to its defence, rightfully citing that the Witnesses are peaceful and are taught to submit to local authority.