NRM Teaching Challenges:
Reflections on Combatting Dehumanization

In my course “New Religious Movements: Myths and Reality” – which I previewed in last year’s jonestown report – careful syllabus design incorporating the work of Peoples Temple survivors successfully helped students grapple with the persistent dehumanization of members of new religious movements (NRMs) – especially the syllabus’s initial units covering the scholarly brainwashing debate, as it turns out.

Created as a topical freshman writing seminar for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and taught twice during the 2014-15 academic year, my course trained students in the fundamentals of college-level humanistic inquiry through the subject of NRMs.

Accordingly, the course sought to address stereotypes of credulous and manipulated members, as both a likely conception of entering students and a prominent aspect of the classic scholarship on brainwashing.

In particular, three methods were used:

  • A brief assignment requiring students to describe perceptions of brainwashing as contained in the Errol Morris documentary Tabloid, then a three-week chronological dissection of some major relevant scholarship (e.g. Robert Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Eileen Barker’s Making of a Moonie);
  • Encounters with voices of NRM members through ethnographic research on a pre-screened group and unit-relevant personal accounts (e.g. Laura Johnston Kohl’s Jonestown Survivor and Leslie Wagner-Wilson’s Slavery of Faith, both appearing in a unit on NRM-related violence alongside a scholarly hypothesis derived in part from examination of Peoples Temple); and
  • A capstone unit opening up into other approaches to NRMs (e.g. the archivalism of Flickr’s Peoples Temple / Jonestown gallery on Flickr, the memorialization of the jonestown report’s Remembrances, and certain creative endeavors like People Temples-related artwork).

Of these three methods, the first was far and away the most effective, especially the chronological dissection of major scholarship from the brainwashing debate.

Because interest was high and the material appeared early in the semester, students had the motivation and time to fully engage and digest the findings, especially with the help of extensive class discussion on the content, both in its particularities and as an example of the general process of academic dialogue.

Rewardingly, the material almost immediately helped many students to become more critical consumers of media; these students subsequently recognized sensationalism in assigned journalism on Scientology and in classmate-selected texts about the pre-screened NRMs, and several even mentioned that they had begun to notice the same slant in popular treatments encountered outside of class time.

Although I had initially assigned a short 1979 Psychology Today article by Margaret Thaler Singer in order to illustrate explanations that the assigned J. Gordon Melton “Brainwashing and the Cults” literature review declared ultimately untenable. I decided to remove this article from the unit, however, because it caused much unnecessary trouble. Some students found Singer’s explanations convincing, but class time was insufficient to work through its viewpoint in addition to the more well-founded perspective of Barker, especially since helpful material on the anti-cult movement (ACM) had not yet been covered. Thus, the second time that I taught the course, I added the article as optional enrichment material on the ACM unit, only to find that the late semester placement of that unit left no time for even the most motivated students to read it. In future teachings, then, I hope to assign this article as optional enrichment material during the brainwashing unit. Since in my experience the most motivated students read such articles and are eager to discuss them during break or after class, this article would ideally pique the interest of that population in the upcoming ACM material without needlessly distracting others from the unit’s main pedagogical thrust.

As the lead-in to this unit, Errol Morris’s documentary Tabloid was satisfactory but not essential. The related exercise did indeed help students hone in on brainwashing stereotypes prior to their parsing the academic debate, but another text could have served the same purpose. That said, the film seems worth keeping not only because familiarity with Morris is part of cinematic cultural literacy, but also because its other content is memorable and fed into discussion of later course topics ranging from sociological studies of commitment mechanisms to ACM abductions.

For the specific goal of combatting dehumanization, the second method of encountering NRM members’ voices was relatively less important. One reason was that these encounters appeared later in the term, after the important work of the brainwashing had already been accomplished. Another was that, if the course’s students tended in any direction, they tended towards sympathy with NRM members, particularly of the groups with which they performed ethnographic research. Constituting a significant minority of the class, these students found themselves intrigued in some aspect of the group that they studied, whether cosmology, rituals, or aesthetics.

In this one regard, the introductory textbook Analyzing Social Settings proved more helpful than the respective fall and spring semester in-class speakers of Kelly Christian (who helped create a documentary project on the Patriot Guard Riders) and Meredith Zielke (who is co-directing an upcoming film on social contexts of Brazil’s Valley of the Dawn UFO cult). Among the many valuable topics that they discussed, both speakers emphasized respectful negotiation of different worldviews, while Analyzing Social Settings also covered maintaining critical distance in light of sympathy.

Similarly, the capstone unit was relatively less important for the goal of combatting dehumanization.

In both semesters, Flickr photos of Peoples Temple caused some students to gain new perspectives on the humanity of the group, but the existence of such humanity was already a working assumption for them due to the success of the earlier material.

Interestingly, perhaps due to practice in critique from other classes, the freshmen were already very adept in navigating the ethical terrain surrounding NRM-related artwork and needed little or no prompting to broach and dissect the major intellectual issues. For example, of the three pieces of art covered in conjunction with reviews in the jonestown report, students were comfortable with Nicola Bergstrom Hansen’s “The Jonestown Library”, uncomfortable with the non-consensual covering of Peoples Temple members’ faces in video footage used in the Cults’ music video “Go Outside”, and fairly critical of some assumptions behind Nick Burgess’s method of channeling for Jonestown-related paintings. With the paintings, students especially dwelt on the necessity of an artist’s acknowledgment of personal position; ideally, they felt that such paintings would have been based on intensive research or conversations with survivors, come from his perspective as an outsider to or onlooker of Peoples Temple, or perhaps even focused on the process by which he believed that he channeled the group’s members.

Thus, while the overall course benefitted from the capstone unit just as much as from the voices of NRM members, the success of the initial units covering brainwashing rendered this material of negligible effect in combatting dehumanization.

Overall, then, for teachers of NRMs who are concerned with combatting the likely dehumanization of NRM members, these experiences with SAIC freshmen strongly recommend spending several weeks at the beginning of a course working through the brainwashing debate, since students both enjoy and benefit from this pedagogical move.

(David Mihalyfy is a Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago. The curriculum as revised for the second semester of his class is here. He may be reached here.)