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Abstract

An intense controversy regarding new and unpopular religious movements, or cults, continues to involve professionals at the juncture of psychiatry, religion, and the law. As the cults come under increasingly critical scrutiny, the concept most often used for assessing them is that of coercive persuasion. Briefly, such persuasion is seen as a means of psychological manipulation that leaves individuals without the normal control of their own minds. Considering recent pertinent cases and literature, the authors find major weaknesses in this theory. When applied it proves elastic, and it is regularly identified in cults for conduct that, on close examination, is similar to that of established religious groups. The concept of coercive persuasion as a means of thought control fails to pass scientific muster, and it serves poorly as a means of evaluating the connection between alleged harm and the cults. Instead, the authors suggest that a search for an alternative theory might well begin with one based on the individual as competent or not to make a choice regarding religion.