Episode 106: Moonie Madness

The Unification Church was virtually unknown in America until the 1970’s when concerned parents, anti-cult groups and members of congress raised alarm about the powerful “brainwashing” techniques used by “moonies” to lure new converts into their dangerous cult.  Now that the self-proclaimed “messiah” Sun Myung Moon has died a group of sociologists are defending the Unification Church. While their beliefs and practices may strike most as odd they are hardly the predatory cult some have made them out to be (these sociologists claim). In particular, researchers of new religious movements object to the pseudoscientific notion of “brainwashing”–insisting that what compels people to join groups like the Unification Church amounts to nothing more than ordinary forces of group psychology at play in any religion. Anti-cult groups have fired back accusing these researchers of engaging in apologetics and secretly accepting financial kick-backs from the same groups they defend. What is a cult and how is it different (if at all) from a religion? Is there any scientific support for the concept of brainwashing? We will attempt to answer these questions and more. Also on this episode: violence across the Muslim world, blasphemy laws backfire in Pakistan, and Mark Regnerus’ research on homosexual parenting is dissected for this weeks “God Thinks Like You”

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  1. says

    “During the time of the “Koreagate” scandal in 1976-1977, the Fraser Committee found that the National Intelligence Service of South Korea (KCIA), had, among other things, been using the Unification Church as a political tool in its various
    anti-communist activities. The KCIA’s general goal was to influence the domestic and foreign politics and policies of the United States. Eighty-one pages of the 447-page Fraser Report (pages 311-392) deals specifically with the Moon organization. The term “KCIA” occurs sixty-eight times within those eighty-one pages.” Source:


    Please also see:



  2. Hecubus says

    Disney has not disavowed The Back Cauldron. It is available on DVD.


    I just wanted to correct the ONLY thing you guys have ever been wrong about.

    The Black Cauldron possibly true fact: It was the only animated Disney film to be re-edited after the scenes had been completed. Roy E. had just taken over animation and did not like what he saw.

  3. says

    Regarding the question, “What is a cult?” I use the Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Framework (because evaluating such groups should be as simple as ABCDEF.) It was designed by Isaac Bonewits, one of the pioneers of the American Neo-Pagan movement, at the height of the cult scare to create a methodology for distinguishing groups that were merely odd from those that were actually dangerous.

    The ABCDEF looks at 18 points, including the amount of internal and external control the group has on members, its emphasis on recruitment, the way it controls dropouts, the claimed wisdom of the leaders and their level of hypocricy. There is on one metric that indicates “This is a dangerous group,” but high ratings in several categories should be seen as warnings.

    From everything I’ve heard, including from members, the Unification Church rates pretty high in most of these categories, and so should be considered a threat.

  4. ullrichfischer says

    Re the Imam trying to frame that 11 year old girl: His crime should not be blasphemy, but perjury and false imprisonment. Most reasonable legal systems would consider framing someone for a crime to be crime in itself.

    Re the Moonies: the defenders of the Moonies are correct IMHO, but only because all religions are cults and use similar methods to ensnare new recruits. The difference is to what degree the various cults isolate their members (ie victims) from non-members and what fraction of their members’ resources and time goes into the increasing the cult’s coffers. In that regard, the moonies aren’t that different from the Catholic Church (for example). In terms of how they deal with apostates, the Moonies are significantly worse and the Jihadists are arguably worst of all.

  5. says

    I’m a former “Moony.” I was raised in the Unification Church and didn’t have the sense to leave until a little after I was put into an arranged marriage by Reverend Moon.

    I’ve never seen any evidence of “brainwashing” or any sort of coercion to get people to join. If anything, the sheer disdain for “outsiders” the church instills in its members puts a severe hamper on getting new members to join.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    OK, I don’t listen to podcasts — could someone please tell me how this discussion got from Moonies and cults to The Black Cauldron?

    Just curious because that book series was one of my favorites as a child, and it took me almost a decade to forgive Disney for how badly they ruined it. They took one of the most lively heroines in all of children’s literature and surgically removed all traces of her personality.

  7. Jodie says

    I’m sure a thread about Moonies is the wrong place to put the question I’ve already posted, but I’m old and not so good with this stuff. I would really appreciate a discussion among atheists about this.

  8. funcharge says

    Just want to address some of the things you guys brought up in the podcast about neo-nazis and punk rock. I’ve been in the punk scene for almost two decades. Punks are some of the most vocal anti-racists you will find. There are a number of subgenres of punk and some are more right-wing than others. When you hear about a neo-nazi ‘punk’ band, the band is usually playing oi or maybe some brand of skinhead hardcore. Although, not all skinheads are racist. Most are trads, for traditional, and are against racism. Other underground “extreme” music scenes unfortunately don’t have the same anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian convictions that punk rock has.

  9. curtcameron says

    I read one time the difference between a religion and a cult.

    In a cult, there is a person at the top of the hierarchy who knows it’s all a scam.

    In a religion, that person is dead.

    I *love* using this with people I know who are religious.

  10. brianwestley says

    I still like Tom Wolfe’s definition:
    “A cult is a religion without political power”
    although the comeback “to-may-to/to-mah-to” is a bit more lyrical.

  11. left0ver1under says

    As far as I’m concenred, a cult is a group that makes claims of the supernatural but can’t produce them to be tested.

    But there is a generally accepted list of what constitutes a cult, and all of the mainstream “religions” meet them, not just those labelled as cults:

    1) An unquestioned, charismatic leader.
    2) Claims of divine authority.
    3) Obsessive control of money.
    4) Obsessive control of people’s lives.
    5) Obsessive interest in sex.
    6) The subjugation of women.
    7) Exile, isolation and even violence against former members.

    Among others. Religious Tolerance (a non-sectarian site that attempts to promote information instead of religion) has its own list:


  12. tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach says

    A religion is merely a cult with friends in the halls of power, just as a political party is a gang of malcontents who have bulled their way into those same halls.

  13. Corvus illustris says

    … and all variations on the theme: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” credited to but disclaimed by the linguist Max Weinreich.

  14. bradleybetts says

    “What is a cult and how is it different (if at all) from a religion?”

    Depends who you are. According to dictionary.com, a cult is “a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies”. That seems pretty accurate to me. To most people, it means “a little known, non-mainstream religion”. If you are a fundementalist, it means “any minority system of wacky beliefs that does not conform to my own”.

    What’s the difference between a cult and a religion? Numbers.

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