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Deprogramming is the highly controversial practice in which a person's relatives and/or others try to get him or her to leave a religious or similar group which they regard as spurious (i.e. a "cult"). They justify this intervention or "therapy" as necessary to bring the person out from under the influence of the group's "mind control." Advocates describe it as a last resort for some families who felt that their loved ones had been taken away from them, although it is fraught with controversy because of some of its methods, which have sometimes been defined as kidnapping in a court of law.

Deprogramming has been attacked, by cultists and others, on the basis that it is dangerous and illegal to kidnap someone from any organization in which they voluntarily participate. Deprogrammers claim that the voluntary participation is due to "mind control," a controversial theory that a person's thought processes can be changed by outside forces. The existence of mind control is widely disputed, though generally dismissed as pseudoscience by the psychiatric establishment. Even if mind control is possible, it is, of course, virtually impossible to prove that any individual person's mind has been controlled.

During the 1990s, Rick Ross, a noted cult intervention expert who allegedly took part in a number of deprogramming sessions, was sued by a former member of a group called the Life Tabernacle Church after an attempt at intervention was unsuccessful. He was ordered to pay damages of about $5 million, though this amount was later rescinded. This legal case was expanded to include a prominent anti-cult group called the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). The judgement was used to force CAN into bankruptcy, and its name and assets were purchased by a representative of Scientology shortly afterwards. This case was seen as effectively closing the door on the practice of deprogramming.

Deprogramming has fallen into disfavor because of its controversial aspects. As a result of the CAN judgement, a number of prominent anti-cult groupss and persons have distanced themselves from the practice, noting that a less intrusive form of intervention called exit counseling has been shown to be more effective, less harmful, and less likely to lead to legal action. Organizations often referred to as cults, such as Scientology, insist that the practice is still commonplace, and they often make statements that their critics and opponents are "deprogrammers."

Ted Patrick, a pioneer of deprogramming in America, said,

When you deprogram people, you force them to think. The only thing I do is shoot them challenging questions. I hit them with things that they haven't been programmed to respond to. I know what the cults do and how they do it, so I shoot them the right questions; and they get frustrated when they can't answer. They think they have the answer, they've been given answers to everything. But I keep them off balance and this forces them to begin questioning, to open their minds. When the mind gets to a certain point, they can see through all the lies that they've been programmed to believe. They realize that they've been duped and they come out of it. Their minds start working again.

(Steve Hassan, author of the book Combatting Cult Mind Control, states that he took part in a number of deprogrammings in the late 1970s, but he no longer approves of the practice and has not participated in any deprogrammings since then. He is one of the major proponents of exit counseling as a form of intervention therapy, and he refers to his method as "strategic intervention therapy.")

See also Totalitarian religious group.

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