"Abuse of Weakness" or "Brainwashing" - Does It Really Exist?

Interview with Prof. Massimo Introvigne - part 1 of 3

In December 2023, the French parliament debated to reintroduce or not the controversial law of mental manipulation. This law has a history in France.

It is necessary to open up to see the comprehensive perspective offered through academic studies, to understand that people who join spiritual movements are normal people, merely having their particular beliefs or practices. And as long as they respect the laws of their country they should enjoy freedom, respect and social protection, just like any other citizen. Yet the repetitive police raids and their scandalous presentation in mass media tell a different story.

There are several publications and academic studies on questionable concepts such as "abuse of weakness" or "brainwashing".

When France introduced in 2001 the controversial anti-cult About-Picard law, the first draft tried to punish “mental manipulation.” International and French scholars, and leading legal experts, protested that this was just a synonym of the discredited theory of “brainwashing,” exposed as pseudo-science and a tool to discriminate against unpopular religions by academics and courts of law in several countries.

Afraid that a law against “mental manipulation” would run into constitutional problems, the anti-cult politicians backed off, and introduced instead the “abuse of weakness” (abus de faiblesse). This was another cosmetic and semantic game hiding their intention to criminalize “brainwashing.” However, finding evidence that something that does not exist caused concrete harm proved to be difficult. As Canadian scholar Susan Palmer demonstrated in her acclaimed Oxford University Press 2011 book “The New Heretics of France,” the About-Picard law is strong with the weak and weak with the strong.

If a religious movement lacks the resources to hire good lawyers and experts, its leaders may be convicted of the imaginary “abus de faiblesse” and go to jail. Groups that command significant resources would easily find ways of challenging a law born under a pseudo-scientific cloud. In fact, even groups guilty of real abuses—to be distinguished from the non-existing “brainwashing”—may take advantage of the vague wording of the law and get away with their crimes. Source: https://bitterwinter.org/france-plans-to-make-a-bad-law-worse/

Prof. Massimo Introvigne gives his insights on the subject of mental manipulation during an interview offered to Soteria International. Here is the first part of three.


Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press' Nova Religio.  From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the "Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions" of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.