Washington Conference

This will be the second blog post from my conference on cults in Washington DC.  The full conference began yesterday (Thursday) with a plenary lecture.  This covered the topic of the extent to which extreme religious groups are covered by law (in this case American law).  There seems to be a visceral reluctance for the courts here to interfere with anything that has religious content.  Keeping a child in isolation for his entire life on the grounds that his parents have allowed this, seems to be OK as long as no physical cruelty is perpetrated against them.  It is however possible, apparently to bring a case if ‘undue influence’ is exercised in money matters, though this is by no means easy to do.  Another potential opening is being explored through society’s recognition of grooming.  It is only a matter of time before grooming becomes legally defined and religious coercion may possibly be linked to this in due course.

My own paper was given yesterday morning and was well received.  My problem in speaking to an unknown audience of ‘experts’ is that I fear they know far about the subject than I do.  But it seems that my maverick approach to the topic of cults, namely to point out interconnections between the phenomena of extreme religious groups and (this year) themes of social psychology, is welcome.  I believe it important to share the insights that come from extensive reading and the raw data that comes from talking to people like Chris.  This is after all the blog is about.   My paper was a discussion of the way that social environments and institutions have a far more powerful effect on people’s thinking and attitudes than they would like to admit.  We think and make decisions all the time, not from our independent thinking process, but out of an unconscious reaction to what we feel that our environment expects of us.  I mentioned the way that a church building and architecture has a powerful effect on the behaviour of the congregation.  I noted that hospitals have the same effect on patients, not always to their own benefit.  Cults are perhaps just an extreme example of a group where the unconscious situational forces work frequently in a malign way.

My body clock seems addicted to waking up at 7 am UK time which of course is 2 am American time.  Today the hour and half for lunch was taken up with sleep.  The four strands of the conference programme, that I have attended, have been fascinating and I cannot separate them all out in my mind.  But I do want to share one intriguing talk this afternoon.  This was from a retired psychotherapist who had worked with Vietnam veterans and cult survivors.  There was no doubt in her mind that cult survivors were as much victims of post traumatic stress as the ex-soldiers.   The symptom s experienced and the treatment offered are identical.   The other point that I have picked from the other talks, and indeed my own paper, is that there are no instant cures for people who have been traumatised by exposure to an extreme religious group.  The current thinking  is that changes occur in the brain to the limbic system and difficult therapy is required to retrain these neural pathways to operate outside the influence of the cult.  One acronym that is banded about here is SGA which means second generation adult.  These are adults who were born into the cult and have never known reality outside it.  There is thus no ‘norm’ for them to return.  They thus have to learn the norms of society from scratch.  It is like growing up all over again.

The individual conversations continue and I learn from people many fascinating stories.  Many individuals have spent some time in a dysfunctional group before escaping and taking on training as therapists of various kinds.  There is a great deal of wisdom gathered here, both academic/professional and practical.  It would appear that the impact of ‘Christian’ religious groups outnumbers the ‘traditional’ cults.  My interest in abusive churches fits in with the profile of most people here.

The conference finishes tomorrow (Saturday) and I will be staying with a friend in Washington for two nights.  He is an active retired Episcopalian priest and I am meeting up with him at a gay-friendly church in the city where he is preaching.  It will be interesting to record how such a church deals with all the bile and hate that is handed out to gays in this country from some sectors of the population.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

4 thoughts on “Washington Conference

  1. Stephen, excellent.
    Some personal thoughts on these sentences of yours:
    “My paper was a discussion of the way that social environments and institutions have a far more powerful effect on people’s thinking and attitudes than they would like to admit. We think and make decisions all the time, not from our independent thinking process, but out of an unconscious reaction to what we feel that our environment expects of us.”
    I was given both the book and the DVD Philomena last week (Martin Sixsmith), and they raise precisely this point. There were many good people in the Irish Catholic Church in the 50s, and yet they ended up with a doctrine that the Magdalenes – unmarried mothers – had done something unforgivable, in 100% contrast to the whole drift of Scripture, see Isaiah 1 (where scarlet sins can become as white as snow), Romans 3:23 + 6:23 taken together, and the fabulous Acts 13:29 which is easily missed. How is it that a church, which is presumably trying to take Scripture seriously, can get it so wrong? Book and film recommended.
    Other examples I am aware of are the one-time justification of apartheid from Scripture in South Africa ( ! ) and also, the group through whom I came to Christ as a teenager, who taught that it was better to stay single than to marry. They were saying yes to 1 Cor 7 verse 1 but ignoring verse 2. They were also going against 1 Tim 4:3, a verse which I read at the time, but although I found it puzzling that it disagreed with my teachers, I did not manage to say to myself that I was being encouraged to believe what was wrong.
    I suspect therefore that the problem is not so much seeing Scripture as inerrant, or taking a fundamentalist position, but rather attempting to live by Scripture (as I try to do) but adding in thoughts of one’s own, through prejudice, fear or whatever reason (which I hope I don’t do).
    In the light of all this, it seems to me we all need humility in proffering what we believe. Mind you, I used to take this too far at one time; a friend once teased me with a remark I might make – “My name is David Pennant, but I’m open to being wrong!”

  2. Steven,

    As soon as I get caught up on sleep and make amends with my cat with only attention from my husband for over a week, I so look forward to gleaning so much more from you. I’m hesitant to write much, concerned that it might sound like the nonsense of fatigue.

    Second only to the ministry received by the “SGM” (Sovereign Grace Ministries) survivors who came to the conference, I told my husband that meeting you and having the opportunity to talk with you was the highlight of it for me. I was moved by your compassion for those who have suffered so much in high demand groups, and it was a joy to talk with you about the psychology of the process. I continue to be encouraged by your kind words about my role in the conference as well — high praise that I don’t think that you give away without merit. It has been an honor, and I look forward to pouring over your writing.

    In respect and joy,
    Cindy (the American of the non-dodgy variety)

    1. Thank you Cindy for your kind comments. I have had a look at your web-site which puts my efforts in the shade. But, as the Conference showed, there is far effort put into combatting cultic activity in your country than in ours. I look forward to your continuing participation in our blog to help us in the country become more aware of things that we in this country have barely learnt to express, let alone combat.

      1. By the way, Stephen, we do have a mutual acquaintance. Someone close to you has my email address, should you wish to keep in touch!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.