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.