Another day of conversation and sitting on conference chairs listening to various presentations. Two of the speakers that I mentioned yesterday gave a further presentation on the topic of forgiveness and how it is handled in their work with former members of cultic groups. There was an emphasis on recognising how hard it is to forgive. The action is nevertheless still essential if a victim is not to remain in the continuing grip of all that has been laid upon him by an abusing perpetrator. Another panel I attended looked at the effect of cultic ideas on children. There were four words mentioned that summed up the effect of certain extreme groups and their capacity to harm the healthy growth of a child. The words that sum up childhood emotional abuse are these – spurning, terrorising, isolating and exploiting. Abusive religious leaders are very good at using fear as a weapon through which to control their members and such fear is especially effective when used against children. One participant spoke of a dysfunctional childhood which was the result of her mother taking on a range of wacky ideas from a Pentecostal group. Another spoke of her work in educating churches to be safe places for children. Once again safety was not just about freedom from sexual exploitation but it covered the right not to be emotionally abused and generally mistreated by adults. Fed by some strange religious ideas these abusing adults misguidedly think that they have the best interests of children at heart.
In the afternoon I gave my paper which I think was well received. It was an exploration of how a heretical group in Roman Africa called the Donatists became, in certain areas, a death cult. They came into direct conflict with the Roman state who wished to enforce church unity. Their courage was inspired by a belief that martyrs would always obtain a place in heaven if they had died fighting for their faith. This fanatical wing of the Donatists, called the Circumcellions, did not care how death was achieved to achieve this martyrdom. There was thus for a time a culture of suicide which obviously was extremely disturbing to all who witnessed it. Another speaker on the panel spoke in brief about a number of cultlike groups across the ages. He mentioned a group who came into being in 1651 after the English civil war. The last member of this group, the Muggletonians, died only in 1979. We also had a presentation about cultic aspects that were present in Nazi ideology.
Following my panel I went to chair a presentation about a group in Austria called the Friedrichshof commune. The speaker, an Englishman now working in Holland, had been a member for nine years. He had witnessed the way in which the group was transformed from a radical left-wing group into something which was cultic and severely damaging to all those who were members. The level of damage particularly became apparent when these members had to try and live in ordinary society when the whole group was dissolved. The theme of recovery was something I took up in several conversations that I had during the course of the day. More than 90% of the conference participants have been members of extreme groups of one kind or another and so there is a common journey of recovery that is being made by most of the people here. I have found the information that I have obtained about this recovery process far more interesting than details of life in one or other of the various cults. There are many predictable similarities about cult life for those who have experienced it, whether political or religious. The path to health and recovery is however endlessly varied. In one of the presentations it was mentioned that while a member of a cult was still within the group, he was unable to dream. Following his departure, he found that dreams returned. I am still trying to work out the significance of this information but it does indicate that cult membership effects the personality at a very deep level.
On a very mundane level I am learning how to avoid ordering meals that are simply too much for one person to eat. The restaurants seem to pile up food and then provide polystyrene containers for the customer to take much of it away. Today the temperature is expected to reach 100° in the shade. Within the hotel the air-conditioning is so very effective that I have to go outside from time to time to warm up!
Today I am attending a seminar on conversion and deconversion. Because this is an invitation only session, I am hoping that the other participants will have some expertise in this area. It remains to be seen whether my interests will allow me to make a contribution to the discussion or whether I should be there simply to listen and learn. More of that tomorrow, if the frenetic pace of the conference allows me the time to write another blog post. Meanwhile I hope I have encouraged a number of people to join our blog. I hope that they will find the material here and in the future helpful in their particular quests and journeys of discovery.