Although the Dallas conference ended a month ago, I am still finding myself interacting with members of the Conference through an on-line discussion group. The particular discussion I am linking up to is one that is trying to find a possible new name for the organisation known as ICSA. The discussion is relevant to this blog but to explain the background I need to go back a stage and explain a little of the politics of ‘cultic studies’.
The arrival of cults and high-demand groups in Britain and the USA is a relatively recent phenomenon. It could be claimed that most of the religious and political groups that we describe as cults only appeared at the beginning of the 70s. In some ways many of these so-called cults were an outgrowth of the hippie movement of the 1960s. The use of drugs in the 60s by these alternative groups in many places turned into a search for spirituality. The Beatles with their pilgrimage to India to experiment with meditation typified this new social movement which was sweeping through Western nations. Many people followed the Beatles in their search. It is not hard to see how there would have been leaders of small groups who would be ready to take advantage of impressionable and idealistic young people who were looking for enlightenment. The cultic movement is then a phenomenon based on idealism and desire for spirituality but which in many places descended into exploitation and excess.
The political issue that arose in the early days concerned the question as to how these groups were to be studied. One group within academia, mainly sociologists and religious studies experts, wanted to see the phenomenon of cults described in strictly neutral terms. These communities were to described as new religious movements. As such no judgements about the ethics and behaviour within the groups were to be made. They were to be described and accounted for in the language of neutral scientific investigation. Another group, consisting of concerned psychologists and therapists, started to discover that former members of these groups had been damaged with what we would now call ‘post-traumatic stress’. The word ‘cult’ was used as a convenient shorthand to describe these groups because they were seen to be creating actual psychological harm. Such harmful groups are also to be found among the Christian churches, the ones that are described here as charismatic and conservative. The ‘neutral’ sociologists meanwhile were able to suggest that the harm experienced by followers was not widespread. Anyway, it was claimed, these young people were adults and able to take care of themselves. Any attempt to assist the departure of an individual from a so-called cult would be to deny their legal and human rights. They had made an adult choice to be in the group in the first place.
This debate between academics has become quite a difficult problem. There is this constant tension between those who believe that there are many religious and political groups which cause actual harm and they are set against those who want to downplay the problem. A further issue is that there are accusations of foul play on the part of ‘cult-watchers’ who claim that the neutral academic sociologists sometimes take money from the groups they study. Money is said to be given by groups like the Moonies so that friendly academics will support them and speak of them favourably in legal cases and generally in the world of academia. These ‘friendly’ academics are also thought to carry weight with governments and other important agencies. In the UK, in spite of many stories in the press describing the baneful effects of cults, the neutral sounding experts on ‘new religious movements’ hold the high ground in academic university circles. Their work, not the work of the groups who work with families and victims of cults, are the ones who receive money from government funds. The resources available for those who want to help victims of extreme religious groups is, in this country, pitiful in the extreme.
The organisation whose conference I attended in Dallas this year has the acronym ICSA, which stands for International Cultic Studies Association. The attendees from Britain numbered only six. A larger number from the UK attend when the conferences are held in Europe as they are in alternate years. ICSA promotes study of cultic issues but it also gives a lot of time to providing a network of support to victims of all the different groups. Possibly two thirds of its energy is expended in this important work of victim support. Nothing exists in Britain on anything like this scale, even allowing for the enormous disparity of populations between our countries. But, in spite of the much greater awareness of the importance of helping victims of extreme religious groups, the same debates rage here about the academic validity of the word ‘cult’ or whether these groups should ever be called by this name. The very word offends those academics who prefer the neutral, less judgmental expression ‘new religious movements.’ ICSA, because much of its work is directed towards helping victims as well as studying the issues, is regarded by these academics as an ‘anti-cult’ movement. It is hard, I believe, to be anything else when you encounter the raw suffering of those who have been the mill of belonging to a high demand group. Nevertheless, the organisation wants to retain its place at the table of respected academic research. It already publishes serious material in this area which it hopes will influence public debate and political policy around the world. It sponsors two journals, one popular and the other peer-reviewed and academic in tone. The annual conferences attract participants from around the world and this year 100 pre-approved papers were presented at Dallas.
ICSA is looking for a new name so that it does not use the contentious word ‘cultic’ in its title. The online discussion, in which I have taken part, has come up with lots of ideas. Some want to continue to use the same acronym while others have tried to produce a title which better sums up what is going on in the organisation. It is interesting to note the words that have come up most often in the discussion. One is control, while coercion and abuse have also appeared. I wrote a contribution suggesting that control and abuse were two words that summed up the harm done by extreme religious groups (including the Christian ones!). I offered the thought that the word abuse described well the emotional suffering that many victims suffer, while control could be held to refer to the intellectual scrambling that takes place when people experience cultic ‘thought-reform’. Having pointed out the two directions from which people have their integrity assaulted by such groups, I realise once again how difficult it is to recover quickly when someone has been a member of a group with extreme ideas. When for example, people are held in an emotional thrall to a leader, and have their thinking process corrupted by an irrational doctrinal structure of belief, returning to normality will be a lengthy process. In this blog some of the comments made in response to my attempts to look calmly at the meanings of Scripture make me realise that there are many people who cannot or will not listen to a way of reading the Bible which is different from the one they were taught. According to the ‘orthodoxy’ taught by thousands of churches across the world, we are required to believe in a God who speaks directly through each word. If this were the case, then the protestant discovery of ‘sola Scriptura’ would have resulted in a single understanding of the way that message is to be received by all Christians everywhere. But as we all know, this is not the case. Every teacher of an infallible Scripture has his own take on what this doctrine in fact means. The more dedicated a preacher is to proclaiming the authority of God’s Word, the more that the same preacher seems to condemn everyone else who does not agree with his personal interpretation. How many times have I heard the message – God speaks infallibly in the words of Scripture and this church is the ONLY one where you hear what this really means? When this message is given and people collude with it, I see it as a clear example of conceit and intellectual abuse of the worst kind.
The debate within ICSA will continue and I will let my blog readers know if we reach a consensus over our name. Meanwhile I am proud to be part of an organisation that takes seriously the task of serious study of extreme religious and political groups, while caring passionately for the many victims that these groups create all around the world. I am coming to see clearly how profound can be the damage done to the innocent victims of narcissistic Christian leaders, not to mention all the other wacky dysfunctional religious and political groups that are so common in our modern world.