from GoldenMic - Tuesday, June 29, 2004
accessed 1942 times
A brief summary of two recent conferences on cults.
In June 2004 I attended two conferences related to New Religious Movements, sometimes referred to as Cults.
The first conference was hosted by the American Family Foundation, people who describe themselves as antagonistic towards the aims and practices of destructive cults, called the AntiCult Movement (ACM) by their detractors. Essentially, it is a coalition of counselors, attorneys, and the parents and victims of destructive cults (as opposed to the many sects and cults that are NOT destructive).
The conference, held 3 weeks ago, was in Edmonton, Canada. In addition to workshops discussing legal and theoretical issues and cults, I saw presentations about the Love Israel cult, the Unification Church (Moonies), Scientology, White Power cults, and I talked with cult survivors from the Hare Krishnas, the Family, Heavens Gate, Divine Light Mission, Watchtower, Polygamous Mormons, many Bible-based cults, political cults, theosophical cults, and Eastern cults. I also made my own presentation at the conference, discussing issues and new methods in working with cult survivors.
One thing that struck me during my time in Edmonton was the similarity of each survivors experience, despite all the cosmetic differences. Each person spoke of a sincere desire for truth and enlightenment, finding somebody who claimed to have the answers, followed by a complete and initially happy immersion into the life and perspective of the leader. They then noted the steady deterioration of personal rights, growing levels of exhaustion, constant fear of being unworthy, repeated stripping/confessional/re-thinking sessions with the leadership, and the eventual realization that the leadership was corrupt, exploitive, and self-indulgent while constantly attacking the flock for those same sins. The other consistent factor I noted was that each survivor ended up with their experience having reduced their faith, while increasing their fear, reduced their critical thinking while increasing their reliance upon cliche's and the leaders language style, and reduced their confidence in their own rights and responsibilities while increasing their sense that only the leaders rights and needs were important. Relationships with, and the relative importance of families, spouses, and children were always subsumed into an obsession with the leader or the leaders version of God.
The second conference on New Religious Movements that I attended this month was in Waco, Texas. This was a far different crowd, the Center for the Study of New and Emerging Religions (CESNER); mostly scholars and other egg-heads focussed on the issue of religious tolerance, and often referred to as the "apologist" NRM crowd.
Though I personally feel extreme antagonism towards those who minimize the destructiveness of cults in the interests of "religious freedom", there were some excellent keynote speeches at this conference in Waco. A famous scholar, Mr. G. Gordon Melton, made a presentation about the need for the two camps (ACM and NRM) to begin working for consensus and rapport, working together to create a MUTUAL position that protects and nurtures new expressions of spirituality and religion, while ALSO working to end any abuses or oppression. It was good to see that people understand that many sects and cults go through periods of less-than-excellent behavior, but that they can grow into more appropriate and responsible communities, and that hysterical fear does not help those who might truly be abused (meanwhile, this conference did not do anything to address those many horrifying cases of actual abuse and oppression, and basically scoffed at the concerns of the ACM as reactionary, "sour grapes" whining).
Another famous scholar, James Richardson, talked about the importance of each group (ACM and NRM) acknowledging their own prejudices and lack of objectivity, and he talked about how most studies are done on a few large cults, often ignoring or not seeing the differences of the hundreds of less-famous cults. Also, sociologist Eileen Barker discussed her long-term research on the Unification Church (the Moonies), the need for longer-term studies of so-called cults, and the importance of getting better research access to the leadership.
There were also some interesting presentations by representatives of the Unification Church (the Moonies), Scientology, and the Hare Krishnas. It was fascinating to hear these organizations describe themselves in a supportive atmosphere, though I did note a tendency to ignore charges of abuse as in the past, a general unwillingness to acknowledge how much power and priveledge was actually given to the leadership, and woefully inadequate explanations why these organizations lose so many second-generation kids (its because "the kids dont have enough faith" or "their parents werent committed enough").
The most spectacular part of the Conference was our trip out to Mount Carmel, the scene of the Branch Davidian/David Koresh tragedy. Some 80-100 scholars trooped out to the site, where a new church has been built over the bulldozed compound. Four surviving members then gave a presentation, discussing their pain and anguish related to the stand-off and fire, as they recounted the governments abortive and ignorant bungling of the incident. What was most amazing, however, was when they all began to discuss their admiration for David, his keen grasp of the Scriptures, and his personal charisma. They also discussed their firm belief that David WILL be returning from the grave, a messiah sent by God to deliver humanity from its wickedness. These were true believers, convinced that David Koresh (and, by extension, each of them) was special, set aside by God to redeem the World through a special grasp of truth and through an understanding of the true meaning of community.
This was an interesting and informative conference, and it reminded me that many religious communities are just that, communities of people following their own path to spirituality. They may sacrifice their individuality to the larger goal, they may be convinced that only they have truly found the light, they may be willing to accept many more personal privations and limitations than I would, but that does not mean they are insincere, or even wrong. While I wish I had seen more accountability and willingness to accept critique, and while I believe that individual responsibility is more important than feeling secure, I do accept the right of others to interpret their spiritual journey differently, and that was a good place for me to be last weekend.
Sincerely, Michael Martella.