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ICSA’s Approach to cult issues



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  1. International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA)
  2. ICSA's Approach to cult issues
  3. International Cultic Studies Association launches new magazine
  4. ICSA - Research Resources

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The late Herbert Rosedale, who had been president of AFF (now called ICSA), encouraged dialogue between cult information organizations such as AFF and scholars often referred to as cult apologists (people who have gained a reputation for defending cults, collaboration in the form of shoddy research that could easily pass for PR work on behalf of the groups studied, and/or financial arrangments with cults).

In the Spring of 2000, this approach culminated in a controversial 'peacemaking conference' of sorts. Privately, some cult experts who attended this conference refer to the meeting as a 'dissaster' - in large part due to the behavior of the cult apologists.

In recent years such prominent cult defenders as Dick Anthony, Massimo Introvigne and Eileen Barker have been featured speakers at AFF conferences (Note that the late Jeffrey K. Hadden's controversial memo on the 'neutralizing' of anti-cult organizations was written on behalf of Eileen Barker and David Bromley).

At an earlier conference, a panel discussion titled, "Can Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON" included members of ISKCON (Hare Krishna). The discussion is described in the ISKCON Communications Journal and in AFF's Cultic Studies Review Journal. See also the Summer 1999 issue of Apologia UpdatePDF file (published by Apologia Report), and former member Nori Muster provided comments published in AFF's Cultic Studies Review journal before the event.

Later, Nora Muster included the following comment:

Author's Note: I wrote this article a year before attorneys filed Children of ISKCON v ISKCON in a federal court in Texas. The problem is now in the hands of attorneys. For feedback and media coverage on the lawsuit, link to: http://surrealist.org/gurukula/lawsuit.html- Source: Can Cults Change? The Case of ISKCON Cultic Studies Review, April 1999

Common-Sense Approach

An article by AFF's Michael Langone titled, "Cults, Psychological Manipulation and Society: International Perspectives"Off-site Link," and published in the ISKCON Communications Journal provides some perspective on AFF's approach:

Some individuals on both sides of the controversy tend to ignore the empirical foundation of the cult issue and affirm non-falsifiable assumptions.

Some, for example, seem to presume that all groups labelled cults must be all bad and incapable of change. Messages on the Internet, for example, have asserted that this conference's programme, 'Can Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON', is a sign of naivety on AFF's part, or even a sign that 'AFF has been taken over by cults'. The underlying assumption of these criticisms seems to be that a group such as ISKCON is incapable of positive change; therefore, AFF must be wrong-headed or complicitous.

Some observers on the other side of the controversy seem to presume that all groups labelled cults are persecuted and benign. They sometimes call negative reports of ex-members 'atrocity tales' (Bromley, Shupe, & Ventimiglia, 1979), a term that appears a priori to dismiss all criticism of cultic groups as fabrications or face-saving sour grapes.

In between these extremes of 'see no evil' and 'see nothing but evil' is a broad range of opinions. If these opinions are ever to rise to the level of knowledge, disputing parties must engage in sincere and substantive dialogue that recognises the need to phrase the issues as questions that are amenable to scientific research. Such research must be conducted as a co-ordinated programme of studies, not a hodgepodge of unrelated studies pursued by isolated researchers.
[...]

In closing, let me reiterate the proposition that I believe is central to the cult issue: Some groups may harm some people sometimes, and some groups may be more likely to harm people than other groups.

The so-called pro-cult-anti-cult debate really revolves around different judgement calls people make with regard to how many groups are at risk for harm, how much harm they contribute, what causes the harm, and what should be done about it. We must make judgement calls about such questions because we lack sufficient empirical data to resolve the disputes.

If we are to avoid replacing the closed-mindedness of high control groups with another form of closed-mindedness, in which we treat our opinions as facts, people on both sides of the cult dispute must acknowledge the following:

  • Despite the commendable scientific research that has been conducted, much, maybe most, of what we think we know is opinion (however informed and reasonable it may be), not scientific fact.
  • If we are to increase our scientific understanding of this phenomenon, we must put substantial resources into studying it scientifically in a co-ordinated way, not the usual academic route of each researcher working independently, chasing whatever question happens to grab his or her fancy.
  • We must be willing to change our opinions as scientific knowledge increases.

As we struggle to increase our scientific knowledge, we must try to help hurt people and forewarn those as yet unaffected, especially youth, as best as we can. But we should do this with a humility that permits us to continue to learn, even as we teach and counsel.
- Source: Cults, Psychological Manipulation and Society: International Perspectives ISKCON Communications Journal, Dec. 1999. [Link leads to article at the Internet Archive]

Our View

Given the agenda and track record of cult apologists, the publishers of Apologetics Index believe that it is necessary and prudent to draw clear lines of demarkation. As long as academic cult defenders remain controversial (due to, for example, their attrocious 'research,' their hateful attacks on apostates, their PR-like defense of cults, and their penchant toward bearing false witness), we think they should be held accountable. In our opinion they should not be included as featured (keynote) speakers at professional conferences; certainly not at events that are simulataneously attended by former cult members and their families - unless this takes place within a professional framework such as that provided by the ICSA (see below).

[We have similar views regarding the inclusion of cult apologists at countercult conferences. In 2002, EMRN - a fellowship of evangelical Christian ministries in North America to the cults and new religions - which, at the time, was headed by John Morehead - took the controversial step of including two cult defenders (Douglas Cowan and J. Gordon Melton) in their annual conference. Predictably that approach resulted in many complaints from Christian apologists and cult experts. (Our own comments on that issue are noted here).]

That said, the publishers of Apologetics Index do believe that dialogue among those who are involved in the study of religious movements in general, and cults and sects in particular, can be helpful - as is interaction with the groups and movements concerned.

ICSA believes that there is value in open discussion and in people, including ex-members, forming their own opinions. Hence, its conferences are open, and anyone is welcome to attend. However, when a "cult apologist" or a current cult member is on a panel, ICSA makes sure there are also people on that panel who represent ICSA's point of view.

In addition, because of the open nature of ICSA conferences, there is a pre-conference workshop for ex-members, preparing them for the conference itself. The pre-conference is a place to meet and to identify other ex-members for support during the conference. Ex-members are told that current members of their former groups may be present at the conference. There are session on triggers and how to cope with them (especially how to deal with them should they occur during the conference). ICSA further provides a safety team of volunteers - mental health professionals able to help ex-members during the conference.

Ex-members are advised that they do not have to answer questions from anyone at the conference if they are feeling uncomfortable. Security people are introduced to the ex-members, who will be able to alert them in case they feel intruded upon. As a result of this approach, ex-members reportedly are functioning very well at ICSA conferences.

The publishers of Apologetics Index support the ICSA's approach. It is a sound approach for an organization which - as an interdisciplinary network - is involved in all aspects of cultic research, education, Thought Reform Consultation and ex-member support.

We are pleased to include the International Cultic Studies Association in our list of organizations, ministries and individuals recommended by Apologetics Index

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This post was last updated: Mar. 17, 2010