Closed Cults Open Conferences

ICSA Today, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2016, 2-3

Closed Cults, Open Conferences

Steve K. D. Eichel

I want to welcome all of you to the 2015 annual meeting of the International Cultic Studies Association, affectionately known as ICSA, being held in conjunction with Info-Cult/Info-Secte of Montreal and Hjälpkällan (which I believe roughly translates to Help Source) of Sweden. On behalf of ICSA, I want to acknowledge and thank Carolle Tremblay, President of Info-Cult/Info-Secte and Noomi Andemark, Executive Director of Hjälpkällan, for their significant and invaluable assistance every step of the way in the planning, preparation, and execution of this wonderful conference.

For people like me, which is to say “old folks,” the annual ICSA conference is an opportunity to say hello to old friends, make new friends, and meet and exchange information, viewpoints, and strategies. And it is an excuse to travel to wonderful countries and cities such as Stockholm.

We are all familiar with the common misconception that cultic studies is an unusual and esoteric field. We have all faced the question, “Oh, cults… are they still a problem?” And we all know the answer: Cults come and go, grow and sometimes die, and on occasion even mutate. But the processes underlying cultic groups and practices—deception, information control, guilt and fear induction, extreme group pressure, misuse of trance states, financial and sexual exploitation, top-down control by leaders who believe they are beyond criticism and reproach—these and all the other social/psychological processes that are often clumped together as thought reform or brainwashing… these processes have been around since the beginning of recorded history and will no doubt be with us in some form or another until the end of time. Yes, these cultic processes give us the small, family-based cults; but they also give us the purveyors of mass destruction, such as ISIS or ISIL, or—and I strongly believe this—movements such as Nazism, which began as a political cult, or Stalinism, which became a destructive cult of personality.

The history of cultic processes is the history of religious and political extremism and is therefore the history of mankind’s misery and suffering at the hands of our fellow men and women. So when I am asked, “How is the study of cults relevant?,” I am always tempted to respond, “How is it not relevant?”

ICSA is a unique organization because, as I have often argued, at our core we are cult-critical rather than anticult. That is a subtle but important distinction. Although some of our members fight cults, ICSA as an organization does not. Our goal is to bring to bear the best we know from the fields of science (including but not limited to sociology and psychology) and the healing arts as they are applied to the cult phenomenon. To the chagrin of some in the anticult field, we invite dialogue and discussion and do not endorse any list of individual cultic groups. Although we do screen those who wish to attend preconference workshops for current or former cult members, in order to ensure freedom from harassment or other forms of unwanted attention, our main conference is open to anyone. The only requirements are that you pay your registration fee and treat other attendees with dignity and respect.

Thirty years ago, this approach seemed dubious and suspect to me; like many others, I was concerned that ICSA (which was then AFF, the American Family Foundation) would become unsafe for those former members who might feel especially vulnerable, or who needed to maintain anonymity lest a cultic group interfere with the former member’s family or loved ones who were still involved in their group. I had other fears, including the fear that cultic groups might take advantage of an open-door policy and subvert our work or even take over our organization. But I was convinced, by both the arguments of our then President, Herb Rosedale, and my own faith that ultimately truth will triumph in an open and free society, that AFF and then ICSA should not close our doors on any point of view, as long as the people presenting their views do so in a civil and respectful manner.

I remember feeling inspired by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, which engaged the Stalinist regime of East Germany with dignity and respect, and—I believe—ultimately hastened the downfall of the totalistic, cultic East German government. So as we go about our work—and our fun—this weekend, remember to treat your fellow attendee with respect and consideration, for none of us is the sole possessor of an absolute truth; rather, the degree to which we can come close to any truth is intimately dependent on the degree to which we can engage each other openly and honestly, and appreciate a diversity of experiences and worldviews.

Attendees at ICSA conferences come from a range of national, religious, political, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. To paraphrase a quote wrongly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, we can be the pluralist society we want to see in the world. So go ye forth and multiply… your thoughts.

About the Author

Steve K. D. Eichel, PhD, ABPP, ICSA President, is Past-President of the American Academy of Counseling Psychology and the Greater Philadelphia Society of Clinical Hypnosis. He is a licensed and Board-certified counseling psychologist whose involvement in cultic studies began with a participant-observation study of Unification Church training in their Eastern seminary (in Barrytown, NY) in the spring of 1975. His doctoral dissertation to date remains the only intensive, quantified observation of a deprogramming. He was honored with AFF's 1990 John G. Clark Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Cultic Studies for this study, which was published as a special issue of the Cultic Studies Journal and has been translated into several foreign languages. In 1983, along with Dr. Linda Dubrow-Marshall and clinical social worker Roberta Eisenberg, Dr. Eichel founded the Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network (RETIRN), one of the field's oldest continuing private providers of psychological services to families and individuals harmed by cultic practices. RETIRN currently has offices in Newark, DE, Lansdowne, PA and Pontypridd, Wales and Buxton, England (U.K.). In addition to his psychology practice and his involvement with ICSA, Dr. Eichel is active in a range of professional associations. He has co-authored several articles and book reviews on cult-related topics for the CSJ/CSR.