Peacemaking conference is held near Seattle
Seattle — They’re calling it the “Camp David of the cult wars.”
Leaders from both factions in the decades-long dispute over danger posed by new religious movements came together over the weekend at a woodsy retreat center on the shores of Puget Sound.
There were a few screaming matches, and a bit of the old backbiting and rumormongering, but it was a largely peaceful gathering of defectors, devotees, heartbroken families and assorted cult experts.
“We’ve reached the point where we’re no longer throwing bricks,” said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, and someone long labeled as an “apologist” by leaders of the “alarmist” anti-cult movement.
Melton was among those attending a weekend conference at the Dumas Bay Centre south of Seattle, sponsored by the American Family Foundation and titled “Cults and the Millennium.”
Since its founding 25 years ago, the foundation has been mostly identified with the cult watchdog faction that believes authoritarian and “totalist” groups — whether they’re organized around religion, politics or psychotherapy — pose a real danger to their members and to the broader society.
They’ve had little to do with the other camp in the cult wars — scholars and current cult members who argue that most religious sects are relatively harmless and that the crusade against them violates constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
Fighting in the cult wars may have reached a peak three years ago, when lawyers and other individuals linked to the Church of Scientology, one of the nation’s most controversial and powerful new religious movements, sued the Cult Awareness Network into bankruptcy.
The network, which had been one of the most outspoken anti-cult groups, eventually had its name, files and hotline taken over in a campaign dominated by members of the Church of Scientology.
Today, those who call the Cult Awareness Network hotline actually get an information and referral service run by the Foundation for Religious Freedom, a group linked to the Church of Scientology.
“That’s a form of deception,” said Herbert Rosedale, president of the American Family Foundation.
Among those working the crowd at the weekend conference was Nancy O’Meara, a longtime Church of Scientology member and corporate treasurer of the Foundation for Religious Freedom. She insists that the “new” Cult Awareness Network provides a valuable service for family members who call the hotline concerned about relatives who have joined a cult.
“If someone calls and complains about the Hare Krishnas, we can go and talk to the Hare Krishnas,” O’Meara said. “We want to help families resolve their differences.”
O’Meara said their hotline has gotten about 10,000 calls since they took it over three years ago, with about 75 percent of calls coming from people concerned about fundamentalist Christian sects. She said the “new” Cult Awareness Network is “completely independent” from the Church of Scientology, although “individual Scientologists support its activities.”
She and other Scientologists at the conference were not included as featured speakers, O’Meara noted, “but at least they let us attend.”
Leading the reconciliation between the two cult camps were Michael Langone, a counseling psychologist and executive director of the American Family Foundation, and Eileen Barker, a sociologist at the London School of Economics and founder of INFORM, a British charity that provides information about new religious movements.
They gathered four representatives from each camp for a pre-conference peacemaking session.
“We have a lot in common, and a lot of misconceptions about each other,” said Barker, who has been mostly identified with the religious freedom camp. “There are people who think I’m wicked for even coming here. Meanwhile, they (American Family Foundation) have been getting flak for inviting me.”
Barker and Janja Lalich, director of the Center for Research on Influence and Control in Alameda, agreed that one of the main differences between the two camps is they are “asking different questions” about the dynamics of cults, sects and new religious movements.
Many of the scholars studying cults and sects focus on more abstract questions, such as how religions are born and evolve over time.
Groups like the American Family Foundation, based in Naples, Fla., and the Teaneck, N.J.-based Cult Information Service, focus on the harm done to some people who join authoritarian sects. They deal with the real anguish of fractured families whose loved ones have been subjected to “mind control” or who have gone through life-changing religious conversions.
They are people like Paul Glanville and Mike Carriker, who lost their wives and children after leaving a church in rural Washington state that they describe as a “Christian totalist group” and an “abusive, authoritarian cult.”
“I couldn’t attend my daughter’s wedding and have a granddaughter I’ve never seen,” said Glanville, speaking at a session titled, “Stories of Healing: Recovering from Christian Totalism.”
“If a man could feel what it’s like to be raped, then that’s how I feel,” said Glanville, his voice breaking.
Further complicating the weekend peace talks was the joint presence of true believers and recent defectors from the same religious groups. One evening session was punctuated by a screaming match between past and present Scientologists.
Lalich, a former member of a radical political cult, said bringing peace to the cult wars will not be easy.
“We’re dipping into forbidden waters here,” said Lalich, standing outside the Dumas Bay Centre, a former Catholic convent on the shore of Puget Sound. “For many of these people, this is not some abstract academic argument. They’ve really been harmed.”