Video: Affirming Personal Agency in Discussions on Abuse of Power in Alternative Spiritual Spaces

June 9, 2021
Dan McKanan
HDS Senior Lecturer and director of the Program for the Evolution of Spirituality Dan McKanan. / Photo: Justin Knight

Program for the Evolution of Spirituality director and HDS Professor Dan McKanan was joined by New Religious Movement scholars Dr. Erin Prophet and Jessica Pratezina to discuss approaches to conversations and scholarship around spiritual harm while affirming personal agency.

Erin Prophet, MPH, PhD, is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. She studies religion, spirituality and medicine. Her publications include Cults and New Religious Movements (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press) and Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside Church Universal and Triumphant (Lyons Press, 2009).

Jessica Pratezina is a PhD student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Her research centers on growing up in alternative religious movements, women’s narratives of religious transition, and the development of wise therapeutic/social work practice with people involved in these religious groups.

Full Transcript:


DAN MCKANAN: On behalf of Harvard's program for the evolution of spirituality, I am delighted to welcome you to today's virtual colloquium on affirming personal agency in discussions on abuse of power in emerging and alternative spiritual spaces. My name is Dan McKanan, and I'm pleased to join you from Somerville on the unseeded lands of the Massachusetts people and the watershed of the Charles River.

I have the pleasure of serving as the Founding Director of Harvard's program for the evolution of spirituality. I'll say a little bit about the program in this particular series on abuse of power before I introduce today's speakers. The program for the evolution of spirituality is a recent addition to programming at Harvard Divinity School.

We aim to support the scholarly study of emerging spiritual movements, marginalized spiritualities, and the innovative edges of established traditions. We try to build a scholarly community that fully includes practitioners of alternative spiritualities and critics of those spiritualities, including people who have been harmed, as well as those who take a more neutral scholarly approach.

To serve these multiple constituencies, we sponsor multiple strands of programming, including an inaugural conference on ecological spiritualities that will take place on April, 27 through 30, 2022. Today's session is part of a monthly series of events digging deeply into power dynamics in spiritual communities.

We hope these conversations will highlight diverse individual experiences and diverse approaches to abuses of power in a manner that's both challenging and respectful. And we are thrilled today to feature two speakers who thought with special care about how therapists, scholars, and other professionals can affirm the integrity and agency of both present and former members of alternative spiritual groups.

And with that, I'm delighted to welcome our two speakers. Erin Prophet, who holds both a master's of public health and a PhD is visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. She studies religion, spirituality, and medicine. Her publications include the forthcoming Cults and New Religious Movements from Cambridge University Press. And prophets daughter, My Life With Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside Church Universal and Triumphant published by Lyons Press in 2009.

Jessica Pratezina has a master's degree in child and youth care and is currently a PhD student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Jessica's research centers on growing up in alternative religious movements on women's narratives of religious transition, and the development of wise therapeutic and social work practice with people involved in these religious groups.

So to begin our conversation, I'd like to invite each of you to share a little bit more of your own story. How did you come to be interested in the study of alternative spiritualities and in therapeutic support for people making transitions out of spiritual organizations? Erin, could you begin?

ERIN PROPHET: Sure. First of all, I want to thank you Dan and Natalia for inviting me to be on this panel. I'm excited about the prospects for your new program for the evolution of spirituality. So I came of age, I was a teenager in the immediate post Jonestown moment when many people in this country were anxious about the presence of groups that were called cults or new religious movements. And so that formed the backdrop of my adolescence. And naturally people were concerned. 900 people had killed themselves in a murder suicide.

So I was at the time growing up in a group that wasn't a religious movement and that soon ended up on a list of so-called cults by this growing movement called the anti-cult movement. That was composed of concerned parents, of some Christian groups, as well as some psychiatrists who were trying to figure out how to address concerns.

So I just want to share with you an anecdote from my upbringing because my mother used to lecture quite a bit and so I accompanied her. We were at the University of Pennsylvania campus and myself and some other members of the group just went out to try to get people to come to her lecture, and we were standing on the street corner, we were singing Hindu chants and clapping our hands and of course, a young man came up to us and stood in front of us and said, "Oh, my God, a cult."

And I couldn't necessarily blame him because we were all wearing purple pantsuits and we were all had prayer beads around our necks. But to me, it highlighted this shift, and this was 1980. So this shift just started happened in '78. The shift in awareness and definitely a shift towards greater hostility and suspicion of groups that previously might have been seen as harmless.

So I had what I consider to be a pretty good upbringing. I had a good education, I had a lot of people cared about me, I had great food, traveled a lot, and I went to a church school. So when I was in the church school, I experienced also another event that was shaped me, which was that one of my classmates was kidnapped by her non-custodial parent.

Her father had hired people to kidnap and deprogram her. This deprogramming was unsuccessful. She returned back to our group and she graduated in our high school class, and both she and I went on to leave the group. She sooner rather than later, I ended up working through my 20s to my late 20s and I was profoundly struck though by this practice of deprogramming and some of the narratives that were being promoted which seemed decentralizing and stigmatizing towards new religious movements.

And so I chose to become a religion scholar because I thought there has to be a better way. I think it's important to promote transparency and accountability within new religious movements. Many of them actually have people in them that are trying to do that. I think it's important to ensure that people are not harmed by their religion, but also that they're not harmed because of their religion.

And I know that even though deprogramming is no longer practiced by anti-cult movement, there are certain narratives that I believe are faulty that get promoted in nations outside of the United States, that actually support deprogramming and coercive actions by governments towards new religious movements. And so as a scholar, I like to try to think that we can find ways to promote better harmony on all sides. So that's my journey why I decide get a PhD in religion.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you so much, Erin. Jessica.

JESSICA PRATEZINA: Hi, thank you so much for the welcome and the kind introduction. I came to be a scholar who studied child and youth care, and who bridged together child and youth care and religious studies, because I also grew up in a group that is commonly called a cult or what I like to call an alternative religious movement.

It was a group that I left when I was in my early 20s. It was also in decline at the time. It doesn't really exist anymore. And I found myself seeking therapy at certain points during my 20s and really disappointed with what was on offer for me. I felt like the approach that therapists were taking were very pathologizing fundamentally, deficit-based. And really erased my voice and my sense of agency, and told me how I should tell my story according to what I felt was a scripted cult narrative.

So I came to study child youth care and bridge this with religious studies because I thought that there were certainly better, more affirming ways, more strength-based ways of helping people who were either raised in alternative religions or who had been involved at some point.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you both so much. So both of you have talked about the importance of acknowledging personal agency when working with people who have experienced harm and spiritual organizations. And I wonder if you could say a little bit more about why this is so important. And Erin, you can go first again.

ERIN PROPHET: All right. So the reason that I think it's so important to talk about personal agency is that I think as Jessica mentioned, it can take away a person's sense of self to tell them that they were somehow manipulated, abused, that they grew up in a structure out of which they could not help themselves. And the only way for them to be helped out of that was through some outside agency, and that was not really my experience.

So I absolutely affirm people who choose to refer to their past life in a religious group as a cult. I understand that it can feel empowering to say I was in a cult, I was lied to, I was manipulated, I was abused, and of course, we've seen some of the documentaries that have come out. People do experience harm.

But I think it is also a category error to just assume and to pose the question that everyone in these groups is being harmed somehow, and that the default good thing is for them all to leave. I don't think that's true. And we know that whether it's the Shakers and the Mormons, there are all kinds of groups in American history who've been perceived as being extreme, or harmful, or dangerous, that have ended up changing and normalizing in some ways, or in the case of the Shakers, dying out.

So I think it's important to not assume harm, but also to assume that people may have been doing good things for themselves by being in the group. It may have served a purpose. They may have a community or social structure. They may have family that are still in the group that they want to interact with and relate to.

So a lot of the narrative and the discourse I feel, and of course, it doesn't help that you get a lot of clicks or you get a lot of views when you talk about this horrible cult. And we're attracted by some of the sensational stories, especially if it involves sexual abuse.

And I think that, obviously, we need to be aware and to provide avenues for people to seek help and redress. But I think that, unfortunately, the narrative that has really stuck in the press involves a misuse of Robert J. Lifton's work with Americans who are imprisoned by the Chinese during World War II.

And he wrote his famous book, Thought reform and the Psychology of Totalism. So he identified eight characteristics that supposedly, in his view, would create thought reform. And many people hear about those characteristics and think, oh, well, my group had that or my group wasn't totally honest about x. So therefore I must have been under thought reform.

And the thought reform narrative has been turned into what I would call brainwashing without bars narrative, because the Americans who were imprisoned by the Chinese, most of them didn't stick to renounce their criticisms of the United States that they had made. Most of them reverted to their pre-imprisonment narratives after they got out.

So the brainwashing without bars narrative, and it often comes in the disguise of other terms like coercive persuasion, coercive control, thought reform, mind control. So you have these self-appointed cottage industry of cult experts who tries to, in my view, misapply Lifton and other experts who who've worked with people who have been in prison that tries to say that people who are living in their own homes have jobs of their own, have children in school, that these people are also under some kind of system of control.

And so I think that those systems, all slice off the agency. And for me, I would have felt that if I had said, oh, I left the group I was in when I was 27, I went through sort of a spiritual crisis. I would have felt that if I had totally denied or negated my upbringing, that I would have lost a part of myself. And that included practices around food, and diet, and alternative medicine. It included a community, it included all kinds of experiences and friends, people who cared about me.

And so I think that for people to be suddenly yanked out of a system, that seems to be working for them and to be told that they have that they don't know their own mind, and you're really short circuiting the normal process of development and you're also interfering, in my view, with what could be a more productive family relationships.

Often people join new religious movements as a way of launching into a new phase of maturity and adulthood, getting away from their families. And it's natural that parents are going to be nervous and upset if their child suddenly decides to abandon a career or something like that.

We also have to realize that these groups are not islands. They're not these little beads. People participate in religious movements at different levels. Some of them are very close to the center and the leaders. Some of them are just accepting literature or attending events and conferences. So there needs to be an appreciation of that diversity, and the fact that people did choose to attend or to go to these events that the group holds. And that they also may have hybrid identities just like Catholics or members of mainstream organizations.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you so much. Jessica.

JESSICA PRATEZINA: I loved listening to what Erin had to say. I relate to it quite a bit because I also grew up in this alternative religious group. A different one from Erin though. I remember recently I was talking to a reporter just at a party, coincidentally, and he was asking me all these questions about the group that I grew up in. And I guess I wasn't giving the right kinds of answers.

And he said this is not a story that I was expecting. And I said, "Well, what do you want me to say?" And he said, something that can go on television. And I realized that sometimes what people want to hear is a story that fits a particular kind of a narrative, the narrative, and I wasn't positioning myself as a victim or a survivor. I was telling a different kind of story. A kind of a boring story really.

I think that I don't have a story that could go in a memoir. That's why I write academic books. But it's not that interesting. But within my story, I position myself as someone who has agency. I want to be careful to say that I'm someone who really feels like I experienced harm because of the group that I grew up in.

I did not have a good time. I would not recommend it. My Yelp review would be quite poor. And that's why it's all the more important for me to hold on to my sense of agency through that. And to my sense of dignity, and to resist a narrative that comes from someone else that says, I know how your story goes, I know how you can tell it, I know how you can tell it.

So I wanted to have control over my own narrative, and what my experience had meant to me. And fundamentally, in a therapeutic context, there is no resistance to abuse unless there is also agency, and that's why I needed to hold onto my agency as well.

And also gives me the power to look at my experience and say, I'm OK with this piece and I'm letting go of that piece. And this was abusive and this is something that I want to hold on to. So for me, that's what agency comes down to and especially in a therapeutic context. Why it's so important that we are affirming agency of the people who experienced abuse maybe in a spiritual context, but in other contexts too.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you so much, Jessica. And I'd like to pick up on what you were just saying about the therapeutic context. In the program for the evolution of spirituality, we're very curious about therapeutic responses to harm and spiritual organizations. So I wonder if you could each reflect on what specific therapeutic practices and approaches are most helpful to people who have experienced harm or people making a religious transition, and what concretely can therapists do to ensure that they don't undermine the personal agency of the individuals they're supporting. Jessica.

JESSICA PRATEZINA: I think playing off what I've just said, is not assuming that someone else's story. That foundational to my therapeutic practice is a sense of radical curiosity and not assuming that because someone has come from a specific group, that therefore their experience looks like this.

I was once talking to a man who was raised in the same group as me and he is now an out gay man, and this was many years ago. And I made the assumption that he must have had a terrible time growing up in our group which was quite homophobic at times. And he said, I didn't actually. He said, I loved it. And I missed it.

And that was my fault, that was showing a problem that I was having because I was assuming I knew where his pain was and I was resisting being curious about his experience. This is a kind of therapeutic practice that we assume is foundational to all good coping skills. But for some reason, they seem to go out the window when we're talking to people who have come from weird religious groups.

In particular, when I'm asked what resources would you recommend for someone who's exiting a group or who feels like they've been abused by a group, and I want to be very clear that harm happens in alternative religious groups just like it happens in all kinds of religious groups or organizations or movements, I don't recommend specific people who call themselves exit counselors, or cult specialists, or anything. But there are ways that you can look for a therapist who might be particularly suited to helping you with the things that you're feeling you're struggling with.

The little research that we have especially about people who grew up in alternative religions shows that they have a combination of ordinary needs and sometimes unusual needs. So the ordinary needs might be, if you've left a group and it's meant that you've lost your family and your social supports, you might need help applying for college, or finding a job, or going through the typical adolescent life transitions support. It's almost a immigrant experience. You've been socialized into an alternative religious culture and now you're coming into more of the mainstream.

So you might need some support around that. Narrative therapist. Narrative therapy, in particular, I think can be very useful. Again, bringing back to agency and control over telling your own story. Response-based practice, and I would particularly cite the work of Dr. Alan Wade, Linda Coates, Cathy Richardson, again, where we center the dignity and the response of people who are in oppressive situations or who are victims of violation.

So in general, those would be the things. You don't have to find someone who calls himself a cult expert. You are the expert on your life. You are the expert on the group that you have come from. And at the end of the day, you're the one who's going to get to tell your story. And the most important thing is a therapist who you can work relationally with and curiously with to do that in a way that is best for you.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you so much. Very eloquent. Erin.

ERIN PROPHET: All right, sure. Well, I thought that was fantastic, Jessica. And I will say that I've been fortunate enough to have a number of very effective therapists none of whom were called experts. I actually began my therapeutic journey while I was in the group that I was raised in. And the psychoanalyst that I worked with was very respectful of my choices and wanted really the best outcome for me, and didn't place any judgment on whether I would stay in or out of the group.

So that was quite helpful. I think it's important for therapists to not to assume that the person you're talking to conforms to a stereotype. Just as if you're counseling a Catholic individual, you wouldn't assume that they did or did not use birth control. I have met people, for example, Christian Science, the stereotype is they don't see doctors. But it's really their choice, and I've definitely met Christian scientists who would go to doctors for some things and not others.

Even Scientologists, people say, oh, they don't believe in mental health care. Well, that's actually not true either. Some of them will accept certain kinds of mental health care. So I think that's really important to treat them as individuals. And in addition, there are some very helpful materials out, the World Religions and Spirituality Project.

If you're counseling someone who's from a group you've never heard of, World Religions and Spirituality Project is a collaborative resource that is peer reviewed and is going to take you away from this sensationalized coverage. Also in form in the UK, maintains a wonderful database of information about all kinds of groups.

And so I would just encourage therapists to really look at the nuance and understand people may be going through an existential crisis, especially if the sacred has been used as part of their abuse. They may also be grieving the loss of community, like Jessica's friend.

They may feel stigmatized and shunned by the larger world just because they grew up in this group, just guilt by association. And they may be experiencing anger, powerlessness, emotional trauma, depression, loss of self-worth, that could go along with any kind of major life transition.

As we know today, this latest Gallup poll suggests that more than 50% of Americans are now not attending a church. Deconversion is a massive phenomenon in our society and people often feel quite alienated and need to be shown the way to construct their own new narrative, whether it's spiritual or not spiritual. And I think it's wonderful when therapists can meet people where they are.

I teach a class called spirituality and health care at the University of Florida. And usually, we get about half pre-health students, pre-med students, and the other half are just looking to try to find their own way. And we explore a wide variety of viewpoints. And some students really gravitate towards one and others towards another.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you so much. So my last question for each of you. Each of you has spent a lot of time thinking about the distinctive experiences of people who've grown up in alternative spiritual movements, which can be quite different from the experiences of people who come to those movements as adults. When people choose to leave movements that have shaped their entire upbringing, what sorts of therapeutic or other support do they most need?

JESSICA PRATEZINA: So coming back to where I started, where I said I felt like that's the care that I was receiving, which I want to say the therapists I've seen have all been wonderful and very qualified and very kind. But sometimes I think a little uninformed and maybe misguided. But I describe it as ultimately pathologizing and deficit-based, coming from a perspective that, simply because of where I came from, I was in need of rescuing or curing.

So that undergirds the therapeutic approaches that we see that are the most prevalent right now. In response to that, I've been thinking what I wish someone might have told me many years ago. What would be another way to respond to someone like me who was coming into any kind of a helping situation?

And what I wish someone had said was, if you're struggling with doubt and you feel confused, and you've come out of some kind of religious group and you don't know where you've landed and you don't know what's going to happen next, congratulations. You're in a good place.

If you feel like you don't know what's going to happen to you next and all possibilities are open to you, which by the way, can be a terrifying feeling, you're on the right path. It's when we think we know all the answers and we're absolutely certain that we're right when someone comes to you with a checklist that says here is the checklist of what your experience was, here's what you're going to go through next. That's when you have to worry.

But there is nothing inherently wrong with struggling. It's very rare in life I think to meet someone who's had the opportunity to question fundamentally everything that they believe. Just for yourself, if you think about when was the last time that you really deeply changed your mind about a deeply held belief? I think you'll find that most people don't go through that, and people who were raised in and then left alternative religions have that right up close and personal to their experience.

And I think that can come with a whole host of strength to look at the world and to say why is it this way? And maybe it could be different. And I think that often goes for people who are seekers who end up joining alternative religions. They're looking at the world and they're saying, why is it this way and couldn't it be different? Sometimes that's going to get you into trouble. And sometimes it's going to take you to really exciting and interesting places.

So if that's where you find yourself today, in that place of struggle and questioning, I hope that you would hold on to that place for maybe a little bit longer. And above all, don't let someone else come in and tell you how your story needs to go. You get to pick.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you. Erin.

ERIN PROPHET: The kinds of therapeutic support. First, I'll say just from my own experience, I find-- and we often see this. People will go from one belief or practice to another. So I ended up finding quite a bit of enjoyment and support through, for example, yoga practice of yoga, meditation, being part of that culture which hadn't necessarily been a high degree of emphasis when I was growing up.

I also would just like to say that, I think one thing that I think might make a difference, it might give people more resources is if we actually had a national curriculum in the K through 12 area, which is recommended by the American Academy of Religion of taking a historical and critical approach to religion, as well as a comparative approach.

And I think, unfortunately, a lot of students, especially if they grow up in a small and isolated movement, they don't understand the range of viewpoints out there, and that's another thing I try to bring out in my teaching. And I think that it should be required even in religious schools. I imagine there'd be a huge amount of pushback against that. But I think that would be helpful. So I support some kind of change in our curriculum, even if someone's being home schooled.

There are a lot of resources out there for people who are feeling a sense of spiritual struggle or harm. As a public health professional, I know that religion is a social determinant of health. And if a person is making a transition from one belief system to another or if they're questioning, we know that religion can be a positive influence on people's health. It can also be involved in what we call spiritual struggle.

So there are already quite a few resources out there to deal with people, for example, who are in a spiritual struggle. And the American Counseling Association endorses various guidelines and the Association for Spiritual and Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling also has guidelines for therapists.

And I think that it would be great if we didn't have this carve out for cults and if people who are in new religious movement or have left could be seen and their needs could be met at the place where they are, depending on what their experience was. So I would think that therapists should know how to contact experts if they need to find out more about a group.

According to the guidelines that were adopted in 2009, they also need to use religious and spiritual concepts that coincide with the client's spiritual or religious perspectives and are acceptable. They need to understand someone may be in-- many people who leave Scientology have a problem with the institution, but they still actually believe in the principles that they've learned, and they continue wanting to practice it outside.

And so they also need to understand just the wide possibilities for psychosocial needs of the individuals. And in therapy, it can also be helpful to set goals that are consistent with the client's spiritual and religious perspectives. And again, as Jessica was saying, not to assume that they know exactly what the best thing is.

So it's definitely, especially in our secular world, it's temptation to say, oh, well, you are stupid because you believe that stuff. You're stupid or to take a position that the normative value in society is an anti-religious posture. And I don't think that's always going to be helpful for people. And I know that many therapists already know how to work within a variety of religious perspectives and I think that allowing the fringe minority cult members to also have their own perspectives is going to be helpful.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you both so much. As we transition to our time of question and answer, I really want to thank you both for the clarity and challenge of what you've had to share. One of the things I really heard strongly from both of you is an emphasis, not just on agency but really on power, that people who've made courageous changes in their religious identities have wisdom from which others of us can learn. And to really start with an openness to that wisdom, it feels like a really helpful reframing of so many of the conversations that we have.

Thank you everyone who's been posting questions in the Q&A. Please continue to do. So we'll do our best to answer them. And I'm going to start with a question that really gets at the heart of a lot of what we want to do in the program for the evolution of spirituality, which is to create resources for practitioners of alternative spiritualities to continue growing and developing in conversation with one another and with scholars.

So this question comes from Krista Husky who writes, for organizations looking to improve their members' sense of personal agency or new organizations forming that want to honor personal agency, what steps do you recommend to create a mindful and respectful environment? So what advice would you give to the spiritual organizations themselves?

ERIN PROPHET: Well, I'll just briefly answer that. If Jessica wants to add anything, that would be great. I've actually participated in a come to Jesus moment in my own movement, as what can we do to prevent abuses of power? What can we do to prevent problems in the structure? I think some movements are more open than others to transforming and promoting accountability.

I read this story about what happened at the Kripalu Retreat Center in Massachusetts. They actually tried-- how can we restructure and reframe, and especially when it comes to groups that are built around Eastern traditions, that are transplanted into Western society where we have very different views about the role of women, about authority, about.

I think that's part of the opposition many people have. The cults is that is seen as a system in which we're taking these oriental systems of control and we're putting them on people. People are accepting these structures around their lives. So I think there's actually been really excellent work done in some groups on, for example, reframing ideas around homosexuality, reframing ideas that come to us from traditional faiths.

And so I think it's possible that these new religious movements can be part of the solution, as well as being seen as part of the problem. I think the real problem occurs, you have people who get entrenched in their power structures within a group and don't want to let go. And then the only option really is to leave. But I do think it's worth trying to reform. And I'm excited about everything we're hearing today about what's been going on, for example, in North American Buddhist groups or yoga groups.

JESSICA PRATEZINA: I think Erin has said it beautifully. I would add that as an individual also, you can have boundaries and you can decide that you're not going to be the one spearheading that reform. So you can choose to back out and not be a part of a group anymore as well. So don't feel too heavy a responsibility to reform your group.

DAN MCKANAN: Well, next I'm going to read a couple of comments that really came in through the Q&A and see if you have anything you'd like to add to these comments. So the first comes from a participant who chose to be anonymous who writes appreciatively. This reframing of the nuance is present in alternative spiritualities feels very free. It makes me realize how in my early life I felt like I couldn't share certain spiritually impactful experiences because I wasn't sure whether they were cult experiences.

Being concerned what others would think of me if I had participated in a cult, meant I kept all of the experience to myself. If I had realized it's not always all or nothing, if I could have thought as Jessica stated, this element was harmful in this I want to hold on to, that would have changed a decades long sense of isolation.

And then Punito [INAUDIBLE] writes, I'm not a therapist, but I work with many young adults and students. I get at least two students a year who are going through a process of converting to a religion or leaving a group. By listening to their stories, I actually find little difference between converting to or leaving a cult, versus converting to or leaving an organized religion. So I wonder if either of you have any thoughts on those two comments.

JESSICA PRATEZINA: One of the areas of my work has been around a group that I call alternative religion kids, and it's a play on the idea of third culture kids. So whereas in third culture kids, you are born or accompany your parents into a different country, a different society.

For alternative religion kids, you are born or you accompany your parents into an alternative religious society. So your socialization was into a different society. And so you can come to life looking like you have different values and you have different perspectives. And then if you join what I would call mainstream culture because I'm not sure what else makes it sound like this monolithic thing, you bring with you-- the stories that I hear from people are very much like an immigrant experience.

And I don't think anyone likes the feeling that they're being told that where you've come from is all bad, and aren't you lucky that you're here now? And aren't you lucky that you're free? And I look around and say, this is free? You all look like you're having that much fun to me, but what do I know? I just came from a cult.

It's very affirming to me to hear that this kind of perspective that accepts variety and this perspective that centers agency and dignity can mean something to other people, because like I think the first responders said, there's this experience of isolation when you're an alternative religion kid. That's something that's really shared among people, no matter what group they've come from.

And knowing that there are other people who are like you and that fundamentally there's nothing weird or stranger, so different that a therapist can't even begin to speak to you unless they've had special training. It's not like that. There are other people like you. And we're called alternative religion kids, and you can find us and we can talk. And among us, variety is the norm. And one of the thing that's nice about that is that usually means that there's probably a place for you at the table.

ERIN PROPHET: I think that was beautiful Jessica. And I would just like to add that I am looking forward to working with you to develop therapeutic resources for people who have come out of or people who are in alternative religions and trying to come to terms with various aspects of them.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot out there. I will say that the International Cultic Studies Association has changed its perspective and now isn't so much necessarily focused on cult trauma as relationship trauma, and institution trauma, workplace trauma. So they do offer some resources. But I still have some problems with some of their fundamental assumptions. So I know that there are good people who are trying to help people from a lot of different angles. I think it's important for people to just be aware of the range of approaches that are out there.

DAN MCKANAN: Next, I'm going to combine two questions that deal with families. So Sue Butler writes, some families are organized in cultish structures. How do you see these families in relation to cults? And then Stuart Wright writes, I once compared leaving new or nontraditional religious movements to marital separation and divorce. Being a member of a high commitment group, especially for women might be analogous to marriage. Does this resonate with either of you?

ERIN PROPHET: Do you want to go first, Jessica?

JESSICA PRATEZINA: Well, you go ahead.

ERIN PROPHET: OK. All right. Well, as far as the notion of a family being like a cult in some way or a lot people have, or like a marriage as Stuart mentioned, there are certainly parallels that can be drawn. And I think even people in cultic studies would acknowledge that there is a spectrum and a range of control that groups exercise over people.

And obviously, if you're in a family, your parents have quite a bit of control over you. There are some checks and balances because the state has an interest in your well-being. If you're living with a group of people communally, there's a lot more control over your life versus if you have your own financial resources and you're outside.

So I think it's important for people when they're getting involved with the group to really be careful about how much commitment they make right off the bat. Because as Stewart said, it's the brilliant comparison. It can be almost like falling in love with a teacher and there's this moment. There's this period where it's all about the romance and then reality will set in, and the person's flaws start to come to light.

And so if someone has done something like give all their money to the group, which I don't recommend, people often do that because they want to show their commitment. And so that was one of the reforms that we instituted or tried to institute in our church, was not to ask people for more than they can afford to give, especially not to let them give all of their money so that they wouldn't have any options then.

So I definitely think that there can be some principles around that. But I also support people who want to join and experiment with monastic communities and people who say, I've got this inheritance. There's nothing I'd rather do than to share it with my brothers and sisters in this movement. And so I don't know if that helps, but those are my initial thoughts.

JESSICA PRATEZINA: It makes me think the question is almost like what makes for a healthy family or what makes for a good relationship? But I'm not sure I have a snappy answer to that one. But it does make me think that one of the most difficult things many of us experience in life is accepting that you can't go on someone else's journey for them.

When you love someone very much, of course, you want to spare them suffering. And when you see them going down any kind of a path where you believe you can look down the path and say this is going to happen, and that's going to happen, and it's going to happen, it's very painful. And I know as someone with a social work helping background and as just a person who's been married a long time or a person who has a big family, that trying to rescue someone from that path often doesn't work.

What you can do is you can be with them and you can make sure that they know that you're not going anywhere. And if they want to come off the path, that you'll be there with them. And I think that goes for people who are in any kind of a relationship or any kind of an organization that you're having concerns about. But fundamentally, you can't learn their lesson for them and you can't go on their journey for them.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you. I have a related question from John Grobb who writes, please comment on the dynamic which emerges through the abuse of power when it is delivered in the guise of love. It's there psychological, social, spiritual, institutional consequences? Can power ever be an authentic vehicle for transcendent love?

ERIN PROPHET: Do you want to take that one Jessica or?

JESSICA PRATEZINA: I think ultimately what I would have to say is I don't know. I'd have to think about it. Really, I'd have to think about what do we mean by power and what do we mean by love, and also I'd want to take whatever theoretical situation we're talking about and put it into a concrete one that has also other social and relational context within it. We're not just individuals. It's not just me and someone else in this love relationship or this power relationship. We have to think intersectionally about people's experiences.

ERIN PROPHET: And I would just add that I think both within Western and Eastern spirituality, there are traditions that equate giving up one's power to a spiritual advisor or teacher with spiritual progress. And I think many of the organizations in our country are trying to reformat some of those. How can we have some accountability, but still allow people to have this love feast that often occurs when people are transforming themselves spiritually?

And I think that, again, transparency and accountability, I think that there should be principles that groups and leaders can espouse and promote that are designed as checks and balances on some of the worst types of abuses that can happen. And I certainly would welcome thoughts from attendees and other therapists and experts out there about what kinds of resources can be available, even guidelines for groups that are trying to reformat themselves.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you. We have time for I think one more question and I'm going to combine two of the questions that have been posted. So someone who chose to remain anonymous asks if there's any place to report questionable or abusive alternative spiritual organizations that have not yet been publicly identified.

And then Denise Susak asks, what can be done in seminaries and graduate schools to identify persons who are not psychologically safe to be spiritual leaders. Also, how can spiritual leaders be prepared to support very vulnerable people such as people with disabilities, including mental health challenges? So both of these questions are oriented to what steps can be taken proactively to prevent harm from happening in the future by people who may be at one step removed from the places where harm might occur.

JESSICA PRATEZINA: Well, the first thing I want to say is I think there's like eight questions in there. And I can't answer all eight of them. But I do want to say if you think that someone is being harmed, if you suspect a child is being abused, please call whatever the equivalent of child protective services is in your area, and to call the police. That's what we do with abuse, and harm, and violence, whether it's happening in a spiritualist organization or whether it's happening to a neighbor.

So you have that you can do. So that would be one thing that I would say. I'm not sure if I can remember all 97 of the other questions. How can we prepare seminarians and leaders to be more aware of the power dynamics that they have working with them and their people?

DAN MCKANAN: I think maybe Denise's question about seminary's may have both a component of how do we block the path of emerging spiritual leaders who have enormous potential to abuse power and how can we help emerging spiritual leaders who might be on the fence tilt into places where they can be more helpful to the others they lead.

JESSICA PRATEZINA: I'm not sure. I don't know. I don't have all the answers. That might be something that is suited to Erin.

ERIN PROPHET: Well, I will just add that I think it's often difficult to tell what a person is going to do, especially when they're early in their career. And we see this with political leaders. A political leader will rise up out of a resistance or guerrilla movement and take over, and all of a sudden, they become the next bloody dictator.

So I think that things change when people have a lot of charisma and they have a lot of people around them who are supporting practices that are not well understood or that are new, and that's the problem with new religious movements in general, is that they are dynamic. They change, and they change in response to outside events.

So I think that trying to completely delegitimize a group because you don't like what their leader says often results in the group becoming more secretive, more reclusive, moving away from scrutiny, whereas engaging with the group and engaging with people who are in it, can often lead to more openness and perspective.

But it's almost like this idea of preemption. We would really, really like it if we could preempt precrime. If we could figure this all out in advance, I just think and I'm committed to promoting just more openness and tolerance across the board, and I think that ultimately that's going to lead to better outcomes for the people in the groups and the people outside of the groups.

DAN MCKANAN: Thank you, Erin. And I think the suggestion to really promote connection rather than stigma and isolation really fits with what we're trying to do with the program for the evolution of spirituality, to create spaces where pastoral leaders and alternative spiritualities can build collegial relationships with other pastoral leaders.

And I really hope that those kinds of collegial relationships will guide all of us to being our best selves. It is 1 o'clock. So please join me in thanking these two wonderful panelists for sharing the depth of your scholarship and your experience and your commitment to the well-being of all people. Thank you.


ERIN PROPHET: Thank you for having us. It's terrific. We appreciate it.

DAN MCKANAN: And thank you to everyone in our audience for joining us today. We plan to continue having gatherings like this about once a month into the future. We're always organizing them. So just stay tuned to the website for more information. If you've not already signed up for our newsletter, we encourage you to do so.

And we especially include encourage you to join us in April of 2022 for our inaugural conference on ecological spiritualities, which will occur both in-person in Cambridge and online for those who are not able to travel. Thanks so much for your attention, and we wish you the best. And have a wonderful rest of today. Take care.




See also: Video, Yes