Jan 30, 2022

ICSA’s Openness to Dialogue: Historical Perspective

ICSA’s Openness to Dialogue: Historical Perspective

ICSA E-Newsletter

28 January 2022

ICSA’s Openness to Dialogue: Historical Perspective

Michael D. Langone, PhD


From its founding in 1979, ICSA strove to apply professional perspectives and research to understand and respond to the problems posed by cults. This professionalism has made ICSA open and tolerant, and, consequently, credible. Though there were and continue to be different opinions about how open ICSA should be, the prevailing view has always been that we must not be like cults, which are closed-minded and censor or refuse to engage with those who advocate dissenting views.


The reasons for and importance of openness and dialogue was formally articulated in a document written by the ICSA Board of Directors: “Dialogue and Cultic Studies: Why Dialogue Benefits the Cultic Studies Field.” Historical background can be found on ICSA’s history page, especially Changes in the North American Cult Awareness Movement.


ICSA’s openness to dialogue can sometimes be difficult to reconcile with ICSA’s mission of helping those adversely affected by cultic involvements. Former members, especially those who have been traumatized, may feel discomfort -- sometimes revulsion -- when ICSA’s openness to divergent views exposes them to people with positive views of cults or even of religion in general. Openness may also challenge parents and helping professionals who are focused on ameliorating harm. Conversely, some academicians may interpret ICSA’s focus on cult-related harm as an anti-religious bias.


Because ICSA is open to diverse and conflicting views, ICSA cannot please “all the people all the time.” Some degree of tension and discord, therefore, is unfortunately unavoidable. This tension can be challenging, but it can also enhance learning and thinking creatively about cult-related problems.


ICSA is unique because it brings together in a coherent and substantial way international constituencies of victims, families, helping professionals, and researchers. The diversity within ICSA promotes an environment that is conducive to thinking broadly about the subject and to learning from those one might not ordinarily encounter. “Stress-testing” our opinions is a hallmark of critical thinking.


ICSA has tried to minimize the strain that openness can cause in the following ways:

  • By providing events and resources that focus on distinct constituencies, e.g., workshops for researchers, families, and former members of cultic groups, CE seminars for mental health professionals.
  • Making sure that the annual conference, which brings the four constituencies together, has an abundance of offerings for each of the constituencies.
  • Offering pre-conference workshops for each constituency and providing an assistance team to help former members navigate the divergent perspectives that characterize many ICSA events.

To provide historical perspective, this report lists events and activities that reflect ICSA’s professionalism and history of openness and dialogue with religious persons, academicians of all perspectives, and cult members. (For clarity we will use “ICSA” for those time periods when the organization was called “AFF” – American Family Foundation. The name was changed in 2004.)

  • Many clergy, who came from different religions and denominations reflecting a range of theological perspectives, were active in this field during ICSA’s early years, including but not limited to: Rabbi A. James Rudin, Rev. James LeBar, Rev. Roger Daly, Rev. Walter Debold, Rev. Dr. Richard Dowhower, Rabbi Sandy Andron, Rev. George Papademetriou, Rev. Dr. Friedrich Haack, Rev. John Blackwell, Rev. Kent Burtner, Rev. Dr. Robert Thornburg, Rev. James McGuire.
  • Of ICSA’s 5 founding directors, two were clergy: Rabbi Maurice Davis and Baptist minister Rev. George Swope.
  • During the 1980s ICSA staff and advisors, most notably exit counselor Kevin Garvey and Dr. Michael Langone, had many conversations with Dr. Thomas Robbins and other so-called “cult apologists.” These conversations indicated that the major concerns separating the two groups were the ethics of deprogramming and the acknowledgement that cultic groups could harm members.
  • In 1983 ICSA’s Drs. John Clark and Michael Langone, as well as several members of ICSA’s advisory board, participated in an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference that explored the “divergent perspectives” among professionals and scholars who had written or spoken about cult issues. This conference brought together so-called “anti-cultists” and “pro-cultists.”
  • Unfortunately, when lawsuits were filed and experts were called as witnesses, much of the dialogue between the so-called “camps” (i.e., “anti-cult” and “pro-cult”) diminished considerably, in part because scholars and professionals were concerned that their words might be misused in lawsuits. When, for example, I heard that one of the persons with whom I had dialogued had been hired by one or more lawyers to “discredit” Dr. Margaret Singer, I became reluctant to share information with that person. The dialogue picked up again, as we will note later, in the late 1990s, when lawsuits were less of an issue.
  • In 1984 ICSA hosted meetings with evangelical leaders who were concerned about the cult label’s being unfairly pinned on their organizations. A team of evangelicals, led by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IV), contributed to a special issue of Cultic Studies JournalCults, Evangelicals, and the Ethics of Social Influence.” Among their contributions was “A Code of Ethics for the Christian Evangelist,” a direct response to ICSA’s focus on the ethics of influence.
  • ICSA’s journals have always been open to articles from a diverse range of scholars and occasionally from members of controversial groups. The first such article by two Maharishi University faculty members appeared in Cultic Studies Journal in 1986. A complete list of articles published in ICSA journals can be found here. A perusal of that list will show that ICSA clearly focuses on harm, but it is open to other topics and diverse points of view.
  • In the early 1990s ICSA research led by Drs. William Chambers and Michael Langone was able to benefit from ICSA’s evangelical connections by comparing the perceptions of former cult members with InterVarsity graduates and former Catholics. See report prepared for Boston University’s Danielsen Institute, a pastoral counseling program.
  • In 1992 ICSA conducted a one-day symposium addressing cultural implications of cultism with Dr. Johannes Aagaard, Professor, Faculty of Theology, Aarhus University, Denmark. An edited transcript of this symposium was published in Cultic Studies Journal.
  • ICSA’s 1993 book, Recovery From Cults (edited by Michael Langone), included a chapter by Rev. Dr. Richard Dowhower, “Guidelines for Clergy.”
  • In 1995 ICSA organized a joint conference with Denver Seminary, “Recovery From Cults: A Pastoral/Psychological Dialogue.”
  • Anticipating the dialogue with ICSA that was to come, Eileen Barker’s 1995 presidential address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) included a paragraph that signaled her interest in reaching out to the so-called “anti-cult movement” (ACM): “If we are to be honest and self-critical, we have to admit that several of us have reacted against the selective negativity of the ACM by, sometimes quite unconsciously, making our own unbalanced selections. Having been affronted by what have appeared to be gross violations of human rights perpetrated through practices such as deprogramming and the medicalization of belief, there have been occasions when social scientists have withheld information about the movements because they know that this will be taken, possibly out of context, to be used as a justification for such actions. The somewhat paradoxical situation is that the more we feel the NRMs are having untrue bad things said about them, the less inclined we are to publish true “bad” things about the movements.”
  • Two years later (1997 Philadelphia conference) Dr. Barker asked to meet with ICSA leaders. She approached ICSA apprehensively but was relieved by the welcome she received from Herb Rosedale and others. During a day-long meeting prior to the Seattle Annual Conference (2000), ICSA professionals met with Dr. Barker and three of her so-called “pro-cult colleagues,” Gordon Melton, Burke Rochford and James Richardson. That was the beginning of a dialogue that has continued to this day.
  • In 1996 ICSA conducted a joint conference with Iona College’s pastoral and family counseling department, “Recovery From Cults and Other Abusive Groups.”
  • Throughout its 40-year history ICSA has worked productively with evangelical organizations and individuals, such as the Centers for Apologetics Research, Craig Branch, Dr. Paul Martin, Rev. Robert Pardon, Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, and the Center for Youth Ministry in Boston.
  • ICSA’s 1996 book, Cults on Campus, included a chapter by Rev. Ronald Stanley, “The Role of Campus Chaplains.”
  • In the early 2000s ICSA worked closely with professionals from the Mexican Christian Institute and Religious Groups Awareness International Network (REGAIN) to help expose the cultic attributes of the Legion of Christ within the Catholic Church. ICSA’s 2013 annual conference in Trieste explored the theme of Catholic aberrations and included talks and discussions among loyal Catholics and critics of groups such as the Legion. In the 1980s ICSA’s Cultic Studies Journal reprinted the Vatican report on sects (the word many Europeans use to denote “cults”).
  • ICSA’s conferences have always been open to the public, and members of controversial or cultic groups have attended numerous conferences. ICSA’s leaders’ attitude has rested on the belief that by attending our conferences these persons, as well as ICSA members, may learn things that will help reduce stereotyping in both directions. In the 40 years ICSA has run conferences, there have been only a few instances in which interactions became heated, but never out of control.
  • In the early 1990s emeritus ICSA Director Carol Giambalvo designed and implemented pre-conference former member workshops that conveyed the message that an open conference can be an opportunity to learn how to cope with distressing feelings that an open conference may stimulate.
  • A landmark event occurred in 1999 at ICSA’s annual conference at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Following extensive discussions among ICSA leaders, exit counselors, and members of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness - Hare Krishna), ICSA organized a panel discussion with two ISKCON members (Anuttama Dasa and Radha Dasi), an exit counselor (Joseph Kelly), a mental health professional (Steve Eichel), and a moderator (Michael Langone). ISKCON was going through a reform, and ICSA leaders concluded that we could do more good encouraging that reform than “fighting” ISKCON. The positive response of the audience was gratifying.
  • To the credit of the reformers within ISKCON, the first scholarly treatment of child abuse within ISKCON was published in the organization’s own journal, ISKCON Communications Journal. ICSA reprinted this article, which was written by sociologist E. Burke Rochford with Jennifer Heinlein.
  • ICSA leaders over the years have engaged in dialogue with members of other groups, including the Unification Church, Scientology, Arkeon, Anthroposophy, Transcendental Meditation, and Falun Gong. Discussions have sometimes been passionate, but respectful. Members of such groups have also presented at ICSA conferences, including panels that brought together former and current members. In 2000, for example, Joseph Szimhart coordinated a panel on positive accounts from cult conversion experiences. In 2018 a panel on diverse experiences with Transcendental Meditation included presentations by people currently practicing TM.
  • In 2002 a panel, “Harm in New Religious Movements,” brought together scholars and professionals across the “pro-anti” divide: Arthur Dole, Jean-Francois Mayer, Philip Lucas, Eileen Barker, and Ben Zablocki.
  • For the past 10 years ICSA director Michael Kropveld, who is Director of Info-Cult/Info-Secte, has participated in an annual meeting that brings cult awareness and research professionals together with members of controversial, marginal, and cultic groups.
  • Other new-religious-movement (NRM – sociologists and religious studies scholars prefer this term to “cult”) scholars have attended ISCA conferences, including Massimo Introvigne, Willy Fautre, Amanda van Eck Duymaer von Twist, Jean-Francois Mayer, Irving Hexham, James Beverley, E. Burke Rochford, Nancy Ammerman, Dick Anthony, Phil Lucas, and Susan Palmer.
  • Two anecdotes illustrate the value of ICSA’s dialogue with NRM scholars. During lunch at ICSA’s 2000 annual conference in Seattle Burke Rochford thanked Michael Langone for inviting him to the conference because he was able, through conversations with parents and former members, to see the harm “up close.” During ICSA’s 2005 annual conference in Madrid, Eileen Barker, who had attended several ICSA conferences, remarked that she could finally understand why so many former members related to the “cult” concept. It helped them understand that their distress was largely due to what their group had done to them, not to grave deficiencies within themselves.
  • Although several ICSA professionals and scholars have presented at NRM scholars’ conferences, a noteworthy event occurred in 2010 when Michael Kropveld and Michael Langone presented at the Center for Studies of New Religions (CESNUR) annual conference in Turin. During a plenary, Dr. Langone stated: “Some groups may harm some people sometimes, and some groups may be more likely to harm people than other groups.” He noted that we could disagree in good faith on the causes, magnitude, and prevalence of harm in specific groups or across the range of groups. But that harm exists is indisputable. There was little if any disagreement with this common-sense declaration.
  • At the 2012 CESNUR conference in El Jadida, ICSA board member Dr. Carmen Almendros and colleagues presented three papers, one of which empirically rebutted the commonly held notion among some scholars that negative reports of former members are mere “atrocity tales.” The study further revealed commonalities in the perceptions and reports of victims-survivors of abusive groups and intimate partner violence.
  • In recent years INFORM, founded by Dr. Eileen Barker, invited ICSA members (Carol Giambalvo, Michael Kropveld, Michael Langone, Joseph Szimhart, Rod and Linda Dubrow-Marshall) to contribute to volumes in the Inform/Routledge series on Minority Religions and Spiritual Movements.

Thus, many scholars and professionals who study and research cultic groups (what they prefer to call new religious movements) and who once dismissed ICSA’s reports of cult-related harm now learn from and engage in productive dialogue with ICSA professionals and scholars and the victims who inform ICSA’s perspectives. Members of the ICSA network also learn from this dialogue and continue to develop educational and treatment interventions that consider complexities and variations that were not appreciated during ICSA’s early days. Dialogue does not mean that abuses are condoned. On the contrary, dialogue makes more people aware of abuses in groups. Dialogue also makes more people aware of the ways in which simplistic thinking can generate confusion and unnecessary polarization.


For example, dialogue has made clear that NRM scholars ask different questions from ICSA professionals and scholars. The former may know that harm exists, but they do not focus on it. The latter may share concerns regarding the need to respect protected freedoms of minority groups, but they mainly see people whom such groups harm. Dialogue helps everybody better understand the phenomenon, including the potential for abuse.


To conclude: 

  1. Engaging in active dialogue with individuals with backgrounds in religion, sociology, academic psychology, and other disciplines enhances the understanding and effectiveness of mental health and other helpers.
  2. Academicians exposed to the personal stories of parents and former members of cultic groups and the clinical work of mental health professionals come to appreciate the nature and magnitude of harm that groups can cause.
  3. Former members, who in a conference may modulate their exposure to disturbing points of view by selecting which sessions they attend, can have experiences that, as Carol Giambalvo wisely pointed out many years ago, help them learn to cope with discordant ideas, rather than avoid them.
  4. By participating in openness and dialogue, members of the ICSA network distinguish themselves from cultic groups that suppress dissent, ostracize dissenters, control which information members are allowed to see or hear, and divide the world into the good “us” and the bad “them.”

International Cultic Studies Association, Inc.

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Bonita Springs, FL 34133




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