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Religious Conflict Resolution: A Model for Families

Patrick L. Ryan and Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Research suggests that in the West hundreds of thousands of individuals join and leave cultic groups each year.  Research studies also suggest that at least a sizeable minority of those who join cultic groups are adversely affected.  The families of these group members, and probably many other families, tend to become concerned about their loved one's group involvement.

Roughly 80% of the groups that cause concern are religious.  The psychological, political, and occasionally commercial groups that aren't overtly religious often influence members' lives as though they were religions because they typically bring about a major shift in members' views of self, world, and other, i.e., a conversion experience.

During the past 25 years, most professionals who work with these families have emphasized helping them persuade their loved ones to leave cultic groups.  Exit counseling, a process aimed at helping families create conditions under which their loved one will reevaluate a group involvement, has been very valuable to thousands of grateful families and group members. (Exit counseling is also often referred to as "thought reform consultation.")

Nevertheless, only a very small percentage of families are able to proceed to an exit counseling intervention.  In many cases an intervention is not possible or even appropriate because the loved one's relationship to a group does not fit the typical pattern of exploitative manipulation associated with the subjects of exit counseling interventions, even though the family may have valid concerns.  In other cases, the loved one may be so attached to the group (e.g., because of family ties within the group, decades of commitment, fear of adjusting to the mainstream world) that his or her departure is unlikely, even with an intervention.

Very little attention has been paid to this large majority of families for whom an exit counseling is not feasible or appropriate.  Livia Bardin's book, Coping with Cult Involvement: A Handbook for Families and Friends, offers some guidance. Ms. Bardin says that a cult involvement is often "a situation to manage, not a problem to solve."

This talk will explore ways in which families can more effectively "manage" a loved one's involvement in a group that causes concern, at least in part because of the nature of the conversion that it tends to bring about.  The talk will  approach the situation as a family conflict over what at least overtly are religious issues. Through lecture and discussion the speakers, a counseling psychologist and an exit counselor (thought reform consultant), will examine:

  • How families and group members can come to better understand and appreciate each other's perspectives on the conflict that divides them.
  • How they can improve communication so as to reduce the level of conflict.
  • How they can negotiate mutual behavioral changes that will reduce the level of conflict.
  • How they can come to terms with the need to compromise so as to protect the love between them while respecting differences that divide them.

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Patrick Ryan: mail@patricklryan.com