CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

londonThe 2008 International Conference
Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality'

An International Conference organized by INFORM and CESNUR in association with ISORECEA at the London School of Economics, 16-20th April 2008

Lets Talk: The Application of Systemic Theory and Practice to New Religious Movements and Their Past and Current Adherents

by Alastair Pearson, MSc Applied Social Studies (University of Oxford), MSc Family and Systemic Psychotherapy (University of London)

A paper presented at the 2008 International Conference, London, UK. Preliminary version. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.



In my presentation I intend to talk about the early days of offering a private systemic psychotherapy service to those involved in New Religious Movements.  By the end of the session I hope that you will have learnt a little about the systemic approach to therapy, and noticed ways of using the ideas in your own dialogue with New Religious Movements, be it personal or professional.

The service is being developed alongside my ongoing full time employment as a social worker in an adolescent psychiatric hospital in East London.  In this context the young people and families I work with are often from one of the major faith communities, generating explorations of the relationship between religion and mental ill health and well-being.

I do not intend to define what the term new religious movement means. My focus is how to respond therapeutically to those who believe themselves in need of therapy as a result of involvement with a group that they perceive to be categorizable as such; and who have contacted Inform for information on counselling services. 

Overview of Presentation

The presentation consists of three sections.  Firstly I will offer two questions for you to consider.  Secondly I will outline of a few systemic practices that I have found useful in my mental health related work.  It is my expectation that these practices will lend themselves readily to working therapeutically with those involved with New Religious Movements, and I will suggest ways in which this might be the case.

My approach to explaining my practice will be to describe what you might see if you were to be the proverbial “fly on the wall” before and during a session.  I will not be saying much about the theories that have informed the evolution of the practices that have come to shape how I work.  Suffice to say that any student of systemic practice will encounter a bewildering theoretical landscape including general systems theory, first and second order cybernetics, coordinated management of meaning, constructivism, realism, idealism, behaviourism, post-modernism and post-structuralism.  They may also come to see that their therapeutic tradition has it’s own orthodoxies and heresies, conflicts and schisms, esoteric language, rituals and rites of passage.  For me, describing non-religious group behaviour in this way is a valuable starting point in establishing a constructive stance toward the phenomena of New Religious Movements and their adherents.
I will end with a review of issues that have arisen for me as I have heard about possible referrals via Inform, and begun to have my first client contact.

Exercise: 2 Minutes

Firstly the questions, which I would like you to reflect on for a few moments.  The purpose of asking you to do this is to allow you to experience for yourselves the type of question I might ask a client, and which I will be saying more about later.

What has been the most significant point of learning for you during the conference, and how might it alter your subsequent thinking or behaviour?

What was your immediate reaction to hearing this question, for example interested, bored, confused, pleased?

The Systemic Approach – A Broad Description

At this point I would like to offer a more traditional and possibly uplifting description of the systemic approach.  Whilst this description refers to family therapy, it captures for me what it is to work systemically with individuals and organizations as well as with families.

“Family therapy is a diverse endeavour that has a fifty year history of engaging with new and unorthodox ideas, of questioning commonly held views, and developing creative practices. The family therapy field is characterized by a number of themes including - considering the problems people face in the wider context of life; considering people’s identities as constructed through family relations and through history and culture; and addressing people’s problems through an interactional or participatory approach – that is to say by meeting with families and other communities of people.” (Dulwich Centre Website).


Systemic Practice in Action

I would now like to invite you to assume the fly on the wall position, as I offer a description of what you might see before and during a typical meeting with any of the religious clients I work with.


Before a session you might witness a white, youthfully middle-aged male, in need of a shave and dressed slightly more scruffily than his colleagues, sitting in quiet contemplation.  This information is not insignificant; I’ll revisit it later. 

To understand the focus of my contemplation, it is necessary to imagine being perched somewhere on the inner wall of my mind, with a spectacular view of a landscape of ideas stretching in all directions.   In immediate eyesight you might see an area that could be called Highest Context Territory, in which is situated my most fundamental beliefs about the nature and purpose of life.  It is my belief that I cannot sit with clients and convey with integrity a sense of hope and the possibility of change in the face of great distress unless I have at least some understanding of how meaning, hope and change exist in my own life.

In view would also be an awareness of my own relationship to religious experience, one version of which runs as follows:

As a child I accepted Christian beliefs as embodied by my mother and the Church of England.  I made a personal commitment to Christ at 11 and at 15 experienced both destructive exorcism from perceived evil spirits and dramatic psychological healing as a prelude to intense involvement with an evangelical charismatic church.  At 16 I experienced a crisis of faith and deep depression.  I came to perceive myself to have been abused and indoctrinated.  I went on to study Theology and Politics. I now belong to a Christian community within the United Reformed Church, whist maintaining a deeply sceptical/ambivalent intellectual relationship to religious belief, indeed all belief, and a continued, if softening, cautiousness with regard to group identity and behaviour. In part I continue to mourn the loss of the comfort and thrill of certain knowledge and meaning, and often feel somehow less than real or substantial as a person.
In light of this I have to be alert to the possibility that my own experience may become unhelpfully immediate when working with religious clients who have, for example, strong beliefs about demonology or who have an uncritical relationship to belief and authority.  The positive is that I have an appreciation of the healing possibilities of faith, and a capacity to communicate interest and confidence in exploring religious experience.


Once I am sat in a room with the client you would notice me asking a series of questions aimed at establishing a therapeutic relationship i.e. a relationship most likely to support change, as well as what kind of model and style of practice represents the best fit for the client.  Therapists differ on the extent to which they might initiate comment on obvious differences  with the client around race, gender, class and culture. The balance is between letting a client know that you are aware that their likely experience of societal oppression may impact negatively on the therapeutic relationship, and ensuring that you do not assume problems on behalf of the client.  However I take the view that a religious faith is so fundamental to identity and social behaviour that conversations about it always need to be initiated and developed in order to establish a working, therapeutic relationship.  Questions I might ask are:

“How would you let me know if I had said something that betrayed my ignorance of your beliefs?”

“In what ways did family or societal hostility toward New Religious Movements reinforce or undermine your commitment to the group?”


Reverting back to the “fly on the wall of my mind” position you would see the word curiosity writ large on the horizon. An active attitude of curiosity helps to generate multiple hypotheses, which can be used by the client and therapist to generate new ways of thinking and behaving. They are of no value to the client unless they are shared.  As it is not usual for people to think creatively about change if they feel attacked, the expressed hypotheses you would hear would be tentative and positive.   An example might be:

 “I wonder if by deciding to join a New Religious Movement it’s possible you were giving expression to a deeply felt hope for your life?”

Throughout the session you would be likely to hear the frequent use of what are known as reflexive questions. These are questions asked with the intent of embedding positive change within the clients own healing resources, reducing reliance on the efforts of the therapist to resolve problems on behalf of the client, and increasing the durability of learning arising from the therapy. A useful parallel is the saying that a good picture can communicate more than many words.  A client may have forgotten much of what has been discussed by the time they leave the session, let alone in the days that follow, but a single apt question may continue to reverberate and exert a healing influence months or even years after it was asked.  An example might be:

“Who in your family is most likely to appreciate the thoughtfulness present in this conversation?” 

There are times however when you might see and hear something different.  The mental landscape changes as I bring to mind the ideas and practices of a structural systemic approach. This conceptualizes the family as a system, containing subsystems such as executive sub-system (for example parents) and child or sibling subsystems.  Problems are seen as resulting from confusion in the hierarchy, boundaries and points of transition within the family.  The aim of the therapy would be to adjust family behaviour and structure using interactions occurring during the sessions. I have found that the emphasis on hierarchy makes it a particularly useful approach when working with religious clients who value the hierarchy and structure of family or group life, or who have been adversely affected by being part of rigid or confused boundaries such as those that may be experienced within a New Religious Movement.  If I was seeing an individual alone, you might witness the presence of empty chairs to represent absent parental and/or religious leaders.  I might invite the client to rearrange the chairs to represent the extent of relative authority, or ask a question such as:

“Whose voice was loudest in your head as you tried to figure out the best way forward?”

My last example of a practice you might see is that of externalization.  I might use this if I hear a client tell a story in which one particular issue is having significant problematic effects.  The client is asked to imagine the issue as existing outside of them, and to give it a name.  The influence of the problem is mapped, and the relationship renegotiated. To use myself as an example, the effect of believing myself to have been harmed by intense individual and group religious experience is that part of me feels like it exists outside of both me and any given social experience, protecting me from lapsing once again into unwarranted or unsafe intellectual or group commitment.  I might name this The Haunting.  The Haunting could then be interviewed at length, addressing its useful as well as destructive effects, with neglected characters and new story lines emerging into the gaze of the spotlight.

Systemic Psychotherapy and New Religious Movements – Initial Reflections

I’d like to end with some reflections on the start of my relationship with Inform and early contact with clients. 

The first thing to note is the variety of groups with which people have been involved, ranging from the large and well established to the new and idiosyncratic. Possible or actual referrals have come from those involved with the Exclusive Brethren, New Kalama Tradition, Divine Light Mission, Subdud and World of Yaad. The need expressed mainly reflected the struggles of individuals to come to terms with their experience of being in and leaving a New Religious Movement after a long or destructive involvement. 

Regardless of this common expressed need, my inclusion of “current adherents” in the title of this presentation reflects my realization that I had instinctively assumed that I would only be seeing clients who had had bad experiences and who had or were leaving the group.  Whilst this might sit comfortably with my own experiences and resulting biases, and may indeed reflect the norm of referrals, as a therapist I want to be able to support individuals who may be seeking to address issues whilst remaining within the group, and to appreciate the contributions New Religious Movements may make to individual and social experience.
Having said this, among the first problems to be brought to my attention was an account of extreme sexual teaching and behaviour. As a male therapist I will need to consider my own relationship to sexuality, and how to model healthy, safe relationships with clients, probably female, who may have been exploited by powerful, probably male, leaders. 

This also means I have been challenged to consider the relationship between the therapy role and any possible duty of care, and to consider in what circumstances might the sexual exploitation of adults constitute a matter for police involvement.

I have also learnt that ignorance about the content of a belief system can sometimes be problematic, and that the demonstration of prior knowledge can convey a level of interest and respect that facilitates the therapeutic relationship with clients.  On one occasion I was working with a Jehovah’s Witness who was experiencing overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.  In attempting to draw out alternative perspectives I asked her what she thought her mother, who had passed away, would say if she was watching us from Heaven.  Several confused moments followed as I tried to interpret her unexpected reply that her mother wasn’t in Heaven.  I eventually realized that from a Jehovah’s Witness perspective her mother was currently in the ground, still waiting for her bodily resurrection.


To conclude then, it has been my experience that my systemic training and experience of working with mainstream religious faith has provided a solid foundation on which to develop a practice with those involved with New Religious Movements.  The challenge is however that of how to resist the influence of both personal experience and that of critical stereotypes of New Religious Movements that sensationalize the destructive and marginalize more positive experiences and discourses.

In terms of future development I would like to find ways of compensating for the fact that I will be working alone.  Mainstream, orthodox systemic psychotherapy generally involves co-workers who can offer additional perspectives on the difficulties of the client and your interaction with them.  I therefore hope to develop links with other therapists for mutual learning and support.  I will also be placing a high value on using client feedback to develop my practice.

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