Inform 35th Anniversary Seminar Report

By Erin Clark, Master’s student at the University of Leeds

The most recent Inform ( seminar was held at King’s College’s Bush House on the thirteenth of January, with the various featured speakers all celebrating the milestone of the charity’s 35th year of operation. The importance of Inform within the field of New Religious Movement (NRM) studies cannot be understated – an importance which cannot be appreciated without acknowledging its founder, Professor Eileen Barker. As a seminal figure in NRM studies, Barker’s hugely influential ‘Making of A Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing?’ (1984) rejected the ‘brainwashing’ thesis in favour of the demystification of NRM conversion processes. Continuing Barker’s work, Inform has sought to prevent the harm that can be caused through misinformation about minority religions, by bringing the insights of academic research into the public domain.

The event began with several scholars involved with the leadership of Inform over the decades. Dr. Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist, Dr. George Chryssides and Professor Marat Shterin all provided short introductions – each speaker elaborated on the changes Inform has seen in studying NRMs, and how adequately equipped Inform is to facilitate collaborative conversation between communities for years to come. The last of these commencing addresses came from Professor Barker, who delivered a heartfelt speech conveying the importance of those who have dedicated their time to sustaining Inform’s existence. Equal parts modest and moving, her words united those in attendance who stand as representatives for several communities who, like Barker, are primarily interested in the study of “peculiar people.” Linda Woodhead, F.D. Maurice Professor in Moral and Social Theology and Head of Department, Theology & Religious Studies at King’s College London then provided the event’s keynote address, speaking at length about Inform’s firm power as an “antidote” to unproductive and stereotyped conversation between members of conflicting communities.

The first panel platformed the stories of several members and ex-members of a range of NRMs. As honorary director Suzanne Newcombe identified, Inform is not the official expert in the context of people’s lived experiences, and so it is the essence of this panel that exemplifies Inform’s emphasis on the triangulation of data through several sources and networks. The panel opened with secretary of the Pagan Federation, Vivianne Crowley, who detailed the way in which Inform provided necessary demystification amidst the satanic panic scare of the early 1990s and provided information in the Federation’s longstanding battle to be recognised as an official registered charity. Hazel Barlow, a former member of the Unification movement, then provided a short speech on the ways in which Inform was a source of valuable clarificatory information in both her personal and academic life, praising Professor Barker’s foresight in creating such an important educational organisation. Next to speak was full-time staff member of the Church of Scientology, Graeme Wilson. Wilson honoured Inform in its role of “filling a vital need” in the context of clarifying academic truths against sensationalised media stories, offering “a much-needed sane alternative.” Wilson praised the charity’s power to “resolve situations of disharmony and conflicts and repair upsets” caused by misinformation. The panel closed with William Haines, a current member of the Unification movement. After Haines joined the movement, his mother was understandably concerned as a result of widespread media misinformation. Haines personal reflection commended Inform for their work in supporting concerned relatives through the provision of unbiased and factually correct information about the Unification movement.

The second panel platformed various academics that had engaged with Inform over its thirty-five years of operation. The first to speak was Professor Milda Alisauskiene from Vytautas Magnus University Lithuania. Marking her initial interactions with Inform as a “turning point” in her academic career, Alisauskiene detailed how Professor Barker’s agreement to supervise her master’s thesis cemented Barker as a role model in her life. Within an event which had so far highlighted Inform’s importance in a British context, this speech explored Inform’s global relevance. Alisauskiene remarked on Barker’s constant academic communication with the Lithuanian Centre for New Religions Research and Information, to demonstrate how inspirational Barker’s forethought has been in the creation of similar groups worldwide. The next speaker was Susannah Crockford, lecturer in anthropology at the University of Exter, who originally came to Inform to consult its database, yet eventually became an Inform staff member after being inspired by the interactions with members of the public via the phone lines. It was these conversations that, for Crockford, emphasised how imperative Inform’s work is in manufacturing spaces which don’t ridicule members of NRMs, and take people and their testimonies seriously. Next to speak was Abby Day, Professor of Race, Faith & Culture at Goldsmith’s University, who reflected on her upbringing in the heart of North American cultic discourse of figures such as Jim Jones and Charles Manson. Highlighting the demystifying power of Inform’s services, Day reflected on how these people were deemed “strange” because they were “made strange by those in established religions who wanted to view themselves as more authentic or established.” The ‘academics’ panel closed with Professor Emerita Jean La Fontaine (Anthropology, LSE), who gratefully reflected on Inform’s capacity in making her academic research into ‘satanic panic’ a reality, effectively turning something which “sounded like a dangerous or ridiculous” idea into an approachable task.

The penultimate panel of the day saw several professional speakers detail the ways in which they, or the communities they have attended on behalf of, have benefitted directly from the services provided by Inform. First to speak was Revd Pedr Beckley, who accentuated the applicability of Inform’s work and services in all faith communities in Britain. Following Beckley was Henri de Cordes, the former President of Belgium’s CIAOSN, an organisation which acts as a sibling to the “grown-up” Inform. De Cordes specified how the two organisations have existed as key players in a mutually beneficial academic microcosm. The next speaker was retired civil servant Hugh Marriage. As an instrumental figure in the securing of Inform’s first government grants, Marriage detailed how his own department within the Home Office which was initially responsible for ‘cult’ management was grossly under-informed and under-resourced – until he was able to help establish Inform. As a member of the Estonian Ministry of the Interior with twenty-five years of history with Inform, Dr Ringo Ringvee then emulated Marriage’s experience in an international context. Retired solicitor Kim Speller then highlighted how he had personally sought the informed testimonies of several Inform members to aid in a significant court case concerning wardship in a familial context in a particular NRM. This panel closed with the words of Rev Dr James Walters, director of the faith centre and professor in practice at the LSE’s Department of International Relations. With the aid of Inform, Walters highlighted how he is now able to appreciate the complex intersectionality of the ways in which “big religion” can inform “small religion,” and vice versa. This panel was both necessary and enlightening in terms of contextualising Inform in spheres that lie outside of academia.

The final panel was delivered online and saw three American scholars beam into the proceedings. The first was J. Gordon Melton, Distinguished Professor of American Religious History with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who stressed the importance of fieldwork within religious studies, claiming that it is amongst the worst of trends in modern religious studies to neglect its importance and Professor Barker’s legacy is one of engaged fieldwork. Then Susan Palmer, Affiliate Professor at Concordia University and research professor at the Religious Studies Faculty at McGill University in Canada, spoke of the equal footing that Inform gives to members of NRMs alongside academics and officials, thus providing a space for productive conversation to take place. The last speaker was Catherine Wessinger, the Rev. H. James Yamauchi, S.J. Professor of the History of Religions at Loyola University New Orleans, who echoed many of the sentiments expressed throughout the day. Wessinger’s speech concluded with a personal plea to both Melton and Barker to write and reflect collaboratively on “the influence they’ve had over NRMs behind the scenes.” Wessinger praised the organisation for the important work that it has done and will continue to do in bringing academic insights into the public area.

Inform’s 35th-anniversary seminar proved to be an event which was as inspiring as it was honorary of both Professor Barker and Inform itself, accurately managing to balance a reverence for the established legacy of the charity and optimistic postulation as to what Inform may go on to become over its next thirty-five years of existence. It is thanks to the enlightening, touching, and often humorous tales of those in attendance that the legacy of Professor Barker and Inform could be properly honoured and celebrated, in an event that truly highlighted Inform as a meeting place for open, productive conversation between academics and those associated with a range of new and minority religions.

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