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What Do We Know About Sects?

Interview With Psychologist Alvaro Farias on the Course “Sects, Psychology of Religion, New Era and Alternative Spiritualities,” which Will Be Held in Uruguay This September

The Ibero-American Network for the Study of Sects (RIES) is  heaquartered in Spain and was founded ten years ago by Catholic experts on the subject. The network also brings together some twenty specialists from Spain, Portugal and Latin America that offer different services of advice, formation and information on the complexity of the world of sects and the new forms of religiosity.

This coming September, members of RIES in Uruguay will offer a course on “Sects, Psychology of Religion, New Era and Alternative Spiritualities.” The course will include the special participation of Father Luis Santamaria of Spain, Consultor of the Spanish Episcopal Conference and known expert on the subject.

On this occasion we interviewed psychologist Alvaro Farias, member of RIES in Uruguay, to know more about the problem of sects and about the course being organized.

Q: Why do you consider it important to be educated in these topics?

Farias: Because it is an increasingly complex subject, which affects the whole society and has become a pastoral problem for Churches and a mental health problem in which work must be done with greater urgency and seriousness. Formation is a way of prevention. Moreover, the request for consultations increases every year and our previous course was attended by psychologists, journalists, doctors, lawyers, professors, pastors and a great variety of people concerned about the topic, be it at the professional or family level. The interest in the subject shows us that it’s a social problem about which not much is known and great confusion reigns, especially in the world of the new therapies.

Q: How does the Church respond to this phenomenon?

Farias: The magisterial pronouncements since John Paul II on the subject are countless, especially in the documents of CELAM, from Puebla to Aparecida, where the subject is a pastoral challenge that requires great attention on the part of pastors and all pastoral agents. Although there are guidelines, documents and informative material, the faithful are not sufficiently formed in the subject and sectarian proselytism is more effective where evangelization is weaker and where formation is non-existent.

Hence RIES’ initiative these years is to bring together all the Catholic experts on the subject and to offer a permanent service on the subject at all levels, from Episcopal Conferences to schools, universities, parishes and families who ask for advice, formation and help.

Q: A new course is now being organized in Uruguay. To whom is it addressed?

Farias: The next course begins on September 1, and although it has been thought out for all types of public, we make special emphasis on pastoral agents, because they are the ones who are in the front line of contention, and who have to have more information to guide in discernment. I have often received in my Consulting Room persons affected by sects or relatives of persons that are in a sect and the majority are persons of Catholic origin, who in their spiritual or therapeutic searches, began with Reiki or yoga to then end in a sect. I often ask myself the following: has no one been able to alert them about what they were getting into? And the answer I give myself is no. No one alerted them, no one took care of them, no one knew how to intervene in the discernment and it’s generally due to the great misinformation there is in our country and in the Church, in all that is related to the topic of sects.

Q: Can you give us an example of these type of cases?

Farias: Obviously, I can’t give clinical examples, my work as a psychologist obliges me to confidentiality. However, I can mention a phenomenon that we are studying closely: the Udelar Yoga Project.” It’s a project that entered the University of the Republic – State and secular – through the student order on yoga and meditation. Up to this point, one could say: “and what’s the problem?” Yoga might be a healthy physical and mental exercise, but first of all it is a discipline stemming from Hinduism. Used in this project are concepts of esotericism, of New Age and of Hinduism, including spiritual indoctrination. The most grave thing is that no one knows that the one who leads this project in Uruguay is a faithful disciple of Gregorian Bivolaru, a Romanian guru who is the subject of an international manhunt for using those who practice yoga to make pornographic films and human trafficking.

This is happening in Uruguay, but the disinformation is such that no one has been worried. How many Catholics practice Reiki, bio-decodification, read books on Metaphysics and engage in endless therapies promoted by New Age? It would be enough to ask in the parishes and Catholic schools and one would be surprised.

No one falls into a sect as we see in films, but simply by attending seminars and retreats of doubtful origin. Activities that apparently are innocuous often are the door to mortgage the mental health of many people. Another more complex issue is the religious confusion into which many submerge themselves because of lack of formation.

Q: What sort of dangers exist for mental health?

Farias: The subject of sects is addressed from different points of view. As a psychologist I address it from Psychology. The persons that are victims of sectarian groups, are victims of a process of manipulation that implies systematic psychological violence. It is the most subtle and little perceived form of violence, but it is also one of the most damaging and destructive.

Q: We know that a Spanish expert will take part in the course. Who is he?

Farias: Yes. Father Luis Santamaria del Rio is coming, a Catholic Spanish priest, founding member of RIES and expert on the subject of sects and New Age. He is also Consultor of the Episcopal Commission of Inter-Confessional Relations of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, member of the Spanish Society of Sciences of Religions (SECR), of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and of the International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR).

It’s a great joy for us to be able to count on his presence as he has a broad view of the subject from the theological and pastoral perspective, and is very knowledgeable on the doctrinal aspects of the “New Age” phenomenon. Moreover, his experience in the subject and his relation with experts worldwide will give us a more global view of the phenomenon.

Q: How can one connect oneself with RIES in Europe and Latin America?

Farias: RIES has two secretariats that coordinate the whole Network. Its electronic mail in Spain is: [email protected] and in Latin America it is [email protected]

We have two Twitter accounts: @InfoRies and @infosectas and a page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/Infosectas

We also have sections in different websites, with many articles and interviews of several members of RIES in Catholic home pages. We try to help, advise and inform from all possible environments, both in Catholic as well as secular environments, given that the problem of sects is not a subject of the Churches, but a social drama that affects everyone, regardless of their beliefs.

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