Is It Just Me?: Tips For Spotting Indoctrination From A Recovering Evangelical

    For four weeks this summer, I was car-less in middle America, surrounded by fireflies, wondering how to maintain my core self despite being separated from everything I call “home”.

    I was there for an extensive, intensive professional training. The training happened to be in a methodology in my field that is sometimes seen as a bit...cult-ish, for a variety of reasons. Personally, I’m on board with the methodology, and especially its underlying philosophies, but I also understand why people might see it as dogmatic and exclusive, because it can be when implemented poorly.

    At its best, though, the methodology works. So going into the training I set an intention of remaining as humble and open-minded as I could, despite what I was being asked to sacrifice. That said, I also went into it with the kind of stubborn skepticism that can, perhaps, only come from having clawed one’s way out of a brainwashing before. Something in me felt that I was going to be asked to check my critical thinking--and criticism--at the door. This feeling triggered a ‘protect your mind’ intellectual and emotional guardedness that my fellow ex-Evangelicals will surely understand.

    It was because of my inclination toward defensiveness that I was trying to be open; I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to learn good things (which I did) and become better at my job (which I hope to be). At the same time, I definitely felt occasional pressure toward wholesale acceptance of some ideas, so I am glad I didn’t suppress my suspicions entirely.

    All in all, those four weeks went well, and I think I maintained a balanced approach. What the experience has got me thinking on, though, in short retrospect, is what it was about the situation that triggered my aversion. What did the training--or the prospect of it--remind me of from my Evangelical days that made me wary? Why did I think I was about to get brainwashed?

    There are a few parallels I’ve been able to identify between the training and my own Christian indoctrination--strategies and styles I saw this group using that I also encountered from various church institutions and missionary organizations over the years. I share them because I think it’s interesting when any group, religious or secular, seeks to transfer what it believes to be capital-T “Truth” through the following means. Interesting, and sometimes scary.

1. Isolation of “Trainees” from the Larger World for an Extended Period of Time

When I signed up for missionary training through YWAM, I was signing up for six months outside of the country. Not only was I in a country other than the one in which I lived, I was staying on a farm in a remote area in said new country, and this without access to my own transportation. In this recent professional training, we were also basically in the middle of nowhere, though we were still in the U.S.A.--we were, again, on a farm, and many of us (including me) without our own transportation.

In both cases, my concern is that one is not in a position to compare what one is learning to the realities of the wider world. There is not a diversity of people off of which you can bounce the ideas that you’re being told about for many hours each day. You start to lose sight of the horizon, ideologically, which puts you in a mentally vulnerable position. Removing oneself from regular daily life stresses and responsibilities now and then for the sake of retreat is a great practice, but intense teaching in isolation from wider society is something of which I find myself wary.

2. Constant Reference to a Text Deemed Universally True

Obviously, in Evangelical Christian circles this is the Bible. You read it over, and over, and over again. Well--certain parts of it. Many Evangelicals have never read the whole Bible; but that’s beside my point. The implication, and belief, is that this text speaks a Truth that is all-encompassing, beyond human bias, and not at all affected by the time and place in which the words were written.

I’ve found that some believe this to be true of the foundational texts of the methodology in which I was being trained. They were/are constantly referenced, which is perhaps in and of itself not a problem. My problem, or concern, is that other points of view or criticisms/responses are not referenced. The core texts were written by a human, who lived in a particular time and place, and should be subject to thoughtful, study-based criticism as such. It is one of the many forms of self-discipline we must engage in if we are to be doing our best work, and if our goal is really to get to the truth.

3. Extremely Limited Access to the Message

This is not only a problem in Evangelicalism, actually. Many religious groups have and do seek to control their members by insisting they are in possession of “the secret” (to the universe, to salvation) and also limiting access to that information. I think of the long-time refusal of the Catholic church to have non-Latin masses, of paywalls like that in Scientology (which, for what it’s worth, I do not consider a religion), and so on. In Evangelicalism this often looks like pastors (virtually always men) who, you are told, always know more than you about God’s will because they have ‘the anointing’--or whatever terminology the church decides to use. In addition to all of that, there are so many things you do have to literally pay for in Evangelicalism in order to feel like  you’re being a “good Christian”--private education, special Bibles, retreats, just regular tithing…. But you’re told the gospel is only accessible through this one incredibly narrow door of participation, so you do it.

The organization(s) that teach and maintain the methodology in which I was being trained have historically--as I understand it--offered remarkably limited access to the foundational texts and materials. One message I’ve heard surrounding this phenomenon is that there is a concern that the methodology will be misused or watered down in the hands of those who aren’t properly trained. Okay, I can buy that--to a point. That’s also what priests have said to parishioners when refusing them access to a Bible they can read, though. And, of course, the training is prohibitively expensive, unless one has a professional sponsor. The warning bells get louder in my head. If this philosophy and its accompanying techniques are so helpful, don’t we want everyone to have access to it? Secreting away the group’s ‘gospel’ is always a decision that should be scrutinized openly.

    I'm sure I'll think of other parallels as times goes on and I reflect further, but that seems to be good for now. What other techniques/strategies of organizations, religious or secular, make you pause, or trigger your ‘they’re trying to indoctrinate me’ response system?

More Than None

    Amongst those who converse about religious trends in our society there is a term used to refer to folks like myself who do not claim any personal religious affiliation: we are the “nones”. Putting aside the quaint irony that the word sounds just like “nun” and thus could easily be confused with a thing that is basically its opposite, it is a friendly abbreviation that helps add some cohesion to a group of people who are otherwise seen as disconnected outsiders.

    Unfortunately, there is a downside to the label. It explains a person’s present state of spiritual affairs well enough, but it obscures the religious places from which they might have come. Many people who currently identify as “nones” did not always find themselves in that category. I myself was a Bible-studying, gospel-preaching, youth group-leading Evangelical Christian for the first twenty-seven years of my life. For those folks, as for me, there is sometimes a slight discomfort with adopting the “none” classification because it does not capture or communicate the whole story--a story that includes chapters featuring some serious ecclesiastical commitments.

    Given the nature of my upbringing and how sincerely devoted I was to the Christian cause, I cannot simply say that I have no religious affiliation. To do so feels--and is, I think--disingenuous. The church, no matter how much I wish to be free of it, is still in my head. It’s in my bones. I am still processing the ways I was indoctrinated (I might even say brainwashed) into illogical, often heinous, ideologies. I cannot just make the doctrine leave me. My stilted, nervous thoughts about sex exist because of the church. Guilt about having told numerous people they were going to hell swims in my heart. I have no idea when, or if, my fear of literal demons will subside.

    Scrolling right past “Christian” and checking the box next to “None of the Above” doesn’t cover all that; it doesn’t even allow room for it. Yes, these kinds of categorical demographics created for the sake of gleaning statistics are naturally oversimplifying, but all too often “none” is interpreted as “having no interest in religion” when, on the contrary, folks like myself consider religion to be integral to our daily being despite having renounced involvement in it. We are not disconnected from it; we have been entangled with it, were perhaps hurt by it, and are trying to navigate the ever-present but unseen reality of its continued influence on our lives.

    Every time I find myself in a situation in which I have no apparent choice but to identify myself as a “none”, I am reminded of how desperately we need a space in our society where ex-believers can assert and discuss their ongoing relationship with the traditional theologies and dogmas of their past. It might not fit as neatly onto a one-page survey as the typical short-list of religious options, but it is essential to our understanding of the spiritual state of our world that we acknowledge the number of lives being lived in the wake of indoctrination.

    It is no small thing to shift religious gears mid-existence. It is an especially tricky feat when one’s identity was rooted in one’s belief system of choice throughout one’s most formative years. The perspective of those who have decided to take this extraordinary leap of faith is invaluable, but it lies so often untapped because doctrinal affiliation is assumed to be static, or a discrete fact unrelated to the past. On the contrary, the truth is that we--much like the great spiritual figures in our varied histories--are all on special journeys of our own, journeys that might find us in wildly different camps over the course of our lives. If we are given the opportunity to share the details of our movements with each other--if I can see where you have been and not just where you are--perhaps a more helpful (certainly more accurate) understanding of the dynamic nature of belief will spread. Perhaps we will learn to give ourselves and those around us permission to grow out of old ways, to grow into new ones, to be true to the honest convictions of our hearts even if they seem to contradict where we’ve been, and even if they don’t fit neatly into one little box.

Chaos Theory: Why The Meaning God Gives Pain Might Do More Harm Than Good

    Yesterday I listened to an episode of the On Being podcast that originally aired last summer featuring professor, researcher, and author Dr. Pauline Boss. It was entitled “The Myth of Closure.”

    Boss is known for developing the theory of “ambiguous loss”. Ambiguous loss is loss that has no finality or resolution, one that is not clear-cut. It might look like losing a loved one to dementia--the body is still present but their “self”, as we knew it, is going or gone. Ambiguous loss might also involve a missing person, such as a soldier whose body is never found or was destroyed, or a person who disappears in a natural disaster whose body is never recovered. Because of the “ambiguous” nature of such losses, according to Dr. Boss, the person whose loved one is gone experiences a unique kind of grief, a kind of grief perhaps more difficult to move on from than what one might go through in more definitive circumstances.

    I was intrigued by Dr. Boss’s theory, having not heard it before, but it was something else she said--something somewhat tangential to her main point--that struck me most powerfully and brought me back to the topic of leaving the Christian church. Boss said that people will sometimes get stuck in destructive grieving cycles--say, of perpetual self-blame--when they try too hard to make sense of what is ultimately a senseless event. In other words, according to Dr. Boss, it is perhaps only when a person experiencing loss lets go of the idea that the traumatic event meant something that they are free to move on. Moving on might look like taking charge of the meaning-making (e.g. starting an organization for the parents of missing children if one’s own child was lost and never found) but it cannot be the Sisyphean struggle to suss out any logic in the event itself.

    Here’s where fundamentalist (and even mainstream) Christianity comes in: those of us raised in such a tradition were and are taught that God’s will is in one way or another behind everything that happens in the world--the good and the bad. So, when the bad thing happens, a girl who was raised as I was in an Evangelical environment will search for all the reasons God might have allowed that bad thing to occur. At best this is just silly; I’m pretty sure God doesn’t care that my phone fell in the toilet. At worst--well, we have a version of “love” (assuming one believes that God is all-loving) that involves testing the beloved with terrible trauma and immense pain. On purpose. For some secret reason. 

    This is no good.

    That thought in and of itself--the thought that God was very intentionally allowing me to be hurt even when I’d done nothing wrong--became traumatizing to me as I grew older and more independent and had to start providing myself with the emotional strength needed to make it through the thorny bits of life. It was compounded distress: the loss itself, whatever it happened to be, plus my desperate calculations as to its existential and theological meanings. On the contrary, the relief I found in choosing to detach painful situations from the thought of their supposed ultimate significance was like a valve release. It didn’t mean whatever sucky situation I was in didn’t suck, it just meant the universe had nothing against me and I was free to at least make some good from the unavoidable bad as I saw fit.

    It seems like every day I discover a new way in which my Evangelical upbringing set me up to fail. Certainly it wasn’t all bad--which I’ve pointed out plenty of times before, so I won’t go into detail here--but it still amazes me how many times a week I find myself whispering to no one in particular, “Wait, was that normal?” I don’t know. We don’t know what’s “normal”, what’s healthy, us ex-Evangelical kids. What I do know (now) is that being able to rattle off all the reasons God might be ‘testing’ you with sad circumstances does not in fact make me a helpful person to be around in a time of grief. I don't remember where I learned that lesson, but it wasn't from the church.

    Ultimately, I just wish it could have been more realistic, my social-emotional education. Of course, this is not a wish that can be granted when it comes to Evangelicalism, so in lieu of a magic wand with which to change my past I’ll do what Dr. Boss suggests and let those first couple decades in Jesus Freak land be nothing but coincidental chaos. And I'll ask myself what I can do with the nonsense now. The answer is: exactly this--exposing the secrets, building community, and letting people know that it's never too late to choose a happier and healthier path.