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?