Monthly Archives: July 2013

Deprogramming

There are uncanny similarities between domestic abuse victims (men, women and children) and the religiously indoctrinated. In my desire to offer a way out to others I find this to be a useful observation.

Many abuse victims are operating under the belief that they are not victims. What may seem like an absurd mindset to many is quite literally a survival mode for these individuals. When fearing for your life you do whatever is necessary to survive. If that means acquiescing to your abuser then you do it. Even if that abuser is imaginary. For me to enter the space of a victim and choose to upset their only means of coping is unethical. And what do I leave them with if I do? When I walk away after chastising them for being submissive, for surviving the best way they know how, what have I left them with? Any tools to hold on to while they contemplate and grow? No? Shame on me.

For many, their entire life has been about obeying their god’s commands through following the instruction of their parents, community members, congregational leaders, and so on. The list can be endless as to how many others are involved with one person’s lack of autonomy. For some their indoctrination took place in adulthood. Usually as a result of feeling isolated and fearful stemming from any number of earlier life experiences. If I’m interested in making a change for their benefit and mine (as well as society’s) I need to set up a dialogue where they feel safe. Meeting up with a brainwashed and terrified person and immediately laying out everything they’re doing wrong is going to cause them to recoil or hold on fast and loud to their beliefs. Under the same conditions, anyone would. It’s a matter of survival.

Through years of counseling domestic violence victims and having been one myself earlier, I became intimately familiar with gaslighting and slow, psychological torture. Understanding how these techniques work successfully on a trusting target is the key to undoing the damage. Years of strongly enforced rules and regulations on every aspect of one’s existence takes time to undo. These rules are laid out in a careful and methodical way. The perpetrators of this sort of crime are very skilled at what they do. They know when to offer love and kindness and when to implement control. That control can take many forms. Emotional, psychological and certainly physical. And so it is with religious oppression. The threat of eternal damnation or an intervening wrath are in and of themselves threats of physical harm. The power this method of abuse offers the perpetrator is vast. These predators have keen radar and can smell resistance the minute their prey begins to question the rules through seemingly benign behaviors. With all of this knowledge in my toolbox I know setting anyone free from the confines and abusiveness of religion takes time and it takes real empathy. It also requires the victim’s willingness. Willingness can begin with curiosity. They may start by looking into alternative thought processes without really being noticed. This early stage is no where near evolved enough to survive on its own. If their curiosity gleans a substantial shift they will venture out for more. It is at this point when gentle encouragement is most likely to root itself as an optional form of support.

Helping another person break free from the mental slavery that clearly causes them and those around them great harm calls for the establishment of trust. There is nothing more important than trust to a human being who has been manipulated, beaten down and left an empty shell and who’s only recourse now is going through the motions. Often times these individuals will present as aggressive. They’re desperate for some form of control. When they are aggressive I don’t take it personally. It has nothing to do with me. But therein lies an opportunity here for me to offer them my intention. If my intention is to continue the abuse by trying to stifle them while they’re screaming for recognition then I shouldn’t bother. I’d be adding nothing and they certainly have nothing left to give me or anyone else. It’s best to be aware that they are facing a huge undertaking. It’s daunting and often times unimaginable. My intention is to offer another way to live.

This by no means is a critique on other methods of helping the oppressed believer. Many find wit, sarcasm and assertiveness to be very successful in waking up some religious folks. It all depends on the individual we are working with. How does their mind operate? How do they see themselves? How invested are they in their current belief system? There are so many more variables to consider. And that’s my point. I choose to consider these possibilities as it will end up only frustrating me if I don’t. How can I play the game if I don’t have the appropriate equipment? When approached for the reason of inquiry by a theist or even a spiritual person I ask as many questions as it takes to get a feel for their operating system. I feel it best not to project my prior experiences with other believers onto to any one person. They are not all the same and their beliefs fulfill a variety of needs. Some superficial and many quite emotional. As I’m rather serious about my ethics I feel it my responsibility to engage another on his or her level of understanding and awareness. I have seen enough success in utilizing this particular method of negotiation I see no reason to alter it significantly. I do try to remain fluid and certainly I avoid becoming invested in the outcome. After all, people have the right to make all of their own choices. In all areas of their lives. What I see coming however, is the choices made by the religious are becoming more irrelevant and rather antiquated every day. To offer assistance for this societal evolution allows me to feel like an authentic participant working toward the world I’d like to live in.

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Beyond Tolerance: A New Tool

Yesterday I spent the day with my parents. For the last few years this has been mostly a pleasure. Before that, spending time with my mother especially was a challenge both intellectually and emotionally. My mother is a devout Catholic and refers to her beliefs often during conversation. Her days are filled with attending church, being a Eucharistic Minister and participating in church groups and activities. In the past I saw her religious injections in our conversations as an aggressive attempt to convince myself and others that Catholicism was any person’s only mechanism for living a good, moral life. My perception of this was set up by my repeated experiences during childhood where she would insist on enforcing the rules of Catholicism at every instructive opportunity.

In the early part of my atheism I would try to draw a correlation between her religiously enhanced statements regarding ethical living and the basic human understanding of morality to gently point out how religion is an extra and unnecessary step for people to take in order to be “good” people. She usually didn’t pick up on it or would simply disregard it as non-believer nonsense. I would feel frustrated not only due to how clear it became over and over to me that she was unreachable but also because I couldn’t meet my own mother on a level of mutual understanding of how humans, especially myself, really do develop a moral code. To her, only people who believed in god could truly understand and therefore implement moral judgement throughout the course of their lives. Reading between the lines of her staunch belief meant knowing that there was a great bias in her perception of others according to what religion they practiced if any. That means I’m not living correctly in her eyes. That reality has been a life-long struggle for me and a source of frequent confusion when sharing time with my mom during which we otherwise sincerely enjoyed one another’s company. How can this be? Add to that the just as confusing truth that my father is and always was an atheist. These two people have had googley-eyes for each other throughout their 50 plus years together. These deep feelings between them included mutual respect, the sharing of ideas, mutual support and the appropriate deference to one another that parents often exhibit. How could my mom feel this way about my father knowing he didn’t share her deepest convictions? And vice versa?

Over the years my father and I have shared many an eye roll and huge amounts of laughter during our observations of religious behaviors in others including my mother. We were usually careful not to hurt her feelings and if we did we would promptly apologize. She would and still does accept those apologies with a knowing smile on her face. And there it is, an indication of the ability in her to understand how her beliefs may be absurd to others but she still believes, without hesitation, that she is the one living the right kind of life. It’s exactly at this point where I can see her reasoning ability intersect with her faith in unsubstantiated truths. Her choice was and continues to be an adherence to faith-based thinking.  This choice had repeatedly left me in a space that felt like a significant and uncomfortable distance between my mother and I. I didn’t expect that feeling to change during the time we would remain simultaneously alive. A resignation that left me with an undercurrent of sadness when considered. To be clear, I don’t need my mother to change anything about herself to make me happy. I just felt there was something I wasn’t comprehending that could enhance our bond.

It wasn’t until a few years ago after surviving a prolonged life-threatening and traumatic experience that I chose to prioritize the relationships in my life that held meaning. I had realized that life truly is short and there’s no way to redo anything after death. There were some relationships I wished to reinstate after my being physically unavailable for their sustainment as well as some that I wished to re-explore although they needed to be rebuilt from their very foundation on my newly revised terms with a strong perimeter in place in order to support my new set of appropriate boundaries. In other words, I had developed a solid core of confidence resulting in an unshakable self-respect. While I was not aggressive with those who would disagree with me I was no longer interested in any exchange of dialogue where another would utilize degradation or mockery to win a debate. This meant I needed to disengage from undesirable situations with friends and loved ones with as much dignity as I could muster. And the choice to implement these new guidelines for myself left me with an openness to finding new coping mechanisms that would assist me in achieving these kinds of relationships. I’ve found this to be a challenge intellectually and emotionally. A very exciting challenge indeed.

Armed with this new set of criteria I headed toward my relationship with my mother carrying much enthusiasm. We began to form our connection slowly and deliberately. We have a good deal in common already. We  share a strong interest in politics and world affairs. We each support Liberal beliefs in equality for all and we take our voting responsibilities quite seriously in hopes that that equality will be instated for everyone. We are each fiercely independent and certainly don’t apologize for it. Neither of us suffer from a fear of speaking out whether it’s for or against something. We also love sharing any new knowledge we obtain as we are both avid readers. These traits would seem to make for a great mother-daughter relationship.

Then religion, which my mom sees as the basis for all her principles, shows up and ruins the party. For a moment, without words, we each see ourselves on opposite sides of the line and we exhale knowing that we just can’t get beyond this. There’s a crucial piece missing, nowhere to build a bridge. We can see the good intention of the other but we just can’t get there. I have searched for ways to create a means to understand how to envision and construct that bridge. Tolerance is a valuable tool but understanding how and why she chose faith over reason would seal the deal for me.

Enter Christopher Krzeminski and his skillfully written and comprehensive book, “What Are You Without God?”

I discovered the book while floating around the Twitterverse and decided to give it a try after a few Twitter users I have come to respect had mentioned and/or endorsed it. While reading the first few pages I realized I was in for a buffet of useful knowledge. Hunches I had been experiencing were being articulated and validated while I was digesting this dense and great volume of information. Further into my reading it became clear to me that I was going to end up with a fresh understanding as to why an otherwise intelligent person would seemingly choose to use faith to make sense of things in place of reason and facts. I’ve  since arrived at a place where I can see, knowing my mother’s personal history, exactly why she chooses faith. My empathy toward my mother, and others who remain religiously devout, grew deeper allowing my interactions with her to be observed with a larger lens. The emotional relief I feel now is absolutely necessary while I continue my quest to make the best of the time I have left with a woman who nurtured me without reservation for many years. My mother’s love for her children knows no bounds and has warranted much respect. She may believe that her ability to love on such a level came from god/Jesus yet I wish she could see that this ability comes from her deliberate choices and the development she demanded of her own character. The level of self-confidence a person can obtain by taking credit for their own achievements can not be underestimated. The results of that confidence serve to enable a person to reach their highest potential. If we all operated from our optimal potential this planet and its inhabitants would be and could be experiencing considerably better conditions in countless ways.

I’m certainly going to enjoy the fact that I finally acquired a badly needed tool so I could navigate a mutually beneficial relationship with my mother. An added and welcome benefit is being able to use this new lens when encountering many more loved ones, friends, acquaintances or strangers who talk about, even become aggressive with, their religious beliefs. The threat is gone for me. I see these behaviors as something they truly believe they need to literally survive. To me it’s akin to intoxication. So I have to ask myself, how am I going to interact with a highly intoxicated individual? Does reason work? Usually not. What I choose to utilize after my first assessment is often any verbal tactic I can see that will diffuse or disarm. I then would offer a reason for that person to expect to be respected by me during our exchange and that in return I will demand the same. Beyond this point, if there’s an exchange of agreement on the terms, I approach carefully removing any of my emotions and using only intellect. Having worked for years with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault I have been trained to offer unconditional positive regard in these situations. The most important rule I learned in my training was to never attempt to remove another person’s current coping mechanism unless or until they offer a clear signal that they are psychologically and emotionally prepared to use another coping skill. If that signal should reveal itself you must offer them a solid replacement to rely on while they adjust to their new tool. At this point you need to assure them that you and others are available to support them during this transition. Taking this exercise on in any other way, in my opinion, would be unethical.

With the unification of my experience and this gem of a book I feel better equipped to deal with the unrelenting onslaught of religion and it’s consequences. And it feels good.

Special thanks to Christopher Krzeminski for writing a book that offers at least a necessary understanding of how humans are affected by the exposure to faith and for writing it in a such a way that it has had a significant positive impact on me personally.

You can reach Chris on Twitter @marco_iO9

What Are You Without God – can be found on Amazon.com

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