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.