Category Archives: religion

Programmed to Believe

 

I read a fascinating story in The New Yorker magazine. It was the story of a young 23-year old legal assistant named Megan Phelps-Roper from Topeka Kansas in the heart of the United States Bible Belt. She became well known as a result of her tweets on Twitter and picketing on behalf of her church Westboro Baptist Church. She would tweet things like this, “Thank God for AIDS! You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought his wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse.”  As Adrian Chen reported in the New Yorker,

 

She believed that “all manner of other tragedies–war, natural disaster, mass shootings–were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Members held signs slogans like ‘GOD HATES FAGS’ and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hate.

 

What really interested me about this story in The New Yorkerwas the fact that this young woman was attractive, fully devoted to a cause that attracted a lot of hatred against her and her family, and, most importantly, very intelligent. That seems hard to believe since her beliefs were so wildly unreasonable, but she was. She was often the spokesperson for the church and had been interviewed by media around the world.

How could such a person with all her advantages have such pitiful beliefs? I think the answer is obvious.  She had those beliefs because that is what her parents taught her. From birth she had been indoctrinated by her parents. From them she “learned” that gays were an abomination and it was her duty to attack them whenever she could, in whatever manner was available to her.

Eventually she did manage to wean herself from her parents’ rigid positions. In time she rebelled, but it is never easy to dissent, especially from our fundamental beliefs that we have held since we were extremely young and which were inculcated in us by our well meaning parents who wanted to help us and guide us and protect us from all harm. Yet, in the language of social media, eventually after profound doubts and deep unease Megan was able to “Unfollow” her parents and their church.

We all believe what our parents teach us. Our parents are our guides and mentors in our life’s journey. Humans, unlike most animals, have a long period of time in which they are nurtured by their parents. This process takes years. Longer in fact than with any other species. During this time we soak up what our parents teach us. Evolutionarily this is what we had to do to survive. Millennia ago, when life was nasty brutish and short, and dangers lurked everywhere, young children that did not listen to their parents’ warnings tended to perish. The risk takers were often taken by predators. Children that stayed close to their parents and abided by their dire warnings tended to survive and later passed on their genes to their offspring. Obedience to parents is wired deep in the human DNA. We are programmed to believe.

When we get older, some of us learn that our parents were not always right. When I was young I thought my mother was the finest cook in the world. I was so lucky to have such a wonderful mom. That is true by the way. Later in life–much later and very subtly–I began to realize she was not a perfect cook. She tended to burn her meats and badly over cook her vegetables. That was the way she had been taught to cook by her mother. That was the standard of good cooking. She was not perfect in other ways either. Pretty close, but not quite perfect.

Parents are important. We love them. They guide us through the informative times of our lives when as young children we are totally helpless and entirely at their mercy. We appreciate what they do for us and for what they have taught us, but we should never remain obedient children. We have to grow up.

I remember a conversation with a young lawyer a few years ago. We were arguing about some ethical issue.  He and I disagreed about whether something was ethically right or wrong. Such arguments are not easy to resolve. His ultimate answer–and it really was an ultimate answer–was that, ‘well that is what I was taught by my parents to believe.’ How could he not believe what he had been taught to believe?

He was an intelligent young man.  Yet he admitted he believed something solely because that was what he had been taught to believe by his parents. It seemed absurd to me, but I had managed, with great difficulty many years earlier, to dissent from some of the things that I had been taught by my parents.

Yet that is what we have an obligation to do. When we mature, I would suggest, we must challenge what we have been taught. Not everything our parents taught us was absolutely true (or wrong). Our parents thought it was true. Why else would they teach it to us?  But our parents, just like anyone else, can make mistakes, even fundamental mistakes and we should make sure we have not been led astray by well-meaning parents.

But such a challenge is extremely difficult. The fact is that it is very difficult to reject fundamental things that our parents teach us. We believe those things. It takes a great deal of courage and determination to challenge  that.

Megan was extremely intelligent and she certainly did not lack courage. To stand up in public on a public sidewalk in front of a funeral for soldiers carrying placards that mock everything about those soldiers, takes a lot of guts. To hold up placards at a funeral of gay people denouncing gays in the most crude and brutal manner certainly takes courage. It is misguided courage, but no less courage for that.

Eventually, she came to realize her parents had taught her badly. They had not just taught her they had indoctrinated her.  Later it took courage to Unfollow her parents.

Our parents are our first and usually most important teachers. Yet, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, “a pupil repays a teacher badly if he remains forever a pupil.” A good teacher wants to be challenged. A good parent wants to be challenged.

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Keeping silent is not the answer

A good friend sent me a private thoughtful critique after a recent post. He said, he found “finding fault” alone at best amusing but mostly annoying. He suggested I make some positive suggestions.

First of all I think if we find fault we should criticize. I don’t think silence in the face of injustice is ever wise.  Sometimes it is important for us to make clear that we dissent from the conventional wisdom. This is particularly important, I believe, where the powerful majority is sometimes misusing its power or authority. Someone should stick up for the weak. I am trying to do that in my puny way, even if that means that I annoy some of the powerful.  So be it. I have been too quiet for too long. I am choosing now to speak up. I think I should have spoken up sooner. Sometimes the time has come to denounce actions of a large group. Sometimes it is important to let others know on which side you are on. Others can choose to disagree.

I live in a small town where sometimes, in my opinion,  the majority has gone too far in their dominance of the vulnerable. I am not saying they were always wrong or that they were bad people. Many of them are good people who meant well. And that is important. Others abused their power.

I have  been asked to make some “constructive propositions.” I intended to do that later, and will do so. However, let me make one at this time.  I was very fortunate to have been raised by loving Christian parents who did their best to lead me to salvation. They were not mean or abusive. They did it with love. They taught me; they did not indoctrinate me. For example, they never forced me to attend revival meetings.I was free to go if I wanted to, but was also free to avoid them.   I was expected to attend Sunday School every Sunday. It did not damage me, though I was not keen on it.  What they gave me was spiritual freedom. I will always be grateful for that freedom. Some of my friends were not so fortunate. I intend to blog about the positive as well.  Specifically, I think there is a better way than evangelical religion. I intend to share that.

With such wonderful freedom comes responsibility. So I have chosen to speak up. Martin Luther King also spoke for those who had been taken advantage of. I am not comparing myself to him. He did that in much more serious circumstances than I have been doing. He was a brave man. I know I am a moral pipsqueak in comparison. This is what he said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I don’t think we should keep quiet just for fear of being annoying.

Indoctrination or choice? One person’s indoctrination is another person’s Sunday School

 

Revival meetings were incredibly emotional, particularly for young teenagers. Many of my friends were deeply affected by them.  Those meetings often emphasized fear. Young people were forcefully reminded that failure to accept Jesus as our personal savior would lead to hell. Forever! Some of them were scarred for life. It is hardly surprising that under such circumstances the youth were often terrified and the decisions they made were suspect.

Many young people were filled with fear by powerful professional speakers brought into our town for exactly that purpose. I have already commented about how I thought that this was unfair. Now I want to carry that thought a little farther.  I want to go beyond revival meetings.  What about Sunday School?  Were they any better?

Parents often indoctrinate their children. They want to teach their children the truth. I consider that reasonable, but when they go beyond teaching to taking away the decision of the child and making it their own they have gone too far. For example, when they hire professionals who know how to manipulate the children into doing their will, they have taken the choice away from the children.

Indoctrination by parents of their children is extremely popular in many societies and among many groups. Evangelical Christians are great practitioners of it, but so are other groups. It is not an accident at all that most children raised in Christian homes become Christians as adults. The same goes for Muslims, Jews, and most other religions. Is each group so good at teaching their children? When the vast majority of children from each religion follow the religion of their parents, I believe that is pretty good evidence that the parents have gone beyond teaching to indoctrination.  In such cases, they have manipulated the children and taken their free choice away. Why else would each religion be so successful?

I think it is because parents of many religions indoctrinate their children into the religion of the family. Few of the children reject that direction by their parents and thus few choose some other religion. I don’t think it happens often. When children are young they are hardly in a position to resist the influence of their parents. Many follow their parents without reasoning. Indoctrination leads exactly to that. Is this a free choice?

Mennonites used to think that it is was very important that children not be baptized at birth. That was because the choice of religion would then be that of the parent, when the choice should be that of the child. I agree with that entirely. I believe that they meant that the decision of the child had to be freely made. Infants can’t make such choices. Otherwise, again, the decision would be the choice of the parent not the child.

Indoctrination robs the child of choice and substitutes the decision of the parent for that of the child. I would think Mennonites would reject that unequivocally. They don’t. If parents don’t allow their children to make their own decisions on important subjects such as choosing their faith, or no faith, they are really making the decision for their children.  They are taking that decision away from their children.

One person’s indoctrination is another person’s Sunday School.

Abuse

 

I have used the word “abuse” deliberately. I know it is an inflammatory word. It comes with many connotations. That is why I chose it.    There are degrees of abuse. “Abuse” describes a spectrum of behaviors from the mild to the severe.

I also recognize that standards change. When I was a young lawyer there was no such thing as sexual harassment. Well actually there was lots of it. We just never talked about it. There was no such legal concept, but there was actually lots of sexual harassment. People did things they would not be proud of today. I include myself in that sorry category. I am not talking about sexual assault here. Standards have changed and men should be criticized for what they did. That does not make them evil. It means what they did was wrong and should never be repeated.

When I was young we were allowed to smoke in university classrooms. I pity the poor non-smokers in the classes. We were bad. Now we are repelled at the thought

It is the same with abuse. When I was young, teachers were allowed (expected?) to beat their students. Some of them did that severely. I was spanked by a teacher. I was given  no reason why. She never even told me what I had been done. I know I probably earned it.  As a result I learned nothing from the punishment. (That may explain a lot about me.) But I would not call that abuse. Or if it was abuse, it was very mild. I could take it. It was on the mild end of the spectrum.

I define the term “abuse” as behavior whereby a strong person takes unreasonable advantage of a weaker person for his or her own advantage.  The word “unreasonable” is intended to suggest that a reasonable person would not do it. That is an objective standard. Some people would do it.

As an example, if young and vigorous Johnny persuades his Mother to transfer her bank account to him to “protect it” from her other children while he uses that money for his own advantage, I would call that abuse. This is a case of serious abuse.

Another example of abuse, I submit, is when a parent uses his or her authority and power over children to turn them over to a professional manipulator of children, such as an itinerant preacher, in order to “persuade” the children to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  That is a violation of the child’s autonomy. That does not mean parents who did this are wicked. That does not mean parents cannot educate their children or guide their children. They must do that. Children need that. Parents however must be careful to respect the children. We always say children must respect their elders. That is true, but the elders must also respect the children. Revivalism in my opinion goes too far. It was well beyond respect. It was unreasonable. It was abuse.

Revivalism: an Amendment

I listened to my thoughtful critics. As a result I now believe I went too far with my post yesterday about revivalism. I do not want to suggest that the abuse was in any way similar to the horrific abuse suffered by indigenous people in Canada at the hands of the residential school system. They are too different to compare and I do not want to trivialize the suffering of indigenous people. As a result I unequivocally withdraw that part of my remarks. I will amend my post on my blog accordingly.

However I do not retract my comments about Mennonite parents and other elders who hired professional America preachers to manipulate their youth often with gross appeals to emotions like fear. I  believe this was an example, among many, of powerful people, (in this case Mennonite parents, elders, and preachers) who exploited the weakness and vulnerability of young children and adults in order to impose a set of values on the young people. I consider what they did abuse. Not on the level of residential schools, but still significant abuse.

I know that most Mennonite parents thought they were doing the right thing. To that extent they meant well in what I believe was a seriously misguided way. They were not trying to harm their children. However I believe that they did.

I want to explore this subject further on this blog and would invite comments from my readers who disagree with me. Please give me the benefit of your comments.

Is Revivalism Child Abuse?

 

I was born and raised in a small town in Southern Manitoba, Steinbach, that was famous for its religiosity. We were constantly in the news about social issues, particularly when they involved a religious twist from the conventional wisdom.

Recently I was reminded of this when an old friend, Ralph Friesen, delivered a lecture at our local heritage museum on the history of the revival meetings in Steinbach. He woke me from my slumber.

In the days of my youth our town was regularly visited by itinerant preachers usually at the behest of the local ministerial association when they thought our town needed to be stirred out of the spiritual torpor that inevitably came over it. Actually every revival in turn had to be followed a few years later by another. It was always difficult to keep religion at a fever pitch for long. The revivals were often held in huge tents and were like a special community church service led by a special preacher, often from the United States. There was also stirring music as well to get the crowd fired up.

The point of revival meetings was the emotional response. That was why they were held. They were meant to get people excited and passionate about religion. I learned from Ralph that originally the meetings were targeted only at adults. Frankly, I have no strong objection to that. If adults want to be influenced by emotional appeals, I suppose there is nothing dastardly about that. It would not interest me, but if others want that,  the principle of religious freedom, which I support, surely permits that.

Eventually the revivals started to target young people as well. Many of my friends were strongly encouraged or even required to attend by their well-meaning but misguided (in my opinion) parents . These parents I believe genuinely wanted the best for their children and what could be more important or beneficial than leading them to the lord?

Here I think the supposed moral high ground of the revivals is a little more like the swampy quagmire of the lowlands. Personally I am not keen on any sort of indoctrination or inculcation, but when directed at impressionable youth with well oiled religious machines lubricated with strongly emotional appeals based often on primal fears, I have even less respect for them.

I remember well the religious crusade launched against the youth of Steinbach in the 1960s by Wes Arum. Arum-Scarum we scoffers called him, for good reason.  He was a powerful speaker. Much more effective than Billy Graham I thought. I remember how a group of my friends and I attended these meetings with scoffing scepticism.

Unfortunately I missed the grand finale sermon on the last week of the crusade. After that last meeting I was shocked to learn that one of my very good friends who was one of the most intelligent boys I knew, succumbed to the altar call where he was asked to accept Jesus as his personal savior. This  happened a day after he, like all of us, assured our group that our scepticism was rock solid and no calls would be heeded. But he did. My friends and I were amazed. How could this happen? We were stunned.

Fortunately we learned that the Arum-Scarum crusade would be repeated in another small town about an hour away. One of my friends and I made sure we attended the grand finale there. The sermon was a masterpiece. Arum tugged at the heartstrings, and more importantly, the fears, of the young people.

The sermon centred on a story about a crusade at a college dorm. One of the students there missed the crusade and was wakened from his sleep in the night. The dormitory was completely empty when he woke up. He ran through the halls screaming for his friends. No one heard or answered his calls. He was desperate. Where could they be? He did not realize the crusade was not over. All the students but him were there. He screamed in terror because he concluded he had been left behind. Everyone had been called to heaven in the rapture except him. He was left behind—forever!

It was an extremely emotional and powerful speech. It was easy to see how a young person, susceptible to such ideas after a lifetime of inculcation by his parents and his church, could have ‘the hell scared out of him.’  That I believe is exactly what happened to my friend. Personally I believe fear is a very poor basis for making a wise decision.

Is it right for adults to do this to young children, even in the name of religious salvation? We all want our children to have the best, to be led from darkness to light, but is this the right way?

All of this reminds me of what Christians did to indigenous youth in residential schools in Canada. Operators of those institutions wanted to ‘drive the Indian out of the Indians.’  They thought they were doing that in the name of good cause. They wanted to civilize the savages and lead them to salvation. They wanted to make them like the white at any cost. It was worth it they thought. The arrogance of white people shredded the dignity and respect of the young indigenous students. Now we know that was horrendous abuse. I do not equate the suffering of indigenous people at the hands of the residential school system. The suffering of indigenous youth  was obviously on a scale of horror well beyond that of Mennonite youth. I merely draw attention to the similar motivation of those in power over their vulnerable youth.  Power has to be exercised with extreme caution even when motives are good. I believe most of them meant well? Good intentions were not an excuse for the adults who ran the residential schools. Is  it for our Mennonite parents?

I asked a friend of recently mine if he felt he had been abused spiritually by his parents.  Here is part of his reply.  “They intended no evil, no wrong, and were deeply hurt by my resistance and “rebellion”.  I can’t think of how I could have done that any differently, and yet maintained who I am.  That’s the unavoidable sadness of it.  It’s a long process, and it probably never fully ends.  I can’t speak with either of my parents about this anymore, but I’ve come to terms with the dynamics of those far-off days, my part in the struggle, their part, and their fundamental decency and love.  I have no doubt they loved me, and I continue to love them.  But that’s easier said than understood.”

Were our well-meaning elders guilty of child abuse?  I know this is a provocative question, but I think it’s an important one. How far can parents go? I think they went too far. I want to explore this subject further and invite response from those who disagree with me.

800 pound Jesus

 

Driving through Northern Ontario I love to listen to music. One of my favourite artists is Paul Thorn.  He wrote and recorded a song a few years that amazingly won an award for best gospel song of the year while, in the same year, was banned as being sacrilegious.  Which do you think is applicable? Here are the words though I would recommend you listen to it performed by him.

800 pound Jesus

 

I saw a garage sale, pulled in the yard,

Found a statute of Jesus that was 8 feet tall.

He held out his arms and he seemed all alone,

So I loaded him up and I drove him home.

Out by my driveway he looks down the street.

Long hair and sandals made of rebar & concrete.

I painted him white with a long purple Robe.

He’s the Rock of Ages on a gravel road.

 

Chorus:

 

He’s an 800 pound Jesus

Standing taller than a tree.

He’s an 800 pound Jesus

A bigger man than you and me.

I thought losing my job was the end of the world,

Till my best friend ran off with my best girl.

I felt suicidal with no real friends,

So I walked outside with a rope in my hands.

Out by that statue there’s an old oak tree,

So I stood on his shoulders & I counted to 3

I had every intention of buying the farm,

but when I jumped off he caught me in his arms.

 

Chorus

 

I wanted to return the favor to him,

Cause I’ve never had more solid friend.

So I planted some flowers all around his feet,

& I bought him a flock of ceramic sheep.

 

Chorus