Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are We Brainwashed?

Those of you who read my last post might recall that an ex-Christian told me that Christianity is a "huge brainwashing operation," but he also said that he admired Christians like myself who take our faith seriously. I asked him why he admired those who were more fully brainwashed. Wouldn't it be healthier not to internalize it?

It might have occurred to you that there was an easy way for him to get out of that trap: Take back the compliment. And he did. He admitted that I'm brainwashed but wouldn't concede that "half-Christians" who just "go with the flow" are better off. They really make him mad.

But it seems to me that a fully brainwashed Scientologist like Tom Cruise is much worse off than someone like Katie Holmes who just married into it and seems basically anchored in reality. When . . . ahem . . . if they split up, I'm sure she'll go back to being Catholic or whatever she was before. Nothing against Tom Cruise (I'm sure he's a nice man), but I would never tell him that I admire his conviction. (His hair, maybe, but not his conviction.)

But you'll be pleased to know that I didn't press the issue with the ex-Christian, even though I'm confident that I could have succeeded in getting him to admit that I'm completely nuts.

Still, the issue of brainwashing is an interesting one. Is Christianity just mass brainwashing? The mere fact that it's the majority religion in our country doesn't prove that it isn't. Not even its Founder teaches that majority rules when it comes to truth. He says that the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. (Matthew 7:14)

So what is brainwashing? Wikipedia gives the following definition:
Mind control (also referred to as brainwashing, coercive persuasion, and thought reform) refers to a broad range of psychological tactics thought to subvert an individual's control of his or her own thinking, behavior, emotions, or decision making. 
And the following definition appears in the body of the article:
Philip Zimbardo discusses mind control as "the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes."
I think that there's definitely brainwashing in the church; however, true Christianity is the opposite of brainwashing, because we are called to freedom.

There is often psychological pressure (blatant in some types of churches and subtle in others) to believe things that are not entirely true. We are supposed to be peacemakers, so we would much rather pat backs than challenge. Christian communities are often like cocktail parties, where a dissenting voice is like the person who jumps up on the table and does a little dance. I've been that person sometimes and felt the crushing hangover afterwards: "Oh, no, I disagreed. I'm so bad!"

During the first ten years after I became a Christian I never questioned anything. I would sit in the pews on Sunday mornings with my mouth hanging open while the pastor planted his ideas into my brain. If someone with the right credentials (read: a conservative evangelical) said something with an air of authority, I would be willing to fight to the death for it. When Rick and I met in college, he was more of a critical thinker, and I was somewhat disdainful of that: "Everybody knows this, Rick! I don't have to defend it!" I preferred osmosis.

But sixteen years ago during a multifaceted crisis, God taught me that osmosis is not the way to truth. If we believe everything we're taught by fallible Christian men and women, we will approach the Bible with preconceived notions that blind us to the plain meaning of the text. It's sort of like the telephone game where the message gets distorted a little each time. What a dangerous way to handle God's inspired word! You could say that my deprogramming began at that point.

According to Philip Zimbardo's definition of brainwashing (compromised freedom of choice), Christianity is the opposite because we are called to freedom from all encumbrances of the will. A mature Christian is neither slave to sin (Romans 6:6) nor to the law (Romans 7:6). He or she cannot be manipulated but does everything freely and without compulsion (2 Cor. 9:7). A Christian is to be truthful to the core (Psalm 51:6) and have an undivided heart (Psalm 86:11). All of this is a free gift from God through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

In true Christian churches, the dignity of the human will is respected. The less psychological pressure to do what everybody else is doing, the better. Pressure enslaves and therefore hinders the spiritual growth God desires. Love, on the other hand, liberates and ennobles.

As Christians, we can fall prone to legalism, something that is fatal to faith. Paul devoted the entire letter to the Galatians to warning them about the "false gospel" that had enslaved them. Is legalism so bad, if it keeps people behaving properly? Yes, it is so bad, because spiritual freedom is at the heart of our salvation. A Christian is called to echo the psalmist: "I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free." (Psalm 119:32)

So there may be brainwashing within the church, in the sense that we can be blinded to the truth or stripped of our freedom of choice, but that is not the true gospel. "Where the Spirit of God is, there is liberty." (2 Cor. 3:17)


3 Blessings said...

I definitely think there is brainwashing of false prophets going on in some churches. When I was a teen, I visited my friend's church on a few occasions and I remember as a teen, wanting to jump up and yell that what he was preaching was wrong and for the others to read their Bibles to find the truth. I of course didn't, but I now wish I would have. I wonder how many of those people do not know the truth about God, because they bought into everything he said without checking for themselves. I love reading books and things about life and God, but I also know that they are no substitute for HIS word. Many times people want God's ideas for their lives, but they want them from others that think they have solutions...instead of seeking God's solution for their lives. Just my two cents.
Blessings friend,

Anette Acker said...

I fully agree, Amy! It is so important to focus on the primary authority: the Bible, and listen to everything else critically and with spiritual discernment.