Brainwashing 101: Fundamentalist religions

A heartbreaking story of a man who sacrificed his own life for his family was aired on This American Life yesterday. His sacrifice was not his death, but his happiness. Raised in the Fundamentalist Mormon Church, a cult that insists on absolute obedience to the Church elders, this happily married man with 5 young children lost it all because the elders ordered him and some others to go on nightly raids to sabotage members of the Church who they felt were straying from the path.   He was told not to say anything to his wife, and although he loved her very much, he obeyed the elders absolutely. When she kept asking him where he was every night he would say ,“I can’t tell you” and “you have to pray more”—which is what the elders told him to tell her. After a year she left him and the Church forever.

Life was a struggle for him from then on, but he had the community and extended family to fall back on. Then the elders had another commandment: the children of our community are getting too materialistic so get rid of your kids’ toys, make them pray more. He couldn’t accept it—no toys? No bikes? He took the whole family away to Ogden, Utah.   There the kids had a much better life. They were free to be children. But he was all alone and couldn’t support them. He had only an 8th grade education and though he tried, the money wasn’t there. His mental health suffered. He realized the best thing for the children was to temporarily have them live with friends, so the family split up.   Temporarily turned into permanently: he could see that every time he visited them it detracted from the normal, happy life they had found with their new families.   After 3 years he gave up his parental rights.   He lost his family.

It is so easy to brainwash people into believing something if you get them early enough. Tell children they will go to hell and burn forever unless they pray every day, or eat the right foods, or dress a certain way and they will believe you.   Why would you lie to them? You’re their parents and they love you, they want your love. They trust you. These Mormon children were taught to use the word Gentile for people who were outside the cult. The other word they used was “the Wicked.” They were obviously the Chosen People, the rest of us wicked folks count for little.   The parallels with other religions are only too evident: Judaism, Islam, and almost any branch of Christianity at its inception relied on this formulation to bind members to their lifestyle. If words could not convince them, if doubts arose, then force would be used. The stake was ready to burn the apostate, the executioners on standby.   The book was in one hand, the sword in the other.

When Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion came out, he took a lot of flak for calling the teaching of religion to young children a form of child abuse. This story illustrates what he meant. If you think he went too far, then what would you call it if not child abuse? It makes you wonder when the state should step in.   In the case of this cult the state did in fact act to protect the lives of young girls forced into marriage by the leader, Warren Jeffs, now in prison for life. He leaves about 60 of his own children.  His case involved physical endangerment (rape, incest) with young women. Is it less of a crime to endanger their well-being by denying them a childhood?

But perhaps the greatest danger to the world is brainwashing any group of people into believing that the Others are wicked. That’s one step away from saying “wickedness should be punishable by death” and that seems to be what is happening in the Islamic State now on a daily basis.

Fortunately, we also have the example of the Universalists, now part of the Unitarian-Universalist Church, who are spreading the Word that every human being can find a path to the Divine within their religion. But to do this we must follow the maxim of Diderot, one of the Founding Fathers of the Enlightenment: “Élargissez  Dieu!”  –“Expand your idea of God”, or better yet, “Free God!”   The Seven Universal Sacraments are some of the gateways to this path and in finding it, we repudiate the paranoia and provincialism of the cult as we embrace that other Enlightenment precept: we are all citizens of the world.

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