Friday, October 3, 2008

Brainwashing the flock

I recently read a brilliant article called "6 Brainwashing Techniques They're Using On You Right Now" by David Wong. Now usually I just hang out over at for the entertainment and fun articles but this one really stood out for me. It was interesting, well researched and presented in a great format. OK so there were some totally gratuitous shots of cleavage in there too, try to look past that and just read what he wrote if your sense of humour is broken! So please check out his article because I have no intention of passing someone else's hard work as my own here. I do however want to use his article as a framework for discussing another facet of these brainwashing methods he did not mention - the fact that the points he raised applies to the church so accurately it's more than a little scary! While Mr Wong was pointing out how politicians, advertisers and the media use simple, subtle techniques to brainwash you I realized that you could basically re-write the whole article as a bad comedy skit called "You may be a Pentecostal when..."

Of course there is no real need for me to try my hand at bad stand-up comedy since there are enough people out there making fun of Christians already. Sad thing is, a lot of it is totally deserved. This may come as a shock to a lot of Christians, but we are not known as paragons of analytical thinking and reason in this world. (Something that was brutally made fun of in season 3 of Weeds when one of the kids attended a fundamentalist Christian "Critical Thinking" class) I believe the 6 things listed here greatly contribute to shutting down critical thinking the lives of Christians. Still, I don't think anyone in the church would like the idea of being brainwashed. Just to be completely clear, I don't think this is done on purpose at all. I don't think the Christian leaders of the world had a secret meeting and decided on a 12 step plan (that all started with the same letter) to brainwash the faithful. I would even go out on a limb and say that 99.99% of the leaders that use these techniques are completely ignorant of their brainwashing potential, they simply use them because they work. Lets face it, most preachers/teachers/evangelists are nothing if not pragmatic. If something works they tend to use it without spending too much time pondering why it works. Many organisations all over the world are using these methods, it was really only a matter of time before they ended up being used from the pulpit. These techniques are pure elegance in their simplicity. They are:

"But Christians don't chant!" you protest. Oh but we do! Ever notice how most of our Christian catchphrases are really easy to say and even rhyme a little? Ever notice how a lot of worship songs have simple repetitive lyrics? Ever heard lines like "Say it with me" or "Turn to the person next to you and say...." or "Repeat after me" from the pulpit? That all counts as chanting. These types of repetitive sayings tend to override the analytical part of your brain, which is why the nice folks over at the Cult Hotline and Clinic (go read that page for even scarier thoughts about some accepted church practices!) refer to them as "thought stopping techniques" - because that's exactly what they are. Now this isn't necessarily an evil thing. It can be used as a way to keep focus and to keep your mind from wandering. Just keep in mind that as a side effect it also tends to disrupt your ability to carefully consider the things you are told - which is why its so popular with cults. And the Army.

Slipping false information into your subconscious
You come across this in the media all the time - they lay a shocking headline on you, usually in question format about Product X maybe causing cancer (or something like that). Now its pure sensation and they know that and if you read the whole article you eventually come to the part where actual experts in the field debunk the claim, but the seed is sown. That's just how our brains work, we don't absorb massive chunks of information, we tend to remember tidbits. Problem is that we remember the sensation and the interesting tidbits, not necessarily the factual ones. That's why next time someone brings up "Product X" the first thing that pops into your head and out of your mouth is "I've heard that can cause cancer". Now this happens in the church a lot too but the main difference is that it is not planned at all as far as I can tell. Still there are so many false rumours running unchecked through the Christian faith due to this very fact. Little pseudo-facts get used in sermons and repeated in conversation and so lies just continue to circle through the church unfiltered for decades. From Chinese people eating babies to the gay Jesus movie to Noah's ark being found, there are tons of "facts" that Christians tell as if it was gospel truth even though a simple 2 minute fact check would prove it wrong! It was this gullible swallowing of total falsehoods spread by well meaning people that turned me to skepticism in the first place actually!

Control of what you watch and read
Now the church may be guilty on all of these points but it tends to be brutally guilty of this one! Communist countries can learn a lot about control through censorship from Christianity! Spend enough time in church and you will be warned in great detail of the evils of TV, movies, games, the media and music. Don't even get me started on books! From Harry Potter to the Origin of Species, its all from the Devil himself! Christians must be protected from all these poisonous influences for their own good!! Of course no one in the church likes to think of it as censorship. Again, I don't think this is a planned, deliberate attempt to stamp out dissent, I believe that those who are doing it to "protect others from the snares of Satan" truly believe they are protecting others. Now I understand that it certainly feels comfortable to surround yourself with sources that only agree with you (who simultaneously tell you how wrong all those who disagree with you are) but it's really not healthy! Also I am not blind to the fact that in some cases censorship really does protect people - I would for instance never suggest that parents let their kids be exposed to torture porn! I do however think that it is naive and dangerous to try to protect all people all over from ways of thinking different from yours. In other words, making sure that your small children stay away from age inappropriate movies is good parenting - controlling what your child gets to see at age 30 is not. At some stage you have to let people make their own informed decisions about what to believe and for that they need the freedom to truly look at all sides. Otherwise their beliefs will never carry weight. Any idea that can only survive by being protected from all criticism is hardly an idea worth holding on to. If we believe our faith is true and that it truly has merit we should not have to fear opposing opinions.

Keeping people in line through shame
This is one we are all intimately familiar with! I don't care where you are from, you have known about this method from your earliest years! Your mom probably used it on you to get you to do things, your peers at school did too, in fact its safe to say that you probably used shame and ridicule (even if only very subtle) to make other people do what you wanted them to do at some point in your life. Everyone does this at some point and while its not a healthy tool it certainly is an effective one! Using an appeal to ridicule is devilishly simple - no one likes to look like an idiot, so convince someone that all other options would make them look like an idiot and they will most likely go with your way. Of course in the Christian world we don't quite use coolness or looking like an idiot to control the way people think, but the results stay the same. Granted, those in the Creationism vs Evolution debates love to use straight up appeals to ridicule, using straw man arguments to make sure that everyone knows that accepting evolution is the most obviously dumb thing anyone could do (Check out anything by Kent Hovind for many, many examples). The rest of the church tends to rather use terms like "No true Christian would ever..." or "No one who is filled with the Holy Spirit would enjoy...." More subtle than most forms, but it still does exactly the same thing - it creates a subconscious equation in your mind which makes a certain way of thinking or behaving unacceptable for fear of being rejected by the group.

Black & White choices
Something I have often lamented in this blog is the way that Christians tend to avoid any and all shades of gray. True, this can be said of many groups, from sports to politics. However when it comes to black & white options only the church really has the upper hand because we are the authority on what is good and what is evil are we not? Compromise is the worst swear word in the Christian language and we tend to sharply divide everything into right and wrong, good and evil, God or the devil. Churches promote the simplest answers to even the most complex issues - which is why Christians in general tend to see no conflict with being both pro-life and pro-death. This habit of making all things either good or totally bad is a great way of controlling the thoughts and behaviors of other people. It taps into our most primitive "fight or flight" sides, making it all about life or death (or even damnation in some cases), effectively shutting down all critical or analytical thoughts which leads to blind obedience and following. After all you are not going to be weighing your options when you are already convinced that your side has it right and all others are horribly wrong and hell bound for it! Which leads to the final point.

Us vs them
The "us vs them" mindset is all around us and we all suffer from it to such an extent. Whether it is your faith, your race, your home town or your sports team, we all tend to find our identity in a group of some kind. Through the millennia, human beings have been hardwired to form tribes, to find a place they can belong. This is not something that is evil by its very nature. In fact this can be good and the church can provide such a place of belonging. At it's inception after all, Christianity was a haven for the outcasts, the marginalized and the downtrodden. As tribes went it was a very welcoming, inclusive one. Sadly, that is rarely true today. The church and the different denominations in it have become cliquish to the point of almost becoming cultish. This mindset totally convinces people that we are not just a good group to belong to, we are the ONLY group to belong to if you want to get it right. Those outside of "our" group are mocked and vilified, our group becomes the safe haven that protects you from "them". Of all the brainwashing techniques this is the big one - it's the culmination and end goal of all the others. As brainwashing tools go there is none more powerful. After all, what do we fear more in our deepest of hearts than being kicked from the tribe? We will bend over backwards, change the way we live and think and behave just to fit in, just to not be excluded. Hard to think for yourself when you live like that isn't it?

Of course that is kind of a worst case scenario. A lot - if not most - of the churches out there do not take these methods to extremes, but unfortunately there are those who do. The problem as I see it is that all of these techniques are used to some extent right throughout the church - again, I don't think this is because of premeditated malice - and all Christians would do well to be aware of them. After all these very same techniques are being used on you by motivational speakers, team leaders, CEO's, politicians and the media anyway and a little awareness can go a long way. When your preacher or youth group/worship/cell group leaders use these I don't think they plan to actually brainwash you nor do I think they plan to do any harm. In fact it's probably not planned at all. But that doesn't make it less dangerous. Not thinking about where you are headed or not thinking about why you are doing something is always at least a little dangerous and that is what these techniques all lead to - NOT THINKING. So be aware, don't let even the most well meaning people shut down your abilities to think critically and keep thinking. Questions will not damn you, unthinking obedience just might.


RandomSue said...

I would have to really look hard to find my Pastor doing any of this. However, I grew up with all of this. After a signifacant amount of time away from all of this, I have become hypersensitive to these things. when I visit other churches I find this stuff almost comical. Especially the one I grew up in!

We had a visiting Pastor come and speak at our church a few months ago and his use of chant ie. "repeat after me" or "say this" was so over the top for the duration of his entire speech, I felt exhausted by the end. I didn't participate so I have know idea what he spoke about that day. I just know it felt like control and it drove me freakin crazy! It wasn't just me either. we are not use to these methods in our church so many people were looking around at each other like, "what the hell is this"?

GumbyTheCat said...

I think the more successful a televangelist is, the more they know they are actually using brainwashing techniques.

Cynical, I know, but these guys know what works, and practice it endlessly to hone their skills. I am skeptical that these uber-successful televangelists don't know exactly what they're doing.

It's why Pat Robertson wears a Rolex paid for by little old ladies who live on a fixed income and barely have enough to eat. OK, I don't actually know if that is true or not. But you get my point.

Eugene said...

Sue - the more I hear about your church the more I wish I could attend it! The "repeat after me" thing is really spreading through the church like wildfire and you see pastors all over pick up on it. I wonder who started it? I'm thinking TD Jakes, he does it all the time and it always looks fun when he does it. Guess many preachers just view it as a way to make the sermon interactive and fun so I guess I shouldn't be too hard on those who use it.

Gumby - I don't think you are being too cynical actually. While most of the preachers out there may be doing this innocently, there are some guys out there who run their mega services like a well oiled machine - a fact that becomes painfully obvious every time one of those fake "faith healers" are exposed (Peter Popoff is a great example). Their meetings are carefully planned and orchestrated to get the desired response from the crowd, they clearly know exactly what they are doing!

Tania said...

In the end it's about marketing: chanting are taglines; "black & white" as well as "us & them" can be linked to comparative advertising... And like all marketing (and I am a marketing scientist), often not the whole truth. But still, you have to admire good marketing! :-)

digapigmy said...

very good blog. it's very good to be an actual critical thinker, but overanalyzing can be a barrier to the realization of truth as well.

for instance, is an us vs. them mentality necessarily bad when it's true? the giants were 14 point underdogs in the superbowl. the only thing anyone wondered was how much the patriots would win by. it's overused, but in this case it was true. there was actually all of about 5 people that believed in them. that's good motivation.

i guess my point is that it's great to be mindful of being manipulated, but you can't live your life in defensive mode all the time. most of life is more black and white than people want to admit, for instance. gray areas make us feel good, but are less necessary than people with no concept of truth would have us believe.

cart blanche rejection of anything that might resemble a manipulative method is just as controlling and subversive as anything in that list.

Eugene said...

Tania - Advertisers sure love to use all of these on us! Yet somehow being brainwashed doesn't seem so bad when its only about laundry detergent!

Diga - I absolutely agree, you can take anything too far. I see both believing everything and disbelieving everything as pretty much equally bad. There is a time for focusing your thoughts, there are times when things are black and white and there are times we should pick a side. All I'm saying is we should never do any of these things at the cost of the ability to continue thinking critically. To me the most important thing is that we don't lose the ability to ask ourselves why we are doing things a certain way.

For instance: picking a side because you agree with it is fine. Staying with that side long after you stopped agreeing with it, simply because that is now "your" side is not fine.

Eugene said...

Or put another way - in itself there is nothing wrong with the need to belong, to fitting in and to get along with a group. We are social creatures after all and these things allow us to co-exist peacefully. The real problem is the perversion of these natural needs. It is when they are turned against us that retaining the ability to think critically becomes vital.