from Candide - Sunday, November 30, 2003
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This is a speech I gave at a conference at London School of Economics hosted by INFORM called “Conversion or Coercion?” I am currently taking my masters in Anthropology of Learning and Cognition at LSE, thus the paper is about how I see the mind developing when a transition is made from a controlled charismatically and hierarchically organized group to society at large (or the other way around).
For those of you who don’t have a clear idea of who the Children of God, more recently called The Family, are: they are a millenarian movement that started in California in the late 1960’s, born out of the Hippie movement.
They are millenarian in that they believe themselves to be gods chosen people, let by the prophet of the end of the world who is going to guide them from this world of evil into the millennium of a thousand years of peace on Earth.
Without telling my entire story I want to go to one of the most decisive periods in my life, which began when I moved to the Philippines in 1987. I came to what the children of God called the Jumbo, which was one of their main training schools for their children in Asia at the time. We were being trained to become Christian soldiers, God’s end-time teens. This meant that our education primarily consisted in reading a lot of literature, being guided through the hermeneutics of eschatology (or interpreting the bible and other texts in a millenarian perspective), and memorizing a lot of bible verses. One of the chapters that stuck in my mind the longest, although I can now only remember some of the verses, is Mathew 24. In it Jesus says to his followers “ there shall arise false Christ’s, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”
I prayed to god during those days that I would never become one of those deceived elect, but that I would make it through the end-time and shine “like the brightness of the firmament, turning many to righteousness.”
I was 12 and I believed everything I was supposed to, although one little thing began to bother me. Why, if “God so loved the world” was it so important to believe that Jesus was the only way to heaven? Why were all those interesting Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus I had tried to convert over the years so much better off if they believed that god loved them in this Christian way, and not in their other way. After all, Jews and Muslims believed in the same God.
It was not difficult for me to imagine that if god loved the whole world that he might manifest himself to the world in all its splendid variety: thus as Shiva to one, Allah to another and Christ to yet another.
I asked my father about this after returning from the Philippines to Denmark and got no satisfactory answer. Actually, there was another question that I didn’t dare ask, how do we know that we are the best Christians and that God has chosen us? Wasn’t the bible full of examples of God choosing individuals as his tools rather than entire peoples? There was something unfair about these views that bothered me. If god loves the world and he is a father, the he must be a fair god above all.
In my culture the Prophet was King, and the King was the charismatic leader. Here “recognition is a duty” to quote Weber, where “only one side can be in the right”, and that side is what the prophet decides the group is going to believe.
But my reason told me there was inconsistency. We were socialized not to follow our feelings, but besides the creed of the prophet, what, but our feelings, was left?
It was fear of being what they called “re-trained” that kept me from uncovering my doubts about some of the core beliefs of my culture. This wasn’t easy since nearly every day I had to write what was called an “Open Heart Report” in which I was supposed to voice my doubts.
Two years passed, without me unveiling my true beliefs.
When I turned 16, I mustered up the courage to leave. Although now physically removed from the group, my mindset was still in turmoil. I entered a period of prolonged liminality (which is a state of being in-between statuses, roles or positions) that lasted about three years during which time I was trying to develop my own perspective on what was going on in this world. The initial idea that separated me from my culture was that there are a lot of different views out there about god, thus there must be a lot of different views out there about existence too. I wanted to find out more about what the rest of the world believed. Philosophy was thus a natural direction in which to head, so I started studying at the University of Oslo, first in Philosophy, then intellectual history, and finally social anthropology.
So, what does this have to do with conversion or coercion?
Whether conversion or coercion joining a New Religious Movement is a transition that entails adopting a new view of the world. The same goes for a child who has grown up in a NRM and has made the transition into mainstream society. What does it mean then, for someone not only to make a physical transition from one society to the next, but also to make the mental transition? This newly planted person enters liminality and has to deal with two worldviews, that of their past, and that of their present society. They have to synthesize themselves with the views of their new environment.
I want to show, however, that the past is never erased, that one cannot brainwash oneself. Although one might give credence to one of the interpretations of reality over the other, there will always remain skepticism that the former thought patters, might be true.
Being a child in The Children of God one is taught to think in a certain charismatic fundamentalist thought pattern in which everything is either black or white, for us or against us, “systemite” or sheep, Family or Enemy.
One of the songs we used to sing a lot was “We have declared war of the spirit, against the systems godless schools, Christless Churches and Heartless Mammon. We hope to stop, the destruction of the Earth by the world worst rebels of all time, the generation that produced us, the system”.
The implications of being raised within such a dichotomous worldview, and then making a transition, entail complex and diverse tactical mental challenges. When the second-generation leave they have to begin dealing with people in the other camp. These people, whom they were raised to view as either evil or misled, they then begin to form attachments to and become included into their networks.
In order for this to work they have to step out of their socialization pattern and begin to categorize people they meet in a new framework. What framework?
They will begin to think a lot about this and start to build new categories that are in conflict with their socialization. In my case, the centrality of fairness to my new worldview meant that I began to see the world, and the people in it, as a specter of colors, instead of good and bad. I began to believe that societies were made up of individuals with varying assortments of beliefs that commensurate with some and are incommensurable with others. Tolerance and interest in new ways of thinking became central to my categories.
Regardless of how different these new categories are from the old socialized ones, a fundamental change must occur. One must be able to accept that the people one lives with, this new society, is in someway ones own. One must find people one can live in harmony with, or at the very least, with people one can trust to the extent that a normal life can be lived. If the people around you are the bad guys there is serious reason to be paranoid. This view of society at large, then, must be adjusted so as to make everyday life bearable.
The ones who manage to make a mental shift that is more inclusive, I hold will have an easier time dealing with society at large than the ones who are constantly dividing the world into two.
However, even for someone with as long a history outside of that belief set as myself, the fact that I was socialized to believe in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelations (not to mention the staggering amounts of prophecies of David Berg the prophet of the Children of God) had the consequent that there is a part of my mind which constantly places everything into the black and white categories of millenarianism. At the same time, there is the more active and recently developed part that places my impressions into color; or if color is too strong a word, sees that there are other views, and values that diversity.
I believe, that the fact that so many of us have a hard time dealing with confrontation in regards The Children of God, and our families still in that charismatic mind set, is due to the fact that when we are around them we are influenced by that part of our mind that still wonders if the world might be black or white. Other times when I find myself lapsing back into this mindset are when something happens, like 9/11, which could fit perfectly into a scenario I was raised to constantly be on the look out for.
I hope it is beginning to be clear that what I’m saying is not that my more recent beliefs, based on an academic philosophical tradition and my reflections on it, being color are therefore right and my previous beliefs, based on millenarian foundations are wrong, for that would in itself be dichotomous; rather, that the fact that I am no longer bound by a black and white view of other people and their position in this world, makes for a better foundation to understanding and interacting with other people. It allows for reflection and not just adherence or subjugation to a creed or a leader’s charismatic dogma. But the fact that I cannot rid my mind of its socialized categories, and that in certain situations I laps back into those categories, has meant that I have experienced periods of mental stress due to this parallel universe comparison. The more I have dealt with this stress, the easier it has become, but there is a threshold one must pass that divides those who can deal with reality from those who live in paranoia and confusion.
The problem is that just as the converted or coerced person transiting into a new religious movement has to bring her socialization baggage with her, I too have carried that mentality throughout my life. To this day there is a part of my mind that wonders if the world is going to end soon and if I am a part of the endtime anti-Christ forces. As Dr. Edward Lottick said at the last FAIR lecture “His real self and his cult self were at war”. Although the color is winning, even being in this room is in itself a bit spooky.
If you had told me when I was a kid that I was going to be in this room debating this side of the agenda as a non-believer, I would probably have tried to kill myself. This position is exactly what I was raised to fight against as one of “God’s Endtime teen soldiers”. Now, the ability to overcome that part of my socialization to the extent that I can function in normal society is due largely to the fact that I’ve made a successful transition. There are many who don’t.
The reason why it is imperative to do something for the youths who want to leave in regards education, is precisely because their view of the world makes interaction in mainstream society a psychologically taxing process.
What social scientist call the liminal phase, which is being in-between knowing how to re-categorize the world, and arriving at a new classificatory system, is the crucial period for these youths to get introduced to other belief sets and is also the time in which most of both sides of the debate, (both anti-cult and cult apologists) agree help is needed.
There is a difference between a person who has read about fundamentalist or charismatic belief sets and one who has actually held such views. Although the former can imagine what it is like to see the world through this perspective, the latter has it in some sense hardwired into the mind.
There is always going to be periods of stress between conflicting domains in the minds of those who’ve made such paradigmatic shifts. In the long run this can be a good thing, not only for the mere fact that one can always compare at least two mind sets, and their effects on the self’s: emotions, aims, and actions; than at a higher level, one has a simpler thought pattern upon which one can see the evolution of more complex way of thinking.
This higher level entails accepting that one does not always have all the facts. Courage is needed to make judgments regardless of the lack of holistic knowledge. One can come to ones own conclusions about the way the world is going to be and need not accept the fatalistic self-fulfilling prophecies just because they are written in a holy book or dictated through charisma.