My past cult experience taught me that no matter how clever and diligent one was in researching and “proving” a set of beliefs, the results of such studies were all an illusion if the whole enterprise had been built on faulty assumptions.
The teachings of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite logical, quite rational, to anyone who accepts their starting assumptions.
Belief that one has been abducted and experimented upon by aliens is quite reasonable if one begins by accepting as true the requisite propositions.
(What also worries me a bit are those split-brain experiments that show just how clever we are at fabricating rational tales that are in fact all bollocks.)
It was during my process of leaving the cult that I fully appreciated just how easily we can embrace faulty assumptions under certain conditions, and how of utmost importance it is to guard one’s thinking and examine every layer of one’s beliefs and every facet of new propositions before embracing any of them.
I had been so cocooned in the cult world that when I was leaving it I naïvely expected to meet a world full of people smarter than I had been. I thought, well, they didn’t fall for what I fell into, so how refreshing it will be to rub shoulders with the rest of the world who can think critically about what they hear, and examine the foundational assumptions to test the validity of any logical edifice.
Uh oh, no need for me to tell you how quickly I woke up to realize that is not how most people are!
And among the first disappointments I had to deal with were discussions with members, clergy and other officials within mainstream Christianity. I did not do a 180-degree turnabout in my beliefs overnight. I continued to believe in God and the Bible for some time after leaving the cult. I did not leave Christianity, but enjoyed fellowshipping with Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Church of Christ and others. But the embarrassment of my cult experience kept me on guard with what went into my mind. My questioning of my beliefs, and new ideas I was encountering, continued to delve deeper, layer after layer. In those discussions with my newly-found fellow Christians I was sadly forced to conclude that they, too, were just as resistant to questioning the fundamentals of their beliefs as all of us in the cult had been.
The only difference between them and my erstwhile cult associates was that these mainstream Christians stopped questioning after lifting for examination a different number of layers. One might almost say it came down to mathematics. Cultists stopped questioning after N number of layers of assumptions; mainstream Christians stopped questioning after N+X layers of assumptions.
It took me a little while to reach that layer that questioned the arguments for the inspiration of the Bible as the word of God. But when I did I had to ask others why they, too, did not question those arguments. Why simply accept and repeat those arguments (fulfilled prophecy, etc) as if they are true without critically examining them from all perspectives — including those of nonbelievers? I met with a brick wall.
Not with all. There were other Christians more “advanced intellectually” than I at the time who did not believe the Bible was the inerrant word of God. So I gravitated to their company. Ah, others who can also question without feeling threatened!
But then a voice came to me while driving in the car one lunch hour (via a radio — an interview with Marlene Winnell by ABC’s Spirit of Things presenter, Rachael Kohn — Marlene was living in Australia at the time) that led me to question even God! I don’t recall now if I met with more brick walls on this one, or if I was by that time savvy enough not even to bring up the question with certain people.
And the rest is history, as they say.
What I learned was that everyone (okay, most of us) places limits on their questioning. There comes time for a comfort stop. And the journey is not resumed.
People seem willing to question only as far as their comfort zone allows, and after that it is really rationalization. The seriously honest two-sided scrutiny is fine but only up to a point. That point is where we usually meet our religious, political or other personal space and preferred identity.
Maybe for many people with other sorts of backgrounds this sort of questioning is easy. Going all the way was not easy for me. Questioning God really was a traumatic step in my life and I had to first seriously think through whether or not I was prepared to face the consequences should I come out the other side an unbeliever. For a number of days I really did feel disoriented as if I were in a scene from Revelation where the sky was falling all about me and there was no longer any ground beneath my feet. So I know it is not a light decision to make for everyone.
But it was my cult experience that got me through it, or rather the memory and humiliation of my cult experience. Out of it I had determined never again knowingly to rest on an unquestioned assumption. It was about intellectual honesty. For me, it took a sacrifice of my own ego and some degree of trauma to follow the way of intellectual honesty, not knowing at the time what sort of life I would find on the other side.
Another benefit of the cult experience in hindsight may have been that, having once made the life-changing sacrifices needed to enter the cult world, I had had some experience with leaping into the deep. Maybe that made it a little easier to make the decision not to compromise intellectually at a sure comfort zone.
So that’s the story of why I, personally, believe in the importance of challenging erroneous thinking whether it is in biblical studies or what we hear through the mass media regarding social and political issues. It’s also a reason why I have little patience for public intellectuals (particularly those in the field of religion) who fail in their responsibility to advance intellectual honesty and civil discourse.
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