Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Christadelphian Reality Distortion

The alternate, distorted reality that is Christadelphianism includes several defence mechanisms that appear to be quite effective at keeping people from looking too far outside the religion, if they look outside it at all. Many of these mechanisms are perpetuated both indirectly through culture and directly through Sunday School indoctrination and regular reinforcement.

When I talk about reality distortion, I am specifically referring to ways in which Christadelphians inherit or acquire a view of the world that not only differs from what modern societies consider "normal", but also directly contradicts our best understanding of reality. While this distorted worldview evidently does not prevent Christadelphians from functioning within society, and there is nothing stopping anyone from believing whatever they want, I consider it somewhat harmful and even potentially malicious when children are indoctrinated with these distortions and taught that it is in fact the rest of society (all 7 billion of them) that have lost their way.

Christadelphian children don't just get taught a few bits and pieces about an iron age book. It is not all harmless trivia that they can simply decide whether to keep or discard later in life. Christadelphian children grow up with the entire structure of their worldview built around them, and many of them are subsequently "convinced" that all they want is to sacrifice their life (this is the actual language they use) to the service of an invisible being in the hope that they'll be accepted worthy of living forever in paradise. The problem is that there is nothing in this worldview that has any demonstrated connection with reality. These people are basing important life decisions on a demonstrably flawed understanding of the world.

I will now list several ways in which the typical Christadelphian worldview becomes distorted.

They literally tell you what to think and believe

Christadelphian children who attend Sunday School are taught stories from the Bible as if they were literal history. Stories like Adam and Eve with the talking snake, Cain and Abel, and Noah's flood are taught to impressionable children as if they actually happened, and in many cases the children are taught not to question it (or they are simply too young to even consider questioning it). You may also have noticed that these stories contain such things as murder and genocide, but for some reason many Christadelphian parents still deem them perfectly suitable for children.

The problem is not simply that Christadelphians teach children what they think is true. Our schools effectively do that, and most of us are fine with it. We accept that it would be impractical for children to have to discover everything for themselves, so we have schools where they can be taught basic facts about the world that have been condensed from centuries of research. The real problem here is that most if not all leading scholars and historians today do not accept these Christadelphian stories as historically accurate. Many of the stories are widely regarded as myths, and have been proven inaccurate or even in some cases completely fictitious by discoveries from both archaeology and science. In other words, Christadelphian children are routinely taught stories that are completely at odds with our best understanding of reality.

I would be perfectly happy if our school teachers prefaced everything with "this is our current best understanding of the world, according to the overwhelming majority of scientists/scholars/historians, and some details may have to be updated in future as new evidence is discovered". In fact this would probably help children to understand how we came to know what we know. It wasn't handed down from on high, but rather it is the product of centuries (if not millennia) of hard work and collaboration.

If Christadelphians are going to teach things that so obviously contradict facts that are accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists and historians, then they should preface their teaching by saying so. But I think we all know what would happen if Christadelphians displayed this level of transparent honesty.

This is where the illusion begins. Many children start Sunday School well before they are old enough to reason for themselves. Parents do this because they want to ensure their children grow up as Christadelphians. That should make you stop and think. What are they afraid of? Are they actually implying that if they don't indoctrinate their children, those children might not believe it all when they're older?

I have spoken to young children who profess a belief in God. They are certain that God exists, having never seen, heard, smelt, tasted or touched him. But when asked why they believe, they don't give the usual Christian or Christadelphian answers of having inferred God's existence from personal experience, or from perceived miracles, or some inner witness they feel inside. No, those rationalisations come much later. Young children are far more honest. They believe in God either because other people do, or because other people told them God exists. That's it.

These beliefs, especially the belief in an all-knowing God who is always watching, are reinforced every week right throughout a Christadelphian's life. The constant reinforcement results in these beliefs being protected. They form the basis for a whole web of other beliefs, and even become interwoven with the believer's identity. Even very young children will happily identify as Christadelphian if they are taught to. They can barely pronounce the label, and yet a major aspect of their identity is chosen for them by their (often well-meaning but in my view misguided) parents.

Christadelphians also have a way of enforcing these same beliefs throughout every child's lifetime, including when they reach adulthood. In order to become an official member, and remain so, they must conform to the statement of faith, or else risk being disfellowshipped. That means being potentially cut off from family and friends. When the religious leaders have that sort of power over people, it's not surprising that very few feel a desire to question those beliefs. Christadelphians may say they are free to think and reason, and that is true to some extent, but only so long as they arrive at a conclusion that is compatible with that statement of faith. That is, they must only reason towards the predetermined conclusion. This sets them up for a chronic case of motivated reasoning. If those conclusions happen to contradict reality, the result is either reality denial or disfellowship.

Selective denial of entire fields of science

Christadelphians tend to love science when it confirms what they believe, but they often dismiss entire fields of science simply because they reject the conclusions. They reject biology, cosmology, astrophysics, sometimes geology, palaeontology, and probably many other fields as well. This is because these fields have provided a lot of very compelling evidence that contradicts creationism. Rather than accept the facts gleaned from these scientific fields, Christadelphians instead prefer to prevent their children from learning about them. Yes, the reality denial really is that blatant.

Christadelphian children consequently grow up having either no exposure to a huge range of scientific discoveries about the world, or having their view heavily distorted by being made to believe that all of the world's scientists are lying, or grossly mistaken about everything they've studied. Thus, Christadelphians learn to distrust science, particularly the earth and life sciences. This distorts their view of reality, and sets up unhealthy patterns of thinking where they simply block out any evidence or finding that might challenge their previous views. It also means that they are not operating with an accurate understanding of reality, and so their conclusions about how the world works are also often flawed.

For many Christadelphians, science and the Bible are in conflict, and since they refuse to accept that either the Bible or their interpretation of it might be wrong, they therefore insist that the science must be wrong, even though most of them lack the requisite understanding of the science in order to make that determination. They would rather deny or distort reality, than accept that their prior beliefs may be wrong.

I should point out that it is rare for a Christadelphian to actually admit that they have rejected science. Rather they will often claim that science and the Bible are in perfect harmony, only that large parts of biology, cosmology, astrophysics, geology, palaeontology, and so on, are not really "true science". I think when this level of sophistry is required in order for religion to be seen to be friendly with science, the battle between science and religion has already been won.

Reason is discouraged

Christadelphians, especially children, are often discouraged from questioning any part of the Bible. Belief in the Bible as God's word is generally considered sacred and never to be challenged or called into question.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding.
Proverbs 3:5 NET
By indoctrinating children from an early age to believe that the Bible is literally the word of God, and then simultaneously discouraging them from ever using their own reasoning to question it, Christadelphians create a protective mechanism that seems to last well into adulthood, and perhaps even for life.

If in fact the Bible really did contain the words of an infallible deity, and if human beings were all created with the ability to reason reliably, then there should be no harm at all in questioning the Bible - it should come up solid every time! The problem arises when either one of those things is false, and the evidence from reality suggests that both of them are.

Reason is consistently promoted as the tool of choice for atheists, and often pitted against faith by both atheists and believers alike (though certainly not all). It is therefore no wonder many Christadelphians prefer to trust what they were taught as children rather than think and question everything for themselves. Many of them were taught about the Bible from people they admire and trust implicitly, and so when they are older they use their reasoning abilities to defend their existing beliefs rather than question them.

This prevents many Christadelphians from ever discovering that deeply held beliefs may be wrong, and any evidence that contradicts those beliefs is rejected outright, in order to preserve the belief and reduce cognitive dissonance. This results in reality distortion and denial.

Friendship with non-Christadelphians is discouraged

Friends can be a powerful influence on all of us, which is why Christadelphians sometimes discourage their children and young adults from having friendships with anyone outside the religion. By ensuring that all influences are from within the religion, they reduce the ability for children to develop an open and balanced view of reality.
do you not know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God? So whoever decides to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy.
James 4:4 NET
This quote has the dual effect of both discouraging friendships with non-Christadelphians and also demonising them as the "enemy". It is the beginning of what is perhaps the most extremely harmful practice of Christadelphians - that of teaching children that they are "different", and that they need to remain separate from "the world". I bear that scar psychologically and I cannot adequately relay the hurt it has caused throughout my life. Such damage done in childhood is very difficult to undo later in life. But Christadelphians rarely seem to care about this, and instead they see only the goal of "getting their children into the kingdom", by whatever means necessary, and if that means distrusting and avoiding non-Christadelphians then so be it. Notice that Christadelphians often dehumanise people in this way. Everything they do is crafted towards manipulating people into remaining Christadelphians, often under the guise of caring for their "eternal well-being". I think they genuinely think they are helping, but their reality has become distorted by the view that the kingdom is all that matters and that any means of getting others there is justified.

Education is discouraged

Higher education wasn't forbidden among the Christadelphians I grew up with, but I certainly knew of cases where it was forbidden. There were also occasionally speakers who would discourage any such education, labelling it the "wisdom of this world" and other such phrases. Ignorance was occasionally lauded as a virtue.
For the wisdom of this age is foolishness with God.
1 Cor 3:19 NET
Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong.
1 Cor 1:26-27 NET
This makes a virtue out of being foolish, or at least being thought of as foolish. Using this inverted reasoning, anything the world thinks is foolish must actually be wise. Technically that's not what the verse is saying, but it does seem to be the way it is often interpreted.

This same condemnation of "worldly wisdom" is also sometimes applied to reading any non-Christadelphian material. Occasionally some non-Christadelphian works were approved, such as reference books, but any atheist books were obviously strictly banned. I remember the amount of fuss caused when one young man reportedly read, "The God Delusion" (by Richard Dawkins) and later deconverted. You can well imagine that if that book had that kind of power, Christadelphians were ready to burn it. Of course they didn't think the book's content was true, but rather that it wielded some kind of cunning influence over the flimsy human mind. It starts to sound a bit like sorcery. For what it's worth, I don't think many Christadelphians have ever considered the stark contradiction between their confidence in their own reasoning ability vs their distrust of everyone else's.

The net result of all of this discouragement from reading outside material is that Christadelphians are much less likely to ever come into contact with views that disagree with their own, except of course in the schisms that inevitably happen within such a religion. They are living in an echo chamber that is virtually impenetrable from the outside. If they were wrong, they would simply never discover it. However, no such mechanism is completely perfect, which is why some Christadelphians do start to look outside the walls, and read the tabooed material. The internet has been a fantastic resource for this. And when they do read other material, the illusion and indoctrination start to unravel.

There are many more

As anyone who has survived Christadelphianism can attest, the above list barely scratches the surface. I remember being given official recommendations from the platform not to read certain books, and even not to visit certain other Christadelphian meetings. In reality such recommendations probably have the reverse effect, or at least they would if members didn't already fear the influence of anything that remotely challenged their own beliefs.

Christianity itself has several defence mechanisms built in. Not all of them were intentionally or maliciously crafted to deceive people. However several that I mentioned above do appear to be motivated specifically to avoid influences that can result in deconversion.

How to cut through the distortion

Those of us who have found our way out are often later puzzled when we attempt to reason with Christadelphians and find them extremely resistant to evidence and basic logic. But the important thing to remember is that just like us, most Christadelphians were heavily indoctrinated as children, and they therefore approach the world from within that framework. They don't see things the way we do now. They start with a whole host of assumptions that came not from nature and evidence, but from their parents and Sunday School teachers. Their framework tells them to distrust everything someone like me tries to tell them, and especially anyone who dares to suggest that the Bible might not be 100% accurate. It tells them to distrust science, especially in the areas of big bang cosmology or evolution. Several studies make it clear that religion is the number one reason why people do not accept evolution. All of the above defence mechanisms are often in full effect, making it very difficult to even communicate effectively with a Christadelphian. Their goal is not so much truth about reality, but rather internal consistency with their existing beliefs, most of which they inherited as children. It's just that they don't see any distinction between their existing beliefs and truth.

While you may be pointing out evidence and what can be inferred from it, they are busy trying to reconcile that with their existing beliefs, to determine whether they can still hold onto their identity and all of the other foundations that their beliefs rest on. People don't give those up easily, and remember neither did we. Our best bet is to first reassure them about their sense of identity, their source of meaning and morality, and the foundations they hold most dear, before attempting to convince them of something else. In some cases, for example when teaching evolution, it may even help to reassure them that they need not give up a belief in God in order to accept the evidence. The other thing to realise is that people rarely change their minds in public. It's rarely helpful to try to "win" a debate with someone on the spot. Far better to treat it as a mutual exchange of ideas that you may be able to learn from. Even if they don't offer strong arguments, you're still learning about their approach and style of thinking.

At the end of the day, I don't know the best way to cut through the reality distortion and let the light shine in. But if I had to recommend something, it would go like this. Start with respect, and with the goal of forming a better understanding of the other person's views and how they see the world. Be prepared to look into what they tell you, and be prepared to discover something new that you didn't previously know, however unlikely you think that may be. You can chat with someone whose views on reality are completely wrong, and still come away having learned something insightful. It's not all about (de)conversion. There is value in the discussion, regardless of the outcome.

I admit that I often fail to do any of this, as astute readers of this blog will know.

In conclusion

I want to add a "not all" disclaimer here and clarify that there are probably many pockets within Christadelphia where several of the above mechanisms are not enforced. However, I think they are true generally among Christadelphians, including in almost all of the ecclesias I have experienced in Australia (which is upwards of 15).

The danger with all of these protective mechanisms is obvious to those outside the religion, but probably not at all obvious to those inside. But the principle also applies to those of us who have escaped as well.

The question to ask ourselves regularly is:

"If it happened that I was wrong about something,
how likely am I to discover that?"

If we only ever consume material that agrees with our current beliefs, then the answer is, "not very", or perhaps even "not at all". This is the situation I think most Christadelphians are in. Even if they do occasionally read outside material, it is still filtered through that elaborate Christadelphian framework, which as I've pointed out above disagrees with major areas of science and history. They are operating under a view of the world that is significantly distorted. It may be that they simply don't realise how the world might possibly be different, and how they might be more or less immune to discovering that.