Monthly Archives: February 2014

35 The Individual and the Group

One of the themes I have touched on in various blog posts is the way that we oscillate between knowing ourselves as individuals and as part of a group.  I want to reflect on this further, particularly from a historical and cultural point of view.  A heightened awareness of this contrast can help us to know ourselves better and resist the urge to become a part of an unthinking crowd when it is not in our interests to do so.

The Life of the Tribe

When we observe the life and patterns of traditional tribal communities we notice various things about them which are very different from our own culture.  In the first place a tribal society will know only one form of education, that of being initiated into the customs and traditions of the tribe.  This may include an acute sensitivity to the natural world and the ability to track animals, using clues that we would describe as subliminal.  The tribal society will normally have its own language but this language will be by our standards probably very restricted.  If you only have a 1000 words in your language it is going to severely restrict the ideas you can articulate.  Abstract words probably don’t exist.  This restricted vocabulary and the severe limitations on educational attainment are going to have the effect of meaning that every member of the tribe is going to find it difficult or impossible in our modern sense to become individuals.  They are going to be in a cultural and psychological sense very similar to one another.  They simply do not have the tools to enter what we would understand as a process of ‘individuation’.  That would require an exposure to life beyond the tribe.

The first individuals – 6th Century BC

Living in such tribal groups is the way that human beings have existed for most of history.  It is only in recorded history that we begin to read about individuals as we would understand them.  Of the characters in the Old Testament, the first person who stands out as having a near modern self-consciousness is the prophet Jeremiah.  He can be said to ‘exist’, a word that literally means stand out.  We can read of his inner struggles that drove him away from the support and comfort of his fellow human beings in order to follow his call from Yahweh.  The world of the 6th century BC also saw the simultaneous emergence in other parts of the world of personalities like the Buddha. Similar individuals are found in China in the same century with the emergence of Taoism and Confucianism, and we must not forget in Europe the early Greek philosophers.  I do not want to say anything further about the events of this particular century except to say that it can be seen as a golden age for religious and cultural history.   There was nothing universal and inevitable about this dawning of individual consciousness.  For most of the next 2000 years the tribal pattern continued to exist and indeed it could be argued that it still affects a large swathe of humanity.

The rediscovery of the Individual in modern times

Tribal awareness, in contrast to individual awareness, could be said to have largely dominated the West after the collapse of the Roman empire right up to the Renaissance.  This movement was when the values of the ancient world were rediscovered in the countries of Europe.   This new education and learning only touched a relatively small elite of wealthy people but it is generally agreed that the years between 1450 – 1550 mark the beginning of the ‘modern’ period.  ‘Renaissance man’ came to be a shorthand for describing a character having a fairly modern kind of awareness.  Such a person was further refined into ‘Enlightenment man’, the 18th century manifestation of humanity.   The shorthand motto of the Enlightenment was, as we have mentioned before, ‘dare to doubt’.  Doubting was a mark of emancipation from the past and present traditions, so that new ideas could be thought and new discoveries made.

Western education for individuality

The values of western education have for some time encouraged the emergence of individuals who can think for themselves and take part in a democratic society, itself an Enlightenment idea.  Whether our education system is successful in creating these values through education can be debated but there is a belief that the thoughts, conscience and awareness of the individual takes a prominent place in our Western societies.  People who are arrested for criminal offences are assumed to be capable of making moral choices for themselves.  As adults our choices in numerous areas of activity are honoured by the rest of society.  The latest one to be so honoured is the biological sex of our partner.

Reflecting on individuality and group identity

This post has been written in order to provoke reflection by the reader as to whether the assumption we normally operate as separate individuals is always accurate.  The patterns of consumption and the dedication to fashion would seem to be tribal behaviour.  Also as I have suggested in an earlier blog, the gang culture of the inner city may simply be a living out of tribal behaviour.  Tribal behaviour is also an evocation of the merger experience known to a small child.  A baby or a toddler has little sense of being a separate being from the mother and in situations of stress even a normally differentiated adult may long for a similar merger to take place to alleviate the pain of isolation.  It would seem, to repeat the point at the beginning, that all of us appear to oscillate between separateness and identification with others according to the situation.  Perhaps what this blog post has helped to make clear that this swinging between the two extremes is built into our genes, our human history as well having been lived out in our experience of emerging from infancy into adulthood.

The ability to say ‘I am’ is something we have been given by our education, our place in human history  and our experience of relationships.  Perhaps we need to think about this awareness and at the same time ponder our share in a common history with countless others of being part of a tribal-type of existence when our thinking, feeling and experiencing was merged with that of countless others.  That experience is not totally negative, indeed the Christian experience of worship often activates it in us.  What is perhaps most important is not whether we have one or other of these experiences at a particular moment, but to see them as both part of our human condition.  The self-awareness is the important thing so that, as in the subtle manipulation of ‘merger-needs’ by abusive churches, we have insight into what is going within our consciousness.

Conclusion and Summary

As a summary, and to draw this reflection into our main theme of abusive churches,  I need to make my point clear.  Everyone in the 21st century exists within a continuum between a desire for total merger with others and a strong sense of separateness.  Churches understand this oscillation and can sometimes manipulate it to our disadvantage by convincing us that it is in our interest to remain at the dependent end of this continuum.  While it is not wrong to enjoy this experience of dependency on others from time to time, it is also important to have a proper understanding and insight into the process so we are not so easily exploited.  Let us rejoice in both ends of this spectrum that exist inside ourselves and not allow them to be a means to be taken advantage of by others.

34 Authoritarian religion – some insights

After writing a blog post twice or three times a week for the past three months, I realised that there was a limit to the material that I could pull out of my memory to place in front of those who follow the blog.  So from this point on my blogs will change direction somewhat.  The material that I will be sharing will more likely refer directly to material on my book-shelves and especially to ideas that I have found helpful at some point in the past.  Thus the reader of the blog will be travelling with me on a journey as I look back to books and ideas that I have found useful over the years.  I hope my readers will want to travel on this journey that will help all of us to understand better the phenomenon that we call abusive religion.

One of the problems of trying to write a book on abusive fundamentalism as I did some 15 years ago, was getting a handle on the subject matter.  There were of course lots of books on fundamentalism but they took a whole variety of approaches that varied from the biblical to the theological ,  from the psychological to the political.  It was with some relief that I found a particular book which for the first time gave me a place on which to stand and find an overall perspective from which to look at the whole topic.  The book was entitled Righteous Religion:  Unmasking the illusions of Fundamentalism and Authoritarian Catholicism by Kathleen Ritter and Craig O’Neill.  Part of the attraction of the book was that it spoke about psychological themes without becoming too technical.  This tendency of books about psychology to be extremely technical has been something which has constantly plagued my attempts to understand the dynamics of cultic churches.  This book on the other hand had the ability to say something quite profound with no danger that the reader, new to psychology, would be overwhelmed by the jargon.

The thesis of the book is a deceptively simple one which can be outlined in the space of a single blog post.  The first principle of the book is that attendance at a church of whatever kind has the attraction of reactivating in the individual the experience of belonging to a family.  Everyone has such a desire for the safety and security of a human family built into the genes.  A church can or should provide for its members the various positive aspects of the birth family, including safety, acceptance, support and meaning.  The parallels between the needs of a young child in a family and that those of an adult belonging to a church are obviously far from exact but the same basic needs are there in both stages of human growth.

Righteous Religion then distinguishes between the healthy family and the toxic one.  At the risk of over-simplification, the normal family is seen as one where the love offered is unconditional.  However good or bad the child is, the parent never ceases to love the child without limit.  The child grows up with that security built into their awareness.  Even though misbehaviour has to be dealt with the child is never allowed to doubt that the parents’ love is solid and dependable.  In contrast to such a family there are other families where the message given is different.  We call the love in these families conditional love.  Any affection offered comes with subtle strings attached.  The message is given ‘I will show you care  and affection if….’  The conditions that are laid down normally concern the parents’ status and well-being.  ‘I will love you if you bring credit to this family by your achievements and your efforts’.  This most damaging form of conditional love is one which places on the child the need to succeed, to make the parents proud.  If for any reason success is not achieved the child is made to feel worthless as a human being both for his/her failure at the task but also for failing to receive adequate affection and love from the people he is dependent on.  The child is doubly betrayed by this toxic environment.

Ritter and O’Neill present the authoritarian church as being the equivalent to the toxic family that only cares when its expectations are met.  Acceptance and approval are only handed out to those who believe the right things, give sufficiently of their means and generally conform to the norms of the group.  Because the church has often succeeded in activating quite powerful mechanisms of need, these toxic churches are able to continue to exercise a powerful controlling and ultimately harmful hold over individuals.  Dissent is not tolerated. The member of an abusive church or cult will be reluctant to leave the group in the same way that the abused child will find it hard to let go of the toxic family.  Belonging is a stronger instinct even than the desire to avoid harm and abuse.

I have spoken in a previous blog post about the power of induced fear.  In the toxic family the child lives with the threat of being cast out into a nothingness, losing any familiarity that he has known, the sheer terror of being alone.  The toxic church has a similar trump card.  It deals in the currency not only of belonging but also claims to have the power to threaten its members with the terrors of being lost for all eternity, in a place apart from God, a place of eternal torment.  No doubt thinking about the possibility of hell evokes childhood memories of separation and terror in the adult.  This will always be a powerful tool of control.

Using the model of the church as a family is useful up to a point.   In the last resort it is a useful metaphor and the limitations of linking the two will become apparent quite quickly if the metaphor is worked too hard.  But Righteous Religion did help me at an early stage in my reading grasp one aspect of the way that one can assess the healthy and the unhealthy in church life.  It also helped me to understand how the vulnerabilities of people are taken advantage of and made the tools of control.  Frightening people into the Kingdom may make for ‘successful’ and full churches but ultimately such churches cannot necessarily be said to be healthy.  The important question that has to be asked of any church congregation is whether it is healthy.  By healthy we mean that the people have the opportunity to grow, feel affirmed, love and be loved as well as be free from fear.  The same questions can also be asked of a human family.  Most of us know what makes for a healthy environment for children to grow up in.  The least we can ask for members of our church families that they are allowed to exist with the same underlying values of acceptance, tolerance, freedom to think and be heard.  Part of the glory of a human family is that children are normally allowed to grow up different in character and ability.  Why on earth should we expect the members of the church acquire a monotonous similarity of character and belief with one another?  Long may difference and even disagreement flourish in the church just as it does in the human family!