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May 21st, 2011


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08:43 am - Children of Prophecy
As you will have heard, some Christians believe that today is the 'Rapture' when those chosen by god will ascend into heaven, and five months of unspeakable horror will begin for the rest of us. One of the first things which comes to everyone's mind is - what will those people do and say tomorrow? The most famous study of a similar event was When Prophecy Fails (1956) by Leon Festinger, who invented the term cognitive dissonance. In that case he studied a flying-saucer cult, who were predicting first contact on a particular day, which obviously did not occur.
man's resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view
I suspect that events will unfold tomorrow and the days following much as described by Festinger - some will fall away, some will renew their commitment in the face of all evidence.

I am particularly interested in the issues of belief and innocence. I think that in any situation of fervent belief there are two types of involvement. I think there are innocent believers - some children, a few adults - who accept what they are told with simple childlike trust. And I think there are others who want to believe, who fight their own doubts by the act of convincing their more innocent companions. (There may be a third category, utter con-artists and fraudsters, who are cynically exploiting the others and have no belief at all. I think it is hard to definitively prove this, and because these people are less interesting, I will leave this category aside.)

Festinger again:
The dissonance cannot be eliminated completely by denying or rationalizing the disconfirmation. But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct... If the proselytizing proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it."
It is to their children that such people first proselytise. I feel pity for the children who have been convinced that the world will end today. I know not all children of cult members will feel this conviction, but some will. I think those children who are more imaginative or intellectual are particularly vulnerable. More robust people for whom things aren't all that real until they actually happen, are less vulnerable to apocalyptic despair I think.

Here is a blog post by an adult who as a child believed the world would end in 1988 - because his mum and dad told him, and he trusted them.
there’s nothing funny about kids believing and anticipating THE END. And while I know that the kids who believe in May 21st have what they consider to be “great faith in Jesus,”–trust me, they are scared. They’re nervous. Some of them aren’t sleeping. They’re asking lots of questions. They’re hoping that it isn’t true. But they believe it is.

And on May 22... these kids will be facing their “day of reckoning,” waking up to realize that their parents, pastors, and theologies were wrong. Many of those kids will lose something that day. The questions that many of them will ask will get answered with lies and excuses and bad biblical reasoning. Some of them will be angry with God for not bringing about Judgment Day. Some of them will lose their faith and yet be unable to escape it.

As a child I was not brought up to believe in an apocalyptic date, but I was brought up to believe that those who did not love god would burn forever. I don't think that my parents and church realised how simply and utterly I believed that there was only eternal pain to look forward to. I am very angry with them about that, and yet in another way I think it was only a failure of communication. They spoke about burning and suffering, not realising that I was not a sophisticated listener. I was a little girl, and I thought it would really happen.


ETA
slacktivist thread on this topic
ex-Jehovah's witness thread on this topic

(25 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:tehomet
Date:May 21st, 2011 08:43 am (UTC)
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There are fanatics in every walk of life, unfortunately.

I'm sorry, as you say, for the little kids who are being misinformed and therefore probably are frightened. (And for the younger version of you.) It's practically child abuse.
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From:communicator
Date:May 21st, 2011 08:51 am (UTC)
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I think this is why some people become fervent atheists, and they are often those same imaginative/intellectual people who are most vulnerable as children. Dawkins for example I think 'believed' in the simple simple childish way that I did, and it is hard for people not brought up in that tradition (and for sensible down-to-earth people whatever their upbringing) to realise what it felt like.
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From:tehomet
Date:May 21st, 2011 09:04 am (UTC)
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Yes, indeed.

Obviously he's a scientific genius, but I've noticed from his book on deity that he has no theological training whatsoever, or even an ability or even willingness to grapple with the concepts (which 99.9% of people have) without the training. It strikes me as very like he's had an unpleasant contact with religion (or, at least, with someone who claimed to be religious, which isn't quite the same thing) when too young to do more than react against rather than think about it.
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From:communicator
Date:May 21st, 2011 10:14 am (UTC)
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We agree on so much tehomet that I hope you won't mind if I disagree, but I don't think you need to have studied theology to reject the idea of hell, or other religious ideas. I rejected it when I was quite young - after the experience I described - and I think any human being, no matter how young or uneducated, can make that rejection. It may be that I have misunderstood what you say, though.
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From:tehomet
Date:May 21st, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC)
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I expressed myself badly, I think, and I apologise.

I agree with you that one doesn't have to have studied theology to evaluate or reject the idea of hell or any other religious ideas, or religion in general. One can make up one's own mind regardless of one's age or one's education. Just to be clear, I have no issue with atheists, with atheism as a whole, or with people who reject certain religions, or who reject certain specific religious concepts such as the idea of hell.

But I do have issues with Dawkins because I think when it comes to matters theological, in my view, he is intellectually a bit on the lazy side. Judging from The God Delusion, he appears to be either unwilling or unable to approach non-scientific matters with the same scholarly rigour as he does physics. It's just so short-sighted and amateurish to even begin a theological thesis for publication without defining what one means by 'personal,' by 'god,' by 'creator,' by 'supernatural,' and so on. One can easily not believe in a transcendent personal god (Dawkins seems to reject this concept; as a matter of fact, so do I), but that doesn't make one an atheist, necessarily; it could just (for a single possibility of many) make one a person who believes in an immanent pantheon. As you know, male deities are a relatively recent thing in terms of human existence; monotheism is pretty much only found in the newcomer Abrahamic religions; and so on. Dawkins doesn't seem to be aware that one can be an atheist and still follow certain spiritual paths (e.g. certain forms of Shinto, Buddhism, animism, shamanism, paganism, and so on), or equally, be a theist but reject the concept of a single deity, or a personal one (most deities to this day are ancestral, tribal, or even national rather than personal), or a deity who is defined as a creator (for plenty of religions, the deity is not the creator of the universe - the deity is the universe, as in certain kinds of paganism; or the deity has nothing to do with the creation of the universe, as in certain forms of gnosticism; or the deity may exist but some other deity or event created the universe, as in certain forms of Hinduism).

So even if one accepts that Dawkins disproves the existence of one particular type of god, that doesn't really cut much ice in terms of the study of religion as a whole. His insistence on rejecting notions of intelligent design and dependence on religion for moral guidelines is the kind of work that mainstream theologians were doing a century or more ago. His book is the equivalent of me trying to write a book about quantum physics without first learning about base 10 and the concept of zero. I could do so, of course, but I imagine that there would be a physicist or two knocking about who would be of the opinion that I really ought to do a little reading on arithmetic first: not before I think about these matters, because anyone can do so, but definitely before I publish what purports to be a serious work on the subject.

I can and do admire Dawkins for his scientific body of work, but at the same time still think that in terms of his contribution to the world of theology, he's like a physicist who thinks that the theory of gravity is bunk because of one guy using a trampoline. :)


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From:julesjones
Date:May 21st, 2011 10:13 am (UTC)
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From what I can see, Dawkins is a fundamentalist through and through. He believes exactly what other fundamentalists say about the Bible, which is that it must be read strictly literally (a thing which IMliberalAnglicanO cannot even be done without some fairly deep doublethink), and that the only possible interpretation is that the world was literally created in 6 days. Since this is clearly at odds with reality as we currently understand it, he has rejected it -- but retained his fundamentalist belief that this is the *only* way to approach the Bible, and that all practicing Christians by definition believe something which is clearly insane.

And he retains his fundamentalist approach to religion in condemning anyone who does not share his current religious beliefs, and actively evangelising his religious beliefs, to the point of campaigning to enforce them on others through changes in the law. He is, in short, a prime example of atheism being actively practised as a species of religion. I've long thought he must have been a product of a fundamentalist household, because he seems to have no comprehension of the "evolution is God's tool" approach to religion.

But I wasn't brought up in that fire and brimstone tradition, and I know I don't fully comprehend what it does to people. In hindsight, I was extraordinarily fortunate in the Sunday school I went to, because it clearly put some thought into teaching carrot rather than stick, and in teaching tolerance for other religions. (In particular, I realised as an adult that they went to some trouble to ensure that the kids respected Judaism as the mother of Christianity, and that Jews had the right to find their own path to God.)
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From:communicator
Date:May 21st, 2011 10:20 am (UTC)
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I do not mean this to turn into Dawkins-bashing because I meant my comment to explain to people who do not agree with him that I think he is coming from the same place I am - a place of childhood sadness. I didn't come from a fundamentalist household, and neither did Dawkins. I came from a mainstream Church of England household.

I think it is hard for religious people to understand that the children next to them in the pews might be listening to the same stories as them and taking from them a very different message - a frightening and horrible one.
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From:julesjones
Date:May 21st, 2011 11:20 am (UTC)
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I think it's a more general problem -- that adults often forget that what adults say and what children hear are two different things. But that then becomes a specific problem with religion because in many groups it is *intended* to be frightening and horrible, and the adults do not remember how very much more frightening and horrible it is for children. (Or worse, understand perfectly well, but believe that they are doing the child a kindness, but that's not the specific problem you're talking about in your comment.)

I can remember going through the phase of being terrified of Hell -- but my route out was to reject it as being unworthy of the loving God I had been taught about. I think some of that probably was some adults failing to communicate at a child's level of understanding, and others managing to do so, and the latter giving me the tools I needed to reject the fear without rejecting everything. But it's left its mark, in the form of complete lack of patience with people who insist that non-Christians are going to hell.
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From:wwhyte
Date:May 21st, 2011 02:12 pm (UTC)
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I went through it a different way. I also rejected Hell as unworthy of the loving God I'd been told about. But then I started thinking that if they'd made up Hell they might well have been making up God as well. That's where I am today -- not just that it's all made up, but that it's clearly all made up; there's no sensible place to draw the line between things they just say the things that are true, except on the side that nothing they say is true. And I think that might be a bit of where Dawkins' sense of frustration comes from (not that this is meant to be a thread pretending to psycholanalyse Dawkins); if you come at it from that perspective, the more you try to engage with writings about religion, the more frustrated you become that anyone takes it seriously.

This isn't meant to be a criticism of people who are religious, just an explanation of where some of those of us on the other side are coming from.
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From:julesjones
Date:May 21st, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC)
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I think that one of the root problems is that some people genuinely experience the presence of the Divine, and others do not -- and that it is not always easy for members of one group to understand or accept that the other group exists, in both directions.

I experience the presence of the Divine. I recognise that it is quite possibly a product of neurochemistry, but that does not make the experience any less real. Because of my cultural background, Christianity is the most appropriate toolkit for me to use on this. I think that said toolkit is deeply flawed in many ways, some of which have been discussed in this thread. I also don't see that recognising those flaws necessitates dumping the whole thing -- *if* you're getting something useful out of it. It's myth all the way down, but story does not have to be literally true to have something useful to say. However, I also think that those people who are not wired to experience the Divine are likely to find little of use even regarding it as metaphor, and are quite right to ditch the whole thing. There are other perfectly good toolkits available to consider various philosophical problems.

But Dawkins and other evangelising atheists come over to me as not simply having no belief in God, but as refusing to accept that other people might have any internal experience that could possibly justify a belief in the Divine -- that religious belief exists purely as a self-perpetuating brainwashing mechanism. And Dawkins in particular comes over as having a very fixed view of "what Christians believe", and engaging with writings on religion only and utterly through that filter. When I see someone using his series on television to talk about how Christians believe that God created Earth in six days, and this is obviously nonsense, and it is outrageous that people should be allowed to foist these things on children, I do not see someone who is seriously trying to engage with a range of theist or deist thought on a rational basis. And this is even though I am deeply suspicious of faith-based schools, for reasons which overlap with ones given by Dawkins.
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From:teadog1425
Date:May 21st, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC)
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Yes. This. This perfectly - and much more eloquently - describes exactly how I feel about Dawkins, experiencing the Divine and religion... Thank you!

Tam
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From:communicator
Date:May 22nd, 2011 05:37 am (UTC)
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I think I experience the presence of the holy, at least, and this is one reason I could not love the Christian god. I think it's a barrier to the holy.
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From:steepholm
Date:May 21st, 2011 11:23 am (UTC)
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Interesting post. I'm trying to remember what I believed - more from my CofE primary school than my Quaker father or Laodicean/agnostic mother - about hell. I suppose I believed, but I did a pretty good job of blanking it out. I don't think I could (or can now) conceive of an eternity of anything, so it just got shoved into a bin marked "Ineffable".

I do find Dawkins to be fundamentalist, not only in his beliefs but also in his compulsion to proselytize. (This post gave me the jumping-off point for my own related riff on the subject, in fact.) You don't need to come from a fundamentalist household to be one, just to hear literally, prescriptively strictly what may be meant metaphorically, heuristically and loosely.
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From:communicator
Date:May 21st, 2011 11:35 am (UTC)
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I think it is all very well for adults to say it is meant metaphorically - but what is excruciating inescapable agony a metaphor for? I hear adults say 'the non-believer will experience despair and loneliness' - well, do we want to worship a god who inflicts that on children? Or indeed adults? Is there any metaphorical reading which is acceptable? And if there is none, then what does it mean to keep saying it over and over again?

Also, I feel that people who use metaphor need to ensure it is understood as such. If I say 'My feet are killing me' I don't need to explain that's a metaphor. But if I say 'My husband punched me in the head yesterday' I need to explain if that's just a metaphor, because otherwise people will believe it literally.
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From:steepholm
Date:May 21st, 2011 11:45 am (UTC)
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I agree, and this is one of many reasons I'm not a believer myself. I've never understood, either, the idea of a loving God who condemns, shall we say, a remote Amazonian tribe for their failure to accept a saviour they've never heard of (to say nothing of everyone born before Jesus). What would they have made of the Rapture - or the Rapture of them?

I don't think there is any metaphorical meaning that's acceptable when you think it through, but it's probably easier for most children (and adults) to deal with somebody explaining that hell is separation from God (which sounds pretty much like life as normal), than their holding your finger in a candle-flame and saying "Imagine this going on to your entire body, for ever! That's what Jesus is going to do to you!"
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From:communicator
Date:May 21st, 2011 11:51 am (UTC)
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I remember reading something by Edna O'Brien about holding your hand in flame, must have been a regular pedagogical aide at the time.
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From:wwhyte
Date:May 21st, 2011 02:13 pm (UTC)
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There's something in Portait of the Artist about it too, as I remember.
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From:happytune
Date:May 21st, 2011 01:23 pm (UTC)
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I have a theory (not a very well thought-through one) that adults become reliant on the fear, partly as a justification of their sense of identity, and partly because it unifies them with others who share that fear. This reliance means that almost feel obliged to share it with their children.

Case in point: Reliance on the Holocaust. There's an interesting short story by Shalom Auslander that looks at the impact of this reliance on children. It is written in the voice of a child (say, 7-10 years old), who has been utterly terrified from a very young age. It begins:
'If the Nazis come in the middle of the night and try to take me away to a concentration camp, these are the things I plan to take with me: some food, my allowance money, a sleeping bag, my walkman, a toothbrush, a knife from the kitchen, my nunchucks, some Ninja throwing stars, a flashlight and my comic books.'

The story goes on to explore this child's conception of Nazism, the Holocaust, his thoughts, his mother's thoughts, his reading, his friends. Made me cry. Also made SC cry because his family are totally obsessed with the Holocaust and he spent some years as a small child terrified that it would happen again, and planning in much the same way as Auslander's child does.
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From:communicator
Date:May 22nd, 2011 05:48 am (UTC)
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Some ninja throwing stars. That's heartbreaking. Thanks for this which has given me a completely different perspective on it. Because what the two experiences have in common is fear, and nothing else.
(Deleted comment)
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From:communicator
Date:May 22nd, 2011 05:44 am (UTC)
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I think it is so sweet that you crossed your fingers so you wouldn't have to fight your mum. There is so much going on inside children that adults have no idea about.
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From:espresso_addict
Date:May 21st, 2011 06:37 pm (UTC)
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I think there are innocent believers - some children, a few adults - who accept what they are told with simple childlike trust. And I think there are others who want to believe, who fight their own doubts by the act of convincing their more innocent companions.

I think there's quite a range between these, too. Certainly my faith wasn't really of the childlike trust type and yet I don't think I ever proselytised beyond a bit of leaflet posting. In fact it was deep discomfort with being asked to witness to non-believers that first made me drop away from active involvement in the church I was in.
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From:communicator
Date:May 22nd, 2011 05:43 am (UTC)
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yes, I guess the model must be more dynamic than my description, because people do move away as I have done myself, so there are people in various stages of that transition too
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From:archbishopm
Date:May 21st, 2011 10:47 pm (UTC)
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I was brought up to believe that those who did not love god would burn forever. I don't think that my parents and church realised how simply and utterly I believed that there was only eternal pain to look forward to.

Curious, not trolling, did you try loving god?

I still say The Rapture is the best take on that business, and also has young naked Duchovny which I am almost certain your childhood did not.
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From:communicator
Date:May 22nd, 2011 05:41 am (UTC)
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I think my reactions and feelings were not as coherent as the post here. I think sometimes I did try at least, and at other times I felt complete despair because I couldn't. People would tell me stories - like say Noah's Ark or Abraham and Isaac - and I would be having the sort of feelings that as an adult I would use the words 'Am I the only one who thinks this is fucked up?' but obviously as a child those feelings were less - I can only say less coherent again.

I can remember saying to my mum 'Is it enough to say the words, or do you have to feel it inside?' (and she said something like 'No you have to feel it for real') so I obviously was having that struggle in some way.

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