Have you ever listened to a conversation in your small group or Bible study and knew that you should keep your opinion to yourself? Maybe the topic revolved around a social problem or political candidate and you knew that your contrary point of view would go over like a BLT at a bar mitzvah. Meanwhile, you sit there sad and frustrated because you know your viewpoint could add valuable perspective to the topic — but it’s more trouble than it’s worth. And in the middle of this group of people, you just feel so lonely. Have you ever wondered about the signs of religious brainwashing?
As a writer, I’m often sharing thoughts that I know would annoy people in my small conservative church. I’ve always consoled myself with the fact that no one at church reads anything I write anyway. But that changed one day after a guy brought up a touchy subject to me multiple times, and I realized that he had read one of my posts, got irritated, and was trying to covertly/politely re-educate me. Luckily, I had enough sense not to take the bait — but I walked away feeling a little vulnerable and more hesitant to speak up.
The majority isn’t always right—but they sure think they are.
When you think about it, the entire New Testament tells the story of a nation (the Israelites) who believes that they completely understand the scriptures, who God is, and what he requires of them. When a prophet (who turns out to be God himself) shows up on the scene to tell them otherwise, they kill him — having complete and utter confidence that they’re correct in their theology and practice.
Two thousand years later, the church often takes the same imperious position that the Pharisees and Sadducees shared. “We have complete confidence that [there are] no more questions without definitive answers.” Because many Christians exist within a bubble that reverberates our own positions and ideas, they sometimes miss the signs of religious brainwashing. They take their imagined unanimity as confirmation that they’re right. Truth is on their side.
A good example of this phenomenon came up in a political discussion I had yesterday. Someone said to me, “I know the media is lying about Trump’s low popularity. As I drive around our community, all I see are Trump signs.” This statement perfectly sums up the problem of perspective. This person and I live in a fairly small county, and political yard signs in a rural setting are not the ideal way to judge the health of a political candidate … but in the end, we believe what we see (especially when it confirms what we believe).
The influence of our culture
If we’re raised in a culture that tells us that a particular biblical interpretation or political position aligns with God’s point of view, we accept it. That position is further solidified by being around others who share the same ideas. Of course, it’s completely natural to immediately dismiss an unfamiliar or contrary idea — even if it’s right. It takes a lot of maturity and self-discipline to hear something contrary and think, “Hold on, let me hear this out.”
In the moment when we recognize that we don’t agree with our community, we’re faced with a choice. Do we speak up or do we keep it to ourselves? The choice isn’t as easy as it seems. Sometimes we avoid speaking up because we want to ignore the signs of religious brainwashing. But if we learned anything from the gospels, it’s that in a blind world, the person with sight is thought to be insane.
Could it be possible to maintain Christian unity despite disagreement over significant issues? Was Jesus just being naïve when he prayed for Christians in John 17:20–21
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Signs of Religious Brainwashing
Groupthink isn’t specific to Christianity. All cultural and philosophically aligned groups expect a certain amount of assimilation from its members. Any organized group might consider the signs of religious brainwashing. We shouldn’t just accept all the groupthink as a characteristic of our faith. We should approach each other with a sense of humility, and hold our truths with both a sense of conviction and open hearts. After all, if Jesus wanted to convict you that your opinion was mistaken, how would he do it? Probably through the conviction of your brother or sister…
To silence dissenting opinions — whether intentionally or not — is to doom ourselves (or them) to holding incorrect assumptions, interpretations, and theologies, and it’s one of the signs of religious brainwashing.
Has your church has slipped into an unhealthy and dangerous form of groupthink? Here are eight signs of religious brainwashing from your church, group, or community.
1. Debate or difference of opinion is discouraged
It’s obvious the minute it happens. You respond to a discussion with [an] alternative view and you can almost hear the record scratch as everything goes silent. Suddenly, all eyes are on you. With a word or two, you’re corrected, and it’s quite apparent that there will be no more discussion on this topic.
2. Conformity is encouraged as a virtue
If you’re an evangelical that’s ever attended a Jewish Torah study group, your mind, like mine, was probably blown. I’ve been a couple of times and walked away wishing that Christian studies were similar.
In many groups, the rabbi discusses a passage and then everyone tears into it. Sometimes there’s debate about the significance and point of the passage, and at other times people agree pretty quickly on the point. Ultimately, the point of the activity isn’t for someone in authority to tell everyone else the correct interpretation. It’s about a community of God gathering around a sacred text and discovering its meaning together.
Conformity is often such a big part of evangelical culture that it’s hard to recognize when it’s out of balance.
3. Dissenters are fixed or dismissed
This is a hard one. I’ve been in situations where the discussion could be summed up as, “you need to fall in line right now.” Of course, I need to be open to having my opinions and perspectives challenged — after all, I all have areas where I’m wrong. But it’s pretty easy to tell when the point is about fixing me, and not really grasping my position.
Need help deciding when someone is interested in discussing your differences or just trying to fix you? Just pay attention to how interested they really are in understanding your point of view. If they’re trying to fix you, they don’t need to know why you believe what you do. Instead, they’ll tell you, “The Bible clearly says…”
Your next question needs to be, “What happens if I don’t agree?”
4. Negative stereotyping of outsiders and people who don’t agree
You almost immediately know how safe a group is by how they talk about others. Do they demonize people who disagree about different points? Do they lump people into groups and stereotype them as “liberals,” “heretics,” or “red necks?” Are people generalized based on one or two litmus-test beliefs? Warning.
5. There’s a disregard for complex discussions
Things are seldom as cut and dried as we assume. A culture begins to get unhealthy when its members no longer have the capacity to recognize the complex nature of social issues, politics, or biblical interpretations. As soon as we assume ideas are self-evident, we’re likely developing a dangerous form of binary thinking.
6. Self-censorship is a form of self-defense
As soon as we have to second guess what we say within our community of faith, there’s a problem. Making the decision to keep [a] certain opinion to ourselves because we’re afraid of the response is a sign that community is breaking down. The sad thing is that, if what I keep to myself is wrong, I’ll never know it — but if it’s right, neither will you.
7. Unanimity is assumed
I would imagine that everyone has experienced this. I don’t know how many times a fellow church member has said something to me assuming that I share his opinion because, “Hey, we’re all Christians here, right?!”
But the sad truth is that I’ve done it to others, too. I remember sitting with a bunch of Christian friends and having a laugh at young-earth creationists not realizing that I was hurting someone in the room. We should never assume that because we have Jesus in common, we share every other opinion. It’s an easy assumption to make.
8. New ideas are met with anger
Sometimes I’ll question the status quo and be completely unprepared for the onslaught of angry responses. When it’s assumed that we’re all in agreement, it can be nearly impossible for people to process having an ideological traitor in the midst. When the average response to a contrary or new idea is anger, something is rotten in Denmark.
Embracing broken community
Personally, I’ve made the commitment to lovingly stand my ground in communities of faith instead of trying to find some magical kingdom that agrees with everything I think. But I know that there are people reading who are in really unhealthy churches where this isn’t a good option. Maybe you’re recognizing some of the signs of religious brainwashing coming from a group or church you’re involved in. Hopefully, you can use some of these symptoms as a sign that you need to make a decision that’s healthy for you.
We all deserve to worship Jesus in a community where we’re allowed to wrestle with the big issues of faith.
Pastors and church leaders: If you’re interested in practical steps for making your community a more question-friendly place, check out my post 3 Ways to Curb Christian Groupthink in Your Church over on MinistryAdvice.com.