Sometimes when I see some enraged, wildly-gesturing, belligerent Christian blustering about whatever’s bugging them right then, I suddenly get this mental image of that person as a young child. The picture I see in my mind reminds me that they weren’t always like they are now–and that I may be dealing with someone who is seriously damaged from stuff that happened to them long ago. If the reports from ex-Christians are anything to go by, this damage is far more common than Christian leaders would like to admit, and it seems to be getting worse as Christians rush to embrace even more punitive and restrictive childrearing philosophies.
Obviously one can’t generalize too much. Christianity’s too big a religion to consider monolithic in any way. But people tend to use the tactics on others that they suspect would work on themselves if they were in that other person’s shoes. Do you imagine that it’s some weird coincidence that it seems like Christians are getting more interested in controlling, shaming, and humiliating the people they’ve identified as their enemies? Does it seem like some weird fluke that the number of Christians acting in condescending, hateful, vengeful, and cruel ways seems to be on the rise?
It might not be a fluke or coincidence, or some trick of our own perceptions, but rather an actual trend that’s happening to a religion whose right-wing fringes have gotten considerably more polarized, politicized, and extremist over the years.
As the religion becomes more and more extremist and polarized, we’ll be seeing more and more people damaged by it. Christianity’s leaders have managed to put into place one of the cruelest and most heartless deceptions imaginable, and those adherents’ young people are the ones paying the price.
Down the Rabbit Hole.
Lately I’ve been reading this incredible blog series called “Down the Rabbit Hole” about the people who frequent forums where estranged parents can talk about their involuntary separation from their children. Here’s the first of the series, but be warned: this is fascinating stuff. If you’ve ever lost a few hours of your life to a TVTropes Walkabout and you’re even halfway interested in psychology, then this blog series might book your weekend solid.
There’s so much there that I recognize from my time in Christianity. In a compassionate and direct way, the author, Issendai (who has an equally good LiveJournal), outlines her theories, brings in plenty of citations to support those theories, and then ends with an inexorable crescendo.
The outraged, devastated parents described in this blog series almost all say they have no earthly clue why their child has suddenly done this terrible thing out of the clear blue sky. They gravitate to online forums to share their frustration, anger, and self-pity–and to gain validation from parents just like themselves who have been similarly pushed away by their children–and who similarly have no idea why. But they’re all generally sure of one thing, at least: it’s totally someone else’s fault that these rifts happened.
(Their “message,” you see, is perfect.)
As Issendai points out, many parents are estranged for reasons that are genuinely out of their control; those parents, however, apparently do not hang out for long on estranged-parent forums. So when we talk about estranged parents, we’re talking about the estranged parents who hang out on forums like these and who claim they have no idea why their children cut them out of their lives.
These sorts of forums can turn into a massive circlejerk of infuriated, entitled, self-pitying parents who spend their time fantasizing about physically hurting and humiliating their children and coming up with new and exciting ways to trample their children’s attempts to set boundaries and assert their rights. In turn, their children are perceived as being completely in the wrong no matter what.
The tribe of forum regulars themselves share traits that make it all but impossible for them to have that which they claim to want most in the whole world: reconciliation with their own grown children.
And if those grown children aren’t careful, they may end up with some of those same traits despite their best efforts, thus creating a cycle that could potentially last for generations, causing their own children to take on the traits that caused their parents–and maybe even their grandparents–such heartache.
The Chain of Pain.
Issendai identifies three distinct features she noticed in these forum posters:
1. A history of abuse in the family (the “chain of pain” itself).
Children absorb from their parents/caretakers a number of lessons about how people should act and interact. Most of those lessons are unspoken and implicit. I’ve talked about these absorbed lessons in the past as “mental tapes” that run in our heads all the time, often murmuring in the background of our thoughts. The programming they represent can be especially insidious and hard to identify, much less defy or break even when the lessons they embody aren’t couched as divine demands. (That’s why deconversion is only one small part of our awakening and eventual healing.)
2. An authoritarian follower personality.
Anybody who’s tangled with a right-wing Christian is familiar with their leaders’ love for authority and their bizarre obsession with hierarchy, rigidity, correctness, control, and punishment. But the people who actually follow these authoritarian leaders tend to fall into a pattern that is just as predictable as that of the leaders they glom onto. Here we can look along with Issendai to the research of Bob Altemeyer, whose book The Authoritarians is free to download (h/t to WereBear and the folks discussing authoritarianism in that whole linked comment thread, all of which is way worth your time to read if you don’t hang out in comments already).
In Dr. Altemeyer’s book, we learn that the folks who end up supporting authoritarian leaders tend to share three characteristics in common (p.9):
— They’re very submissive toward people they identify as their own authority figures,
— They are conservative in outlook, insisting on stereotypical and traditional gender roles and behaviors for everyone in their vicinity, and— Their aggression tends to manifest only under specific, odious, cowardly circumstances.
He goes on to say that authoritarian followers “seem to have a ‘Daddy and mommy know best’ attitude toward the government” (p.18).
I’d go him one further: they have that exact attitude toward religion as well, and toward parenthood and probably other stuff besides. And they are very quick to slide in and out of dominant roles themselves. I saw that myself many times while I was Christian, even with my then-husband Biff. They will submit to their authoritarian leader but then become the Designated Adults toward people they perceive as being lower than they are on the totem pole in their minds. They can get quite incensed and frustrated when the people they’ve identified as their inferiors don’t obey them the way they feel they must obey their own superiors.
The aggression one sees out of these folks is very real, but it emerges selectively, according to Dr. Altemeyer: when they think that their own authority figures would approve of their aggression and, more importantly, when they think they’d win the fight they want to have.
These are the Christians who are totally okay with “lying for Jesus” and who attack and harass even children and other undeserving targets. They don’t tend to pick on people their own size or to get into fights that their own superiors wouldn’t approve.
3. Criticism avoidance.
This is the Big Kahuna of the three characteristics. People who don’t like criticism sometimes build very effective defenses against ever having to hear it. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being in a relationship with someone who flat-out didn’t “fight fair,” then chances are you were witnessing criticism avoidance.
People like that mis-remember, minimize, or simply “forget” details that would reflect poorly on themselves, refuse to acknowledge criticisms that strike too close to their defenses, change up their stories, and distort other people’s words and actions to make their challenges seem unreasonable or incorrect. One especially favored tactic is gaslighting, but they don’t mind some outright silencing or thought-stopping.
Authoritarian followers divide the world into “us” and “them,” and “they” are not qualified to give any feedback. Of course, anyone within the tribe who tries to criticize or even challenge a fellow tribemate’s anecdotes will be brutally trampled for daring to say anything dissenting from the groupthink going on. (This sounds like, oh, every single church social event I ever attended.)
Criticism avoidance seems to explain a lot of the most bafflingly hateful and willfully-ignorant things that Christian zealots say and do, especially in reaction to sensitive subjects like their churn rate.
A Real Shocker. (I’m Shocked, At Least. Totally. Are You Shocked?)
Totally unsurprisingly, the “Rabbit Hole” series specifically mentions that the people on estranged-parent forums are generally Christian. I’d go a little further than that, though. Those three characteristics fit fundagelicals to a T.
I make that assertion because I’ve noticed that right-wing conservative Christianity (be it hardcore Catholic or Protestant evangelical/fundamentalist) seems singularly tied to hierarchical thinking, demands for deference to authority, disrespect for other people’s boundaries, and idolization of a system that they hope will produce more people just like themselves.
More than anything else, people in that form of the religion are really resistant to hearing criticism. They gravitate toward authoritarian ways of looking at the world and never seem to develop the compassion, empathy, or self-awareness needed to recognize that they’re doing something terribly harmful to their own relationships.
Dealing with someone this doggedly determined to sabotage their most valued relationships can be baffling on a cosmic scale, if we don’t understand that these people might well be trying to protect themselves from a threat that is even greater than the threat of losing their entire relationship with the person they are treating this way.
But what could possibly be worth taking such a dreadful risk? What could cause a parent to become such a toxic person that they drive off everyone who sympathizes with them? What could so terrify a person that even the loss of a treasured relationship can’t stand before that threat’s awful power?
The Horrific Power of Shame and Helplessness.
As Issendai points out, parents who are authoritarian followers tend to be abusive people who can’t handle criticism. They manage to fuck their own lives up enough as it is if they don’t get appropriate help. But when innocent children are thrust into their direct control, that’s when things get really ugly.
Children learn what parents teach them–even if those parents don’t want to teach it but don’t know how to do things any other way.
If you hit a child, the child learns that violence is the ultimate answer to all problems. Aggression makes people do what you want. Might makes right.
If you punish a child, especially with punishments that are way out of proportion to the “crime” committed or which have nothing to do with the transgression, the child will learn to do that to others to survive because you are either one of the aggressors or the victim of the aggressors. (Can mercy survive in such scorched soil? Where was the mercy, charity, and compassion for that child when it was needed most?)
If you trample a child’s boundaries, the child learns that he or she is less valuable than others are in every single way–and that a sign of power is not caring about other people’s boundaries.
If you exert too much control over a child, the child learns to fear being controlled, to see the reins of control as a visible sign of dominance, and therefore to seek to control others so they can’t do that to him or her anymore, ever again. Or that child may learn never to even try to run their own life–and thus never learns self-management.
If you shame or humiliate a child, the child learns to fear any course of action that might lead to shame and humiliation–and to use both against others as a preemptive weapon.
I’m not talking about the leaders of these people. The Donald Trumps and Unca Pats of the right-wing fundagelical world likely had their own dreadful lessons to learn. I’m talking about the authoritarian followers, the ones who have to cope with the society that these leaders created.
This is the kind of parenting that those leaders love best. It ensures a steady influx of new, obedient, fanatical followers with no compassion to worry about and no desire to dissent or push back against whatever their leaders want to do. There is nothing good that comes out of this steaming mess and much that is twisted and monstrous that does.
The children whose little psyches were thus destroyed, whose individuality and curiosity and free spirits were trampled, whose very ability to manage themselves and learn from their mistakes is blasted to ashes by such parenting, then enter the world as adults.
What the hell would we properly expect to happen at that point?
I’m starting to realize that when I see these incredibly childish grabs for other people’s time, attention, lives, and rights, I’m seeing people whose only real choices from the get-go were either to learn to navigate within their parents’ hopelessly broken system or be ground under by it.
That doesn’t make what they’re doing okay, nor should it by any means lessen our pushback.
To the contrary, it’s not our job to fix anyone–especially not people who are very likely to be incapable of understanding or accepting their own role in their family dramas. That part is not our circus and not our monkeys.
Instead, the take-away I want to leave you with is this: it’s more important than ever to peel away Christians’ undeserved privilege and power so we can maybe save the next generation a lot of grief. Those young people will have many of the same experiences and questions that most of us had as we deconverted, but there’ll be a lot more of them coming than we might be used to seeing and we may well see much worse situations that most of us saw while getting free.
As the religion becomes more polarized and extremist, parenting practices may become even more restrictive and abusive than what many of us experienced (if brutal control isn’t working, all they seem to be able to do is clamp down harder). Those who escape may be struggling especially hard with unlearning lessons that no child should ever, ever, ever have to learn.
Let’s be the shape of the future.
We’re going to have an interlude about good parenting and kittens next–it being Mother’s Day soon–and then we’re going to dive into the next part of this topic. I felt like this ties in very well with what we’ve been talking about regarding how Christians treat those who are either considering leaving or have already left – so I wanted it out on the table so we could talk about it; it’s going to tie into the next posts.
See you soon!