Five Things to Check When You Hear a Claim.

Five Things to Check When You Hear a Claim. May 1, 2015

Christianity does love making a lot of unsubstantiated or even completely refuted and debunked claims. But it’s not alone in doing so. An uncomfortable amount of pseudoscience surrounds us and permeates our culture, and even those who reject religion entirely may fall into mental traps elsewhere without realizing it–just because those old habits of belief predispose some of us into getting involved in something that isn’t true or right.

It can be like this sometimes. -- But you can stop the cycle. (Credit: Jeremy Noble, CC license.) This critter brings out my LOLcat-speak instincts really seriously bad. I hope you know what an incredible effort it is to restrain myself from shrieking like a little kid seeing this exact pose.
It can be like being, well, a hamster in a wheel. But you can stop the cycle. (Credit: Jeremy Noble, CC license.) Also: I hope you know what an incredible effort it is to restrain myself from shrieking like a little kid when I look at this cute critter and start speaking in LOLspeak.

It can be a real struggle to un-learn the host of secondary delusions we fell into while we were zealots. At this point, if I pick a fundagelical Christian out of the crowd and talk to him or her for any length of time, I’ll discover that this Christian not only likely holds to the standard party line but also believes a host of secondary delusions about a variety of conspiracy theories–and probably belongs to some kind of multi-level marketing scam scheme (MLM) to boot. For a while, my friends and I were just baffled by how many people in our old Christian groups had bought into these secondary delusions, but I don’t wonder anymore how that happened. Once a person’s mind is softened enough to accept the pseudoscience and revisionist history blithering preached by religion, that person’s ripe for accepting pretty much anything else.

Here’s how I start figuring out if something’s true or not:

1. What does the established medical/scientific community say about this claim?

That knocks out most of the current trendy pseudoscience and historical revision right there. When only discredited cranks support an idea or claim, there’s a reason for that. When people start saying that there’s some kind of “conspiracy” against stuff like homeopathy and anti-vaxxer rhetoric, that’s a good sign they’ve turned off their critical thinking. The truth is, if someone discovered that water had “memory” in it and that magic shaking motions could make its “memory” of onion juice get stronger while apparently erasing its “memory” of feces and urine, that’d be the discovery of a lifetime; that scientist would likely get a huge award. If someone could credibly demonstrate that the Theory of Evolution was wrong about any one of its major tenets, people would be lining up to lick that scientist’s feet.

Most of us, unfortunately, aren’t trained scientists or statisticians. We’re just folks. We have to rely on what trained people say and discover. Charlatans can abuse statistics to say just about anything, making the problem harder. It can be really hard to sift who is and isn’t qualified to talk about a topic, which is why I tend to go with a consensus. Not everything fits that criteria–some ideas are really new, and sometimes a credible maverick will come out of left field with a new idea that takes time to gain widespread acceptance–but even then, we need to be careful about who we trust.

2. Has there been legal action in relation to this claim?

A search for “(claim) lawsuit” or “(claim) debunked” can pull up all kinds of dirty laundry on a claim. That’s one of the things that kept me out of a particular MLM right after I’d deconverted. Regularly, I run this exact search for new claims I run across–and I always discover plenty of reading material. It’s simply not as easy now to sell bullshit to people as it was just a few decades ago.

Tellingly, when an organization knows there’s lots of dirt online about it and its claims, one of their tactics is to try to keep their people away from that information and to demonize the messengers sharing this information–so be aware of these efforts to put blinkers on you and keep you from fully engaging in the outside world lest you run across anything damaging to an idea.

Limiting people’s access to information, or poisoning the well so they can’t assimilate or understand that information, is not ethical.

3. Does the claim feed into feelings of superiority, greed, or fear?

One of our lovely commenters recently shared a link to a devastating exposé of Amway. I’ve been glued to my screen reading ever since (THANKS A LOT NO REALLY). There have been times that I’ve teared up reading it–it’s so familiar to me, and will be to anybody who’s been involved very deeply in toxic Christianity. I’m only up to the part where John’s upline spread rumors that he was a child molester after his defection, but it seems very clear to me that he got sucked into “the business” because it fed into his feelings of superiority and greed. He wanted a Mayberry fantasy for his family–he wanted financial independence and a comfortable life. He wanted to spend time with his kids and his wife to be able to stay home from work. Those are perfectly reasonable desires to have–but he didn’t want to achieve his dreams the “normal” way, with a job and working up a corporate ladder. He wanted to do it himself and be totally independent. His recruiters convinced him that this other way was the best way of reaching his dreams. They taught him to be afraid of and hold in contempt anything outside their organization.

Watch out as well for claims that try to justify unhealthy behaviors and habits. Healthcare scams often include phrases like “eat anything you want and get thin just by taking this tablet/drinking this juice!” Vitamin supplements are a near-universal part of our culture at this point, despite growing evidence that they don’t do much of anything and may actually harm us.

In the same way, conspiracy theories feed into our fears of the unknown. They sell us shadowy government agencies, conniving scientists eager to destroy children’s lives in the name of profit, and even hordes of marginalized Others out to destroy freedom itself to enshrine their foul whims into law. Our government can’t even keep a hotel break-in secret; I don’t think for an instant that they could keep massive amounts of wrongdoing secret for very long.

Other health claims and nationalistic fervor sell terror: do this, or else you and your family will suffer. Vote this way, or else your way of life will end and scary people will do bad things to you. When greed or fear gets involved, people don’t tend to make good choices. Don’t ever make choices based on either emotion–or give in to pressure. If something’s true, it’ll be there later. (PS: And you’ve just solved that whole “turn or burn” problem; I don’t know what offers more pressure than the idea of Hell.)

4. Does the claim insult and dehumanize those who disagree?

If someone talks about “libtards” or “conservathugs,” or refers to dissenters as stupid or evil, you can check out right there; chances are whatever follows is going to be distorted somehow. It’s more important to that person to demonize people than to discredit claims.

Look, I’m sure that every single element of the conservative platform is the antithesis of human dignity and progress, and I haven’t run across many conservative leaders who aren’t conjobs and bullshit artists. But I know that the rank and file of conservatives are good people who are doing the best they can. They’re not puppy-kicking villains. They’re trusting the wrong people and they’ve been indoctrinated into bad ideas, but they really believe that, say, the anti-abortion fight they participate in is meant to save “precious babies,” or that it’s somehow actually compassionate to deny poor children free school lunches. I was a conservative myself once and I know very well that I wasn’t a bad person. I was wrong, but that’s not the same thing as being bad. I didn’t know how to figure out what was true and what wasn’t. Even though I acted in ignorance, I did harm to people and groups without realizing it, so that’s not an excuse or anything, but it’s not in me to insult people who are doing their best. There may well be rank-and-file believers in other groups who are genuinely horrible people, but for the most part, people are just regular folks doing regular stuff and getting mixed up in ideas maybe they don’t fully understand yet.

That’s why it really bothers me when people insult religious believers. Some rank-and-file believers are genuinely awful people, but most aren’t. I’ve known a lot of really intelligent, kind people who were fundagelicals. In a lot of ways, it’s easier to trick and fool smart people than it is folks who know they don’t know stuff about money or medicine. It’s even easier to trick and fool smart people who desperately want to do the right things. In that Amway book I mentioned above, the author, John, relates many times that he truly thought that he was helping thousands of other people achieve financial independence; when he began unraveling the truth, he kept it from his organization for a long time because he still felt that “the business” was at its heart good. That may sound absolutely crazy to anybody who hasn’t been involved in a cult-like organization, but it made perfect sense to me and probably will to a lot of other ex-Christians.

5. Does the heart of the claim or group contain bizarre, untrue revelations?

Sometimes you run across a claim that, on its surface, seems pretty straightforward and humanistic. Mormonism, for example, prides itself on its family values. Most of the people involved in it stress how happy their families are, how cohesive, how well-behaved, how hard-working, how mutually supportive. And indeed, I’ve known very few Mormon families that weren’t, as long as everybody was on the same page; usually when one splinters, it’s because someone deconverted or came out as LGBTQ. When I’ve mentioned the nitty-gritty of the religion, like its founder’s various legal problems or his moral shortcomings or those of his religion, or about the whole idea that Jesus was the son of a person elevated to godhood who happened to have been given the Earth as his reward after death to be populated by all his wives, oh and Satan was kinda his brother, the response has uniformly been supreme discomfort and awkwardness. The Mormons I’ve known often don’t even know about the inner workings of their own religion; when they do, they tend to downplay it in favor of the outward show of familial unity and personal contentment and happiness.

Other times you talk to someone about some fairly-innocuous personal empowerment seminar and it turns out to be run by a group that sincerely believes that space aliens who were brought to Earth on DC-8 jets eons ago and trapped here can possess people and cause all sorts of psychological problems.

I’m not sure it’s possible to build a strong house on a weak foundation (hey, not everything in the Bible is sheerest nonsense). I don’t care how supportive Mormonism is or how psychologically-sound Scientologists claim to be. If the center of the group is not only untrue but blatantly ridiculous, it’s going to infect whatever else that group can accomplish. I’ll accept disavowal of earlier ridiculous claims, by the way–I think it’s difficult but possible to overcome an iffy start–but not if those claims are still the operating core of the group. People paying lip service to such untrue claims–or worse yet believing untrue claims–are people who have lost either their care for the truth or their ability to discern the truth in the first place, and either way, I don’t want to give them my time or resources.

On that note, there are a great many secular charities now that prize and value compassion but don’t get mixed up in untrue claims at their heart. We no longer have to put up with religious organizations being the only game in town to administer help to those who need it.

In the end, I simply don’t feel like I have time anymore for something that isn’t the truth. 

At least now I feel like I have the tools I need to make sure I’m spending time and resources on stuff that’s true rather than false. I sure didn’t have that assurance when I was a Christian. I had to learn those skills at great cost–and almost at the expense of getting sucked into other false ideologies after my deconversion. I’m living proof that nobody becomes immediately enlightened instantly after deconversion. We have to work on it.

Maybe your method of figuring out what’s true differs from mine–and maybe what I’ve outlined is just the bare beginning of how to make sure someone is on the right track. I’m also aware that some good groups and ideas might well fall afoul of some of these directives; like the Pirate Code, these are more guidelines than rules. But it’s a start, and it’s more than I had when I was younger, and so I’m happy to give it to you in hopes it helps you too. We’re all in this together, after all.

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