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SNR Episode 15 - Sex, Drugs and the 'R' Word

November 17th, 2009 (02:05 pm)

Books mentioned in the podcast (Amazon.com links below each title)

"The Evolution of God" by Robert Wright
"The Case for God" by Karen Armstrong

Book about exit counselling for former members of cults:

"Captive Hearts, Captive Minds - Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships" by Madeline Landau Tobias and Lanja Lalich

Other recommended titles:

"The Book of Atheist Spirituality" by Andre Comte-Sponville
"After Atheism" by Mark Vernon
"Godless Morality" by Richard Holloway
"Spiritual Intelligence" by Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall
"The Dancing Wu Li Masters" by Gary Zukav

Hello and welcome to episode fifteen of The Naked Soul. I'm Heather Gout. I've gone right to the end of my time limit producing this episode; on the SNR website you'll see I promise to bring out a new show every four to six weeks and I am closing in on that deadline now. In my defence, I would say that October was a particularly hectic month, September and October to be precise. But now it's November, and I have started a week's vacation. I've had some extra sleep, recharged my batteries and I'm ready to broadcast. So be prepared, because I've decided to make up for lost time by recording two – yes, two-- Naked Soul podcasts before the end of November, which works well in another way, because the ideas I want to discuss fit together. It makes sense to have them back to back.

But before I get to that, I have a lot of reasons to be grateful. There are now fifteen people on Facebook who have joined the SNR page on Networked Blogs so they can follow the show from there. If you'd like to add yourself just find the Network Blogs application and search for The Naked Soul. It won't come up right away; you'll have to ask to be shown blogs with less than twenty followers. Of course, if you add your name that gets me a bit closer to the magic number. Many thanks to Sharon Taylor, who became fan number fifteen last month. And a big thank you to Dr.Albin Wallace for subscribing. I want you to know I did watch the BBC Horizon programme which investigated how the brain plays a part in forming our sense of self. I think it will make a good topic, and so look out for that maybe in episode 17.

But anyway...must get started. As those of you who have listened a while will know, in 1999 I stopped going to the church I'd been attending for twenty-one years. And one of the first things I did was search the internet for resources to help ex-Christians. I ended up buying a book written by two psychologists with experience in exit counselling. Now exit counselling can be many things: it can help a person leave any kind of abusive or manipulative relationship, but most often when the term is used it is in reference to helping people leave cults. My former church wasn't a cult, strictly speaking, but only because it had managed to shed that label by modifying its doctrines to confirm with mainstream Christianity. For most of the years I attended I think it did qualify. It wasn't as controlling as, say, Scientology or the Moonies—I wasn't completely cut off from social interaction with non-members or deprived of all my possessions. But walking away still created a kind of collapse, a feeling that everything that identified me and directed my time and energy had gone. And I was in the middle of that angry, distressed phase, the worst part of ending anything, when you probably should see a professional. But I was never a person who felt comfortable confiding in strangers, not face to face anyway. Maybe if I'd known about podcasting ten years ago I could have made up a load of *.mp3 files and emailed to a therapist instead. But I didn't know, so I just tried to fix myself.

And since that time I've wondered: what would I do if someone came to me, because they had a son or daughter about thirteen years old, the same age I had first contact with the Worldwide Church of God, and what if they wanted me to draw on my experience and find a way to persuade their child to reject a similar kind of religious persuasion? What if they wanted me to talk their child out of making the same decision?

And I've never been able to think of an answer. This upsets me a little. It means maybe there was nothing anyone could have done or said when I was thirteen that would have changed my mind, and I'd rather comfort myself with the idea that there could have been. And then at times I fall back on that old scapegoat, the education system, and find myself bewailing my grade eight curriculum. But honestly, what subject or subjects could have been inserted into my Junior High School timetable, between English and Chemistry, between Typing and Social Studies? Or maybe it should have come under the umbrella of Social Studies? Would I have been up to the material? This is what I remember from Grade 8 Social Studies: I memorised the names of the islands of Japan, and learned what a Shogun was. I heard the phrase 'Industrial Revolution' for the first time. In English I learned about the Napoleonic wars, but that wasn't on the syllabus. That was a dare; my teacher dared me to read “War and Peace”. So I was intellectually precocious, a little. But I'm not sure that would have been enough.

But...if it could be done...I throw it out to the podcast ether, in case there might be expertise brought to the problem, and offer my opinions for whatever they are worth. These are a few things I wish I'd known when I was thirteen:

I wish I'd understood that altered states of mind could be achieved without the use of chemicals. It wasn't possible and isn't possible now to get through adolescence without hearing endless warnings about drug and alcohol use. I'm not going to start a debate about how effective they are but from my point of view, at thirteen, it was at least clear that using those substances carried an element of risk, yes? If I wasn't careful I could make myself vulnerable—that much I understood. But I had no idea that consciousness was so easy to manipulate in other ways. Had anyone asked me, I would have said I was vaguely aware that my head did feel different if ever I lost sleep, or didn't eat properly, or got distracted, put under pressure or rushed around a lot. I knew that music was incredible, music could make you dissolve into nobody but also feel as if it linked you to the person making the music and everybody who listened to it. And I had been in crowds at concerts and on stage and I knew that buzz and that feeling of becoming someone quite different when makeup went on and lights went out. I knew how the slogans and jingles from TV advertising lodged in my brain and I'd even heard about subliminal advertising, which sounded sinister. But television ads were obviously trying to manipulate me. What I didn't know was that other experiences, like music and crowds and lots of activity and repeated phrases, experiences that seemed innocent, could be deliberately orchestrated by someone who might prefer me to be in a state of mind where I might not think rationally, and where I might be open to suggestion. So I made no allowance for risk. I didn't allow for any personal vulnerability.

Exit counselling books – and by the way, I will post the title of that book on the podcast website at snrpodcast.livejournal.com – exit counselling books like the one I bought document the testimony of ex-cult members to show that consciousness altering techniques are used within religion to attract and hold their new members. And they can equally be used in non-religious contexts, in therapy or abusive relationships. So I think it would have been helpful to know my own mind better. I wish it had been possible to know more about psychology, at least enough to be self-protecting.

That's the first thing. Secondly, I wish I'd had some way to smooth the passage from childhood into adolescence. I remember the worst thing about reaching age thirteen, how elementary school stopped -- suddenly you weren't one child in a class of 28 with one teacher who saw you all day and knew you. You were in junior high school, one of 300 kids and you saw a different group of teachers each day depending on your timetable. You became invisible, and the only way you got noticed is if you behaved outstandingly well or outstandingly badly. I personally question whether this is the right way to introduce responsibility to children, with no real preparation period and no mentor figure who can see how well each child copes. And subject choice begins at this stage, with the clear message from parents and teachers that these choices have a lot to do with your future. As if I felt capable of dealing with the future! I felt like there was no solid ground to walk on. In situations where there is also tension or disruption in a child's family relationship the combined burden of all this adult stuff can weigh too heavy. And apart from the family, there's no safety net to catch teenagers who feel like they are free falling into their future, unless you count religion.

And religion will very quickly establish continuity, rituals and regulations. They can be rather prescriptive, and treat the believer like a child, but if the believer feels like a child anyway it's like finding a haven. And religion likes some aspects of childishness, particularly docility and uncritical openness, which Christian churches call 'childlikeness'. It sounds nicer; it excludes the less charming aspects of childhood like trantrums and short attention spans and profound, survival threatening ignorance.

Maybe we should just put all teenagers through a course of therapy! Oh God, imagine how much controversy that would cause. Primitive societies were luckier than us, in one sense. Their visions of the future and cultural narratives were simple. They could and they did choreograph powerful rituals for their adolescents which speeded up the transition process from child to adult. The mythologist Mercia Eliade wrote his book “Rites and Symbols of Initiation” with a closing chapter in which he expressed the wish that modern society could come up with new forms of these old ceremonies. I don't know whether this is asking too much from a complex world like ours, but I find it hard not to look back and wonder if even the equivalent of a bat mitzvah might have helped me, if for no other reason than just the extra personal attention and the underlining idea of acceptance it brings to a thirteen-year-old just at the time he or she is facing the future and feeling...wobbly.

Lastly, I wish secular societies would stop treating the subject of religion the way Victorians used to deal with the subject of sex—that is, avoiding it as much as possible. Popular media toys with it, likes the scandalous bits of it, but otherwise ignores it. Any books on the subject are relegated to less prominent sections of shops and libraries, and even then a lot of shelf space goes to shallow, feel-good books and more scandalous stuff. There are few sensible, mainstream titles of the kind you could find about, say, history. I now know, thanks to the internet, about several authors who write on the subject of religion not from a single viewpoint but broadly. Nevertheless, I don't think any of them has reached even the lower levels of expert celebrity, except maybe Karen Armstrong. Religion has become what sex must have seemed to the Victorians...a ghastly mistake. Surely it was unnatural; surely rational people were never meant to engage in it. And since a podcast is a little soapbox, it's my opinion that this repression has given us a new breeding ground for neurosis, if you'll humour the Freudian standpoint. Maybe we have reduced sexually caused neurosis but increased an existential form of the illness. Maybe fundamentalism is just the latest manifestation of hysteria.

I remember how much I wanted to talk about religion when I was thirteen. I went so far as to invite a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses into the house; I didn't like them, and I was sure I was going to disagree with them, but I was that desperate. What else was there? I don't think it's as difficult as dealing with sexual orientation and deciding when to come out, though I wouldn't mind comparing notes with someone on that just to find out. I was simply more interested in existential questions than other people, and so I wanted to explore those issues in detail and depth. And I couldn't see any other way to achieve that without joining a group of religious people.

I realise that one of the main reasons we don't talk about religion is to avoid offending people, though this was precisely the same reason we didn't discuss sex in the past. Perhaps ignorance of religion isn't as damaging as ignorance about sex. Maybe it doesn't create the same social problems? The worst forms of religion are hardest on women and the poor; maybe it's just a coincidence that sexual ignorance was just as damaging to those same groups. Maybe there are more people who would be interested in sex than would be interested in religion. Sex is not abstract, and its rewards aren't pitched far into the future. I could buy that line of argument. But what if we could have the spiritual equivalent of the Kinsey report? That created a few surprises in its day. Would we discover a greater level of interest in existential matters, an interest the participants would only admit to because their identity was kept secret?

Oh, who knows. I just wish there had been some resource: well-informed, non-partisan, non-evangelising that wasn't cloistered away in a university department where only large sums of money would release the captive knowledge. I wish it could have been presented to me in a way that catered to my level of understanding while offering some challenge. I wish there had been a way to get very serious about the subject of religion without converting or at least, without converting right away and with no compulsion to choose any one thing over another.

I would have liked it to have been as important as education about sex and drugs, because like them religion is an arena for experiment. I just feel that if I'd had even a sketchy grasp of religious history, how the idea of God got started and how the idea changed, how rituals and symbols were borrowed and combined and reinvented, how no religion is without the influence of earlier ones, then if nothing else I might have been more sceptical, more protective of my own opinion and my freedom to explore. Earlier on I mentioned Karen Armstrong. I'm in the middle of reading her latest book, “The Case For God”. I'm not 100% in agreement with her, and I'll talk about that in the next podcast, but I'm grateful for her writing and hoping that she, along with others like Robert Wright who recently published “The Evolution of God”, will make it acceptable to discuss the kind of abstract ideas usually associated with religion, without having to find religious people and run the risk of getting stuck with a narrow viewpoint.

In fact, I've made a list on the website at snrpodcast.livejournal.com, of several books which have been refreshing because they don't take sides with strident New Atheism, nor do they sympathise with religion per se. They are looking for a middle ground, each in their own way. Since I figure that's what most of you listening to this podcast are also doing, you might want to check them out. Thanks very much for listening. I hope you'll join me again (very soon!) next time.