Blood, Bibles and Videotapes
Exposing an ancient system of psychological coercion
My parents were converted to the Baptist brand of fire-and-brimstone Christianity in the late 1970s. Consequently, my own religious indoctrination took place roughly in time with the rise and peak of the 1980s slasher-film frenzy. Having been younger than age ten during that time, I was sensibly prevented from watching movies like Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve and its American derivatives Halloween, Friday the 13th and Sleep-Away Camp.
But unlike towering roller coasters, which my older brother was permitted to ride, slasher films were not merely too scary for a young boy; they were (according to our pastor’s sermons) inhabited by demons, which would possess the souls of any who dared the slightest contact.
Our pastor’s fiery-eyed warnings caused me to become terrified of the back corner of our local VHS video rental store. This fear was so extreme that my skin crawled and my shorthairs stood on end each time I walked the stretch of sidewalk at the side of their building.
Through dusty plate glass, I could see the yellowing corner of a melamine shelf, tucked between a unisex bathroom and a bead-curtained closet (stocked with pornos). From afar, the red splashed horror-film covers threatened me. I imagined demons emanating from the videotapes like toxic radiation, climbing over each other, teeth snapping and claws clicking as their wizened fingers pried at my mind. I rebuked them in Jesus’ name, but I didn’t stand around while I did it: I bound those evil spirits as I sprinted past.
Other objects were similarly infected: Demons lurked in UPC codes on boxes of Fruity Pebbles and bottles of Pepsi Cola; backward-masked messages supernaturally appeared in the lyrics of heavy-metal bands, driving teens to strangle puppies and chop-up their parents. I was taught to believe that dark spiritual forces were bent on controlling me: through He-Man toys, Dungeons and Dragons cartoons, and via the jukebox at the local laundromat.
It’s been years since I escaped the spooky religion of my childhood. Yet, I have only recently come to appreciate how my parents’ pastor used ginned-up fears to manipulate nearly every aspect of our lives, from family finances and child discipline (which I have written about elsewhere) to clothing and hairstyles, choice of films, music and TV shows, who we could befriend and with which of our extended family we could associate; where and when my mother could work, and so forth.
My awakening to the strangeness of our pastor’s influence began with a simple technology question, posed in a Facebook group called Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult Survivors and Their Supporters. A pinned post lays out this group’s only real rule, which is (I’m paraphrasing) that you can’t say anything nice about Christianity. Explaining the rule, a moderator writes that:
[Defending religion] is abusive for those of us who were beat, molested, or starved while someone said the same bullshit.
The discussion that inspired my revelation was about RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), “a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to automatically identify people or objects.” The person who launched the thread had been told (by an active fundamentalist) that implantable RFID tags were the “Mark of the Beast” referenced in the Book of Revelations.
This person claimed that RFID fit the Biblical prediction because it had to be implanted in the forehead or the hand. Supposedly, this was necessary because RFIDs are powered by a chemical reaction that only occurs in the tissues of those body areas. In any other part of the body, the fundamentalist claimed, the RFID’s battery would lose energy and soon cease to function.
The person who shared this in our ex-Baptist group seemed seriously weirded out, almost to the point of having a panic attack. After all, the technological explanation sounded plausible, and if it were true couldn’t it mean that her church had been right about everything?
I replied with a photo of an implantable RFID tag. The housing is a biologically inert capsule, designed to not interact chemically with the body. It does not contain a battery. Rather, it is powered by the machine that reads it: when placed within range, a magnetic field induces an electrical current in the coil, energizing a microchip, which broadcasts a unique number via radio. An RFID could be implanted in your butt cheek, your armpit, or your big toe; it doesn’t matter.
The person who’d posted the original inquiry announced that she felt relieved. From there, the discussion shifted as various members chimed in to share their own tales of having long-dormant religious phobias triggered by seemingly ordinary events. The culprits were music and movies, news items, encounters with relatives and strangers on the Internet, and more. Many reported the panicky sense of being helpless and in need of protection, which I’d experienced so often as a child.
As I read these accounts, I found myself toying with a previously unthought-of notion: What if churches used a set of nightmare scenarios to place self-serving emotional trapdoors in the minds of their followers? By linking unavoidable objects and occurrences to feelings of helpless panic, could the process of controlling and recovering unwilling believers be made self-enforcing and automatic?
The muted subtext of my childhood pastor’s words suddenly shone clearly in my mind:
You’ll be taken over by demons if you don’t do exactly as I say. Imagine watching helplessly as demons use your hands to strangle puppies. Imagine degrading your own body in disturbing sex acts! Picture yourself murdering your children and chopping-up your parents! You won’t be able to stop, because you are helpless and evil and we are the only people on Earth who can save you!
A few weeks later, a colleague invited me to review a newly published piece of non-fiction, called Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control. Within a few pages, I’d discovered that though the word Mormon appears the cover, the information was equally relevant and useful to ex-Pentecostals, Catholics and Baptists. In fact, rather than tripping over the book’s Mormon theme, I found that reading examples from a religion about which I am ambivalent made the material less disturbing and easier to integrate.
The author, Luna Lindsey is a recent acquaintance. She was born into the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and remained active in that faith until 2001, when she departed at age 26. In pursuit of her own sense of spiritual freedom, Lindsey became what she describes as an “accidental expert” on high-demand religious groups. She has had a unique career as a published writer, with several well-received novels under her belt. On the day of this writing, Recovering Agency was listed as #7 on Amazon’s Top 100 Lists for titles in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Religious Studies > Psychology.
At around 186,000 words, Recovering Agency is a somewhat intimidating volume. It is literally packed with tingle-inducing insights – so many, that I gave up on bookmarking exciting passages. Yet Lindsey’s skill as a novelist turns what could have been a dry, academic subject into engaging and effortless reading. I covered about a quarter of the book in my first sitting and finished it off over the next week.
In one typical series of passages, Lindsey discusses the “illusion of control” in which an individual believes “he is ‘making his own choices’, when in fact he has been socially influenced to disconnect his own critical mind”. As she does with dozens of other manipulative techniques, Lindsey deals with this subject in impressive depth: every factual assertion is meticulously footnoted, and her claims are supported with quotes from scripture, church documents, historical records, and observations from psychologists and cult experts. What Lindsey adds are stories and examples that that let readers quickly accumulate that all-important sense of intuitive understanding.
Writing about how churches present members with false choices, Lindsey states:
My dad performed an illusion where he would ‘cut’ a banana with a magic hacksaw that had no blade. He let the audience choose a banana from a bunch, then he dramatically sliced the unpeeled banana to no apparent effect. As he peeled it, the audience gasped in amazement when the pieces, one by one, fell away.
As his assistant, I got to know how the trick worked. Slicing the banana was the easy part. Before the show, with banana still attached to the bunch, he would carefully pre-slice the banana using a needle and thread.
The difficult part of the trick lay in the misdirection. How do you keep the audience from suspecting you’ve tampered with the banana? By making a big show of letting them ‘choose’.
In reality, he tricked them into selecting the right banana. He didn’t give them an open-ended decision. Instead, he broke the bunch in two, held-each up, singled out a random child, and said, ‘Pick one.’
The child pointed a finger, left or right, but my dad actually drove the outcome. You see, he never specified the nature of the choice: Is this the bunch to keep, or the one to discard? […] No matter which they picked, he kept the bunch with the tampered banana.
Bringing the story back to religious matters, Lindsey writes:
The church frequently forces your hand by offering you choices while controlling the terms[.] For instance, we’re told to never blindly trust the prophet. Instead, we’re supposed to pray and verify for ourselves that the prophet is inspired.
But who defines these rules? It happens to be the prophet. He doesn’t suggest the option of looking for the answers from a neutral source. Instead, he sends members to Church-approved sources and to the easily-manipulated emotional confirmation of prayer […]
‘Men are free to choose.’ Here’s the catch. The rest of 2 Nephi 2:27 says: ‘And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the Devil’ […]
Passages like these shut down the mind. No one wants to be evil. Everyone is afraid of death and misery. All people are attracted to goodness, happiness, and life. If these are presented as diametrically opposed choices, every middle option flees from our minds. We never think to bring our own banana to the magic show.
In Recovering Agency, Luna Lindsey deftly exposes every con in the abusive clergyman’s playbook, throwing wide the curtains, blowing away the smoke, and exposing the mirrors and levers that underlie an ancient system of psychological coercion.
Going far beyond basics like cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, Lindsey separately dissects each of the mental and emotional structures involved in the science of believing, examining their inner folds and secret recesses. An entire chapter is dedicated to understanding the induced phobias with which I opened this article. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book—but there is so much more.
Whether you have recently fled from an abusive church, are in the process of leaving religion or have long ago left, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It should prove especially rewarding for those who regularly read or participate in religious discussions, as it is literally crammed with brief, repeatable insights that will blow your friends’ minds and shut down the other side in debates. Because when people have seen the props and the slight-of-hand, they can never look at religion with the same eyes again.
• Writer and activist M Dolon Hickmon examines the roots of religiously motivated child abuse in articles published all around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed novel 13:24: A Story of Faith and Obsession.