When I read a lot of ex-mormon accounts, some of them turn me off. I know there’s ill will and perhaps downright hostility to an entity you feel has essentially lied to for years of your life, but I’ve always felt that it would be counterintuitive to react so hostilely. Life’s hard enough as it is; you don’t want to cry anymore.

I’ve seen those who will say that religion — or at least the LDS church — is “brainwashing.” I don’t have any training in what the clinical definitions of brainwashing are, but this just seems like one such term that, when used, closes the doors of conversation. How are you supposed to talk to someone when you think they are brainwashed? (On other hand, how are you supposed to talk to someone when they think your very perspective is borne of sin? I guess this goes both ways.)

So, I guess I just wouldn’t use such strong language. I tend to waver in my position — sometimes, I say, “As long as they don’t bother me, I won’t bother them,” but other times, I feel like I have to say something…if only to defend or protect someone from getting hurt. Sometimes, I want to talk about what I believe are reality, so I don’t censor myself. Other times, I don’t care if anyone makes his own reality.

I can recognize, if I won’t call it something as strong as “brainwashing,” that we do face programming. It’s not just something the church does. It’s something that everything we face does. Our culture, our media, our family, our schools — church is just one warrior fighting in the arena.

So, I can say that the church has programmed me to think some ways (and has failed to program me in other ways). And as I have deconverted, I’ve had to deprogram.

When programming works, it sticks. So it’s hard to deprogram…yet that’s what everyone has to do.

One thing that I’ve had to deprogram, for instance, is looking for spiritual “experiences” to justify my worthiness as a person. For a long time, I knew I didn’t believe in the church — I just wasn’t feeling it — but my problem was that at the back of my mind, I felt I should. And of course, my church leaders were eager to tell me that I should feel a burning in the bosom, and if I didn’t, I should pray and fast and read scriptures and attend church meetings and magnify callings until I did. I saw so many people who walked around strong in their testimonies…sure, some of them had problems in their life, but I wondered…how could they truly believe? Lacking a testimony, under this program, was a sign that I was broken, because of course, the program was based on the assumption that the church was true and it would manifest its truthfulness to you.

Others outside the church tried to program me in other ways. I didn’t grow up in Utah or any Mormon-majority community, so there were of course people who would try to convince me that the church was a cult. Of course, they came from a different program that I also didn’t follow — of a hostility-driven preaching style. From the way those people treated my beliefs, I knew I certainly didn’t want to join them or even concede my doubts to them, but at the same time, I knew I didn’t believe the church.

My epiphany was in realizing that…I didn’t have to accept either package of assumptions. I didn’t have to rack myself in guilt over lack of testimony, lack of faith, and lack of belief. I didn’t have to take theological acrobatics. And I didn’t have to listen to any of my detractors. Over time, I’ve had to work on this deprogramming, but now, I’m happy with the state of my (dis)beliefs.

What are things you’ve had to deprogram? What old beliefs (that you may have chosen or may not even have known you were programmed to believe) have taken the longest time to kill?

Andrew S

Andrew S grew up in a military family, but apparently, that didn't make much of an impression upon him because he has since forgotten all of his French and all of his Hangungmal (but he does mispronounce the past tense of "win" like the Korean currency and thinks that English needs to get it together!) Andrew is currently a student at Texas A&M who loves tax accounting, the social sciences, fencing (epee), typography, presentation design, and public speaking, smartphones, linux, and nonparallel structured lists.

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33 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    By crazy coincidence, I was planning to write about a related point, so it’s good you’re warming up the discussion.

    As I mentioned the other day, I just read the memoir The Mormon Cult, and I’m planning to write about it. I had an email conversation with the author over essentially this point and he said that (1) he didn’t choose the title “The Mormon Cult” and (2) he didn’t mean that Mormonism is necessarily an exceptional example of indoctrination, but rather meant to describe Mormonism as a generic type for how indoctrination works in all sorts of cultures and ideologies. I wrote him back that those points didn’t really come through in the text and that it would be very easy for the reader to react to the book by saying “Wow, Mormonism sure is a crazy, brainwashing cult, and thank heavens my culture/ideology/religion [whetever it may be…] isn’t like that!” That point aside, it’s an interesting story, and perhaps the author will swing by and join in our conversation. 😉

    I think it’s very hard to identify the (questionable) assumptions that we’re carrying around with us. I can hardly begin to list off the ones I’ve noticed that I have, and obviously I can’t tell you the ones I haven’t noticed.

    However, I’ll tell you one simple one of mine (to get the ball rolling) and see if I can think of more later:

    As much as I mocked the “husband hunting” at BYU, I think I’d internalized a BYU-Mormon-style ideal that once you hit the right age for marriage, go you to a place where you’ll be surrounded by likely prospects and then you select one and get married. So I set off for grad school with the attitude “Ah, finally away from all those Mormons, I’ll for sure find someone promising.” And on my 21st birthday I took up with the guy who became my first husband. He was a nice guy and a good boyfriend, but in retrospect, I shouldn’t have married him. But, as you know, recent apostates (as I was) typically want to demonstrate that they’re as successful without the church as others are in it, and, unfortunately, I’d apparently internalized “successful = successfully snagged a husband.”

  2. aerin says:

    Assumptions I’ve had to re-evaluate – great question Andrew!

    I love talking and thinking about this type of thing (obviously, who knows how many blog posts I have about it). The first thing that comes to mind for me is creating and understanding personal boundaries. Over the years, it’s been hard to figure out what was my immediate and extended family’s interpretation of mormonism, and mormonism itself. Many would argue that this boundary thing is not inherent to mormon doctrine, but I’ve seen lots of people (mormon and non
    mormon) throughout the years who really struggle with it.

    I’ll give some examples. Some mormons/LDS I remember had no qualms with asking about family size, decisions, etc. and spending lots of time discussing other people’s
    decisions and behavior. Simple things like being able to say no and not feel guilty over it. So – in no longer being mormon and re-evaluating this stuff – I’ve had to realize that I have little to no influence or control over other people’s behavior or salvation…it’s none of my business.

    But what else can you expect from a belief system where members are told repeatedly to share the gospel (assuming others do not have valid personal spiritual beliefs or commitments). Many members (particularly leaders) spend two years on proslytizing missions knocking on doors. Members have personal worthiness interviews with their bishop where many deeply personal/private questions are asked. So figuring out what was appropriate socially and understanding who I was responsible for (only me) was important for me after being raised mormon. Again – please note that many other belief systems have many of these same characteristics and tendencies. I’m only speaking from my experience here.

    Another assumption? I don’t have to always defend my beliefs or my arguments. f someone made an incorrect/inaccurate statement about mormons (or Americans, women, people from a certain state, short people or whatever) I felt like I had to say something. Of course I want to defend myself, and of course there are times I speak up. I appreciate the discussion. But I don’t have to always be right, I don’t have to change everyone else’s opinions or mind.

    Finally (and I rejected this when I left mormonism) that there is just one way to be a good person, to be fulfilled and to serve one’s fellow humans. Again, not all mormons believe this. But many do – from the necessity of being a parent to working ONLY with LDS sponsored/approved volunteer programs (bishop’s storehouse). There are a ton of good people out there and great opportunities that have nothing to do with Salt Lake.

  3. Andrew S says:

    chanson, I can understand what you were saying about it being hard to identify the questionable assumptions that we carry. When I was writing this post, I was thinking, “Argh, what offering am I going to provide,” because generally when I look at it, I point out that I was very tepid believer to begin with. I was *always* the kid in the sunday school class pointing out how really, these stories with horses or steel weren’t happening.

    Really, much of this post had to do with how when I read some posts and commentaries on bloggernacle-ish blogs, they just take some things for granted. So, they will reliably try to use church or church-related reasonings to explain things. These arguments sound absolutely foreign to me, but then I have to think that that’s what people have been raised to believe.

    aerin, your comment about not having to defend your beliefs or arguments is something that resonates with me to this day. I probably have a complex, but I think if I’m jaded, I’m more jaded at anyone who gave me heck about being a mormon (and used inaccurate arguments) than the church itself. Even not affiliated with the church, I grimace at poor and untrue arguments. It’s taken time to avoid that tension — it’s just not good for my mood or blood pressure.

  4. Hellmut says:

    I agree with Chanson that indoctrination is probably more appropriate than brainwashing, especially, to describe what appears to going on in the MTC.

  5. Hellmut says:

    It is, of course, correct, Andrew, that there are any number of actors that try to influence us. In a free society, you may experience any number of view points. That’s the beauty of liberty.

    Mormonism is different because its theology and social practice discredits outsiders as a bad influence, unless they might be willing to convert.

    The tendency to view outsiders as bad stems from Mormon epistemology. Moroni 10, Alma 32, and D&C 9 are quite clear. If you don’t get inspired then something is wrong with you.

    Therefore anyone who does not convert must be somehow defective if not evil.

    In the process, Mormons tend to isolate themselves from their natural peers and are less exposed to a variety of view points.

    In this context, I find it interesting that Mormonism apparently has to rely on enemies to define itself, be they Black, gay, feminists, ‘so-called’ intellectuals.

  6. Hellmut says:

    That’s interesting, Aerin. The worthiness interviews are probably a submission ritual.

    Mormonism is a check list culture. Everyone checks on everyone else. The Brethren could never do it by themselves but they can rely on us to enforce compliance.

    In Germany, we would go to great lengths to spend time with other Mormons. In Utah, I noticed that people do not really socialize in their ward. When the Church arranged for employee housing in their European headquarters, there were immediately disputes about whether children should be allowed to go sledding on Sundays.

    After you experience that for a couple of generations, I guess, you figure out that it’s best to stay by yourself.

    If your idiosyncrasies cannot be kept private, you will have to justify them publicly in testimony meeting. If you testify about them, it means that no one is allowed to judge you anymore.

  7. Andrew S says:

    re 5: Hellmut, that doesn’t seem to be a unique trait of the Mormon church at all though — even though the church may have scriptural backing to it that ties it with other things. Most ideologies will “discredit outsiders as bad influences”…and this statement might sound iffy, but it’s especially true when you add to the end: “unless they might be willing to convert.”

    In any way of thinking, you will have people who think outsiders are unenlightened, mistaken, foolish, blind, deaf, deceived, or plain wrong. From there it’s not too hard to discredit.

  8. Hellmut says:

    Of course, there are other organizations that indoctrinate their members but many organizations and cultures are much more liberal than Mormonism.

    As an organization and a culture, Mormonism is much more authoritarian than Roman Catholicism, which is pretty sad when you think about it.

  9. chanson says:

    Hellmut — You’re right that Mormonism relies on some pretty serious indoctrination techniques such as encouraging kids from a young age to “bear their testimonies” and teaching people to fear and shun any writings or viewpoints that are critical to Mormonism.

    My point (and I think Andrew’s) is that it’s misleading to present these points without context and perspective. If you say “Mormonism practices harsh indoctrination” period, many people will intuitively assume that that means that Mormonism’s techniques are freakishly different from anything outside a handful of rare, dangerous, weirdo cults, which isn’t true. Mormomism’s indoctrination falls somewhere on the spectrum of heavy-handedness in human education in general, and it’s hard to get a handle on how strange or unfair Mormon indoctrination is if it’s not placed in the context of comparison with other cultures and ideologies.

  10. chanson says:

    Here’s an example of a common assumption that one might potentially question:

    Loving people for their brains (intelligence) is seen as a virtue while loving people for their bodies (beauty) is seen as a vice. And yet both beauty and brains are largely luck-of-the-draw items, largely determined by genetic and environmental factors that the individual has little control over…

    And another personal anecdote of noticing indoctrination:

    My dad’s ideology — which he frequently expressed to his impressionable youngsters — included some pretty explicit contempt for stupid people. Dad had apparently learned some of the same lessons from his own father, only the focus of Dad’s dad’s contempt was “black people.” [note: Dad’s dad was not Mormon.] My own father, being a (somewhat more enlightened?) Reagan Republican than his own father, redirected the contempt onto “stupid people”, which he explicitly defined for us kids as “factory workers.” (I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to be recounting unflattering anecdotes about family members on the Internet here, but I’m not making this up, and it wasn’t a question of just a couple of isolated remarks.)

    Anyway, Dad used to occasionally talk about political issues of the day, and after explaining his side in all of its glory (and getting the expected feedback “Yes, of course!” from his brood of youngsters), he’d reach the crescendo of wondering aloud how anyone could be so stupid as to not see how right his position is.

    Then, one day (in around 9th grade) my debate coach was giving me a ride home from a debate event, and I was regaling him with the intricacies of the theory of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (eg. that the way to prevent nuclear war is for us and the Ruskies to build up equal and opposite nuclear arsenals). And when I was done, my debate coach simply said “Isn’t it interesting how you and I almost totally disagree on this issue.”

    That gave me pause, and then I thought “Wait a minute — what am I saying? I haven’t investigated the opposing arguments or even seriously considered the possibility that an intelligent person might have reason to disagree with this position…”

    This wasn’t the same debate coach as in my deconversion story: there were two, and this was the other one. I wasn’t that good at debate (in part, I think, because I didn’t find the questions interesting), but I credit that short debate experience with some pretty important epiphanies…

  11. Andrew S says:

    As I was reading on Feminist Mormon Housewives, I remembered another assumption I had always taken for granted because of the church.

    I once thought marital troubles and divorce were *always* a sign of one of the members of the couple’s (or perhaps both’s) pride and unwillingness to humble themselves and work out their struggles. I wasn’t quite so heartless to say that someone should stick with an abusive spouse, but I’d just add that that was one example where the abusive spouse was *particularly* egregious.

    I dunno. I guess there is an extent to which people can work out their problems, but I was really naive about it — I thought that every problem could be solved in the two were just committed enough to get through it.

    In the end, what made me reconsider this assumption was realizing that I don’t think that people should have to suffer indefinitely for the hope of a better future. I’m not saying that people should give up at the first sign of rough waters ahead, but…it just seems that I see so many members who in numerous parts of their lives overexert themselves and subject themselves to all kinds of emotional trauma because they believe that if they don’t, they are “weak” or “lazy.”

  12. Hellmut says:

    I am not sure if it is useful to conflate socialization with indoctrination. The acquisition of bias is probably not sufficient to establish indoctrination.

    Indoctrination aims to establish exclusive influence on followers. Clearly, that need not be true of parents and communities raising children and happen to pass along ignorance.

  13. Andrew S says:

    The only real difference between socialization and indoctrination is our perception of the extremity of the latter over the former. Why do we perceive it this way? Because socialization tends to be indoctrination for a *society*. Socialization claims to have just as exclusive an influence, but its influence is over a larger society rather than a smaller subset.

    If you’re being socialized to think “America = #1; all other countries suck!” then this is just as problematic as any counterculture or subculture’s socialization/indoctrination — it’s just that as long as you are living in America (which is a big country) and don’t come into contact with the people this would offend, you wouldn’t necessarily see “the acquisition of bias” that is inherent in such a mantra. But of course, this has the same kind of bias!

    If Mormonism were the majority religion, who could say if any of us would deem it “worse” than anything else. Many people certainly don’t look at Protestantism (even the lighter, yet still unrealistic claims) with such a harsh scope.

  14. Hellmut says:

    No, Andrew, socialization is a necessary aspect of becoming an adult. As mammals with a comparatively complex brain, human off-spring has to rely on adults to survive and to adapt to their environment.

    Socialization does not necessarily imbue “society’s” values. In most western societies, there is no longer a consensus about religion or values. We are living in a pluralistic world with several points of views.

    I would agree with you that the American education system employs indoctrination techniques, especially, with respect to patriotism and school sports. Notice, however, that does not matter anymore in most western societies.

  15. Andrew S says:

    Socialization by default imbues “society’s” values. The only problem is that the socializing agents (education, media, religion, etc., etc.,) are at odds with each other and are decentralized, which does leave up become less “American” and more a collection of different subcultures and perhaps countercultures. That’s where the pluralism comes in.

    But that doesn’t mean, for example, that in America you won’t get looked at funny for not being similar enough. If you are a proclaimed atheist, then that does close some public doors to you. If you are Muslim, then that does close some doors to you. Heck, if you are Mormon, then that does close some doors to you. Pluralism isn’t this perfectly accepting beacon.

    To then say that the American education system (which is a socializing institution) employs indoctrination techniques is precisely my point. But you can’t sidestep it by saying that it “does not matter anymore in most western societies.” These other societies simply exchange what values they will overemphasize.

  16. Hellmut says:

    Your remark with Protestantism is interesting, Andrew. I was born Lutheran and can tell you that most Lutheran children certainly do not get indoctrinated by their parents. On the contrary, after World War I and National Socialism, most Lutherans are skeptical about their religion and carefully develop the critical thinking skills of their children.

    In other words, the socialization of the typical Lutheran child is anti indoctrination and furthers open mindedness.

    Of course, there are Lutheran fundamentalists who continue to indoctrinate their children similarly as Mormons. But those people are a fringe group that enjoy little status and influence.

    Bear in mind, there is no such thing as a Protestant religion. Protestantism only means opposition to the power claims of the Bishop of Rome. It may include Catholic denominations such as the Church of England, Lutherans, Calvinists, and movement Christians such as Baptists or Pentecostals.

    As for the fundamentalists, I would agree with you, that they are indoctrinating their children, often worse than Mormons.

  17. Hellmut says:

    “Socialization by default imbues “society’s” values.”
    This is probably a misunderstanding. In the western world, there are no longer societies that would agree on values. There is no consensus that would provide “society’s” values.

    Socialization refers to the stimuli that off-spring receives from other human beings (may be, even pets such as the family dog). As mammals and owners of a comparatively complex brain, all human beings require the support of adults, most importantly our parents.

    “Society’s” values are certainly relevant but they are an altogether different question.

    Indoctrination, on the other hand, requires an exclusive truth claim that justifies a power claim. Such a truth claim may spring from philosophies or religions.

    Examples of philosophical exclusive truth and power claims include dialectical materialism (Marxism) or biological essentialism (Fascism or Spencer’s social Darwinism). Examples of exclusive religious truth and power claims include Biblical literalism (evangelical fundamentalists) or inspirational certainty (charismatic fundamentalists).

  18. Hellmut says:

    Let me suggest a simple test to determine whether parents, teachers, religious, professional, or state leaders indoctrinate:
    Is “open minded” a good or a bad thing in their mind?

    Of course, in a sense, different attitudes with respect to open mindedness are differences of degree. I would suggest, however, to drop the “just” because it makes a huge difference to the mental and emotional health of children, communities, and societies.

  19. Andrew S says:

    Re 16:

    Do Lutherans still believe in original sin? or Jesus’s resurrection? or the Trinity?

    I don’t mean to say that skepticism must lead to atheism, but even the most liberal religions hold on to at least a few points that just have to be taken for granted and passed on.

    re 17: Socialization is learning the norms, values, behaviors and social skills relevant to a person’s social position. So if modern societies require tolerance, then is that not a norm? And in that case, you can easily fall outside of that norm and be chastised for it. By being “closeminded,” you will gain the ire of the greater society.

    What I’m saying is that even pluralism isn’t so open-minded as you’d think. Pure open-mindedness isn’t very realistic at all. We reserve the right, particularly as people who are openminded, to speak out against people we think are close-minded — a bit of a contradiction.

    re 18:

    your simple test would go to show that yes, all of these entities indoctrinate and the limits on open-mindedness are very real.

    No one’s going to want you to be so open-minded that you’ll do anything. They’re still going to have norms and values that they’d rather you support. Even pluralists are going to look down on certain things — cannibalism just to mention one thing, even if it is valued by some other culture or subculture. I could come up with even more unusual things if you’d like to test open-mindedness, but I think in the end, you’d just take for granted that you’ve been raised to think these unusual things are unusual or perhaps even wrong.

  20. chanson says:

    Indoctrination aims to establish exclusive influence on followers.

    “Aims” almost seems to imply some sort of intentional conspiracy. I don’t think that’s true of Mormons or of Mormonism.

    I think you’re right that Mormonism promotes closed-mindedness while some other cultures sincerely value open-mindedness. But when it comes to indoctrination vs. socialization, I don’t think there’s so much a question of day and night vs. a question of degree.

  21. Hellmut says:

    In the MTC, the intent is definitely to establish exclusive influence. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young also tried to isolate Mormons from gentiles. That’s why they created Mormon settlements.

    If anything the exposure to other influences is a side product of the leadership’s need to participate in the nation and the market.

    It appears that openness, not indoctrination, is unintentional.

  22. chanson says:

    It appears that openness, not indoctrination, is unintentional.

    Well, I intentionally try to be open-minded (and try to encourage critical thinking in my kids rather than “agree with me because this is what we believe”). I may not entirely succeed, but I am making a real effort in that direction.

  23. I want to add my list of assumptions surrendered. I still struggle with some of these to varying degrees.

    The assumption that there is one best way to live, and the corollary that anyone who isn’t living that way is bad and sad.

    The feeling that I have to be exceptional (e.g. a member of the One True Church) to be worthwhile as a human being. I now have to find a sense of self-worth despite being in many ways quite mediocre.

    The assumption that I should listen to every feeling of guilt, that it has something legitimate to tell me. If all guilt comes from the Light of Christ, then it’s unthinkable to discern between legitimate regret and toxic shame.

    The assumption that all of the world’s problems have an answer. Everyone should live the Gospel and things would be straightened out.

    The assumption that taking an eternal perspective makes us better people. It’s the difference between resting assured that God will sort things out in the end and feeling personally responsible to make sure that justice and mercy are done.

    The hope that all truth would be revealed in the end. Now I believe that we’ll need to fight for every scrap of knowledge we can acquire as the human race.

    The feeling that life has no meaning if my consciousness ends in oblivion.

  24. And I could go on. 🙂

  25. Wayne says:

    Hmm de-programming.

    That someday everything will be “perfect”
    That I will somehow escape the natural patterns of life (the constant flux of joy and pain) (I have heard that Zoloft helps with that)

    That I have to be de-programmed, seriously the further out you get the easier it is to see the value of some things you were taught.

    Take the gold and leave the muck.

  26. Andrew S says:

    Oh Wayne, haha, of course I think we should take the gold and leave the muck. I’m not saying that everything must go (we’re not having a blowout sale). But at the same time, there is muck to be recognized…(but then again, there will always be muck no matter what change we are going through…)

  27. chanson says:

    I’ve got some more invisible (cultural) assumptions for you: In fact, my whole New Year’s post was largely about the need to question our current “common wisdom.” If you look closely, you’ll see I listed off a bunch of common beliefs that many people hold and may not have identified as questionable.

    Along the same lines as that post, another one is the belief that private-sector profit-driven corporations are always more efficient than anything done by the public sector (a government). The profit motive often leads to efficiency, but American common wisdom has gone completely overboard in terms of the belief that profit-driven markets represent the only way for a society to effectively get anything done. For example, look at the U.S. medical insurance industry: you can show people evidence of how dramatically this system increases the cost of medical care, and yet it won’t shake many people’s faith that (being a private, profit-driven endeavor) it must on principle be more efficient than “socialized medicine.”

    This goes hand in hand with the rarely-questioned American belief that handing tasks over to the private sector always means increased freedom. We talked about this a bit here, on Rational Moms where the fact that American pre-school system is entirely private sector means most parents have the “freedom” to pick which Christian indoctrination they’d like to have included in their child’s education, but if you’d like to send your kids to a pre-school that doesn’t include your kids getting taught (someone else’s) religious beliefs, then T.S. for you — that option doesn’t exist.

  28. Hellmut says:

    We have a great co-op preschool in College Park that is secular. The problem is that it is part time and requires parental participation once or twice a month, which is, of course, nice but if both parents have to work then you cannot afford this option.

  29. Chino Blanco says:

    Tangentially related … (maybe):

    6-7 PM MST – Friday, Jan 9th:

    Listen in and catch the author of “Trapped in a Mormon Gulag” in a discussion with Utah Boys Ranch staff on @ 6 PM Mountain Standard Time on Friday, Jan 9th …

  30. Seth R. says:

    Hello spammer.

    Gotta admit though – that’s a fairly creative one.

  31. chanson says:

    Yeah, I’m still not sure how that one slipped past our spam filter. It’s deleted now.

  32. Macie says:

    Hi I’m 16 and I have a friend that was raised in the LDS, and I’ve gone to church with her a couple of times, I go to church myself but my church is nondenominational, my family is trying to convince me of Mormonism being a cult and that there are secrets in the church that I won’t know unless I’m converted and “stuck” in the church. I want to know myself if there are things that are hidden but of course can’t find out I they’re secrets. Do you have any advice?

  33. chanson says:

    @32 I would recommend following the Exmormon Reddit for a while. You’ll see a lot of interesting discussion on a variety of issues in Mormonism, and you can follow their various links to analyze for yourself which points agree/disagree with.

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