I’ve been realizing lately how many cults and fundamentalist religious groups undermine scientific, analytical thought. Many of them teach that the world was created in 6 literal days, or a period of 6,000 years, making the dinosaurs and archaeology in general rather embarrassing and inconvenient. Pesky things like evidence are swiftly explained away as the devil’s “meddling” – it is obvious to them that these old bones were placed by the evil one to confuse us and test our faith…
Coming out of that mindset can take time and is very complex. The level of fear instilled in us is so great that even considering another point of view or watching a video on a scientific subject can feel “risky”. Will my faith be subverted? What if they lead me astray? How will I know if they’re telling the truth or not?
In the light of all these overwhelming, unanswerable questions, more and more parents are taking their children out of the school system and deciding to educate them at home. I personally have no problem with the concept of homeschooling per se, and respect each parent’s right to make decisions for their own families. However, I also have a right to express my opinion, without seeking to offend or criticize other’s life choices.
For me, the most important thing is to take an honest look at the motivation which guides our thoughts and actions. Am I shielding my child (or myself) from other points of view regarding creation, religion, faith, science, health, medicine and history because I am afraid that they will be contaminated or unduly influenced? Am I driven by fear, or by a desire to provide the best education possible for my offspring?
Some could say that I have no right to make such observations, as I am not a mother myself. But, I am a stepmother, and a teacher. I like to consider matters deeply, from every point of view. My opinions are simply opinions, and nothing more.
It upsets me that in modern life, so few people are willing to open themselves up to listening to a point of view with which they disagree. The desire for uniformity, at all costs, is so prevalent that when you open your mouth to express an alternative viewpoint, it’s very tempting to close it again, knowing that your voice will be dismissed or ignored.
Being in a highly controlling religious sect stripped me of my voice. I learned to keep my opinions to myself, to remain quiet, and to toe the line. I knew that any indication of disagreement or derivation from the accepted norms would set me apart as a subversive person, an “independent thinker”, someone who would ultimately be shunned and rejected by the whole group.
Even after leaving, it has taken me years to get my confidence back in order to express myself freely again, due to people pleasing, a yearning to “fit in” and to be accepted by others. This is particularly difficult for me as I live in Chile; a small South American country set apart from the rest of the world by the Andes mountain range, the Atacama Desert, the Pacific Ocean and the imposing glaciers of Patagonia to the south. In this nation, people do not tend to express themselves openly, but seek to “keep the peace”, by taking care to say what other people want and expect to hear. This is understandable, considering that during Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 – 1990, anyone who dared speak out risked being silenced, by means of torture, exile – or worse. Thereby, a whole generation of Chileans had to learn to keep their opinions to themselves. Books were burned, higher education became unaffordable, and free thinkers were shipped out of the country.
In fact, the word “no” is rarely used at all in this country; it’s extremely rude to give a negative answer to any kind of offer or invitation, however sincere. Instead of saying “no”, people almost always say yes. “Can you come to my house on Saturday evening?” – “Yes, of course!” says the Chilean, despite knowing full well they probably can’t. The socially acceptable way around this is simply not to turn up. You say yes, but then you don’t follow through. That is politeness in this culture.
So, as a British woman who has spent over 12 years of her adult life in this culture, learning to speak up and to give voice to my authentic self has been a challenge. Writing this blog has been the first big step for me, as well as making the audio files that I occasionally upload to Youtube. Getting to know ex-cult survivors online and hearing their stories has encouraged me to speak my truth boldly, but with love.
This has spilled over into some of my face-to-face interactions with my Chilean friends here too. I no longer feel the need to keep quiet, blend in and avoid showing my true nature, although I do still seek to be kind, warm and generous to others. Just the other day we were invited out to dinner with a couple we have got to know, and I felt emboldened to express my real opinions on a particular subject. I didn’t say very controversial things or reveal any big secrets, I just took the guard rails off my mouth and began to speak more openly, without fear or rejection or shunning. It felt so good!! We arrived home that evening with joy and thankfulness in our hearts, glad to have finally made some real friends.
Of course, this is not always the case with everyone. Last weekend we were invited to visit with a different family, and unfortunately, the conversation turned to politics towards the end of the evening. The next day was the first round of presidential elections here in Chile, and it was inevitable that the topic would come up. When one of our friends asked our opinion on the different candidates, we responded openly, without wanting to start an argument or rub him up the wrong way, explaining that we won’t be voting. Our friend, who had had a couple of glasses of wine by this point, began to speak aggressively towards us, ridiculing our standpoint and insisting on the virtues of his own candidate. I tried to step in as a peacemaker, letting him know that we respect his worldview and that each of us should follow our own conscience, rather than seeking to influence or belittle others. He wouldn’t listen, but carried on and on, until he abruptly announced he was going to bed, signaling that it was time for us to leave.
I do hate that politics can divide people so cruelly, even if you try to opt out of the debate altogether. I sincerely wish that others would respect our right to abstain, but sadly it’s become all too common for non-voters to be ridiculed or dismissed as ignorant or apathetic. We do not seek to judge, influence or suggest to anyone whether they should vote or not, but nonetheless our position is not deemed worthy or respect or consideration.
Sometimes I say to my husband (in Spanish): ¡Soy una persona! – I am a person! It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate this, as he always does, but that I feel the need to say those words out loud: I am a person!! It must be that my personhood has been so squashed throughout the years that I feel so strongly about this, and not only in my case, but for every person on this planet. Sometimes I see someone being put down, discriminated against or pushed aside, and I say: “That is a person!!!” For example, I recently saw a video of a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses dancing to Kingdom Melodies by a river, somewhere in Latin America. Rather than laughing at them or sharing the video for others to comment on and jeer, I felt compassion for these individuals: “They are people”, I said to myself. Whatever their beliefs, opinions or worldview, they deserve my respect as fellow human beings.
During times past, it was socially acceptable to express racist or chauvinistic opinions, with few consequences whatsoever. Now, we feel we’ve matured as a people and have learned better, but I say that very tragically, we have not yet come far enough. As well as the implicit and institutionalized racism that persists in many societies, it’s become common for people to launch verbal attacks on different groups and religions, particularly towards Muslims. At school in England, I had several moderate Muslim friends who were warm, compassionate and highly intellectual. After the attacks on 9/11 public opinion towards them changed, as fear and ignorance set in. Fuelled by a scandal hungry media and people’s desire to express their insecurities and rage, hate crimes towards Muslims have increased exponentially over the last 16 years.
I recently challenged a friend regarding a blatantly anti-Islamic post she had shared on Facebook, and she completely shut me down. I had expressed myself in polite and friendly tones, but she insisted on painting me as a “divisive” person and said that “I obviously didn’t want to be her friend any more”, and refused to enter into dialogue with me. Faced with such emotional and intellectual immaturity, I could do nothing but step away and give up: I can’t control others, but I can protect my own sanity.
Nor do I mean to imply that I have somehow reached a higher level of consciousness, or that everyone who disagrees with me is wrong. Far from it!! In fact, I would much prefer it if people who don’t agree with me would tell me so (in polite terms, of course!) and that we could sit and discuss openly, as two human beings on a journey. Do we have the emotional maturity to engage with others in this way, to really hear their point of view, consider it and respond with love, or do we react impulsively at what we imagine people are saying?
Are we growing, or are we stagnating? Are our minds open, or tightly shut? What is more important, being right – or showing compassion?