Christian Dependance on Gaslighting

Religious indoctrination in the scheme of evil

A popular song from the 1960s still resonates, What the World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love.

How true, of course, given the history of human obsession with war and brutality. But also urgently needed is critical thinking. That is, there is so much ongoing damaged caused by belief in ancient superstitions—Christianity being the champion superstition, i.e., it has survived for two millennia. It created a perfect blend of superstitions, gleaned from the cults of the ancient world: (1) the idea that a god was going to send a savior/rescuer/messiah to save its chosen people; (2) after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, animal sacrifice to appease god for sins came to an end—and so Christianity resorted to the grim belief that a single human sacrifice would do the trick; (3) when this human sacrifice resurrected, this had major magical impact for those who believed in it, i.e., eternal life. What a formula—and people still believe it!


One especially grotesque belief was added: There is a flip side to eternal life, i.e., as well as bliss forever in the presence of Jesus, for those who don’t believe, there is torture forever. Jesus-script in the gospels includes the promise of getting tossed into eternal fire if you fail to measure up. As I have often pointed out—and it does need to be stressed repeatedly—this is vicious totalitarian monotheism. There is no evidence, at all, that either eternal bliss or fire is real: both are derived ancient superstitions. Part of the ongoing damage of religion is that there are billions of people who still take these ideas seriously—and suffer unnecessary agonies.


Dale W. O’Neal, in his essay, “The Making and Unmaking of a

Christian Zealot,” in John Loftus’ 2021 anthology, God and
Horrendous Suffering
, offers an example of the damage. When he was 28, he and his wife were considering having a baby:   


“We realized bringing a child into the world would place him or her at risk of eternal punishment. How could we do that; for that matter, how could any Christian couple put their child in such jeopardy? After all, there are countless examples of children of devout Christian parents who don’t become Christians, or, worse yet, leave the faith (as was the case in my family).” (Kindle, page 495)


O’Neal would eventually see the absurdity of this idea, but he explains why most of the faithful don’t, can’t, because it is part of who they are: 


“Like most Christians, I wasn’t a born-again Christian, I was born Christian. My ‘faith’ was no leap in the face of doubt because I never doubted. My faith was an identity I was born with which distinguished me from Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and even Roman Catholics. I was a Christian. Faith by birth is the primary path to faith for most ‘people of faith’ because of a powerful psychological force known as imprinting: newborns pattern their behavior and thinking after those around them.” (Kindle, page 496)


O’Neal explains that he went to Talbot School of Theology, whose dean for a long time was his own father—surely an example of extreme imprinting! He got a Master of Divinity degree, and served as a minister for five years. But before he was 30, doubts began to invade. He explains at the very start of the essay that it dawned on him that human sacrifice was horrible theology. “I began to suspect the core of my Christian faith—salvation requires a human sacrifice—was an invention of humans, not god. Like so many Christians, particularly those born into the faith, I had given little thought to the gruesome physical and emotional reality a human sacrifice entailed: raw terror for victim, executioner, and observer.”


His next doubts had to do with eternal punishment and genocide—how do either make sense if a loving god is managing creation? And yes, both are at the heart of Christian theology: Jesus- script includes the prediction that the arrival of the kingdom of god will bring as much suffering as at the time of Noah. O’Neal’s great escape took the form of getting a doctorate in psychology and going into private practice. His essay provides a brilliant end to this Loftus anthology: it’s a precise description of how religion works. And it’s no mystery really—leave that to theologians who defend their god’s mysterious ways. 


The unmaking of a Christian zealot comes naturally when critical brain functions are understood. Indeed, this quote explains so much of the human condition. How could a clever god be given credit for this?  


“Critical thinking is done by the frontal cortex—the last part of the brain to develop. One’s identity is bound primarily to the amygdala—one of the first parts of the brain to develop. The job of the amygdala is to ensure one’s physical and emotional survival, of which one’s identity is a major part. When one’s identity is threatened (ego, gender, family, race, caste, religion, political affiliation, etc.), the amygdala signals the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline into the blood stream. 


“This causes a state of high alert, where body and mind are focused on escape by fight or flight. To aid in this escape, the adrenaline impedes, or even blocks, access to the frontal cortex; it wants the threatened person to react, not think.” (Kindle, page 495, emphasis added)


This brought to mind the origins of World War I; patriotism especially is aroused when national identities are threatened, so how ironic that in 1914 the major European nations that were engulfed in the war, e.g., England, Germany, France, Italy, thought of themselves as Christian nations, and prayed to the same god. Critical thinking might have dampened the enthusiasm of citizens in each country for the war. How did it make sense to slaughter fellow Christians? Each one of the countries maintained separate identities, and responded with savagery.  


The major sections of O’Neal’s essay provide good summaries of what we’re up against in trying to lessen the damage caused by religion, e.g., Subjective Authentication, Groupthink, Gaslighting, Gaslighting 2.0, Gaslighting 3.0, Confirmation Bias, Selective Attribution. These are all ways in which religions defend themselves by subverting critical thinking. 


O’Neal notes that “…virtually all religions claim a subjective experience which authenticates the truth of their faith.” (Kindle, p. 496) He notes the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 8:16, “The spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Which no doubt prompted the lyrics of the popular hymn, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” As if that settles it. This is why we keep asking theists where we can find reliable, verifiable, objective data about god(s). What religious folks feel in their hearts is evidence for what they’re feeling. There are no data at all to confirm that they’re in touch with the power that runs the cosmos. O’Neal takes aim at the shallow thinking of a major Christian apologist:


“Well-known Christian scholar, William Craig, asserts, ‘the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.’ He goes so far as to claim this experience is so ‘immediate’ and ‘unmistakable’ that it rises to the level of ‘objective knowledge.’ One is incredulous that a scholar of Craig’s stature could be unaware or ignore that devotees of virtually every religion say the same thing.”  (Kindle, p. 496)


Virtually every religion. Occasionally leaders of the world’s so-called great religions get together to demonstrate ecumenism, with smiling photo-ops and hugs. But in truth, each one of these leaders is confident that his religion (it’s usually men) is the right one because of what they feel in their hearts. They would never be able to agree on theology! “But, what the hell, let’s hug each other for the cameras.” When we see the photo-ops, we want to say, “What are you guys playing at?” 


But O’Neal knows what they’re playing at, based on his knowledge of how Christianity works. Here is his definition of one of its primary tools:


“Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to make people doubt their intelligence, memory, perception, and sanity. It seeks to undermine trust in one’s own mind and instead rely on the judgement of someone else, usually an authority figure who seeks to control the individual or group.” (Kindle, p. 498)


Doubt their perception: a classic example of this is the story of Doubting Thomas in John 20. Thomas wanted evidence, rather than trusting the word of the disciples who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. So Jesus showed up again a week later, with Thomas in the room. Here's your evidence! Now he believed! But was scolded by Jesus: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29) Authority figures who seek to control have always made that appeal: turn off your mind, take our word for it. 


O’Neal cites several scriptures that urge mindless devotion: 


Proverbs 3:5:  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.”


Isaiah 55:8-9 (which he notes gets the gaslighting prize): 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”


The apostle Paul certainly is a champion of bad theology, as O’Neal notes in reference to I Corinthians 1: 18-20 & 25:

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’… Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

He also notes that these texts are “…a frequent refuge for preachers and teachers when reason and faith conflict.” (Kindle, p. 498)


Gaslighting escalates, as O’Neal notes in his description of Gaslighting 3.0: This “ the most disturbing and dangerous stage of all. This occurs when believers are so certain of their convictions, they condone, justify, and may even commit acts of violence in service of them.” (Kindle, p. 500, emphasis added) Indeed, the history of Christians fighting one another, often to the point of bloodshed, is a scandal—and is a significant part of the horrendous suffering described in this Loftus anthology. “This is the seductive and pervasive human tendency—despite overwhelming scientific evidence we are 99.9% genetically identical—to be certain one’s particular race, nation, religion, family, tribe, caste is superior.” (Kindle, p. 500)


It’s such a shame, such a tragedy, that religion is a major contributor—as it has also has been to the dumbing down of humanity, as we are seeing: conservative Christians leading the way in science denial as we try to fight a pandemic. In fact, science denial in so many areas. The world doesn’t need billions of people who are simply unaware—and happy to remain so—of the cosmos and how it works, as revealed by science. O’Neal’s example of the frontal cortex vs. the amygdala contributes so much to our understanding of human behavior. No original sin required: it’s the haphazard way our brains developed in the evolutionary process. 


This brief O’Neal essay (a little over ten pages) in a splendid tutorial on how religion works, and just how people have been sucked into it for millennia. 



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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