Emancipate Yourself from Mental Slavery: Freethinker or Well Programmed Automaton

Posted on September 27, 2011

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Like Rome of old, each one of us knowingly or unknowingly incorporates personal experiences into our existing playbook; the repertoire of who we are and how we interact with the world around us.  It can be as mundane and innocent as incorporating lines from movies into day-to-day communications with friends.  I can recall how 25-40% of my vocabulary with friends in high school was driven from endlessly repeating lines from movies or television shows like: Stripes, Caddyshack, SCTV, Blade Runner, Harold and Maude, Repo Man, etc.  Why, because in that community of friends, it was expected.  It was understood that if you wanted to engage with these folks successfully, you needed to have a familiarity with these kinds of movies or shows.  People gained their sense of identify from being in that group.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to recognize that this same dynamic actively in play in the world around us and it is more complex and insidious than I originally recognized.  For instance, over time it becomes habitual and self-reinforcing.  By gaining our identity by those we associate with physically or philosophically; it limits our exposure to differing viewpoints and makes it increasingly more difficult for us to act in a manner which is considered outside the shared values of that group.  If done at all, it is only done at great personal risk.  Now, if we limit our interaction to quoting movies, then the ramifications don’t seem too consequential, but if it involves areas of deeply held beliefs, such as religion, politics, philosophies, etc. then it can act in a policing manner, inhibiting our ability to think critically, learn and mature.  We become blocked from growth by our unwillingness to face the consequences of differing from the peer group which we have chosen to associate with and which has provided us with our sense of identity.

The compulsion to NOT go against our self-identified peer group is incredibly powerful.  So much so that we can mentally cease being able to objectively hear viewpoints which differ from our peer group.  We fall victim to a myriad of logical fallacies, designed exclusively to maintain our existing view-point and keep the status quo; even if we are wrong.  We become the very thing that we once railed against; arrogant, narrow-minded bigots.  Mental fascists, if you will, who will not tolerate a belief which runs contrary to their own.

Here’s the thing.  I am not just speaking about people of strong religious beliefs, this applies to everyone: evolutionists, creationists, atheists, theists, republicans, democrats, conservatives, liberals, etc., etc., etc.  Even people who espouse tolerance, ‘live and let live’ and acceptance for everyone can become intolerant towards anyone they feel is not equally enlightened and tolerant.

The reality is that we are shaped and molded by our experiences.  We are not nearly as enlightened and freethinking as we have fooled ourselves into believing.  C.S. Lewis articulated this extremely well:

“I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call ‘Myself’ becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. What I call ‘My wishes’ become merely the desires thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by devils. Eggs and alcohol and a good night’s sleep will be the real origins of what I flatter myself by regarding as my own highly personal and discriminating decision to make love to the girl opposite to me in the railway carriage. Propaganda will be the real origin of what I regard as my own personal political ideals. I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call ‘me’ can be very easily explained.”

As adults we pride ourselves in being unique individuals, free thinkers, unaffected by propaganda and the persuasion of others. Yet, “most of what” we call ourselves “can be very easily explained.”  We fear losing our identity, our uniqueness, being forgotten, lost in an ocean of humanity.  We pride ourselves in our individuality.  We reinforce our belief that we are unique individuals by hiding behind ‘our’ dogmatic adherence and strong opinions, but C.S. Lewis calls that belief into serious question.  He says that your true self is waiting for you.  That true individuality is found in being liberating from your life’s programming.

How is that accomplished?  He says that your true unique identity can only be found through embracing true Christianity – not the false idol of Christianity that you’ve been repeatedly exposed to over the course of your life, not the ‘straw-man’ Christianity that you’ve constructed in your own mind, so that you don’t have to consider it, but something deeper, more real and less flashy than the televangelist and the mega churches.

Now, the first resistance you might be experiencing is that of your false personality rising up and generating fear.  The false personality, you think of as ‘you’, does not want to die.  It wants to continue to exist and control your life.  The last thing that it wants is for you is to objectively reconsider Christianity.  Why? Because your true self is waiting for you.  Your false personality will raise all manner of resistance to the notion.  I am a free thinking atheist, how can I seriously consider myths and legends.  Its 2011, shouldn’t we have cast off the primeval notions of religion and superstitions years ago.  We’re enlightened now.  What will my peer group think of me?  Your false personality is reinforced by your peer group and its shared values; therefore it becomes increasingly more difficult and costly to act in a way which is considered outside of those shared values.  It’s only natural that there will be internal resistance to even considering such a thing. Hang in there; I was in the same place.

When I was younger, I wrote a caustic poem lamenting the state of the church based on my experience with false Christianity.  The poem was published in a local street rag.  Apparently, I was not alone in my assessment of organized religion of the day, but was I right?  While I won’t present the entire poem here today, I would like to explore one specific verse I wrote below as it relates to a fabricated fear about Christianity.

“…He’ll tuck you in gently
And bid you good sleep
But don’t ever question
Just be a good sheep…”

Who wants to “be a good sheep”?  In my mind, at the time, sheep embodied a made-up fear of mine about Christianity.  To embrace the message of Jesus seemed to require that I sacrifice my individuality, who I thought I was, along with my ability to think critically.  In a nutshell, I believed like many of you, that to follow Jesus required me to check in my brain and become a faceless drone…an automaton.  The irony was that, in reality, it was the other way around.  By surrendering my automaton programmed false personality I would become a unique individual and find my true identity.

C.S. Lewis tries to explain it in several ways.  He invites you to imagine a group of people who have always lived in darkness.  You come to them and try to explain what it is like to be in the light.  “You tell them that if they come into the light that the same light would fall on them all and they would all reflect it and thus become what we call visible.  Is it not quite possible that they would imagine that, since they were all receiving the same light, and all reacting to it in the same way (i.e. all reflecting it) they would all look-alike?” The truth is that in the darkness they are all perceived alike, but being in the light would in fact bring out their true uniqueness.

Another examples, C.S. Lewis brings up is with salt.  Imagine that you met a person from another country who knew nothing of salt.  If you gave him a pinch of it, he would experience its strong taste.  If you told him that in America, we put salt on everything, he might incorrectly assume that all of our food therefore tastes the same (overpowered by the salt), but the reality is that we know that the salt actually does the opposite.  It draws out the flavor.  Food doesn’t show its real taste until you have added salt to it.

We all absorb and take on attributes and beliefs from the groups we have chosen to be associated with, regardless of whether it is the group of friends you eat lunch with at school OR philosophical groups you define yourself as, like atheists, conservatives, etc.  We fool ourselves into believing that we are free and independent thinkers when in fact, “most of what” we call ourselves “can be very easily explained.” The more insecure we are about ourselves and our identify, the greater vigor to which we espouse the mantra of the group we’ve chosen to identify ourselves with.  Do not let your dogmatic adherence to these ‘identity groups’ or fear prevent you from finding your true unique identity.  Frequently, it’s a solitary journey.  Expect mental resistance, as it becomes increasingly more difficult and costly to act or think in a manner outside of the shared values of those groups, the longer you identify yourself with them.  It is a form of mental slavery, which we need to be liberated from.

I echo the words of Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey in encouraging each of us to “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”

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