Religion enjoys a special status in western society, and even more so in the United States. Criticizing it or exposing its excesses is "not done," especially not if Christianity is the culprit. World-renowned Oxford professor Richard Dawkins talked with psychologist Jill Mytton about her personal experiences and her professional opinion. They occasionally mention a study she did on the subject.
Please take into account that this video was never meant to be aired. It is the raw, uncut tape of the entire interview. In spite of this, it is a very enlightening interview that asks a lot of questions that usually aren't being asked.
Jill Mytton had been brought up in the Exclusive Brethren, a Christian fundamentalist sect, and this is probably what drove her to become a counselling psychologist. When Richard Dawkins asks her how her upbringing in this sect is relevant to her profession, she talks about the deprivation she felt, not being allowed to make friends.
Richard Dawkins asks her what she means by “religious abuse.” She says that she means that children are not brought up to develop their own belief systems, that they are indoctrinated into the belief system of the group they are growing up with. In her case, she was not aware at all that there were other perspectives on the world than the one of the Exclusive Brethren.
When asked if any religion has something of the same elements, Jill Mytton says she thinks that other religions could be OK, depending on how wise the parents are, because parents have a tremendous influence on children’s belief systems and the values and attitudes they grow up to hold.
She talks about the indoctrination of children and the way that children in schools such as those of the Exclusive Brethren are not taught how to think critically and that the information they receive there is usually very restricted to the particular areas that a particular group approves of. Children of Exclusive Brethren parents are not allowed to read fiction or to use a computer.
The children are also being frightened, they are taught about hell, fire and such. Looking back at her childhood, Jill Mytton says that it was dominated by fear of disapproval in the present and of eternal damnation in the future, because for a child, images of hell, fire and gnashing of teeth are not metaphorical at all, but very real. She also thinks that the people telling her about these things actually believe that they are reality.
“What happens in hell?” asks Richard Dawkins, and Jill Mytton says that even after so many years, it still affects her. “Hell is a fearful place, it’s complete rejection by God.” “There is real fire, real torment, real torture, and it goes on forever, so there is no respite from it.”
She thinks that there are many similarities between religious abuse and sexual abuse, because both are an abuse of trust, denying the child the right to feel free and open and able to relate to the world in a normal way. Both elicit fear and guilt. Religious abuse also prevents a child from reaching its full potential.
Leaving a cult is extraordinary difficult, she says, because one has to leave behind a whole social network, maybe a system in which one has been brought up, a belief system that one has held for years, family and friends have often to be left behind because they will no longer want to talk to one. One no longer really exists for them. One may lose one’s job. There is also the continuously lingering fear that there might be a God after all, and that it will come down on one.
People who actually leave are often unable to cope with the real world. They lack social skills, don’t know who to turn to for advice and information or what their rights are. They may not know how to think things through or how to make decisions and choices, because when they are in a group like the Exclusive Brethren, these things are often done for them. They do not even have their own moral conscience because the group defines that. There is only right or wrong, and there is nothing in the middle.
Richard Dawkins then asks why they would do such horrible things to children, effectively ruining their lives. Jill Mytton says that it has something to do with control and a sense of power that they experience. It can also be because they themselves are trapped in the system, which is why she does not blame her parents.
Biologists studying animal behaviour are very interested in the period of life during which imprinting happens, and Richard Dawkins asks Jill Mytton if there is a period of human child development during which this type of abuse is particularly abusive or influential. She agrees and cites herself as an example, because she has problems grasping what “friend” is, even now, after more than 4 decades.
As a child, because she belonged to the Exclusive Brethren, other children ostracized her, and that became even more painful during her teenage years. What comforted her was something she learned at the Exclusive Brethren, namely that she had the light and the truth, that she was special, part of an elite.
She fears for the current generation of children at the Exclusive Brethren because they now have to go to schools belonging to them and they are therefore continuously hearing how worthless they are, born in sin.
An American colleague of Richard Dawkins’ had postulated that the reason that America, uniquely among Western countries, is a country of religious maniacs may be because it is a country of immigrants who had left everything back in Europe and that they needed some type of surrogate family, that the churches filled that role, and that this is why they have so much power. That seems to tie in which Jill Mytton’s experience that many people leaving the Exclusive Brethren feel a need to belong to some group.
Jill Mytton mentions that belonging to a church can also be helpful. People attending church have less distress. It does not matter whether they believe or not. It is the actual attendance that is important, the social network and the structure it provides them. She also warns that one must be careful not to go too far.
People going to university for the first time are very vulnerable because they are often away from home for the very time and this is used by Christian cults of different types to suck them into their specific cult, often by a process called “love bombing” (they offer a type of belonging, feelings of warmth and welcome that they may have been deprived of in the past).
The people who do the love bombing actually believe in what they are doing, thinks Jill Mytton, and that makes it all the more dangerous. She also thinks that some people at the top do not believe in it, that they have simply built an empire of a kind and that they are essentially the earthly God sitting at the top.
Richard Dawkins thinks that Jill Mytton was quite convincing in mentioning the benefits of religion and asks her if she thinks that there is also a downside to it. She thinks that unhealthy types of religion tend to diminish the self. Instead of people being valued for their strengths and their potential, they are seen as wicked and sinners, and even when they do good works it is not really them doing it, but instead God working through them.
Sin is seen as something that will be judged, and forgiveness is extremely difficult. When one transgresses, one feels shame, guilt and fear, because of the consequences of the act. Unhealthy religions also tend to think in absolutes: you are a sinner or you are saved. It is true or it is not true, there is no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. Life is not like that. There is a huge area in the middle, where most of us live.
Jill Mytton also thinks that in many religions people do not apply the Golden Rule (don’t do to someone else what you don’t want to be done to you). An individual moral sense is not developed. Rather the Holy Books or the leaders decide what is right or wrong. She cannot think of any aspect of growing up that is not stultified by this kind of upbringing, and considers that a very serious matter.
Mytton’s more general view on faith schools is not much more positive. She says that children must have the right to choose their own path and that any faith school that does not allow that is not fulfilling the purpose of education and is denying the child’s basic human rights. She also does not know of a faith-based school that would be that open, even though she accepts the possibility.
This is a different objection, says Richard Dawkins, than the usual one that says that these schools breed exclusivity and sectarian divisiveness. Jill Mytton does not like segregation.
She also prefers education and religion to be separated, and she would like politics and education to be separated as well.
Mytton quotes Billy Graham as asking why people want to understand God, God is so much of a higher being, people should just accept and have faith. At first, she accepted that, but not for very long. Many religions, she says, do not allow children to ask questions, their natural inquiring mind is suppressed. They do not learn to criticize or to evaluate what they are hearing.
Religion is absolute. It tends to say ‘this is the truth, and there is no other.’ When you do not believe what the religion is saying, this is turned around, there is nothing wrong with the religion, but something is wrong with you, and again, you are made to feel guilty for not believing in it.
People are also warned not to be curious and inquisitive and not to accept anything from the outside, because it is evil and must not be listened to. Discussion with the outside world is discouraged. Information coming in is therefore very much controlled, and this is true for any religion, more so for extremes like the Exclusive Brethren, and less for those at the other end of the spectrum.
Richard Dawkins then inquires if the police could be involved in such cases, that one ought to seriously think about protecting children from their own parents. Jill Mytton agrees and says that she has thought about what she could do. She then says that she considers this type of restriction a form of mental abuse. When you tell a child that it is going to roast forever in hell, that is abusive, she says.
She compares this type of mental abuse with sexual abuse and other forms of abuse and that the study she did has indeed shown that the psychological after effects are very similar.
This interview contains a number of elements that most of us are not used to hear about. In fact, the interview demonstrates another "last taboo." What do you think about religious abuse?