Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Levers of Thought Control

"Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding."
--Proverbs 3:5 (KJV) 

Religion is a pervasive form of thought control.  Those who practice religion upon others are taking advantage of inherent traits in the human mind in order to control it.  These practitioners may not be consciously aware they are doing this because they are the inheritors of a system of techniques, refined by millennia of trial and error, rather than the conscious creators of the system.  Modern science, however, is starting to lift the curtain hiding the wizard from his audience.

There are two studies in particular that are quite illuminating when it comes to understanding how religion works--how the "Miracle of Theism" (i.e., the fact that anybody believes in such absurdities) is achieved.

The first study was conducted in the 1950's by Prof. Solomon Asch.  The Asch experiments (as they are usually called) measured the extent to which peer or social pressure would effect the answers given by test subjects.

The test subjects were given a series of lines on paper, next to each one were three more, one of which was exactly the same length as the first.  The other two would be noticeably different in length.  The test subjects were asked to determine which of three lines was the same length as the first one.  The person being tested would be surrounded by other false "test subjects" who were actually cooperating with the researchers.  These cooperating test subjects would give the correct answer a couple of times and then begin to intentionally give the wrong answer and say that the one of the lines of the wrong length actually matched the original line in length.

The studies (the original study has been replicated many times with consistent results) found that 75% or more of respondents will give at least one wrong answer simply because others are doing so.  A third of the test subjects would consistently give an incorrect answer if the cooperating subjects did so as well.  In post study interviews, most who gave a wrong answer knew they were giving an incorrect answer but went along with the crowd.  A smaller percentage, however, reported that they actually believed that the incorrect answer was actually correct.  They apparently experienced a subjective impression that lines of noticeably different lengths were, in fact, the same length.

Increasing the number of "cooperating subjects" from one to two to three increased the frequency of conforming wrong answers from the real test subject.  But, if just one of the other "subjects" gave the right answer, the rate of conforming wrong answers from the real test subject would drop dramatically.  In addition, if allowed to write down their answers privately, the rate of conformity dropped dramatically.  (As I stated before, this is one of the primary reasons the religious are so insistent on having school prayer--to enforce conformity.)

Rates of conformity increased as the difficulty of the task increased.  Asch measured this by making the differences between the lengths of the lines smaller and thus less obvious.  Comparing lines of differing lengths is a relatively easy task unless the differences are very small, but when other tasks are introduced that are inherently more difficult one can expect much greater conformity.

Needless to say, it is much more difficult to parse bad logic, especially bad logic that one has been raised with, than it is to judge the relative lengths of lines on paper.  Thus, the conformity rate for the indoctrination of individuals with religious thinking using peer pressure is certainly much greater than that reported in the Asch experiments.

Rates of conformity also increased if friendships or mutual dependencies were created between the test subjects beforehand.  Likewise, conformity rates increased if the actual test subject found one or more of the phony test subjects attractive.

Further research has shown that most people internalize the opinions they acquired as a result of peer pressure and adhere to them even when the peer pressure is removed.  This tells us that once the process has achieved its goal, the conforming subject will continue to conform.  He or she will be comparable to the subjects in the Asch experiments who actually thought the differing lines were of the same length.  From that point on, ordinary human egotism and reluctance to admit error will ensure that opinions acquired through peer pressure will remain entrenched.  Furthermore, this conforming subject will then play the role of the false test subjects and themselves bring peer pressure to bear on any new subjects or those inclined to think independently.

Religion doesn't leave this to chance, however, because there are people who will be able to overcome that peer pressure and because there are competing groups that will try to use the same process to steal converts away.  So, religion tries to repeat the process on a regular basis at church services that members are very strongly encouraged to attend at least once a week.  At these services, various other tricks will be used to re-enforce the tendency toward conformity and the de-activation of the individual's independent mind.

The congregants will gather in a group to ensure that their social instincts are at the forefront of their minds.  Then they will engage in uniform group behaviors such as sitting, standing, kneeling and singing simultaneously.  The singing and other use of religious music provides a hypnotic effect, lulling the forebrain into a dormant mode.  This allows the message, the memes inherent in the music and the sermon, to be absorbed without passing through the brain's usual filter of critical thought.  These thoughts become rote memory to be repeated endlessly and automatically.

Once the god meme has been firmly planted, the question becomes to what end?  To answer that question, we need only look at another set of experiments that were inspired by the Asch experiments and devised to test obedience to authority.  These experiments, first performed by Prof. Stanley Milgram, measured the extent of mindless obedience in samples of the population. 

The Milgram experiments also shed light on the methods used by religion.  Most people have heard of these experiments.  What Prof. Milgram did was to take test subjects from the general population and place them in a scenario where they were to play the role of "teacher" under the instruction of an authority figure (a researcher in a lab coat) who "taught" subjects by administering seemingly painful electric shock for wrong answers.  The people who were being taught were actually actors who would pretend to be receiving actual shocks when, in fact, they were not.  The shocks would be administered by flipping a series of switches which appeared to increase the severity of the shocks as the number of wrong answers increased.

To ensure uniformity in the trials, the "learners" would go to a different room, ostensibly connected by an intercom.  As the test subjects administered the shocks, recordings of the "learner's" voice would register increasing levels of pain until the "learner" appear to lose consciousness from the pain.  Yet, still, the authority figure would urge the test subject to continue using stock phrases.  Approximately 65% of the subjects would continue to administer shocks all the way to the highest level, even though it appeared that the "learner" had lost consciousness, or had even died, some time previously.

Prof. Milgram also found that by changing the external indicators of respectability, he caused a change in the level of obedience.  If the "Teachers" thought the experiment was being run by a highly prestigious university, they would continue to the end more often than if they thought it was being run by a private company in a shabby building.  In the latter case, the compliance level dropped to 48%.

Religion goes to a great deal of trouble to ensure it presents a front of extreme respectability, with conservative dress for clergy, stately edifices, and claims of moral superiority and purity.  Combine these outward symbols with the god meme implanted using every form of peer pressure and mind control imaginable and you have a group of people who can only be called extremely compliant.  If told to do so, they will do anything--and, in fact, have done so on numerous occasions. 

Combine the findings of the Asch experiments with the Milgram experiments and you have a perfect explanation for the majority of the tactics used by religion, particularly school prayer.  While it may be that only a few religious leaders have ever been consciously aware of the cynical uses of these tactics, I do not doubt that they have been used and refined over centuries because they work.  Their success brings the members of the religion precisely the sort of social rewards they crave--greater acceptance, status, and influence.

Combine the effects of those tactics with the insights provided by the Stanford Prison Experiment, however, and you have a perfect explanation of why this should be opposed.  No one person should have a great deal more power than others, and no one group should have such power either--especially when the group is defined by irrational beliefs held for emotional reasons.

When your standard for what constitutes "truth" is whatever "everyone else" thinks, then of course the local dominant religion will meet that standard.  But, if that is your standard for "truth", then you're not fully human.  You're a talking sheep.  Worse, you're a member of the mob.  When given an aura of legitimacy, the mob acts just as its despicable reputation predicts.  (See, also, this brief paper and this article on mob psychology.)

(Astute readers will note that I have made no mention of some of the more obvious manipulative tactics used by religion such as exploiting the fear of death or the instinct to protect children and babies.  Those topics have been or will be covered in other posts.)

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