Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

The Rejection of the Critical Mind - Søren Bo Henriksen

Within the last two decades, a growing interest in philosophy, and religion has been detectable. It has become "the thing" to be able to discuss on a philosophical foundation. One example is the renewed interest in the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, as seen here in Denmark. As to the religious element, not only a growing interest is present, but it has also become commonly more accepted if one believes in astrology, karma and reincarnation and, at the same time, to confess one' s faith as a Christian.

A clear sign that philosophy is experiencing a new rise is the many new editions and printings of philosophical literature. In the religious field, one has for quite some time now been able to detect the way many new sects come about or old ones gain renewed interest. And the supply of religious literature and alternative religious models of understanding are constantly growing.

It is of course good to see so many releases in these fields because it means that the various demands can be met.

The drawback is, however, that to many people it means that the feeling of confusion is enhanced, that life really has become much too complicated to be grasped.

It goes without saying that there may be many reasons to the growing interest in philosophy and religion. In the light of the topic "The rejection of the critical mind", however, I find that two essential circumstances need to be addressed:

1. An observation of a general non-adjustment to the conditions of living in our society. As it is, besides prosperity and wealth, we have been given uncertainty and fear of losing what has been gained.

2. Society changes, often rapidly. This has contributed considerably to the situation where many, more often than not, are left with a feeling of: "What is the meaning of life?" The common cause is not always that people have to make ends meet. Often, the cause is that people perceive the world as being confused. To perceive or explain the world of today is no longer an easy thing to do.
Big Issues

The growing interest in religion and philosophy holds in itself a criticism of the established order and the hitherto known models of understanding.

These rules are seen as being inadequate to meet the needs to understand the meaning of life and to answer basic questions about basic, existential problems of life. Therefore, it may come as a surprise that what in itself is a criticism or contains criticism may be seen as unsympathetic towards others' criticism or critical attitude.

Put differently, one could say that philosophy considers the need to see man and society as part of a greater whole. Religion and religious literature meet the need in man to see himself and life in the proper perspective, to understand the purpose of existence. Today, we witness not only a rush for the old religions or to movements and sects founded on these, but also a growing interest to bring about a mysticism which relates to the modem world and its lack of spirituality.

Surely, other reasons to the growing interest in philosophy and religion can be given. Besides the ones mentioned, one may add that we to a still larger extent are approaching a society with a very large information flow and the fact that still more people achieve more spare time to contemplation, to consider the reasons for existence and its possibilities. One of the dynamic forces which is a contributing factor to this search, is the spirit of the time.
Three Key Concepts

If I was to find some words or concepts which according to my mind might express something essential in the spirit of time, something to give an indication, then three such words would be:

* Objectivity - the increased necessity to disregard personal judgment, that we must be impartial in our judgments - to be uninvolved and detached.

* Intellectuality - the significance attributed to reasoning, the prestige ascribed to intellectual work - that we in our judgments should display a commitment of a non-emotional nature.

* Rationality - the ever increasing necessity to be reasonable about what we do should be as useful and practical as possible.

The more intensely these aspects of life and existence are stressed, the stronger the feeling and experience of alienation becomes. This alienation does not merely become apparent in the relation between the individual and the society but also in the mutual relation between the individuals. Add to this the still increasing demand for efficiency which only supplements the effect of the three points.

The counterbalance of this is:

1. Subjectivity

2. Emotionality

3. Irrationality.

Where a society as a whole is not able to meet the demand for making allowances for these needs, its inhabitants are bound to seek each others' company in smaller units, communities of interest, networks, in order to avoid the alienation as to oneself, one's fellow beings, and society.

Another factor of importance in the search for the reasons for the rise in philosophy and religion is without a doubt the importance ascribed to the expansion of science and technology .

We have witnessed the development of a dilemma where everything has to have an explanation, where we in the holy name of science try to find an explanation to anything. A dilemma, where knowledge and insight have no relevance or value until it is scientifically confirmed, where we try to control life and existence by knowledge and insight. No room is left for mysticism, faith, to adapt oneself to the state of what seems to be emotional or irrational.

As far as I can see, this has brought about a paradox and an irony, especially in the Western world. Despite the fact that we in this century have achieved such an amount of scientific and technological knowledge considered by many to be an almost unsurpassable step forward when seen in the light of previous epochs in history, we have nonetheless become more doubting and insecure. Each day, we are faced with still more matters which require our attention. True enough, the technological development is benefiting in a lot of ways. Loss of direction and meaning are, however clearly the disadvantages.

The result is that in many countries a change in the fundamental criticism of society is experienced. Previously, the criticism of society could be summarized in the cliche: "1 am hungry and poor". In the new criticism, the criticism which is paving the way for the new religious and philosophical movements, can be summarized in the phrase: "I am wealthy, but I am also scared, insecure, and rootless".

If we are to understand the development which has taken place in the philosophical and religious fields, the search taking place, the starting point of our interest, both for philosophy and religion, must be connected to the development at large. We also have to relate to the modem man ' s insecurity, both in relation to the outside world and to oneself.

In a crisis or when people feel insecure and prospects of improvement are not approaching, it comes as no surprise that people especially torn to religion in the hope that it may provide a reference and meaning in life. In other words, to let religion steer you through life.
The Religious Aspect

I shall now concentrate the discussion on the religious aspect of the matter. The reason that I by way of introduction chose to mention the interest in philosophy as being on the same standing as religion, was due to my intention to attract the attention to the fact that an understanding of these problems require a willingness on our side to acknowledge the complexity of our topic: The rejection of the critical mind.

What is positive about the religious search is that people have become more and more certain about their need for spirituality. The unfortunate thing about the search is, however, that what is searched for, does not always appear to be what it pretends to be.

When we are concerned with fields such as religion, people's search for answers to their religious questions, we have to address the motives which are the reason for this search and the sects chosen to meet the religious needs.

When people choose to enter into a new religious sect, the choice in question may well be by chance. It may, however, also be because of a specific social, psychological, or religious need which is met by the sect in question. If we are fully to appreciate the motives for choosing a given sect or movement, including to gain the full information, and if the offered information is to have a long-term effect, then we must realize that the choice consists of two phases:

Prior to the choice, the individual go through a (true or imagined) situation of chaos, and he will therefore feel:

1. the need for a clarification or extrication from the confusion perceived,

2. the need for a structural, general knowledge of meaning,

3. the need for a perception of fulfillment of one's needs.

The effect of these needs will be motivation, and concurrently with the perception that these needs are fulfilled, the individual will enter into the second phase where

4. the need for a deeper understanding of the new "saviour", and

5. the need for a separation into the old and the new, arise.

Whether we like it or not, most people will, during the second phase, not be susceptible to critical information on the sect or movement in question.

When addressing what we call "need" and "motivation", it is relevant to ask the question if "the manner in which the world today behaves, the way people in recent years have organized themselves is this still comprehensible to man?"

The question is not irrelevant in our context since it necessarily has to attract attention that people in vast numbers are beginning to look for answers to life's great questions, whether it be in cultures or religions originating outside their own community , or when people themselves set out to try to establish their own explanations.

The rapid development and the advances achieved in certain areas will prove to be a threat to or criticism of the previous rules of clarification, of which among other the Church has been an exponent of.

By way of example and to throw some light on this, I will state some examples which show how people today react: What did the Church do when it became known that the Earth is round and not flat? And how about the knowledge we have gained as to epilepsy and psychological illnesses which previously were regarded as manifestations of obsessions? This may be rather simple and naive examples, but they do, at least to my mind, tell us something about the slowness which has characterized the Church.

- I take the liberty of introducing the allegation that it is the Church which in this respect has separated itself from society and not the society which has parted from the Church !

Yet, at the same time, there is in this situation also a paradox for the Church. Whether or not the Church moves with the times, today it is still by many regarded as an integrated part of society in progress and which to some extent has become difficult to understand.
Looking for answers

Following the reflections made until now, I think an unavoidable, and to some perhaps unpleasant, issue comes to mind: Why is it that people, especially in the socalled Christian countries, try to find satisfaction of their spiritual needs not with the Christian Church but almost anywhere else?

It could be that we as Christians cannot fulfill the needs which arise, or maybe we have not been able to adjust ourselves to the new demands and expectations - and at the same time we have not acted efficiently enough to get our message across. No matter what we may consider the reason to be, we at least have to be more attentive as to our own responsibility in this respect.
How to Exercise Criticism

Until now, it has been my intention to point out that many of those who enter into new religious sects and movements may well have very serious reasons to do so. Naturally, one may find people who have become victims of religious deceit. This, however, is not our approach here today.

When we criticize certain new religious movements and sects of being rejective to criticism, to the critical mind, it just might be that we are inclined to overlook that we to them represent ideas which have failed to live up to their responsibility and expectations as to meet the spiritual needs.

If we are to criticize the new religious movements and sects, then we in all decency have to do something in order to try to understand their motives. In doing so, we have to keep the attention on the fact that things are not always as simple as we might wish them to be. It would be disastrous if our criticism of the new religious sects was used to cover our own self-complacency, rather .than a true wish to help people in need of religion.

When we exercise criticism, do we then consider the need for an alternative? An alternative, mind you, that takes into account the motives which these persons had originally, or still have, to be a member of the movement concerned. Just as there is a motive to enter into a new religious sect, there will also be a motive to reject the criticism levelled against it.

I shall now address the topic "The rejection of the critical mind" more specifically by looking at what criticism is.

To illustrate the topic from the angle approached, which is an understanding of the motives which form the basis for a search towards and into a new religious movement, I will base my opinion on the experience I have had with Jehovah's Witnesses (and to some extent to a few fundamentalist Christian groups, for instance The Word of Life").

As mentioned, the move into new religious movements can for instance be because of a number of outside circumstances in society. There may, however, be a number of psychological or social factors in personal life which may lead to being susceptible to a sectarian religion' s preaching.

Of all the persons I have spoken with or have knowledge of, who after their 15th birthday have been in touch with the Jehovah's Witnesses, the symptomatic sign is their experience of a crisis or that they for a longer period have been exposed to an action of psychological or social stress,

This gives rise to an almost inevitable question: Does a situation ol personal crisis imply that one is susceptible to new religious preachings ? That one is incapable of displaying a critical mind?

Both the answer to this question and our discussion about the subject "The rejection of the critical mind", should, according to my mind, take place in a coordinated consideration of three words:

1. Crisis

2. Criterion

3. Criticism.

In connection with our topic, the word "crisis" may be defined as the stage or time in the development where a decisive change in difficult or uncertain social conditions take place, and where the known foundation of experience is no longer adequate for the person to make a new beginning.

The next word, "criterion", is defined as a religious conception or philosophy of life which serve as the basis of or the means to a more specified determination or testing of situations or conditions with a view to an understanding of something witnessed or experienced in order to sustain a life or existence which is both meaningful and understandable.

Finally, "criticism" which can be defined as an examination, an evaluation or an appraisal of sincerity, value, and coherence.

The critical mind, the state of being critical, is fundamental to man, both psychically and culturally. To-be-critical is a distinguishing feature of human conscious life. Indeed, the social and cultural development is precisely a product of the fact that we as adults still possess the same basic need to wonder and ask such questions as: Why this? Why that? Our use of interrogatives such as who, what, where, why, and so on often result in a state of reflection, judgment, i.e. to act critically.

The fact that people usually behave critically, often makes people wonder when they learn that a relative or an acquaintance has joined a new religious movement in a manner apparently uncritical towards all the new things, and with such willingness to give up the hitherto known in order to maintain the recently acquired.

Again, let me ask the question: Does a situation of personal crisis imply that one is susceptible to new religious preachings ? That one is incapable of displaying a critical mind ?

The crisis in the context addressed here sets in at the time the development or sudden dramatic changes have produced a condition or state in society or a person' s life which has the effect that the person is no longer capable of understanding his or her cosmos. Put differently, it is at the time when the reasoning and explanations hitherto used no longer are adequate to create coherence and meaning in what is experienced.

In going through a crisis, there is a need for something to hold on to. There is a need for a criterion which can assist in the judgment of partly the situation, partly the possibilities available to get by on, to get out of the crisis.

Often, the problems arise when people have to appraise the content of new religious preaching. Here, it is important to recall that criteria and experience are two different things since a criterion may well contain experience. Where a person lacks a sufficient amount of loyalty to the Church or where the Church plays an insignificant part, there will thus not be a sufficient foundation to appraise another religious preaching, let alone to understand or predict the consequences a membership of such a sect or movement can produce.

Where the person has no criterion for his criticism, it may to the spectator seem as if the person in his crisis uncritically chooses whatever comes first.

Here we must pause to consider the importance of realizing that when we take a religious stand, this will be done in the light of what is good and bad, true or false. To the person in crisis and without a criterion to appraise the religious contents, this criticism will be based on if what is offered can produce a relieving effect which can enable the person to get out of his crisis, rather than where it might take him.

To a new member of a new religious movement, the first impression will often be that he has found true happiness, that he has found something which really is of great value. It seems as if, if it can help one person, it can help others as well. Since it can help one person or perhaps several to return from crisis, it must have some value, some truth.
The Task of Criticism

The task of criticism is to unmask, to throw light on differences, to make differences visible from a given criterion.

Where the criticism is too severe, the result may be that the affected person becomes doubtful about too much, too soon. The result could well be that the person has a forced experience of what he or she until now has believed in has just been one big illusion, a delusion.

No one wants to be a victim of deceit. Where such a recognition of deceit happens without warning, it may release a feeling of malaise which may be of a traumatic nature. More often than not. one tends to try to protect oneself against such disclosures by rejecting all forms of criticism. This applies to both groups and individuals, a rejection which can be very aggressive, both verbally and physically, according to how great the deceit seem to be to the one who is faced with the criticism.

It is, therefore, necessary to take into consideration the emotional need present with the people to whom our criticism is levelled.

Next, it is by the satisfaction of the intellectual need that we are in a position to help, thereby averting the creation of a regular emotional breakdown. Usually, the best thing to do is to offer information criticism which means that we as far as possible try to stick to description, where the cornerstone of the criticism is facts, not personal judgments. What is offered, then, is data which will be more or less recognizable and with that not as "frightful" to the recipient. In this way, it becomes possible to open up for a slow process of realization.

When addressing new religious movements, especially the sectarian and fundamentalist, one may witness statements saying that the critical mind is abolished, that the members of the group have been or are being exposed to brainwashing.

But is it possible to invalidate the critical mind? - No! It is possible, at most, to neutralize it or to make it static in relation to the criterion which applies to the group. This neutralization will more or less be accepted and controlled by the needs which lie behind the person's motivation to join the sect or movement in question.

What usually happens in new religious movements is not a rejection of the critical mind, but of the criteria which fight against the criterion which is the basis for the group in question. Once a person is no longer in full favour of the common criterion, a deviant is born. Who is the deviating part, however, depends on from which angle we look at things.

My allegation will, pushed to extremes, be that the new religious movements do not reject the critical mind. Rather they reject what is deviating and the persons representing deviance. This deviance sets in because all that is deviating is a threat against the established or against what a group intend to carry on. In fact, the continuation of a group is precisely determined by the existence of a critical mind, that the members are capable of applying the group's criterion to reject the deviating!
Rejecting the Deviating

Where a person or a group of persons rejects a person who greatly deviates from a given criterion, the rejection may have the following two main reasons:

One possibility could be that the rejection is the result of a more or less critical appraisal.

The other possibility could be that the rejection is a manifestation of fear, that what is rejected arouse an unpleasant feeling, either consciously or unconsciously.

Where such a rejection is made, it is not necessarily made because what's rejected is bad or evil, but because it works as a catalyst to certain feelings or memories which the person tries to suppress.

The more the religious or meaningful element is important to the person, the more threatening and lying the criticism will appear. Obviously, the extent of this will be according to how the criticism is presented and put forward.

The effect of criticism is like a robbery in that the criticism "robs" the security often provided by illusions. No matter what we feel about such illusions, these will, at least for some time, be important and constructive.

Especially when we talk about exercising criticism in relation to new religious movements, it is necessary that the criticism is exercised hand in hand with the respect of your neighbour' s views and the needs which form the basis hereof. Otherwise, the result may very well be that a mutual discord develops, a situation where it all ends in a mental trench warfare in which any dialogue or openness is impossible.
What Is the Problem? And What Is It We Have to Be Aware Of?

The fact that oppression of the critical mind takes place in so many sects is something we can do very little about. The problem is not that criticism is rejected, this may at certain times be a necessary factor of protection to certain people who are in a crisis or have experienced one.

The problem is that the critical mind is subjugated, that in certain sects and movements people by means of deceit and manipulation are denied the freedom to exercise their criticism. However, because of our work in dialogue, we must not be trapped into thinking that the critical mind does not exist in the new religious circles. It does exist, it is just that it appears differently than what we usually would expect. The critical mind can be more or less active. The critical mind activity level depends on what we are confronted with, and how intensely. The bigger the narrow mindedness we are subject to, and the more narrow the criteria' s tolerance is, all the more serious the threat of the deviance becomes.

The reason why people join a sect which at a later stage tum out to be oppressive in one way or the other - is a situation of a psychological, social or financial nature in which people have one or several needs satisfied by this sect. The sect is capable of filling a gap, to remove an anxiety. They benefit, otherwise they would not accept the offers put forward.

How are we to use the knowledge about the conditions for the critical consciousness, i.e. the fact that it is suppressed or neutralized in certain sects and religious circles - and can we?

According to my mind, the motive and the purpose should be to collect and to procure information which can help people who are in a tight spot or are in trouble because of a sect or a movement. This assistance should be given with the intent that people can obtain a clarification on their own terms, not ours. We are not to ten them what is right or wrong, good or bad. If we are to missionize or preach, it ought to be by the force of example which to begin with should speak for itself. And after that, we will answer their questions.

Finally, let me end by pointing to three possible steps to be taken if we do not want to end like the rest in their suppression of everything alternative just because they feel that others' way of life is something which is a "threat" to what they consider as salvation:

1. An unbiased, factual information on what the sects in question represent. We must act as a consumers' guidance. We must show that we respect other ways of life than our own. - In doing so, we are given the possibility increase the general critical ability in the individual in the contexts we address, i.e. where suppression of the critical mind seem to take place.

2. When people are in doubt while still being a member of the sect in question, it is imperative that we pay attention to what they need to hear, NOT what we think they want to hear!

3. We must try to give them clarification, not to let them receive what we find to be right or wrong, good or bad. - If we did that, we would run the risk of being just a psychological appendage of what they are already a part of.

Especially the last point is important: It is vital where the issue is not about information but about help to those who are in trouble or who have been in contact with a sect or movement, and who in consequence hereof have experienced psychical or social problems.

If we cannot tolerate that there are people who have chosen to live differently than we do, how are they to distinguish between us and the sect or movement they are or have been a part of?