Note: Note that I do live in a secular country where materialist naturalism is the norm, and were atheism might not be the absolute majority, but it is a respectable tradition which seems to be the absolute norm in most academic disciplines. Supernaturalism is frowned upon and seen as non-existing by most people, or even worse. (The same tactics can be used by a community with false claims about the supernatural and atheists btw)
We have a very peculiar and complicated system for religious education in public schools here in Belgium, where every student in secondary and primary school can choose their own religion out of a list of official religions including catholic, protestant, Islamic and Jewish lessons, which will be given to them for 100 minutes every week. For the non-religious children there’s a seperate subject called ‘niet-confessionele zedenleer’ (which means something like ’non-confessional study of ethics’) which is based on liberal humanism.
The guy I was talking to was a ‘zedenleer’ teacher who taught secondary school pupils, and as more of his colleagues he was also a very convicted atheist. The type of atheist even that has a stereotypical ‘there is no God’ sticker on his bag and was a fan of people like Richard Dawkins.
He was actually talking about another subject, but suddenly he voiced his opinion about prophets and said something like the following:
“In the older days people who heard voices were regarded as prophets were followed as prophets, but now in our modern tie we lock them up in a psychiatric clinic”
Quite a judgemental broad-brush statement, and a bit extreme too if you ask me… Not only rejecting every prophet of every religion, but outright stating that they all should have been locked up because they were just mentally ill.
I’ve heard and read this same sentiment from atheists on more occasions, sometimes stronger, sometimes said in a milder tone. But in the end too often it all boils down more generally to the idea that everyone who claims to have had any experience of the supernatural is seen as either a fraud or a lunatic who should be locked away… (I wish I was caricaturing here, but I really have met people thinking like this!! It seems a very common idea in certain atheist circles.)
Apart from the stigma attached to psychological disorders that seems to underlie the way the original statement was voiced (which is unfair to those suffering with mental illnesses.) there is something very troubling about the way in which the supernatural is waved away as if there could not in a million years be another option… Materialism and naturalism are unquestioned axioms that should not be questioned lest you want your mental sanity questioned…
The world I grew up in is almost the opposite of all of this: I grew up in pentecostal and have afterwards always been part of charismatic churches (the vineyard) where hearing from God was seen as something very normal, something that was encouraged for all people. Other supernatural things were also seen as quite natural. Speaking in tongues (sometimes with translation by the Spirit, sometimes with someone recognising the language), healing, prophecies and words of knowledge in which people supernaturally had information via the Holy Spirit that they could not have, and so on…
Now it is true that I’ve seen a lot of questionable prophecies, abuses and stuff that might have been not 100% kosher, and that I do ahev my questions about some things. (I have never met anyone who abused the supernatural or a fake version of it for money though) But that does not take away that I’ve seen an experienced too much of the supernatural to disbelieve in it. It is e that some things are more human in origin or could be explained otherwise.
To complicate the matter more, I have spoken in my life with people from a lot of places with a lot of backgrounds, and the supernatural is presents in other cultures, traditions and religions too. Even if am quite sceptical and think a lot of things I’ve heard might be exaggerated, wrong explanations, etc… There is no way I can ever accept claims that brush it all away and say that none of this does exist. That is simply not an option for me.
On to the word gaslighting in my title , a word I’ve seen used first by poost-fundamentalist bloggers to describe a form of abuse in which the experiences of the victim are completely dismissed.
The idea word comes from an old movie I haven’t seen, but there’s a very good example of a very ingenious form of gaslighting in one of my favorite movie ‘Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain’ (I think the title in English is just ‘Amelie’) in which the person the movie is named after gets fed up with the way the grocer in the neigborhood treats his helper, a mentally challenged young man who might be a bit slow in his work, but who is very friendly. Amelie then takes revenge by gradually changing small things in the house of Mr. Collignon: lightbulbs with lover light, switching doorknobs, and so on. When she changes his clock and alarm he goes out to work before everyone else and fall asleep, and in the end when it all becomes too much he takes his liquor (replaced by something quite undrinkable) and then as a last straw calls his mother and ends up calling the psychiatrist. Revenge complete, and Mr Collignon is psychologically destroyed..
This is an extreme example of a very complicated and well-prepared prepared case, but the same dynamics can apply to other situations where things happen that do not fit into the worldview of others. Post-fundamentalists who escaped the world they grew up in and have seen their old worldview crumble are told that whatever they’ve experienced is nit true, not valid, that theyre crazy or whatever, because nothing can exist that does not align with the beliefs of the community…
These kind of tactics come up automatically to protect any status-quo worldview from whatever deviation that might disturbs it. “Whatever you may claim, it could not have happened according to our Truth so you must be wrong, or maybe crazy even. Shut up or we’ll silence you! It is a very logical way to protect any orthodoxy from thing that undermine a worldview that should not be questioned…
If we use the word gaslighting here for these kind of worldview-preserving tactics, we do have to note that those doing this are, unlike Amelie Poulain, not always knowingly deceiving, just as fundamentalists that use the technique on those leaving are generally not trying to lure others in deceit, but just are just defending their worldview from data that does not fit and might destroy it. I actually think this is is a very common reaction from the more powerful world when two worldviews collide and the less powerful side has experiences that disprove the accepted ‘orthodoxy’ of those in power…
The same principle is at work in the logic from the teacher I described earlier. It’s a mentality of ‘our truth is that reason says that the supernatural does not exist, so therefore you cannot have experienced the supernatural. So you are or deluded and we must see the light of our truth, or a fraud that should be stopped, or mentally not well and should be helped/locked up. The least you could do is shut up…’. What I feel from some atheists is indeed that if someone would come with a claim of something supernatural, that they indeed would like such a person to shut up, or be locked up. Such a thing cannot exist and must be disposed off. Like the inquisition I Gallileo’s days, the orthodoxy of the status should not be disturbed, the boat should not be rocked, the ‘Magister dixit’ of the enlightenment tradition should not be spoken against…
This can lead to actual discrimination too: There was a case here in Belgium recently when a person, who is a Pentecostal Christian who believes in healing, was fired from a function in an university because he had a website in which he claimed to believe in miracles, even though the work he did had nothing to do at all with this.
There is something very absolutist in certain forms of modern atheism. I would not in a million years trust this kind of modern atheists more in a position of power more than any supposed ‘theocraty’ in which any religion is abused to keep a certain religious group in power. They would indeed rid the world of everything supernatural as much as they could, if needed with violence or by breaking people’s spirits in a psychiatric clinic…
All of this ironically does fit in very well with the roots that modern science and technology do share with actual magic: the quest for power over nature. C.S. Lewis even called magic and science twins for this reason, and this has been the major occupation of modern humanism: conquering nature, getting more power. (Which also means that the elite who does this work gets more power over the others.) Modernism has created a very closed worldview, in which the natural sciences have had an enormous development which made a lot of extraordinary things possible through manipulation and mastering of the natural world (from medical science to nuclear weapons).
But the worldview has become absolute, and it has become for some an orthodoxy that should not be spoken against. The inquisition and Galilei have switched sides…
Underlying still there is the fear of the unknown, the fear of thing bigger than us. We tamed the natural as far as we could (and destroyed half of the planets ecosystems and brought on the greatest mass extinction since the end of the Cretaceous time) but we don’t even control ourselves (and sometimes shush ourselves with neurocalvinist nonsense that we don’t have the free wil to this, not realising that this idea completely destroys any notion of ‘conquest of nature’ and just proclaims the absolute victory of nature over man on the end…)
But in the end, unless there will be a very totalitarian atheist dictatorship in which anyone who dares to say anything about the supernatural get ‘cured’, it cannot be stopped or erased from this world. Reality just is regardless of any of our descriptions of it, and it will never fit the mold of our pet theories about how the universe workd. The world is bigger than we want it to be, there are things we cannot investigate with naturalistic science nor control with technology.
We are not in control of everything.
And it’s fine..