At a deep psychological level people tend to flow with the cultural tide, and so we have the observation that the religious belief people embrace tells us a great deal about their geographical location and the micro-cultures they inhabit, and not much else. Those born into a Sunni family will generally tend to be Sunni themselves, and those born into a Catholic family will also tend to be Catholic themselves, it is the nature of things. There are of course always exceptions and this is usually explained by individuals exposing themselves to other variations, for example a Catholic Child going to a Baptist youth club might end up being Baptist, or a Sunni, attending a Shia Mosque because there is no local Sunni Mosque, just might end up switching because of the emotional bonds built up with those he (or she) mixes with. There are lots of other reasons for exceptions, but by default the general trend of sticking with the local cultural variation remains.
Now what about people who are born into the Westboro Baptist Church, a group that very actively does several distinct things to preserve their micro-culture …
- They cut all external ties so that their micro-culture does not become contaminated, anybody who leaves is completely isolated from their family and the only social circle they have ever known, least they end up contaminating anybody else
- They instil a culture of deep emotional revulsion from birth for anything and everything that does not conform exactly to their belief, and nurture a belief that beyond their doors is darkness and all that is evil.
You will perhaps be familiar with their rather odd behaviour and so it is because of this rather vocal and very public promotion of hate that has resulted in a tiny fringe cult entering the national public consciousness as a well-known hate group.
Is it possible for humans trapped in such a situation to ever rise above it and escape?
The really good news is that the answer to that is a resounding yes, because in the long term, humans will not be boxed in like this. Zach Phelps-Roper is the latest in a long line of defectors who have plucked up enough courage to walk away.
He is the grandson of the late Fred Phelps, Westboro’s founder and spiritual leader. Phelps shaped the church’s extreme zealotry and brazenly offensive anti-gay pickets, especially those staged at military funerals, where congregants of the church hold signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has branded the church “the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”
…This February, Zach, who was born and raised in the church, left Westboro, having suffered for weeks with a back injury his parents believed could be cured with prayer. After begging them to no avail to take him to the emergency room, he decided he was done being a martyr. “I don’t love this religion anymore,” he said.
In the eyes of the church, that declaration was an unforgivable offense worse than blasphemy. And it meant that Zach would be excommunicated. He knew he would never be able to talk to his parents again, and all traces of him would be scrubbed from his family’s home and their place of worship. The congregation would classify him as an apostate who would spend eternity in hell.
So how did his family react? As follows …
Zach spent the night away from his house, and in the morning received a call from his father, who instructed him to come home and pick up his things. He arrived to find all his possessions dumped on the front porch: his bed, his clothes, … But what stood out most was a photo album with snapshots of Zach, taken by his father over the course of 23 years. It was their single parting gesture. “I wanted to say goodbye to my parents,” Zach recalls, “but they were gone.”
The rest of the article is worth a read, it goes into it all in a lot more detail. The reporter personally interviewed both Zach and also his parents in the church and writes it all up.
My point is this, he knew what the consequences of a decision to leave would be – complete isolation from all those he had previously known – yet despite that, he took that bold step and walked away from it all.
It is individuals like Zach that inspire us all, and give us hope that the world can indeed really be a better place, because those trapped inside a religious cacoon of hatred, be that Islamic or Christian, can and do rise above all that and leave it behind.
The Great Disruptor
One huge hope for a better world in the past couple of decades has been the rise of the Internet. Individuals previously isolated within a belief system that insulated them from everything are now being exposed to better ideas, ones that positively shine when compared to the religious darkness they are born into, and while many do indeed resist and stick with the prevailing religious dogma, many do not, and rise above it all.
The Internet has created an open market for all ideas and all beliefs, and enabled anybody and everybody on the planet to freely and openly criticise any and all ideas, and to also be exposed to ideas that they might never have previously been exposed to. This dramatic change will inevitably result in a long term disruption to rather a lot of very bad ideas that inspired rather a lot of bad behaviour, and that can only be a good thing for us all.