I was contacted awhile ago by Tyler, a young atheist living in a Christian town in a Christian family surrounded by Christian friends. Not an uncommon story. At the time he was struggling with coming out and concerned about potential loss of his social support network and how others would react to his deconversion. Since that time he has come out as a strong atheist and anti-theist, lost friends along the way, but seems happier and more confident these days.
He had shared his history with me when he first contacted me. He was raised in a fairly moderate Christian home and experienced a very average American upbringing, until, at 16, he landed in juvenile detention on drug charges. That's when things began to change, not just socially but religiously. According to his account, he wasn't addicted or having trouble due to drugs. Like many young people he was experimenting and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But when he was remanded to his mother, she informed him he would be going to the Teen Challenge Ranch in Northwest Arkansas—an all-boy Christian rehabilitation center for troubled youth in the mountains near Fayetteville.
"My parents had a list from Teen Challenge of what to pack and what not to...I needed all of the normal hygiene products, collared shirts and other appropriate clothing, and a NIV Bible. They also wanted me to bring an alarm clock, but it could not have a radio because they said they did not want anything 'worldly' interfering with my rehabilitation. The list of things we could not bring was quite a bit larger, though. We could not bring anything that was not Christian with us. No music, literature (not that I read that much back then anyway), no television, and no movies that were not approved by the staff. If it did not praise the Lord, it was not allowed."
The Ranch itself sounds not unlike other such facilities, but clearly my interest is in the integration of religion into the program. As a Christian facility, it would seem expected that there would be a regular religious study of some sort—weekly or biweekly? But according to Tyler:
"The counselors informed me we would have three-a-day Bible study, which I was not too enthused about. I had been to Sunday school every Sunday for the better part of my life. But studying the Bible three times a day? I did not like studying the Bible for 30 minutes a week, much less three times a day for a total of three hours. That just seemed exhausting. I did not know much of the Bible, either. So, that worried me a little. Would I have to study harder than the rest of the class? I really did not know what to expect. And, somehow, this time spent in Bible study was suppose to be helping with my drug addiction. I did not need help with drugs; I had made my mind up that I was done with them while sitting in jail. But I was curious nonetheless. Also, I was told we would be going to a Pentecostal church twice a week in Fayetteville. We would be attending on Wednesday nights, and Sunday mornings. This was the first time I had heard the rehab center was Pentecostal. I did not really know what Pentecostal was, so none of this bothered me at the time."
It didn't take long for Tyler to learn what "Pentecostal" was:
"The chapel was where everyone got together for worship and Bible study. It was a small room painted light blue with a large wooden cross leaning on a bench. When we went into the chapel, the lights were dimmed and the counselors were standing around in a circle waiting for us to enter and join with them. We all joined the circle and the counselors introduced me as the new student. We all were told to tell something about ourselves and what we wanted to accomplish from being at the Ranch. Everyone went through it quickly, and then it was time for Bible study. Everyone grabbed their Bibles and got ready for the lesson. It was just a normal Sunday school lesson which did not differ too much from what I was accustom to. When the lesson was done, it was time for worship. I had no idea what they had meant by 'worship.' I thought 'worship' was what we had just done by reading the Bible and praying. I was so wrong. The counselors turned on some upbeat Christian music, and everyone started dancing around in a circle. They were praying out loud and holding their hands up. I looked over to the person next to me to see if I could get some sort of confirmation for thinking this was completely nuts, but he had his eyes closed and was jumping up and down. I was just standing in shock. I was a Christian, but all of this stuff was what I had heard about on the news and thought was insane behavior. In my eyes, this was not worship. My version of worship was mouthing the words to hymnals on Sunday morning. Some of the students were crying as they held both hands up and rocked back and forth. Some of the students had their heads bowed praying in the corners of the room with other students' hands on their shoulders because, apparently, they believed the Holy Spirit worked better if believers touched each other while praying. One of the students looked up at the ceiling and started blurting out incoherent words and other nonsense. I did not know then, but this was called speaking in tongues. Finally, one of the counselors came over to me and said that if I was not comfortable with all of this, I could sit down on some steps in a dark part of the room. I was relieved that this was not a requirement, but that did not ease my dread of the months which would be spent in chapel. I was alone in a place I had never been before, with people I had never met who were doing things which I thought were crazy. I could not talk to my parents and tell them how insane these people were acting. I was completely alone."
"School" at the Ranch "was taught by Christian home school books, and Jesus was on every page. For example, if you were studying math, the books would give you a Bible story on each side of the page to show how the mathematical problem could be used to glorify the Lord. And, science didn't exist in these classes. The only science that was taught in these classes was either misleading, incorrect, or muddled with scripture."
The daily routine consisted of the following: "After breakfast, it was time to get ready for Bible study. Then we were off to school. After school, it was time for another Bible study and then lunch. Everyday after lunch we would have a midday break and free time. We usually stayed in our lobbies or went to the gym. Free time did not last very long after lunch; then it was time for school again. Class lasted for about two hours, and we were released with free time until about 6:30 at night when we would eat supper in the cafeteria. Directly after supper, we would have Chapel until 8:30. Then it was time to get ready for lights out at 9:00. We could stay up as late as we wanted at night as long as we were in our rooms, but we still had to be up 6:00."
Additionally, "We could only have one phone call home a week, and that was with a counselor. I did not have anyone around me that I knew and could not talk to anyone that I did know. And the people who were around me seemed certifiably insane."
Eventually Tyler decided he needed to call home and have a conversation with his family away from the counselors' scrutiny. Although the story of his escape from the facility is intriguing, suffice to say he was eventually able to call home. He explained the religious insanity to his mother, but she held firmly that the rehabilitation was for his own good and that he should stick with it. He sneaked back into the facility that same night and resolved to make more of an effort to work within the program.
"A couple weeks had gone by, and I slowly began to stop distancing myself from the counselors and other students. I did not like some of the things that went on in chapel, but I did not want to be an outsider anymore. I was growing tired of sitting in the corner of the room while everyone else was in a circle worshiping. Even if it was not the same as I was used to, I still wanted to be a part of it.
"One night after Bible study, I stepped into their circle of worship for the first time since the night I arrived at the Ranch. As soon as one of the counselors saw me, he came over and stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders. He told me to just let go and give myself to God. So, I put my hands up toward the ceiling like the other students. I swayed to the music and sang along. Eventually, I stopped feeling embarrassed by what I was doing because everyone else was doing it. I became used to it. Then, a euphoric calm came over me. It felt like God really was there and wanted me to be happy. It was as though I was a child again and had no doubts about god at all—when just the thought of God gave me comfort. I began to cry. I did not know why I was crying, but it actually felt good. The counselor was still behind me. He saw that I was crying and pulled me over to the corner of the room. He told me that I had to ask for forgiveness and that I needed to let God into my heart. I told him that God was already in my heart, but he would not accept that. He said that I needed to ask. I got down on my knees, and I began to pray what he told me to pray. I asked Jesus into my heart and for him to be my personal savior. The other students saw that I was praying and came over to put their hands on me. By the time I had finished praying, everyone in the room was behind me with one hand on my back and the other hand held up toward the ceiling. Most of them had tears in their eyes as I did. I stood up and everyone gave me a hug and, basically, congratulated me. One of the counselors turned the music off, and we started back to the dorms. Just as we were walking in the door, I heard one of the counselors whisper to the other, 'another soul saved, brother.'"
So, the behavior Tyler had considered crazy had now been normalized, rewarded and reinforced—techniques anyone who has been indoctrinated should recognize, even if you're not Pentecostal. Tyler went on field trips to religious youth festivals and concerts and began to be more integrated into the Pentecostal movement—meeting more people socially who subscribed to the beliefs and behaviors, which continued to reinforce the doctrines in his own mind.
After a few months, Tyler was allowed a home visit over the Christmas holiday. His new beliefs impacted his reunion with stress and concern that his family was not truly saved, and mistrust of their "worldly" attitudes. This is an issue we hear quite often from openly atheist parents whose children are being indoctrinated by partners/ex-partners or other family members.
"My grandparents had arranged to pick me up...On the way home, I talked to my grandparents about my family; about whether they were really saved. I was worried about my father and mother. I knew they went to church a lot when I was little, but they had stopped going and were not living their lives like the Teen Challenge counselors said we should. I did not want my parents to go to hell. My father concerned me more than anyone else in my family. He believed in god, but besides condemning blasphemous behavior, he never acted like he did. My grandparents were not too welcoming of the fact that I did not believe my father was truly Christian, though. They repeatedly tried to convince me otherwise and made excuses for him.
"Also, I told them about how I had thought about becoming a missionary. My grandfather frowned on the idea, asking me how I would make money and said that it is not a good lifestyle. I did not understand this because I thought he would be happy to hear that I would be living the way Jesus would have wanted me to; I would be saving souls. He was one of the people the counselors had warned us about. He was someone who said they believed but did not really want to give his life to Jesus. And when I thought about it, everyone I knew was not really a believer."
And so Tyler began to distrust his own family and fear their impact on his own salvation. It's not uncommon for believers to be "warned" to not become too involved with people outside of their belief system (including family and close friends) who could confound their thinking and undermine their faith. "Worldly" interaction may be necessary, but should not exceed necessary levels. These types of teachings drive huge wedges within families. It's another concern we hear all the time in our viewer mail.
Eventually Tyler's time away from the Ranch resulted in a mild breakdown of the indoctrination, due in part to an interest he developed in a girl he met while visiting home. However, in attempting to resolve the doubts and conflicts that had arisen, he turned right back to the techniques he'd been taught by The Ranch:
"The first week back from Christmas break was horrible. I felt more depressed than I had my entire life. I wanted to go home and be with my new girlfriend and the people I knew. I prayed a lot during the first weeks back, but nothing helped. The counselors did not help too much either. They would just say that we cannot expect to be happy all of the time. That our happiness with God comes and goes. I thought that sounded absurd. Why would God not want me to be happy if I loved and believed in him? Was God punishing me for my new girlfriend? Was I on the wrong path? Does he want me to be Baptist or Pentecostal? All of these questions, and many more, were running through my mind at this time."
So rather than step back to examine the issues objectively, he'd been taught to deal with doubt by diving into the very system he was doubting, even more deeply. This is another common indoctrination technique—teaching a person that the way to resolve doubts about faith is not to question or examine, but to pile on more faith. It makes as much sense as wondering if you're the victim of a financial scam, and resolving the question by sending in more money, rather than researching the investment.
Eventually Tyler's stint at the Ranch ended when he was involved with a physical altercation with a counselor. He recounts the ride to the bus station: "They lectured me and preached the whole way there. They condemned me for not wanting to be like those who wanted to spend their entire lives at the Ranch. I did not even try to argue with them. I was too happy to. I was finally going home."
"It has been 10 years now. I am now a nonbeliever, I have not spoken to anyone at Teen Challenge since I left...
"I feel the Ranch had a lot to do with my disbelief. I came home from there not knowing what to believe. I felt that my beliefs were more Pentecostal, but Baptist churches were pretty much all that surround me in my home town. I went to our regular church on a number of occasions, but it just never felt right. So, I stopped going to church. I was always conflicted about what I actually believed. Was I "once saved always saved" as my Baptist upbringing had taught me? Or, did I have to keep striving to be like Jesus in order to be saved? Was speaking in tongues real? Or, did I just do that because I felt good and wanted to be like everyone else as a Baptist would suggest? All these questions made me want to look into what I actually believed.
"After many years, I finally stopped trying to figure out which Christian belief was right and started to doubt if any of the Christian beliefs I had were right. It was apparent to me that I would never find out whether the Pentecostal or Baptist beliefs were right, and because I could not find that out, I began to question how I knew any of my beliefs were right. It was a chain reaction. It was a long slow process, but after many years of research, and a lot of thinking, I began to think that there was no way for me to distinguish which beliefs were right because none of them were. No beliefs I had ever examined had good reasons to believe them. I still said I believed, though. I deeply wanted to believe in god and somewhat had these habits of belief that were ingrained into my thinking. Also, I had a real fear of hell that I could not get past. It all slowly faded away over the years, though. My fear of hell slowly vanished after questioning, just as all of my other beliefs had. I began to realize that I had no reason to believe it, and the only reason I had for so long was because I was scared of the possibility. The need to believe fell away shortly after I stopped fearing hell and the unknown. And I let myself search for the truth instead of what I wanted to see as the truth. I was finally free to think without being afraid of a hell which was built by a loving god. I was free to question whether any god existed. And I saw no reason to think that one did."
Fear and threats of hell should not be underestimated as indoctrination mechanisms. The sheer number of people who use Pascal's Wager demonstrates how many believers consider fear of hell a compelling "reason" to maintain belief. Fear of hell cannot reasonably influence an unbeliever, who does not accept hell exists. But for someone who believes in hell already, that fear is often sufficient to convince them that maintaining their belief is paramount, and doubts or questions far too risky. Overcoming that fear can be extremely problematic for people, even after they deconvert. I've compared it to an abused dog who cowers when a new, nonabusive owner lifts his hand to pat its head. It takes awhile to overcome childhood terrors that have been so deeply and methodically ingrained.
"I feel I should thank Teen Challenge for making me question the beliefs I held before I arrived at their facility. I feel I should thank them for giving me a place to stay when I needed to get away from drugs and alcohol. But, also, I understand how many troubled children and teenagers have been successfully brainwashed simply because these people manipulated them during a hard time in their lives. I understand that there are students who did not go home for Christmas and never had [anyone] to help them see reality. I understand all of this. So, a 'Thank You' will never leave my lips."