Sunday, March 28, 2010

Groupthink is Bad: Part 1

In case you haven't noticed, I'm one to think for myself, and events this past week did nothing to stop reinforcing this for me. No, not the fact we had a gun incident at school, but something else. I'm using it as an excuse to begin a semi-series on Groupthink and how it's a bad thing.

This first installment involves Groupthink and the Church. Now, I know the fact I just mentioned the C-word is about to send away about 90% of the six people who read this blog, but I'd think of all of the posts in which I've shared my faith, this should be one you should hang around for. After all, I'm probably going to say things that you agree with 100% and will be shocked an Evangelical is actually is saying these things. But enough about that.

Just to lay out what I think Groupthink is, I think a good definition is the tendency of a group to have a common set of ideas and opinions that are accepted without criticism, and the group's tendency to enforce this line of thought within the group. Apparently the term dates back to 1952, when journalist and urbanist William H. Whyte said in Fortune that it was "...a rationalized conformity—an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well." Since then, it's been well-researched and accepted that groups of people who group together based on a set of same beliefs will extend the conformity to as many sectors of life as possible and those who choose to not conform in all areas will be ostracized if not outright rejected by the group.

I observe this in my school all the time, but I'm going to play with that in another post. What I am going to talk about is Groupthink in American Evangelical churches. The Groupthink that I am discussing is not regarding the theology itself, but rather the culture and worldview that has been constructed around the theology. Growing up, I always found the Evangelical subculture to be a bit odd. Even though I could barely watch TV, movies were pretty much verboten, and if my family had any semblence of music appreciation, surely no secular music would be appreciated, I always felt like something was amiss with all of this.

I never rebelled against my parents (Apart from that box of Cookie Crisps, that is.), but in my high school years, there were plenty of instances where I butted heads with the administration at my Christian school over ideological issues. Everything had to have a Biblical support, no matter how little the issue had to do with morality, much less the Bible. When I had the temerity to suggest a particular issue could be resolved without theological debate, I had to have a counseling session with the pastor because apparently I wasn't being a good little Christian. As you can probably guess, that didn't go too well when I started quoting Edmund Burke, Abraham Kuyper, Konrad Adenauer, and Benjamin Disraeli as planks of my political beliefs that came about not through the method that was preached to be the way to do politics, rather completely through my own reading and thinking. The fact they were close to what they themselves believed was superfluous. I was thinking on my own, and that was no good.

According to psychologist Irving Janis, who did a series of research efforts into the 1970s on Groupthink, my behaviour ran afoul of five of his eight symptoms of Groupthink. Those are:  

  • Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group. (Whatever we say is right, 'cause we believe in what the Bible says!)
  • Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group. (If you don't agree with X because of Y, you're a liberal/commie/atheist/etc.)
  • Anyone who questions the facts held by the group is branded as disloyal (or, more appropriately, secular, or worse, liberal).
  • Ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus are censored by either banning their viewing, or disassociating with people who have anything to do with it (No kids, you can't play with Johnny; he doesn't go to our church!)
  • Self-appointed members of the group who shield the group from dissenting information (We're protecting you from the evil that's out there--whatever it is!)
What was odd about all of this was that I did it, not out of any sort of rejection of religious tenets, which is what often happens when one runs afoul of Evanglelical Groupthink, but rather a realization that just saying that I believed something "'cause the Bible said so" wasn't going to fly with people who didn't believe in the Bible. So, in order to entrench my beliefs, I sought out alternative sources that I could use if my beliefs were challenged. I found them, and in the process found wiggle room which I could change some things I found to not exactly compute within the conventional wisdom. What ended up happening was that I broke free of that conventional wisdom and became someone who thought for themselves.

Since high school, I've had various scrapes with the Groupthink, mainly in the realm of politics. I've never associated myself with any American political party, and if you put a gun to my head, I'd admit to being a socially conservative Christian Democrat in the mold of the Bavarian Christian Social Union or the Dutch Christian Democratic Appeal. So, for someone who doesn't even consider themselves to fit within the traditional American political framework, any comment of any sort on American politics is asking for trouble when dealing with fellow members of their church, who are convinced that the GOP stands for God's Own Party.

Last Sunday, during our church service, our pastor launched an attack on the Health Care Bill from the pulpit, without a lot of scripture to back up opinions. I felt extremely uncomfortable sitting there, and when I had had enough political punditry, I got up an walked out of church. The subsequent firestorm on Facebook (via Private Messaging) I received was surprising, even after all this time. Essentially, walking out made me a godless Obama supporter, and one to grab the Red Banner of Socialism. Never mind the fact that no one bothered to ask me what my opinion was (If you really want to know, peek around on the Internet. It's out there.), my rejection of what I thought to be an improper use of the pulpit was seen as proof that I had rejected the gospel and was backslidden into dirty liberal secularism. To top it off, when I plopped into my place this morning, the annoying old lady behind me who hates the fact I use my phone to post comments on our church service on Twitter tapped me on the shoulder and bluntly asked if I was a Democrat since I walked out of the service. I looked at her, rolled my eyes, and told her that I didn't know voter registration cards were required to attend the church, but to quench her curiosity, I was a member of the Christen Democratisch Appel. That sufficiently confused her.

That doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what goes on within Evangelical Groupthink. I've been burned over the years by people shoving the latest fad in Christian living books in my face, and telling me that because I didn't read and do what they said, it was proof I was a lukewarm Christian, or worse, backslidden. When I retorted with questions to the tune of if they had checked out the contents of their fellowship's theology, much less, you know, the Bible, I usually received cold glares and statements that I was proving my hard-heartedness.

This annoys me to no end because, to me, when I became a Christian and decided to live according to Christ's precepts in the Bible, He promised freedom to me. Freedom from sin, guilt, and most of all, the freedom to be the person God created me to be. Now, I'm no theologian, but after doing a lot of reading, praying, and thinking, 1 Corinthians 10 is, to me, a systematic declaration of thought-independence for the Christian. After all, Paul was telling the Corinthians that being a Christian did not require them to adhere to the old Jewish covenant with God, which consisted of strict rules that covered all facets of life, for it was taken care of through Christ's death and resurrection, so as long as it didn't contradict Jesus' teaching and what God was laying on your heart, you were free to partake in it. To me, the key verse is verse 29:
It might not be a matter of conscience for you, but it is for the other person. Now, why should my freedom be limited by what someone else thinks? (New Living Translation)
Best of all, The Message says it this way:

...I'm not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I'm going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. (Emphasis mine)
Needless to say, if we say that we believe in the divine inerrancy of the entire Bible, and that it is all inspired by Him (2 Timothy 3:16), then it sure sounds like that when we become Christians, God gives us the freedom to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions to things, and not rely on others to tell us what to think and reject us if we are not in 100% agreement with them. So you know what? Think for yourself. Be free to disagree with the culture of American Evangelicalism. Sure, stick to what the Bible says and stand on that when you need to, because that's what it tells us to do, but otherwise, put that brain He gave you to some use. Christian (and for my purposes Protestant) history was shaped by people who thought for themselves and rejected the Christian Groupthink to find the freedom God has for them. Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, E. N. Bell, and so many others who led the way for people like me to find that freedom for myself.

Phew. That was a lot of stuff percolating in my brain all of this time needing to get out. Until next time.

1 comment:

Kellen said...

I very much enjoyed this entry. Aren't you one to stir the hornet's nest!

To inject some of my own personal opinion, I think a person's brain tends to malfunction when it ventures outside the realm of "consistency." Thus, if you subscribe to one belief of a group, you subscribe to all others, in all instances, for the rest of your life. Any act ion that is viewed as inconsistent with the implied conventional wisdom of the group is taken as a hostile challenge. So in your case, walking out of church automatically means you're now a "left-wing hippie liberal atheist pornographer." That is ridiculous of course, you just didn't want to listen to a political rant at church.

Can't say that I'm the least bit surprised, though; we've been on a 5,000 year frenzy of creating arbitrary rules by which we choose to live, compartmentalizing almost every aspect of our lives in the process. Whatever happened to live and let live?