The Recipe for Religion — Cooking Up Spiritual Experiences

In the fourth installment in his series on memory and the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Slate‘s William Saletan discusses “repressed memories” that have given rise to all sorts of injustice in courtrooms across America.  The title of today’s article is “The Recipe: A Cookbook for Memories of Sexual Abuse,” and includes this revelatory excerpt:

Loftus began to read popular books that told women and therapists how to recover memories of sexual abuse. The books urged therapists to ask their clients about childhood incest. They listed symptoms that supposedly indicated abuse even if it wasn’t remembered. They invited women to search for memories by imagining the abuse. They encouraged group therapy in which women could hear one another’s stories of being victimized.

These ideas sounded fishy. Suggestion, indoctrination, authority, inference, imagination, and immersion were known to alter memories in police interrogations and experiments. But could they create a whole memory?

Take serious heed of these words — suggestion, indoctrination, authority, inference, imagination, and immersion — before considering the next revelation:

From this experiment, Loftus began to sketch what she called a “recipe” for planting memories. First, you needed the subject’s trust. A therapist had that; so did a family member. Then, by suggesting that the incident might have happened, you planted a seed. The subject would think about it, and the idea, if not the scene, would start to become familiar. By coaxing the subject to imagine the scene, you could accelerate this confabulation. Gradually, she would add details, seizing authorship of the story and securing its authenticity. The fabrication was out of your hands now. The memory was hers.

This recipe was what the incest-survivor books were unwittingly teaching. It was what the recovered-memory therapists, with equal folly, were practicing. They hooked their readers and clients with checklists of supposed symptoms: headaches, guilt, low self-esteem, fear of darkness. Then they induced collaboration. “Let yourself imagine or picture what might have happened to you,” said one book. “Occasionally you may need a small verbal push to get started. Your guide may suggest some action that seems to arise naturally from the image you are picturing.” The guide, a therapist, supplied personal knowledge to help the process along. Group therapy helped, too. The more incest memories a woman heard, the more plausible her own victimization became. The more images she absorbed, the easier it was to picture the scenes she had repressed.

If there is a better description of the recipe for implanting religion and cooking up “spiritual” experiences, I am not aware of it.  Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients:

Suggestion?  Check.  Indoctrination?  Check.  Authority?  Check.  Inference?  Check.  Imagination?  Check.  Immersion?  Check.

Obtaining a child’s trust?  Check.  Telling children something happened and is true?  Check.  Planting doctrinal seeds?  Check.  Coaxing subjects to imagine “spiritual” experiences?  Check.  Hooking subjects with supposed symptoms (of insufficient belief) such as guilt, insecurity and fear?  Check.  Inducing collaboration by encouraging imagination?  Check.  Guides (i.e., parents and priests) supplying personal knowledge to help the process along?  Check.  Using group therapy — or sharing stories (in church, temple, mosque, synagogue, or study) of similar “spiritual” experiences — to move the process along?  Check.

What we have here is a fairly perfect description of what a child experiences when growing up in a Christian home in Dallas, a Muslim home in Riyadh, a Buddhist home in Kyoto, a Hindu home in Mumbai, a Mormon home in Provo, an Amish community in Pennsylvania, a Hutterite colony in Canada, and the list goes on.

A key point here is to realize that memories play a major role in all our experiences.  Unlike the memory of a computer, which sits idle and unused until actively recalled by the operating system, the brain-mind constantly avails itself of memories to fundamentally shape our sense of identity, and more importantly, to filter and interpret our experiences of the world.

With these things in mind, we should not be surprised by the fact that most people in the world have “spiritual” experiences that are glossed as religious.  Religion colored glasses can make everything seem spiritual.

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