Authoritarian Conditioning

What it Means to Train Children to be Authoritarian Followers

Good News Club’s program of religiously-flavored “traumatic bonding” — shaming and terrorizing children; emphasizing sin, obedience, and punishment; and mixing it with love and affirmation that is conditioned on like-mindedness — grooms children to become “authoritarian followers.”

In his free book The Authoritarians, acclaimed psychology researcher Robert Altemeyer distinguishes “authoritarian followers” from “authoritarian leaders,” personality types that are dependent on each other. An authoritarian follower is someone who “submits by leaps and bows to his authorities,” and exhibits both “a high level of conventionalism” and “high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities,” including aggressiveness against deviants and outgroups. Authoritarian followers are “extra-punitive against law-breakers” and “tend to feel more endangered in a potentially threatening situation than most people do, and often respond aggressively.” They exhibit “fear of a dangerous world” and often “believe the world will end soon.”

By defining “sin” as anything you “think, say or do” that “displeases God,” Good News Club conditions children to fear critical thinking that might lead them to question their beliefs. By mocking scientists and teachers who challenge young-earth creationist beliefs as “fools” and servants of Satan who defy God (see Anti-Science page), Good News Club teaches children to despise people who don’t share their beliefs.

By characterizing children as intrinsically sinful and worthy of unthinkable punishments, and then insisting — as part of a “sinner’s prayer” and daily devotions — that children internalize these negative self judgments, Good News Club conditions children to doubt and feel ashamed of themselves. To bond children to these notions, Good News Club offers children the conditional, belief-contingent comfort of God’s “love.”

Over time, this authoritarian conditioning breeds a sense of personal inadequacy and endangerment. The traumatized self becomes angry, hostile, and resentful. However, because the religion that produces, legitimizes, and represses the trauma is beyond question, the traumatized individual remains blind to its causes. This leads to authoritarian aggression, that personality trait Dr. Altemeyer describes as a “little volcano of hostility bubbling away inside of them looking for a (safe, approved) way to erupt.”

Grooming children with a deep-seated sense of personal shame and inadequacy undermines their capacity for empathy. Studies show that fundamentalist adults are more likely to be harsh and dis-empathetic to their own children (see boxes below) and enthusiastic advocates for war, torture, and excessively punitive laws. In America’s history, fundamentalists have been defenders of numerous entrenched cultural injustices, from 19th century slavery and Jim Crow laws to 1960s segregation. More recently, fundamentalists — at war with themselves and at war with the world — have redirected their “volcano of hostility” against gays, Muslims, “illegal immigrants,” Democrats and secular humanists.

Fundamentalism correlates with less empathetic parenting
“Are there distinguishing features in the way Christian fundamentalists relate to children? It does appear so, according to a number of studies showing that Biblical literalists practice more authoritarian child-rearing methods than mainstream Christian families. A recent American survey …. found that members of literalist denominations were significantly more inclined to hit their children. What’s more, literalist parents had more inappropriate expectations from their children, and showed less empathy toward their needs. Several surveys conducted since have consistently replicated these findings.”
Preoccupation with Obedience Produces Less Empathetic Children
“The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (1992), sociologists Samuel and Perl Oliner interviewed hundreds of rescuers and non-rescuers who disagreed with the persecution of the Jews but did nothing to protect them. Rescuers reported that their parents had placed much less emphasis on “obedience.”

Studies also demonstrate that “religious fundamentalists … usually score very high on the Right Wing Authoritarian (RWA) scale,” a scale widely used to identify authoritarian personalities. After thoroughly describing numerous studies and surveys of conservative evangelicals, Dr. Altemeyer summarizes the results as follows:

  • They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites.
  • But they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. They are blind to themselves, ethnocentric and prejudiced, and as closed-minded as they are narrowminded. They can be woefully uninformed about things they oppose, but they prefer ignorance and want to make others become as ignorant as they. They are also surprisingly uninformed about the things they say they believe in, and deep, deep, deep down inside many of them have secret doubts about their core belief. But they are very happy, highly giving, and quite zealous.

Dr. Altemeyer’s observations are bolstered by the softer criticisms of many evangelical authors. See, e.g., Tom Hovestol, Extreme Righteousness: Seeing ourselves in the Pharisees (2008); David Kinnaman et al., unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (2007); David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (2011).

Dr. Altemeyer also asks the following disturbing question: “Can we not see how easily religious fundamentalists would lift a would-be dictator aloft as part of a ‘great movement,’ and give it their all?” (p140). Far from being a cheap shot, Dr. Altemeyer’s question is poignant. After all, Good News Club not only identifies “complete obedience” as the supreme value but also uses I Samuel 15’s genocidal imperative in a shockingly deliberative way to illustrate it.

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