I’ve read a couple of chapters in David McRaney’s book, “How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion.”
One chapter I skipped ahead to read, because I was curious to learn how some people enmeshed in the hateful Westboro Baptist Church were able to leave this Christian cult.
(The book says Westboro members would do things like protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, “a young gay man who was beaten, tortured, and left for dead in a remote portion of Wyoming by two men who offered him a ride home from a bar. At his funeral, the church carried signs that read NO TEARS FOR QUEERS.”)
Here’s some excerpts from the Westboro chapter. They’re about Zach, who used to be a Westboro member. The first passage relates to the fact that a gay waiter at an Olive Garden restaurant recognized Zach as having recently left Westboro.
After that meal [which the gay waiter paid for], he started wondering if all of the assumptions tied to his former life were true. If his beliefs about gay men were wrong, then what else?
His first thoughts were of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and how Westboro had told them the girls who go to their concerts were “simple sluts.” Simple-minded, stupid, and promiscuous. He immediately, and for the first time, questioned it.
He felt overwhelmed by a torrent of information that he once considered noise. All at once, he began to feel an intense uncertainty not only about what was true, but about who he was.
He said the most alarming thing was the realization that if he had gone to Olive Garden while he was still in the church, the waiter’s act of kindness might not have made any difference at all. He would have found a way to interpret it differently.
Zach was still unpacking what it all meant. He was shocked to realize he was open to all sorts of change, and once he realized it, an array of alternative beliefs, attitudes, and values became newly acceptable.
“The first time I talked to a Jewish person, I thought what Westboro taught me at first, and then I was like, ‘I don’t want to listen to that.’ I want to try to see reality for what it is. I want to think with an open mind and to make discoveries. There’s a great deal of mystery in this world that I walk in, in this universe.”
Today, he said, “I have gay friends. I have bisexual friends. I have pansexual friends.” He was still struggling, though, still rebuilding his models, still expanding his mind. Zach said he recently began dabbling with Buddhism.
Zach reiterated that he didn’t leave the church because he changed his opinions; he changed his opinions because he left the church. And he left the church because it had become intolerable for other reasons.
Leaving opened him up to the possibility he could be wrong about many things, and that began a difficult period of rebirth.
…His whole life, Zach remained trapped in dogma, wearing it like a diving suit, interacting with the same world as the people shouting from across the picket line but never making actual human connection with it.
Zach has since taken off that suit.
He is even taking part in the parallel universe across the street. He’s spent time at Equality House and participated in pickets against the church, holding signs with messages like YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL and FORGIVE AND FORGET. At those protests, he shouts, “Let’s kill them with kindness,” and “Let’s show them what loving your neighbor is all about.”
…I said it reminded me of what we had spoken about earlier, an insight from Piaget: how once we learn something is incorrect, we also learn that the source from which we learned that thing can be incorrect, which opens us up to the idea that maybe the sources we trust could be wrong about a lot of other things.