Thursday, May 26, 2016

Satanic Mormons?

Every couple of years, fundamentalist Christians attempt to revive the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980's. I've written a number of articles on this topic, but apparently the folks pushing this nonsense don't read them. Either that, or they consider me some sort of disinformation agent. Regardless of my what motivations might be, though, my criticism of the entire notion is based on real brain science that wasn't understood thirty years ago.

Today's example is this article from Charisma magazine, a fundamentalist publication that seems to produce more than its share of this sort of weirdness. The subject of the article is a woman named Beth, an "ex-witch" who claims she was subjected to Satanic Ritual Abuse by the Mormon church she grew up in.

In the last nine months, ex-witch Beth says the Holy Spirit used inner healing to uncover deeply repressed memories from her childhood, including ritual satanic abuse in the Mormon church.

"As I started to follow the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit, I started to understand (my childhood)," Beth says in a recent video blog. "At the Mormon church, I was a victim of satanic rituals."

While the revelation may shock some, Beth says the abuse is not limited to the Mormon church.

"Satan is evil and divisive and very tricky, so as long as it looks good and light, then he can find a way to sneak in there and work his evil ... ," Beth says. "It happens in places we would least expect."

As a point, I was corrected by a reader a while back that real Mormons don't call their church the "Mormon Church." They call it the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS Church for short. If Beth really refers to it by the former name, it makes me question if she grew up in the church at all. But I'll assume she's sincere, because individuals reporting Satanic Ritual Abuse generally are. They just erroneously believe that their "recovered memories" are reliable.

First off, what needs to understood about the whole concept here is that there is no such thing as a "deeply repressed" accurate memory. To understand why this is, I direct you to this article. The headline is slightly misleading, as the brain does process information for some definitions of "process information." However, the key point still stands - the human brain does not have much in common with a digital computer, especially as far as memories are concerned.

As I've mentioned before, much of psychoanalysis doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny precisely because we don't "store memories" the way a computer does. What we actually store is more like a sketch, a collection of a few key details from which the full memory can be reconstructed when it is recalled. The experiment in the article in which subjects drew a dollar bill is a perfect example of this. The stored information looks like what the subjects drew from memory rather than like the real thing.

We recall that a dollar is rectangular and of a certain size, it is printed with a particular shade of green ink, it has a picture in the center, it has a denomination in the corners, and so forth. We also store a few non-visual characteristics, like how the paper feels in the hand. The more often a memory is accessed, the more of these points are retained. They naturally fade over time, but are kept fresh by being reconstructed and rewritten every time the memory is recalled.

A computer, on the other hand, stores the full image of a dollar bill. The image remains unchanged unless specifically modified, and can be viewed with perfect accuracy at any time. Human memory is not generally like this, though the psychological literature records a handful of people with "photographic memories" who might be considered close. Even so, my guess is the only difference is that the points their brains save are much more resistant to "fading" than those of most people.

This process has profound consequences for "recovered memories." One of the reasons that the FBI became skeptical of Satanic Ritual Abuse claims in the first place is that so many people were reporting events that upon investigation could never have happened. For example, one woman claimed that her babies had been sacrificed to Satan - except a medical examination clearly showed that she had never given birth.

The cases proved all the more tragic because they were not deliberate hoaxes. Thanks to abuse of therapeutic hypnosis by fundamentalist therapists, the witnesses really did believe that these awful events had happened and could remember them vividly. Several patients filed lawsuits against their therapists, as the "recovered" - that is, fabricated - memories were often profoundly traumatic and in many cases tore families apart.

Now to be clear, I'm not saying it's impossible that Beth was abused as a child. What I'm saying is that since her memories of it had to be "recovered," they are likely so garbled that they bear little resemblance to what really happened. The LDS church does perform some (non-Satanic) rituals involving children, and if Beth is a "former witch" she probably also has memories of things like wearing black robes and taking part in witchcraft rituals - which do have some elements in common with stereotypical "Satanism"

Any of those memories could have been combined with fragments of her early childhood experience to create a narrative of "Satanic abuse." With what we know about memory, it is far more likely that this is the case rather than her being the victim of a "Satanic cult" made up of members of the LDS church. Even the worst FLDS churches that are known to abuse children do it in the name of God, not Satan - and why wouldn't they?

The saddest thing here is that going through the process of "recovering" these memories has likely convinced Beth that they are entirely genuine. But her account just doesn't fit the facts. The idea that the world is full of "Satanists" who fit the description given by fundamentalists is simply ridiculous, and has been discredited on numerous occasions.

Even the members of Anton LaVey's Church of Satan, which is usually blamed, do not believe in a literal Satan - they're basically atheists who call themselves Satanists to shock people. The same is true of The Satanic Temple, which has recently been doing a lot of good activist work promoting religious freedom that might not be as effective if they went by another name. Neither have anything to do with child abuse.

It never has made much sense to me why Satanists would do any of things they are accused of, because there's no point to most of it aside from being evil for evil's sake. People who actually behave that way are incredibly rare and not at all sane. The rituals attributed to Satanists make no sense at all from a magical perspective, so they wouldn't even obtain any sort of paranormal benefit by performing them.

When these accusations surface, we can't just leave them alone. The "Satanic Panic" of the 1980's and early 1990's destroyed a lot of lives and landed a bunch of innocent people in jail on the basis of similar "recovered" accusations. We need to call them out for what they are, abuses of therapeutic techniques that can cause great harm to patients.

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Fr. AQ said...

I was raised in the LDS church and a lot of members will call it the Mormon Church or refer to themselves as Mormons when talking to non-members (usually after saying they're LDS and getting a blank look).

SeekInfinity-ICTX said...

There are theistic satanists, but almost all(and all I'm personally aware of) would be as or more appalled at child abuse as anyone else. Even the few groups that claim to practice human sacrifice also claim that children are off limits. Not only does the SRA scare not fit the evidence, it doesn't even fit any form of known Luciferian/satanic theology or any theology that one can reasonably extrapolate from the motives that lead people to become satanists(which I can speak of as someone who used to identify as such and still has what amounts to Luciferian sympathies when it comes to ethics, it's the metaphysics that I have changed my opinion regarding. The only possible motivation I can think of for engaging in child abuse related to any form of satanic theology is if someone was under the belief that acts which anyone else might view as child abuse might make their children stronger or something like that, and that wouldn't fit the SRA reports but would probably be more like some kind of fucked up pseudo-spartan training with occult elements included-and that's completely speculative since as said I don't know of any groups who would actually condone something like that.
Frankly, I would trust most satanists with children more than I would most christians, since the latter explicitly demands a 'broken spirit' and the submission to authority that is used to excuse a lot of child abuse(aspects of my own childhood are an example are an example of this motivation combined with "stop being such a weird kid").

Scott Stenwick said...

Okay, then maybe I was misinformed. I grew up Lutheran, so I know next to nothing about how Mormons like to refer to themselves.

I do know that there are theistic Satanists, but not only are the ones I know of totally opposed to sacrificing children, there aren't nearly enough of them to carry out the all-encompassing conspiracy proposed by the SRA folks.

SeekInfinity-ICTX said...

True, it also doesn't fit the pattern of how most people become theistic satanists which tends to be more of a spontaneous conversion rather than the sort of 'intergenerational cult' that SRA scares are made of. I mainly mentioned it due to your post seeming to imply that all satanists are of the atheistic/symbolic sort and wanted to clarify and then basically speculating on the general subject in all the ways SRA scares are contrary to the reality of satanism.