Initiation rites as tools of intellectual captivity

I have been brooding about the sad case of Syble Rossiter, the 12-year old child who died of diabetes complications because her parents withheld life-saving treatment from her because of their belief that faith would heal her. These entirely preventable tragedies are unfortunately not uncommon. I wrote in February about Herbert and Catherine Schaible whose 8-month old child had also died unnecessarily.

What struck me was that in each of those cases, the parents had already witnessed first-hand the failure of faith healing. Syble’s mother’s brother had died of leukemia at the age of seven because her parents had withheld treatment from him too, while another child of the Schaibles had died at the age of two just a couple of years earlier, again because of trusting in faith.

The believers find excuses for the failure, saying things like that the deaths occurred because it was ‘their time to die’. But why are they so reluctant to abandon their beliefs? In fact, it seems like the crazier the belief, the stronger the hold it has on those who succumb to it. We heard that same refrain from those who continue to believe in snake handling even after it takes the lives of its leading practitioners.

I recall reading some time ago that this is not an accident. Getting people to believe in something preposterous is similar in purpose to those outrageous initiation hazing rites practiced by some groups. Once you have gone through it, you are heavily invested in that group. Abandoning belief and leaving the group means admitting to yourself and others that you were a fool. People are reluctant to do so, so they double down and say they believe even more, come what may.

This maybe partly explains why the members of those religious groups that have the more extreme and bizarre beliefs (and this includes Catholics, Pentecostals, doctrinaire Muslims, Scientologists, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and other fundamentalist religious groups) have the stronger hold on their followers.


  1. anne mariehovgaard says

    And when those crazy beliefs have cost the life of someone you love, giving them up means facing the fact that they died needlessly because you (or someone you love and respect) refused to give them the treatment they needed – for no good reason. Clinging to your crazy beliefs and convincing yourself you did the right thing is much less painful. Which is why no parent who has killed their child in this way should be allowed to keep custody of any surviving children.

  2. Matt G says

    Perhaps a similar phenomenon underlies Stockholm Syndrome. Their religion and its beliefs sold them down the river, but despite this they cling ever tighter. A friend of mine, who is devoutly Catholic, lost her husband to cancer two years ago. The husband had spent a great deal of time in denial about the severity of his condition, and may have delayed treatment. She explained that he had one of those cancers that “God doesn’t yet let us cure.” The rationalizing mind at work….

  3. Jenora Feuer says

    I think a good chunk of this (at least, according to a lot of what I’ve heard) is that it comes down to the personal and emotional investment.

    Like they say, ‘You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.’ The more a belief contradicts reality, the more personal investment it requires to hang onto that belief in the face of that contradiction. As a result, the more any attack on that belief is automatically treated as an attack on the person instead, resulting in the dander getting up and all defenses engaged. A belief that has become part of the core of who you are (or, often, who your tribe is) is defended to the death.

    There’s the other direction to that as well, sometimes referred to as ‘evaporative cooling of cults’, from observations of increases in fanaticism when doomsday cults pass their doomsday with nothing happening. Basically, anybody who actually had any doubts left the cult, with the results over time that the only people who hang onto the crazier beliefs are the ones who are fanatically devoted to them.

    These tend to play off of each other, really, as the ‘evaporative cooling’ effect gradually strips away anybody who doesn’t go all out in defending their crazy beliefs, but there’s almost always enough of a core of people who prefer their delusions to reality that the beliefs keep going.

  4. Mary Jo says

    I worked with parents of new born twins who needed blood transfusions to save their lives. The county took temporary custody, the infants received the transfusions and were given immediately back to mom and dad. I quite honestly think the parents were grateful for this. They did not want their babies to die but did not want to turn away from their close knit church. It seemed like a win-win situation.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Mary Jo,

    I suspect that you are right that for some parents, having the decision taken from them and being ‘forced’ to give their children treatment may be what they secretly seek and I think that this kind of thing needs to happen more often. The problem is that often the authorities do not know about such situations until it is too late.

  6. jamessweet says

    By the way, this is why I’ve completely abandoned trying to reason with my mother-in-law — and I’m not talking about politics and religion and controversial stuff like that, I’m talking about basic things like “You really should get a job” and “You can’t call your own daughter a bully and accuse her of cruelly scapegoating you, and then act like nothing happened the next day”, etc. It has become clear to me that she is so invested in the idea that everything bad that happens in her life is a result of other “bad” people doing it TO her, that if you present evidence to the contrary her belief only becomes more firmly entrenched.

    I can thank my reading about skepticism and atheism for this realization. The “backfire effect” is pretty easy to see once you have a name for it…

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