Breaking Free of the Herd Mentality


  1. Chuck March 13, 2013

    Subscribing to read answers (I don’t have any just yet).

  2. Abigail March 13, 2013

    So funny that this movie was posted today with clips from The Matrix; I have been musing on The Matrix the past couple of days! (Shall we call it a synchronicity? Nah. The Matrix was mentioned in earlier comments on this forum, so that’s probably what planted the idea.) :)

    Basically what I’ve been thinking of re: The Matrix has been this question: After they “woke up” out of the matrix and joined the “real world” how could they be sure that this new world was, in fact “real,” and not just another Matrix… a meta-matrix, or whatever. (Can’t remember the exact terms used in the movie; it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it. Also, I didn’t see the sequels. Maybe this question was explored in the sequels?) We could conceive of an infinitely expanding set of awakenings, in which someone could “wake up” from one world and join a larger “more real” world, only to discover that this new world, too, is a constructed hallucination, and on and on. Or perhaps instead of concentric realities nested inside each other, maybe the realities are adjacent instead, with portals available from one to the other… It’s a bit mind-boggling, and entirely a hypothetical silly idea that flits through my mind in spare moments. But the implications are sobering: the same possibility could be said for what I and many others are going through in the process of rejecting religion–how can we really know that we’re not just exchanging one illusion for another? Reality proves to be not only illusive, but elusive as well! (For those more educated than I– What’s the branch of philosophy that deals with that question? Is it epistemology?)

    I see not only religion, but ANY cultural phenomenon as being a collective hallucination. Something we all agree to think, believe, and live. Unfortunately for those who want to imagine themselves as independent, it’s pretty much impossible to escape. We are by nature social animals. In the case of religion, I think the collective hallucination evolves kind of slowly. It starts with a few people in a tribe telling stories to each other. The stories are handed down through the generations, added to, changed, etc. I don’t think blame is in order–people are people and they do people-things like that.

    What it’s like to “wake up in the midst of this collective hallucination”–awful and wonderful at the same time. Incredibly frightening and lonely, but also liberating and beautiful. Poignantly sad–both because you miss the security and solidarity of the old ways, and because you know you can never go back. You want a new tribe to help you feel validated, but you’re scared to be brainwashed into conformity again. You feel more alive than you ever did.

    How one breaks free–I wish it were easy. In some people’s cases, it seemed to be easy. My case involved a lot of trauma. But also a series of eye-opening realizations that were gentler than trauma, but intense nonetheless. Globalism is a huge force in this–realizing that there is an “Other” who doesn’t believe as you do, and what about that person? Becoming aware of scientific discoveries that square with something in your worldview.

    The documentary looks good. Hopefully I’ll find time for it later.
    (By the way, as a completely random question–anyone else notice the irony of Nietzsche dying insane? How sad.)

  3. Barrett March 13, 2013

    I am with you, Abigail. I was also musing about the Matrix due to a paper I’ve reviewed recently, explaining how our words, our books, our movies, whatever we create, actually is reality—rather, that our simulations of reality take the place of reality. We deal in categories, with stereotypes, create things which we call “fantasy” which implies that anything else is reality, when in fact the “collective hallucination” is more pervasive than many people might think or admit.

    We are narratively-bound creatures. It is our stories that give meaning to what we do, and it is what we do that gives meaning to our stories.

    (And yes, Abigail, epistemology is the field you were looking for above).

  4. Barrett March 13, 2013

    Also, I did not quite answer the questions posted for us…

    I’ve always considered myself a Christian. I’ve always been a part of some church or another. For me, breaking the “herd mentality” came in dealing with very exclusivist and absolutist claims of the particular tradition in which I grew up. I had to let go of thinking of the Bible as inerrant and absolute (it never calls itself that, so why should I?). I had to come to terms with the idea that my ideas of God may very well be idols, and be open to allowing God to destroy them. I’ve had to learn to hold beliefs with “open hands,” letting the narrative of my life, of my family’s life, of the lives of my closest community, of my Christian tradition and of the Bible itself to speak together in an ongoing conversation to help me gain in self-knowledge, in understanding of “Truth” (if I can), in learning what love lived out means—all the while understanding that the “herd” from which I’ve come will not understand that stance.

    So really, I guess I understand that I’ve just moved herds, in a way—but then, I don’t think any human can be fully human by itself. We are social, narrative creatures, and as long as we remain aware of those influences and do not conflate them with absolute, objective reality, then our ability to let the “collective hallucination” harm others is diminished.

    • Chuck March 13, 2013

      You identify in a round about way the greatest source of pain for me in my atheism, which is the absence of an intimate community (you call this a “herd”). I am still friends with some of the people I counted on as, “brothers and sisters in Christ,” but always feel a little bit of distance now because of where my truth-seeking has led me. The spiritual “short-hand” I used to count on no longer exists. I have come to see the spiritual connection I once thought veridical as a product of psychological wish fulfillment. I accept the realities of a natural world, which in some ways can be invigorating (knowing this is my only life has motivated a carpe diem mentality) but also can be lonely (the numinous experiences I once would attribute to some sort of universal spiritualism I now feel more honest reducing to psychological and biological functions). This site has been good for me because it has opened up a channel into a community that takes the question of faith seriously without demanding an agreed upon conclusion.

  5. Will March 13, 2013

    I’ve woken up in the midst of the hallucination. I’ve strolled away from the herd and I am out here with others. I am seemingly torn when it comes to religion: I’m not sure if I miss the connection or if I feel sorry for people who can’t see through the facade.

    I am not convinced that I have the answer, I simply believe that the answer I had, christianity, doesn’t seem to be the answer.

    • Chuck March 13, 2013

      I identify Will.

  6. Paul March 13, 2013

    Ditto. After ten years away, my wife and I have recently been attending church again…with a move from Calvinism to Episcopalianism. THE principle reason for our re-attendance is wanting some sort of community. To be completely honest, my mom is dying of cancer and her faith quite literally prevents her from psychological fragmentation. The church helps quite a lot with activities for her to engage, meals, little ways to help out that give meaning. My mom is past the point of deconstructing into the abyss. I’ve nudged at times, particularly when it comes to avoiding using her faith to avoid real and intimate connection in the here and now. I offer this anecdote to put some flesh on what’s been a personal, but fairly theoretical dialogue thus far. I’m not saying this rationalizes or legitimizes being part of the herd, but I most definitely resonate with the sense of feeling sad and alone outside of community. It’s like the idea in fight club where the female protagonist becomes addicted to attending groups. I think there is something to this and the emerging subjective well being culture and rise of the therapeutic over the last 50 years. We’ve had some positive experience with our CSA (community supported agriculture).

    Oddly enough, when we attend the services, I find some solace in the practices, choir, routine (is not habit the sleep necessary to life), even though I don’t necessarily believe in God (but have experienced a sort of re-enchantment of the world). Other times, I get that old twinge of anger, hypocrisy, and the meditation gets ruined. If religion was not abused so thoroughly, I might almost occasionally concede to the ignorance is bliss position.

    • Chuck March 14, 2013

      Sending well wishes to you and your mother. My mother-in-law went through cancer treatment and her religious faith helped her deal with the psychological challenges. I can get behind that use of faith. My niece is going through cancer now too and my brother is leaning on the belief that god is looking out for her and their family. Again, I have no gripe with that.

      I of course see cancer as evidence of a godless existence best explained by evolution but think it can help folks deal with some serious fears.

      Be well.

      • Paul March 14, 2013

        Appreciate the compassion and well wishes for you and your family too.

        I suppose I’m curious where and in what circumstances participation in the herd is permissible, or at least, treated with understanding. The question of theism, agnosticism, atheism should be considered theoretically, but I think we are fooling ourselves if we think they exist independently of everyday suffering. On this note, I prefer a “practical theology” that attends to questions of how do we live well while as a community, while caring for the needs of the day. This is much different that creedal propositions that denote rigid lines of inclusion/exclusion.

        What makes the herd, a herd, is that they have not yet woken up to the contingency of existence, not that they are a group. And as far as herds go, I think the spectacle of consumer capitalism is one of the worst sorts or herds because it fools people into thinking they are being unique and expressing their authentic selves, when all the while they are marching to the beat of the same drummer. Ironically, I also think capitalism is breaking up the religious herd, by introducing new “spiritual products” into the market, which for many begin to represent a third way between the sometimes rigid poles of traditioned religion and fundamentalist atheism.

        Theologian, Jurgen Moltman refers to suffering and theodicy (good god, yet bad things happen) as the “open wound of the world”. Any “practical theology” or other system of meaning worth its salt provides an avenue to enter further into the world and its suffering, not out of the world. Lest I fall prone to martyrdom, I also remain aware of the near enemies of virtue, where altruism becomes extreme self-abnegation or atonement for some toxic shame.

        At the risk of taking a brief detour, I’d be curious to hear of others’ experience with the real everyday encounter with suffering as it relates to giving up god and stepping out from the herd.

        • Chuck March 14, 2013

          I have no clue how to be part of a herd yet outside of creedal commitments.

          I study playwriting as my avocation and I do find a community similar to the one you seek within that society.

          • Paul March 14, 2013

            Very cool. A herd that quite literally self-narrates!

  7. Paul March 13, 2013

    Addendum…actually never really felt a part of the church community back in the day; fell prone to a bit or romantic nostalgia there.

  8. Alf March 13, 2014

    Subscribing to read answers…

  9. Alf March 14, 2014

    I really like the conversation here, it’s what I needed!

    Abigail, I love this part of your comments, ‘…What it’s like to “wake up in the midst of this collective hallucination”–awful and wonderful at the same time. Incredibly frightening and lonely, but also liberating and beautiful. Poignantly sad–both because you miss the security and solidarity of the old ways, and because you know you can never go back. You want a new tribe to help you feel validated, but you’re scared to be brainwashed into conformity again. You feel more alive than you ever did.’

    This is exactly how I feel right now… Actually it’s been a year in the making, but it’s become clearer as of late. I’m part of a small home church and have been dissatisfied (at the worst), or it just didn’t feel like God’s intent for us… I tried seeking changes with the context of religion, but that kept me in the herd mentality…

    I think to answer the question of how we break free from the herd mentality of religion is to believe… In what, I would say Christ, but this is not the place for that.

    I would say that one thing I’ve noticed as we break free from the herd mentality is hope… it can be lonely at times, but there is hope.

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