More about our conscious suspending of disbelief

Enter with us into an imagined world … one myth among many

While serving in the US Air Force as an air crew member I was required to undergo survival, escape and evasion training along with a specialized training involving resistance techniques to interrogation should the aircraft on which I was a crew member be shot down, should I survive the crash and should I be captured.

This was a serious entry into a game of “let’s pretend” … willing entry into an imagined world.

The training mode required that we deliberately “project” ourselves in to a POW environment. In other words, we were to act as if we really had been captured, really were POW’s and really were undergoing interrogations which we were required to resist.

The “scenario” for our training was introduced and our roles in the drama explained, along with the roles of the military trainers who would act as our captors and the role of the POW camp that had been constructed specifically for the training.

Our training (in which we commenced the game of “let’s pretend”) began with a requirement to pass through an obstacle course at the end of which, having crawled under barbed wire while bullets and bombs (real or simulated) were heard right above our heads,  we were captured, a bag was placed over our heads, we were lined up and marched to the interrogation building.

We were placed in tiny individual cells where I discovered it was impossible for me to stand up straight. The prisoner shed was large and lit by a role of sparsely spaced uncovered light bulbs. Loudly playing in the back ground was what I assumed to be Vietnamese music.

We were ordered to stand at all times and threatened with dire circumstances if, when the wooden cell door was suddenly jerked open, we were found not on our feet. Worse if we were found asleep.

Now … objectively … most or all of us understood this scenario to be our training. Our objective awareness was that this was training, that this was self-driven “pretending” that was driven by our own projection into the reality of this pretend-environment. Our objective awareness was in immediate and very serious competition with words and deeds of training actors, training techniques and the training environment – none of which encouraged or tolerated ANY stepping out of character, any explaining as to the physical and primarily mental coercion that was exerted on our minds.

There was no interruption-by-segment of this training in which we would review and discuss what had just happened in a just-completed segment.

Thus, from the moment of “capture,” the objective thinking which ought to have been dominated by critical thinking immediately suffered the mental attack of compulsion. Critical awareness that might allow an individual to learn without becoming lost in the pretend and then subsequently stampeded into group conformity was strongly shoved rearward. In its place we had to cope with  a blatant and aggressive authoritarian control that demanded conformity.

We did not hear many prisoners chastised for not standing when the cell door was opened – myself included. That first evening in captivity was half over before it dawned on me that I was not there to learn conformity, but to understand how resistance in the face of coercion is one path back to control.

So I deliberately laid down and tried to fall asleep. Although I was verbally abused and underwent intimidation tactics every time the door flew open, nothing physically harmful was done to me.

There was one conditional release from the stress of the environment. If you were seriously confused to the point of emotional/mental compromise or physiologically distressed you could formally request and were required to expressly say,

“I request an academic situation.” 

The assumption was that you were maintaining self-control but felt that self-control slipping away into a panic you did not believe you could manage.

I only  heard the phrase “academic situation” twice during the training.

The first time a young pilot slipped into physical panic that sounded like (all of us had our eyes covered so we could only listen helplessly) he was seriously agoraphobic and, trapped inside a small rectangular wooden box we had each been forced to enter, truly panicked. All he could do was screech.

The trainers more than once asked him, “Are you requesting and academic situation?”

However by then he was oblivious and deliriously panicked.. Eventually they physically removed him from the box and took him away where he could be calmed and treated.

The second time I heard the phrases was again the result of the trainers declaring an academic situation to stop an interaction that had moved dangerously close to having several of us “executed” by our “guards” because an obdurately stubborn Major refused to apologize for insulting Ho Chi Min. The trainers declared time out to talk about how we had to be wise in our conduct in ways that yes, showed strong resistance, but also allowed us to avoid “no-choice” dilemmas where our own resistance tactics needlessly placed other prisoners in a jeopardy we could have avoided by not losing ourselves in a heroic posture  of patriotic name, rank and serial number.

What I have described was in no way a real or legitimate POW circumstance.

It was however real enough that if one projected into the drama, learning and understanding of self and circumstance might be possible.

Unreal as it was, we the trainees and they the trainers were by military requirement all pretending to   a non-self-conscious and unquestioning projection into our individual roles. If the trainers used manipulative tactics, the trainees could only deal with it in the context of in-scenario resistance tactics. Trainers ignored appeals to logic, to common sense, and to critically thought-out reasons for refusal to conform.

They ignored resistance behavior based on our disbelief. Their only responses, short of having to recognize a physical or mental emergency, were responses within the pretend scenario.

Protests and objections were treated as misbehavior, as inappropriate and as a useless  resistance.  What was dealt to us was a  “your-cause-means-nothing-to-me-just-get-back-in-line” manner.

I do not have a sense that the experiences in those days at age 24 when I was recently married, a returned missionary and anticipating the birth of our first child were similar in any nature to the pretend world I had voluntarily entered as a conscious adult when at 19 I agreed to serve a mission.

At that time (1971) I was totally active and believing in the Church. I also considered my military vocation and exposure as a pragmatic choice when I elected to enlist in 1968 rather than await the draft. It was in a sense a necessary worldly “evil” and I don’t remember any sense of connection between the lessons of that training in 1971 and what would not occur in my own life after another 20 years.

Once Upon A Time …

Children born into the Church are in most ways unaware and unwitting conscripts into an environment that is totally and unequivocally one of “let’s pretend.”

Since comparative critical thinking is not one of those innate gifts with which most children are born, those born into active, believing and participating families experience from the get-go a  circumstance that – if explained to adult recruits/investigators in an honest, fair and responsible manner – might go something like this.

“Now, Brother Brown, we are here today because we are totally happy, totally satisfied, totally believing in the truths we are preaching. We have mentally moved into the world portrayed by these pretend truths and invite you to do the same. 

These truths along with the duties and obligations that we consider legitimate, real and effectual in this pretend world, are what you should come to believe in. To get there we challenge you to suspend your disbelief and assume that everything we teach you is the truth.

We invite you to pretend along with us, go along with us, go along with all our stories, rationales and theologies. As you suspend disbelief, you will become more and more planted in this pretend reality we who are members all share.

If you are faithful, at some point, the disparities, the faulty rationales and theologies and the absolute truths will all be just that … absolutes. You will be so convinced that they are all true, that our drama – yours and mine – is the only true reality, that it will be hard to return back to that original curious state that led to your encounter with us.”

That would be the honest way to proselytize.

But such is too honest for a religious organization believing unreasonable notions about itself.

At some point – usually after baptism – you risk the loss of the right to request an academic situation, principally because the “trainers” no longer believe in academic situations, because the trainers believe that you – like them – have lost yourself in the make-believe world.

Whether born into the Church or converted with a few years of total participation in  your history, you must pursue and suffer withdrawal pains from your addiction to  a pretended dramatic performance in which you have been recruited and commissioned as a participating actor.

This often becomes more challenging if you have been commissioned a more significant role as an actor of influence on a local, regional or home-office level.

Resisting the demands made by fellow actors also caught within this pretended performance may require nothing less than the resistance required in a POW situation into which one has become entrapped and must endure until release is obtained.

The circumstances of the pretended drama for most religions may be porous and permeable allowing entry and exit easily according to desire and inclination.

However, in some organizations, the let’s-pretend devolves in the the rigid, inflexible formalism of religious fundamentalism. Some of the circumstances became buttressed by equally pretended but nonetheless real “rules” and “conditions” that must be met in order for the drama to play itself out to a personally successful conclusion.

When such circumstances exist, fellow actors are empowered to work manipulatively (in many cases as unwitting participants) to keep you engaged in the pretended drama through what amounts mostly to mental and emotional coercion.

One becomes subject to threats, warnings and admonitions that are as pretentious as the entire scenario itself …  unless one has been mentally stampeded to believe that not only is the scenario real, but the threats are real and really legitimate.

Inside the pretended drama, belonging and participation validated by fellow actors’ opinions rise almost to paramount importance.

It is only in that venue that theologically-based threats appear to be legitimate.

The legitimacy lies mostly with our pretending that there IS a God who would let some mortals eternally course or impede the “progress” of other mortals toward some imaginary bliss.

However, without willing suspension of disbelief, such mortals can not be empowered.

Authorities of the earthly church cannot “do” anything to you physically or eternally.
They can only request that the actual head of the church do that.

Specifically, no LDS authority can ruin your eternal happiness, your forever, or consign  you to outer darkness unless Jesus endorses and carries out the decision.

If you believe in that kind of Jesus, then I might say that you have been stampeded too far and for too long and now believe in a Divine Punitive Despot Obsessed With Obedience more than Free Agency … and you yourself deserve what you have bought into hook line and sinker.

Given that the genuine and loving Heavenly Parent is not going to let one child abuse another for any personal or authoritative retribution, the Church can only physically restrict its validation of anything formal you accomplish, say or do inside the walls of the formal and conforming church.

The Church can only enforce its specific earthly organizational “club rules” that are expressed in social ostracism, shunning, disfellowshipment and actual dis-enrolling in the earthly club, i.e. excommunication.

But no Church and no leader can stand between you and God and block your access … unless yous top thinking about who and what God is as defined by your own experience and not someone else’s definitions.

Any God who would actually turn that sort of power and influence over to a few mortals at the expense of the rest is not a real God, has ceased to be God and in truth does not exist

… unless we are lost in an imagined reality and willing to pretend that such a god IS real

… and in quiet desperation we attempt to live in fear of the imaginary divine tyrant.


  1. Arthur, thank you for this post. What strikes me about my own LDS experiences is that Mormons are highly functional, rational actors once you get beyond the Church parking lot, e.g. In secular situations. The change in behavior, mental processes, and critical thinking as we move out of the secular sphere is dramatic.


  2. The change IS dramatic. As needful and practical as critical thinking is, when it comes to religion and religious conformity and although the Church does not actively “campaign” against critical thinking … such is the enemy to be combated when the exhortation is made to “follow the brethren” and “to obey is better than to ________”


  3. Arthur, as always, a very thoughtful post.

    Whether or not LDS are indeed brainwashed into the pretent situation, or voluntarily accept the dogmatic schema, the end is that our progress toward enlightenment is blocked by the schema. This may make for a happy life in many ways, but ultimately, the idea of constantly feeling happy and progressing toward eternal life gives way to the inevitable decline of the flesh and mind. It isn't real.

    My wife's grandfather was an amazing church leader and patriarch. I once stood in awe of his spirituality and calm maturity in his leadership. Yet, as life goes on, he could not accept the inevitable trials of aging, and left this life a very bitter, small man.

    I learned something from this: the trap of thinking that we will get the big prize if we but obey is entirely inadequate to handle the inevitable trials of this life. I love the clarity of your statement: “Any God who would actually turn that sort of power and influence over to some mortals at the expense of the rest is not a real God, has ceased to be God and in truth does not exist.” To have a working, functional god in our lives, we need to understand that the true god is quite distinct from anything to be found in the control-systems of the church.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.