Most of the time, people had no hesitation in answering my questions. What a marvelous new planet filled with discoveries. Everyone seemed pretty cool with this life-long game of Q&A, but pretty early on, I stumbled across the first exception to that rule. “Why does the president have so many billboards of himself all over town?” I asked. “If this country is so rich in oil money, how come none of it is trickling down? Why is there so much corruption?” Surely, I wasn’t the only one asking these questions. Everyone talked about how great the president was, but the second you dug deeper, they’d hastily reply with “Shhhh, we don’t question the president here. This isn’t America. If we question the government, we’ll lose our jobs, our homes, and maybe even end up in jail.”
Huh… But if he was so great, a little scrutiny wouldn’t change that. Was the president hiding something?
Not long after, I earned the reputation at Sunday school of being the question kid. My hand was perpetually raised, “How did Noah fit a million animals on a boat that’s smaller than a football field? What’d he do with all the poop? If everyone descended from Adam and Eve. Did Cain marry his sister? Ewwww! Why hasn’t Jesus come back yet? And why did he just heal a couple lepers and a blind dude when he could have wiped out all disease once and for all?”
If my Sunday school teachers didn’t know the answer, they would shut me up with, “Shhhh, you don’t question God. God works in mysterious ways.” I didn’t like this answer one bit! Why would God give us a brain if he didn’t want us to use it? So I went straight to the source. But, sure enough, Bible-god dodged the question just like my Sunday school teacher, getting pissy at Job’s inquiries, with “who are YOU to question ME?!”
But if he was so great, a little scrutiny wouldn’t change that. Was Bible-god hiding something? Were the human authors of the Bible hiding something? It wasn’t just the Christians either. The Muslims, Mormons, and just about every other religion were also silenced with the same sacred side-step.
A few years later found me on a flight back home – states-side and college-bound, but that child-like curiosity never left me. Towards the end of my time at Texas A&M, I fell in love with science. If something didn’t make sense in the world of science, questions were encouraged. It was absolutely marvelous. Fame and fortune awaited anyone who could overturn a long standing scientific theory, backing up their findings with a mountain of evidence amidst a thorough critique. Even the most famous scientists faced rigorous scrutiny and had to explain their work and have it pass an intense process of peer review. The answers I found in science actually made sense of the world, but sometimes conflicted with my strict, literalist Biblical upbringing.
I eventually realized that I no longer believed in a literal Bible. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I just gradually filled in the pieces of the puzzle. And while a few pieces remained unsolved, the big picture view looked nothing like an interactive god. And the gaps in our scientific understanding were getting smaller and smaller.
But I didn’t want to leave my faith. I really liked my religions friends, and I knew the consequences could be severe. I didn’t believe in gods, so that technically made me an atheist, but by now I was living and working in the deep, southern United States, and that word carried so much stigma. I didn’t want it to negatively affect how my friends, coworkers, or family treated me. And I didn’t even have it as bad as some. I knew Mormons who were completely shunned. Their families and friends wouldn’t even speak to them anymore. I knew ex-Muslims who faced death threats from their own family members. But I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I mostly kept it to myself.
A few years after graduation, I fell in love with a gorgeous, astrophysics prodigy. And she was an atheist too! I couldn’t believe it. We just clicked right from the get-go, and before long we were engaged. Now my parents have always been wonderful, loving human beings, so I had never experienced an abusive relationship… until then. I didn’t see the warning signs, but before long, I was completely isolated in a controlling, manipulative, and intensely emotionally abusive relationship. As our wedding date approached, I began having doubts and second thoughts, which she refused to hear. All questions and concerns were met with uncontrollable sobbing, yelling, and accusations against me that lasted late into the night. If our relationship really was perfect, then a few questions wouldn’t alter that. But I still really loved her. I wanted to make it work, and I thought that if I proved myself by following through, I would ease her anxiety. But it just upped the stakes.
Things got worse and worse, and as everything began crumbling around me, my self-preservation instincts kicked in. Leaving that relationship was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Shortly after, I began studying about cults – how cult leaders use control tactics, fear, and manipulation to rob people of their freedom, their money, and in the worst cases, their very lives. They make grand promises, and their eager followers are taught to follow blindly, without questioning. But if the cult leader is actually so great, a little scrutiny wouldn’t change that.
Suddenly, it all came together! Authoritarian governments, abusive relationships, religious institutions, and cults all shared two destructive commonalities:
- They made extravagant claims that were too good to be true.
- They demanded blind faith. Rather than encouraging free inquiry, transparency, and earning trust, they relied on cult-like manipulation tactics to control even your own thoughts. But if they’re really so great, a little scrutiny wouldn’t change that.
There was a joke in the Soviet Union about an American who boasted to a Russian how in the US people are free to say anything they want, even being able to walk right up to Reagan, slam your hand on the desk and tell him that he’s a horrible president. The Russian replied, “Well, in the USSR, we can do that too. We can walk right up to General Secretary and tell him. Ronald Reagan is a horrible president.” Free speech is only free if it’s universal and absolute. Every idea, everything, and everyone should be able to be questioned.
“Free speech is only free if it’s universal and absolute.” – Thomas Westbrook
After my divorce was finalized, I couldn’t stay in Texas. There were too many difficult memories there. So I quit my IT job and headed to Thailand. As an autodidact my life-long curiosity manifested itself in my travels – living on the cheap, reading and studying voraciously, I began putting out YouTube videos to help myself and others to make sense of difficult issues in a world of manipulation & deception. I finally had a truly independent life of curiosity, discovery, and wonder. And I wanted more than anything to share it!
I want you to be free too. Whether it’s an authoritarian regime, a fundamental religious institution, or an abusive partner, cult-like manipulation tactics are all around us, and the only way that we can inoculate ourselves from their control is through free thought and critical thinking – questioning everything. No idea is sacred; no human above questioning. If something is true, it will hold up to scrutiny. Those who deflect or avoid said scrutiny usually have something to hide. But by asking questions, we can free ourselves of superstition, dogma, and psychological control. You can be free. Dare to be curious. And don’t drink the Koolaid.
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