Recently a friend complained that we’ve exited the brief window in history where “gaslighting” was a word that meant something distinct. To gaslight someone (as a verb) used to mean to drive them to insanity by sabotaging their reality-testing. The eponymous example is a husband who alters the gas flow to the lights in his house without his wife’s knowledge, and when she complains about the house being dimmer, says that everything is exactly the same brightness it always was, and there must be something wrong with her. It is literally a destruction of the tools we use to comprehend the world around us, and our interpretation of it.
Nowadays it’s overused to the point that it’s come to mean no more than “being lied to by the person you’re in a romantic relationship with.” Basically just a slight narrowing of “being lied to”, which makes it a vacuous term. Maybe we can reclaim it in time, like we did with “literally.”
Humans, through a combination of instinct and training, develop a moral sense. I don’t mean that we can sense any actual “morality” that exists as an objective thing, like we can sense photons or air vibrations. But we can certainly sense to a fair degree when something is commendable or reprehensible in the moral system we’ve been taught. Edge cases can be fun to think about to explore borders, but we know theft is wrong.
This poses a major problem to most religions. I was raised in a religion that believes in the omnipotent & omniscient christain god, who is Good. I was also raised to be a good person by modern standards. And the mindfuck that creates is hard to describe. You know what constitutes a good person. You know what a good person with limitless resources would do. And then you look at the world around you.
It is impossible that a Good, Sane god would do NOTHING about the state of the world. It is morally abhorrent to even consider that. And yet every day you are bombarded with evidence that He (in my case it was a “he”) is doing nothing. Either can’t or won’t do anything. And every day I’m reminded of how good god is, and how much he loves everyone, and that we should always strive to be like him, the perfect example of true goodness.
I know what goodness is! YOU taught me! All my moral-sense information says God is not good. He’s probably evil! Negligent at the least. Yet I keep being told that He is, in fact, good. Ultimately good. My senses must be lying to me. Or my brain is screwed up in some way that I’m misinterpreting things. My senses cannot be trusted, the world must not be real in the way I perceive it. It’s unfortunate I’m crippled/crazy in this way.
Gaslighting can be difficult, because to gaslight someone you can’t let them interact with anyone who would honestly corroborate their sense information. Asch’s Conformity Experiment is a model case for gaslighting. Eight different people (one of them an authority figure) are all earnestly saying your sense information is deeply flawed in a consistent way, and you can’t ask the opinions of people outside the room. To successfully gaslight someone long-term, you have to either keep them isolated, or recruit everyone they may run into, so they participate in the sabotage.
And wouldn’t you know it – those motherfuckers got away with it, for centuries. They convinced EVERYONE to buy into their authority and repeat their distortions. No matter who you asked, you would always get the same answer – your senses are broken, or you’re crazy. God really is good, despite what your moral sense and your own lying eyes are telling you.
Maybe this didn’t used to be the case. Maybe when morality was a primitive affair, and only extended to your tribe, this was less of a problem. Maybe when you didn’t have 24/7 news from around the globe, and history books full of atrocities, it was harder to notice how fucked up the world is. But holding to that line in the face of modern morality is insanity-inducing.
I think that’s one of the reasons that newly-deconverted atheists are often angry. It’s infuriating when you realize how much your entire social world has been trying to cripple you. Has been *successfully* crippling you. And you need to shout it, because you know that gaslighting falls apart when people are willing to stand up and report their true sense-data. It’s why religions used to murder anyone who didn’t play along. If a few people are willing to say “Look, I don’t know what you’re seeing, but to me Line B is clearly NOT the right match” it breaks the spell. If your friend comes into the house and confirms “Yes, you’re right, the lights really are dimmer, I see it too!” you have evidence that you aren’t defective. It’s someone else trying to make you think you’re crazy. Now that you’re free, you want others like you to know they are not alone, and they aren’t crazy.
Thank god for the internet. It’s the main reason atheists can be fairly chill now. Finally everyone has easy access to the knowledge that lots of other people see the lights dimming too. It no longer has to be yelled just to be noticed among all the confederates pointing to the wrong line.
I still have some reality-testing issues to this day. Mostly they’re under control, and I doubt they’re all do entirely to this reason. But shit, the religion thing certainly didn’t help.