Wednesday, July 26, 2017

5 American Idols



Last week, I claimed that America’s predominant religion is Me-ism, a religion which places trust in ourselves to meet our needs. But Me-ism isn’t the only non-traditional religion in America. This week, I want to take a look at some of the other non-traditional gods (idols) which Americans worship because they believe these gods will meet their needs.

As a quick recap from last week, I defined a god as someone or something we worship because we trust that it will meet one or more of our needs. We rarely seem to worship one god, but rather, worship a host of gods in whom we trust to meet our various needs. Here are five of the gods Americans worship other than themselves.

1. Money


Americans worship money almost as much as they worship themselves. Although some people get a sense of security by stockpiling large amounts of money, money doesn’t actually meet the majority of our needs. For example, money doesn’t satisfy our hunger, thirst, or need for deeper intimate relationships. Instead, money can buy things that will meet our needs such as food, clothing, and a shelter. If we stockpile an unlimited amount of money, then we can buy an unlimited amount of things to meet our needs. Therefore, money is a god which is worshiped by many Americans.

2. Careers


A successful career can’t meet our hunger needs, but it can meet our needs for achievement, power, and control. For example, as an engineer, I feel a sense of accomplishment when I complete the design and coordination of a new construction project. If I was to move up the corporate ladder into a managerial position, I would gain more power and control on each step up the ladder. These needs are not normally recognized as basic needs, but they are nonetheless needs which many of us possess. Therefore, our careers can become a god which we worship in order to get these needs met.

3. Spouses


As Jerry Maguire famously said, “You complete me.” Many Americans look to a spouse or significant other to meet some or all of their needs. For example, we all have needs for togetherness, belonging, and relational intimacy. We think that if we have a spouse, then we will no longer feel alone, will be accepted, and will be able to get our sexual needs met. Therefore, we can fall into the trap of worshiping our spouse or significant other as a god.

4. Athletic Teams


As hard as we may try, we can’t deny Americans’ love for athletic teams. In O-H-I-O, we worship the Ohio State Buckeye football team. No matter what state we live in, cheering for an athletic team is a big part of being an American. When our team wins, a need is met. When our team loses, a need goes unmet. Some people base their entire self-esteem on whether their team wins or loses a game. Therefore, athletic teams are gods which many Americans worship.

5. Retirement


The last American idol I will be sharing is the god of retirement. We work hard for forty plus years to save up enough money in our 401k plans so that we can retire at the age of 65. Why would we want to stop working? Because we think that once we can retire to a beach in Florida, we’ll be able to kick back, relax, and focus all of our money, time, and energy on getting our needs met. Therefore, retirement has become a god many Americans worship.


Do any of these idols resonate with you? What other idols have or are you worshiping because you’ve entrusted yourself to them to meet your needs?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Is America's Predominant Religion?



This article probably isn’t about what you think it’s going to be about.

When I think of being religious, the first picture that pops in my head is of the beautiful cathedral of Notre Dame in France. Another picture which pops in my head is the Islamic mosque located off of I-75 approximately forty-five minutes north of my home.

Christianity and Islam are two of the most prominent world religions and certainly have a coast to coast presence in America, but neither of these two religions is the predominant religion in America. If you read the stats from recent surveys, it would appear that Christianity is overwhelmingly the predominant religion in America followed by a growing population of religiously unaffiliated people.[1]

But my research indicates that neither of these stats is correct; Christianity is not America’s most predominant religion and there is no such thing as religiously unaffiliated. Instead, I believe there is another religion which has swept this country, having won the hearts of people from coast to coast.

What is this mysterious religion and how has it been so successful at winning the hearts and minds of people all over this country?

Defining Religion


We begin our investigation by defining the word “religion.” Although many of us have a picture in our heads of what constitutes religion, many of us have only applied this definition in certain contexts thereby preventing us from seeing the broad spectrum of various religions which exist in this country. Two distinguishing characteristics of a religion are: (1) a god and (2) worship of that god. Let’s take a brief look at both of these components.

A God


Martin Luther, a sixteenth century philosopher and theologian, defined a god as:

To whatever we look for any good thing and for refuge in every need, that is what is meant by “god.” To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in him from the heart…To whatever you give your heart and entrust your being, that, I say, is really your god.[2]

Luther’s definition of a god is progressive. The foundational component of a god is that he must be able to meet our needs. When we find someone or something who is able to meet our needs, then we begin to trust that it’ll continue to meet our needs. This will then lead us to entrust ourselves to this god.

Worship


John Piper, a more contemporary philosopher and theologian, defined worship as follows:

Worship is a way of gladly reflecting back to God the radiance of his worth.[3]

Whether we are worshiping the God of the Bible that Piper is referring to or we are worshiping another god, worship is defined the same way; simply replace the capital “G” in “God” with a lower case “g”. Before moving on, I need to point out the importance of the word “gladly” in Piper’s definition. If radiance is reflected back dutifully with no emotion in it, then it’s not worship; worship only occurs when we reflect radiance gladly.

Christianity is Not the Predominant Religion


Now that I’ve defined a religion and its two most necessary components, let’s take a quick look at why I believe Christianity isn’t the predominant religion in America.

What gods do Americans gladly worship? If I was to go to an Ohio State Buckeye football game on a Saturday afternoon, I would see a lot more worship going on there than in most church buildings on Sunday mornings. When people go to an Ohio State Buckeye football game, they gladly stand to their feet and cheer when their team hits the field. They gladly jump out of their seats and scream when OSU scores a touchdown. And they gladly sing their praises when OSU wins the game. Conversely, it’s like pulling teeth to get people who attend church services to read their Bibles, pray, and sing God’s praises. This is what leads me to the conclusion that Christianity is not the predominant religion in America.

There Is No Such Thing as Non-Religious


Whether we like it or not, everyone worships someone or something. As an example, look at the worship which takes place every autumn Saturday at college football stadiums around the country. They may not worship an invisible god, but they obviously worship a god whether it’s the OSU, Alabama, or USC football teams. We may not all worship the college football gods, but we all worship one god or another, making us all very religious.

The American god


Now this brings us to the point where it’s time to unveil the god Americans are worshiping. It is true that there are some Americans who worship Yahweh, Allah, or Buddha, but there are many more Americans who worship another god. Who, then, is this god?

Another way of asking this question is: Who or what is most valuable to Americans? Is it money? A big house? A luxury car? A smoking hot spouse? A successful career? A happy family? All of these things are at least somewhat valuable to most Americans, but they are not the most valuable things to most of them. Above all else, the most valuable thing to most Americans is…me.

Now, I don’t mean me personally; I hope no one is worshiping me since I’m not worthy of being worshiped. What is most valuable to the majority of Americans is themselves. On the whole, we trust in ourselves to provide for all of our needs.

In America, we are our own gods who worship ourselves. The resulting religion is what I call Me-ism. Me-ism has captured the hearts of Americans from coast to coast, making it America’s predominant religion.


Take a few minutes to meditate on these questions: Who or what is your predominant god? Is this god the same god as the one you previously thought you were worshiping? Is this god the god you want to continue worshiping?


[1] Alan Cooperman, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, accessed July 18, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.
[2] F. Samuel Janzow, Luther’s Large Catechism: A Contemporary Translation with Study Questions (St. Louis: Concordia, 1978), 13.
[3] John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2011), location 1393, kindle.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How to Spot Manipulation




Have you ever been manipulated by someone? If you have, you know how awful it feels. You feel betrayed. You lose trust in the person. And you are fearful of continuing to be around the person because you’re worried he or she might try to manipulate you again.

For better or worse, I’ve met more manipulative people than I care to count. I’ve been hurt by some of them. People I love have been hurt by some of them. And some of them haven’t been able to manipulate me because I’ve learned how to recognize and defend against them.

Whether we like it or not, we interact with manipulative people on a daily basis. I’ve written this article to make you more aware of manipulation, how to spot it, and how to avoid both manipulating others and being manipulated.

What Is Manipulation?


Manipulation can mean lots of different things, so I need to start by providing a definition of manipulation. To manipulate someone means to gain control over that person’s behaviors. This may sound a bit extreme since most of us aren’t dealing with situations where another person is physically forcing us to do something against our will. This definition is simply the purest form of manipulation.

But that doesn’t diminish the existence of milder forms of manipulation which most of us have experienced or may be experiencing right now. These milder forms of manipulation occur when another person gains the power to limit our options so that we will willingly choose the option the manipulative person wants us to choose.

At first, manipulation may sound a lot like influence, but manipulation is not the same as influence. A person who is being manipulated chooses certain behaviors due to the threatened consequences from the manipulative person for choosing different behaviors. On the other hand, a person who is being influenced chooses certain behaviors without any threatened consequences from the influencing person for choosing different behaviors.

Lastly, in our culture, it is commonly understood that a person is only manipulative if the primary intent behind gaining control of another person’s behaviors is to benefit the manipulative person.[1] To gain control of another person with the intent of benefiting the manipulated person, then, would not be considered manipulative. But I define manipulation as any control we exercise over another person’s behaviors, regardless of the intended beneficiary.

Hopefully this gives you a picture of the way I'm defining manipulation throughout this article.

How Does Manipulation Work?


Two chief principles are at work in manipulation. The first is that all of us have needs. I have needs. You have needs. And every single other person on this planet has needs. Maybe you need words of affirmation. Maybe you need attention. Maybe you need respect. Maybe you need an intimate relationship with another person. Whatever your needs are, you feel empty without these needs being met.

The other principle in play is power. Intrinsically, we all have an equal amount of power, meaning that no one has the power to cause another person to exercise certain behaviors.[2] The type of manipulation we usually encounter occurs when another person–such as a coworker, vendor, or spouse–who has an equivalent amount of power to us attempts to gain power over of us in an effort to control our behaviors, even in mild ways.

The combination of these two principles creates the most common form of manipulation I’ve both experienced and observed: Someone offers to meet your need(s) in exchange for your submission to his will. Once this person has power over you, he may request you to do things you may not want to do, but you feel obligated to do them because you’re terrified of your needs not getting met in return.

Is Manipulation Obvious?


The quick answer to this question is: No, manipulation is rarely easy to spot. If it was obvious, I wouldn’t be writing about it. One of the reasons why manipulation is so hard to spot is because it is often very subtle. If I were to walk up to you and tell you I’d meet your needs in exchange for you giving me control of your life, you probably wouldn’t make that trade. The only people dumb enough to do that were the Israelites when they demanded that God give them a king.[3] Because manipulation is often subtle rather than overt, it’s hard to spot it unless you know what to look for.

Although much of the information I’ve read about manipulation appears to claim that we can observe manipulation through another person’s outward behaviors, I don’t see how even the most thorough analysis of another person’s outward behaviors, by itself, can determine whether another person is trying to manipulate us. For example, a person may meet your needs because he is trying to gain control over you, but he may also meet your needs because he loves you.[4] Either case could be possible. The first case is obviously manipulation while the second is far from manipulation.

How Can We Spot Manipulation?


Manipulation takes place with a variety of creative techniques. So unfortunately, there’s not a single test you can run to determine whether another person is trying to manipulate you. But if you suspect someone is trying to manipulate you, here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • Does the person threaten to withhold meeting your needs?
  • Does the person give you complex, passionate explanations for why he can’t meet your “unreasonable” requests?
  • Does the person make critical remarks to you which make you feel inadequate and inferior (Sometimes these remarks can be disguised as jokes or sarcasm)?
  • Does the person display sudden emotional mood swings?
  • Does the person blame you for his problems?
  • Does the person withhold important decision-making information until asked for it?
  • Does the person give you little or no time to make important decisions?
  • Does the person give you the silent treatment?
  • Does the person make you feel guilty for not meeting his needs?[5]

Although the person you’re thinking of may not use all of these techniques, if he uses one or more of them on you, then it’s likely he’s attempting to manipulate you to some degree.

What to Do If You Think You’re Being Manipulated


When I first recognized that someone was manipulating me, I decided to cope with it by getting as far away from that person as I could. Although avoiding manipulative people may be a viable solution in your particular situation, I wouldn’t encourage you to adopt this approach as your primary way of coping with manipulation since you can’t run away from your certain people in your life like your coworkers, family, and your spouse. Here are a few of my suggestions for steps you can take if you think you might be a victim of manipulation:

Become more self-aware of your needs. The first step we can take is to become more aware of our own needs. What needs do we have that are so strong we’d do anything to get them met? Once we have our list, we can either find a way to get our needs met without becoming someone’s slave or learn to be okay going without them getting met. Personally, I try to allow God to meet my needs rather than depending upon a host of people to meet them. If we fail to recognize our propensity to sell our souls in order to get some of our needs met, we will certainly become victims of manipulation.

Become more self-aware of your tendency to manipulate other people. Although I’ve spent this article trying to help us spot manipulation in other people, it’s important to also spot the manipulation in ourselves. Whether we want to believe it or not, all of us, to one degree or another, have tried and/or are currently trying to manipulate people around us. I don’t think manipulation is a mental disorder, but I do think we need to work through it since it’s not in alignment with the character of God and it’s destructive to the people around us.

Become more aware of the people around you. It’s much easier to spot manipulation when we’re not the ones being manipulated. Observe the way the people you interact with interact with other people. Do you observe them doing some of the things I mentioned above to other people? If you observe someone trying to manipulate other people, I would encourage you to keep some emotional distance from that person. You could end up being like the frog that was put in a pot of tepid water which was slowly brought to a boil, killing the frog as he was boiled alive. If someone you know has demonstrated an unrepentant tendency to try to manipulate other people, sooner or later, he’s probably also going to try to manipulate you.

Become more willing to say No. Although we can’t avoid interacting with manipulative people, we can choose how we interact with them. Another person only has control over you if you give him control over you. If you find that a certain person has a tendency to try to manipulate you, then avoid giving him the opportunity to meet your needs, even if that means your needs go unmet. That’s not to say we can’t ever look to other people to meet our needs, but we’ll lessen the risk of being manipulated if we avoid trying to get our needs met by people who have a tendency to use need-meeting as an opportunity to manipulate us.


[1] Preston Ni, “14 Signs of Psychological and Emotional Manipulation,” Psychology Today, October 11, 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201510/14-signs-psychological-and-emotional-manipulation.
[2] Within the hierarchal institutions we have established such as our governments and corporations, the higher up in the hierarchy a person is, the more power he has over the people under him. People who have been given power in these institutions can manipulate the people under them, but typically this isn’t the type of manipulation we deal with on a daily basis.
[3] See 1 Samuel 8.
[4] In my article “Unselfishness vs. Love – Part 2” which I posted on June 7, 2017, I quoted John Piper as saying that “Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others” from John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2011), location 1973, kindle. Therefore, both love and manipulation can be motives for us to meet the needs of others.
[5] Many of these questions were inspired by Ni, “14 Signs of…,” Psychology Today.