Magical Thinking

When I reflect back on my time in UBF, comparing it with the time before and after, one thing that stands out is the custom of magical and wishful thinking, something that is not my normal rational way of thinking. Recently I remembered one such occasion and started understanding the psychological mechanisms at work. I thought I should write this up, even though I generally don’t want to write much about UBF anymore.

The situation was that I was riding on a train for several hours. I don’t remember where I went and why, but I remember that in the seats on the other side of the corridor, there was an African man and a woman who seemed to study some document. I slept for a while, and when I opened my eyes, they were already gone, but they had left the document on their seat. I took it up and was amazed to notice it was a kind of Bible study material. It was the typical fundamentalist approach that you can see in UBF as well: Quote some verses, and then draw some conclusions how you should live, using the verses as text-proof that this way of living was the only possible one, directly ordained by God.

At that time, I was already deeply brainwashed into UBF and had adopted an UBF mindset. In a normal state of mind, I would have understood that it was just a coincidence that an African couple sat next to me, who were members of some fundamentalist Evangelical church (which is not uncommon for African people) and who simply forgot their Bible study material in the train (or maybe on purpose as a way of evangelizing train passenger). However, in the UBF state of mind I interpreted this very differently, in two different ways:

First, I was amazed and delighted to see that other people had similar fundamentalist Bible study material. While in UBF, I never felt comfortable since UBF was so strange and their Bible study so different and fundamentalist from any experience in a mainstream church. So this helped me to talk myself into believing that UBF was not a cult, since other non UBF-people seemed to engage in similar things as well. My rational mind always knew that what I was doing in UBF was insane and unhealthy, so I had to always rationalize it to myself, and every such experience that affirmed the way of living in UBF was “normal” was very welcome for me. On the other hand, I always suppressed all the other negative experiences and feelings and warning signs that told me something was wrong.

Second, I immediately understood this event as not a coincidence, but as a direct and personal message of God to me. Of course, it was God’s way of telling me: You must engage more in Bible study, and here, look I gave you some more instructions. So I took these study notes with me and studied them in the following weeks at home very intensely. I’m not sure whether this had a good or bad influence on me. On the positive side, these study notes were much richer than the typical UBF questionnaires and lecture. They did not focus on one passage, but drew verses from everywhere in the Bible, and connected them, and did not put everything into the UBF context. So I gained some more overview and Evangelical Bible knowledge from them. On the other hand, they were still very fundamentalist, abusing the Bible in a similar way as UBF does as proof-text of their Evangelical fundamentalist world view and certain ways you have to operate and obey when you are a member of the church. They seemed to affirm that in principle what UBF was doing and teaching was right, and that God directly showed and told me this through these African people.

The way it works is that you are pre-conditioned for certain beliefs, and then you interpret any incident in that frameset of beliefs. Just like Catholic people seem to see the image of Virgin Mary in even a potato chip, you start to see affirmations that you need to be a UBF shepherd in what’s going on around you. You also re-interpret the past in that way. You remember that you were longing for God for a long time already, and had a difficult phase in your life, when suddenly two Koreans knocked on the door telling you everything you (n)ever wanted to know about God. You start to believe that this was the direct answer and interference of God into your life. Well, that may even be, but it does not mean that UBF now had the right to forever tell you how to live and bind you to their group and principles. Also, as I later understood, you can’t really call it a miracle that UBF Koreans members knock on your door just when you’re having a difficult phase in life, when you take into consideration that UBF members are systematically knocking on *every* door in the dormitories and many students are going through difficult phases with anxiety for the future or exams, or feeling lonely. So statistically it’s very likely that they knock on the door of a susceptible person. The miracle is rather that no more students fall prey to them. Maybe it’s because the students must have a certain naivety or level of desperate situation where they start magical and wishful thinking – maybe even as an unconscious rebellion against the more rational way of thinking that you are living as a university student. Anyway, I remember how the wife of the chapter director told me (meant as an encouragement to “invite” more people) that according to her experience you need to ask at least 100 people to find one “sheep”. If you’re honest you would recognize that this one sheep was not found miraculously, but rather systematically. Only from the view of the “victim” it looks like a miracle when somebody knocks at the door just at the right time.

I know that I was not the only person in UBF who had this way of magical thinking, and the mechanism was often the same. I remember one girl who wanted to leave UBF shortly before a conference where she had to deliver a UBF message. In her message she wrote how she saw a rainbow (not even a real one, but one from a water fountain or something) and interpreted it as God’s sign that she had a covenant with God=UBF so she needed to stay (she left anyway some years later). Another girl (who also left) told me how when she came to UBF with thoughts about leaving, she noticed the key verse on the wall which had some name in it – I think it was “Stephanus” – and because her brother or father or someone close also had the name “Stephan”, she concluded that this was somehow a message from God that she needed to stay in UBF. A very clear example of magical thinking. The same girl also told me later (after she left UBF anyway) how she attended the worship service of a charismatic preacher who was mentioning doctors in his sermon and “pointed right towards her” with his finger, even though he didn’t know her and that she was studying medicine. Again, she interpreted it as a Godly sign that told her that preacher was “anointed” and she needed to follow him and his church. When I looked him up in the Internet, I found that this man was a typical Pentecostal “health and wealth” preacher and several people had already complained about him, since he was using the offering money to buy expensive cars etc.

And there is an even more sinister and dark variant of magical thinking prevalent in UBF. The examples I have above are more like wishful thinking. But there is also the opposite, the magical thinking about things that you never wish for. Particularly, there is the fear that once you leave UBF, something bad will happen to you. This negative magical thinking tells you that not only you will lose your meaning of life and connection of God, but you will also experience some horrible accident or illness once you leave. The wife of the chapter director told me of one Korean woman who left UBF in order “to enjoy a worldly life and go skiing in winter” and how during one skiing holiday one of her children suddenly disappeared and was never found again. Of course she didn’t question the veracity of the story (which sounds implausible), and interpreted it as God’s “revenge” for her leaving UBF. What a horrible image of God! But actually such a God that will bless you if you stay in UBF and curse you if you leave is exactly what UBF indoctrinates people to believe. And I can give you several examples of such “horror stories” where people died or experienced horrible accidents in which they became crippled when they left UBF or disobeyed the leader. Many of these stories were invented by the UBF director Samuel Lee himself, who liked to tell them in always new variations. He even interlaced them in Sunday sermons, in order to instill such fears in people, knowing how susceptible they are for magical thinking.

My advice to any UBF member: Stop that magical thinking, and start thinking rationally again. Or, if you can’t stop it, then at least don’t do it a biased manner, inside your framework of UBF thinking. It is a very strong mechanism that will keep you in UBF forever, against sanity, and makes you unhappy and a slave to their system and leaders. Instead, think rationally again and trust in a loving God.