Long Term Indoctrination

Ghosts in the Machine — an RfRx talk with Nate Phelps

Recovering from Religion
Sep 24 · 6 min read

Submitted by Jenna Chiles

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The phrase “Ghost in the Machine” was coined by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his work the Concept of the Mind (1949). It was meant as a rebuttal to Rene Descartes’ concept of mind-body dualism.

Before I get into Ryle’s ideas, let me explain Descartes’. Mind-body dualism is the idea that the mind and body are separate entities that exist together. The mind controls the body — telling it what to do, where to go, etc. The body is a machine operated by the mind. When the body dies, the mind lives on (in what way, we can only speculate). Without a mind to direct it, the body does nothing on its own. This dualism is all well and good (especially if you like the idea of free will or souls), but it’s hardly provable. We can quantify a body, but not a mind. Also, what of someone who is “brain dead” or mentally impaired in some way? If someone can’t move their body or fully control its movements, does that make their mind any less real?

Unless you’re a philosophy major, Ryle’s argument against mind-body dualism can sound a little esoteric. Calling Descartes’ concept of the mind a “ghost in the machine” is a great place to start. There are plenty of ways one can test, measure and evaluate a machine. It has physical dimensions, has an input and output, is observable, ect, etc. But how does one measure or quantify a ghost? It doesn’t have physical dimensions. It has no input nor output. Ryle’s metaphor demonstrates Descartes’ false equivalency. We can scientifically measure the body to prove it exists, but we can’t measure Descartes’ idea of a mind. We also can’t demonstrate that a mind continues on after the body’s death. The mind (really, I think Descartes uses the words “mind” and “soul” interchangeably) is little more than a hopeful delusion.

To be fair, Descartes’ mind-body dualism is a tempting proposition and created in a time before modern science. It’s nice to imagine some ethereal wisp that is my essence when the truth is that I’m little more than an ape with anxiety. It’s comforting to think there’s a little thing behind my body’s steering wheel, and it lives on when my body dies. I’ve already given up on the hope of my “whisp” having a life after death. No one has come back to tell us what the other side of death is like, so it’s something we can never know with measurable certainty. I have a harder time letting go of the idea that I’m in control of my body. That of my ghost controlling my machine is so comforting. In reality, I may not be as in control of my machine as I thought. Sometimes, it is the machine controlling the ghost.

The first time I had a panic attack crystalized this idea. I started getting them in my adolescence when I was in enclosed or crowded spaces. Even after I learned my “triggers,” I couldn’t stop one from happening. My brain chemistry had carved such a groove that no amount of mental gymnastics or meditating could prevent a panic attack from happening. I couldn’t control what my body was doing. When my eyes saw people close in, and my ears heard the din get louder, and my lungs struggled to breathe the stifled air, nothing could stop the impending attack. My body was in control of my mind at those points.

In much the same way, milestones of my childhood sometimes control my adult life in ways I don’t expect. The heavy indoctrination I think I’ve put aside comes out as shame, guilt, and low self esteem. Just when I think I’m in control of myself, my old programming bursts out from some unseen place in my mind making me doubt just how in control I am. Anyone who has experienced PTSD to any degree could understand the ways you can be out of control of your own mind when the right stimuli is applied.

I thought of my own experiences while watching the RfRx talk Indoctrination: Ghosts In The Machine with Nate Phelps. Phelps came from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church. Their doctrine is confusing to say the least, but it has elements of Calvinism (AKA predestination). The doctrine also had lots of “end times’’ elements where members treated every day as a moment closer to Christ’s return to earth and impending doom for all the sinners. The leader sincerely believed it would happen in his lifetime. I think most people remember Westboro from their “God Hates Fags” signs and their protest at soldier’s funerals in the 2000’s. Phelp’s father started the church. It was made up mostly of his family members with a couple of outside families that subscribed to the same beliefs. Phelps’ childhood was highly religious, controlled, and abusive on many levels.

For most of the talk, Phelps describes his process of leaving the church. It was not an easy task. He had no “outside” contacts or help, so when he left he was completely alone. After leaving, he felt certain that God was going to strike him down at any moment for leaving. God’s wrath was always looming behind him. After seeing a counselor who recommended learning more about the Bible, Nate started to see that his father’s interpretation of the Bible was deeply flawed. Still feeling emotionally stunted, he struggled through adult life trying to catch up at being a “normal” human. He speaks of many times his indoctrination came back to haunt his non-religious life — especially in what should be happy life events like marriage and parenting. He’s been out of Westboro for over 40 years now and still struggles.

During the latter half of the talk, Phelps offers a couple of book suggestions for folks experiencing the sames struggles he has:

One book Phelps didn’t include, but I will, is Unfollow by Megan Phelp-Roper. She is the granddaughter of the original pastor of WBC. Her book was deeply moving, and I felt her narrative so deeply. Megan devotes a generous portion of her narrative to the doctrine of WBC and how it unraveled for her in her mid to late 20’s.

The effects of childhood indoctrination can run deep. Phelps has been out of his religion for 40 years and still struggles. Helping Dr. Darrel Ray create Recovering from Religion has been a great help for him and many others. Speaking from my own experience, the RFR community has helped me so much! I had joined a couple of atheist and freethinking communities, but they never really got just how fundamentalist my family/upbringing was. When your programming runs deep, it can take a community to lift you out of the fundamentalist quagmire. Groups like RfR (and therapy and books) have helped me regain control over my machine again.

Written by Jenna Chiles

I am a full-time mom who works part-time. Between mom stuff and my job, I like to read books, garden, and sew. I’ve been an atheist since 2010. I also volunteer for Recovering from Religion in the Support Group program.


Stories from ex-believers, doubters, and those recovering from religion.


Stories from people who have questioned their beliefs, left their faith, navigated doubt, and changed their minds about religion. Some are atheists, some agnostic, and some embrace a different kind of belief. All of them are recovering from religion.

Recovering from Religion

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Has religion negatively affected your life? Find resources, live chat and phone support, Support Groups, and more at recoveringfromreligion.org.


Stories from people who have questioned their beliefs, left their faith, navigated doubt, and changed their minds about religion. Some are atheists, some agnostic, and some embrace a different kind of belief. All of them are recovering from religion.