Religious Retreats and Emotional Manipulation

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at

A few weeks ago, I received a last-minute text from my dad asking me to write my youngest brother a letter. Why last-minute, you ask? And why the request? Well, my brother had gone on a (Catholic) retreat for teens, and as part of the retreat, the teens receive letters of encouragement from their friends and family members. True to their typical disorganization, my parents failed to inform me before the day the letters were due. I had about an hour of time between classes that I could have used to quickly compose one and e-mail it in, but it would be very rushed, and I wasn’t sure that as an atheist I was really the best person to write this letter.

I really don’t have a problem with writing something encouraging in general–I think most would agree that’s a very nice thing to do–but I faced a bit of a moral dilemma about this because I knew what it was for. This was not simply a nice gesture encouraged by the retreat team. There was an agenda behind it, an agenda that I don’t support. I was essentially being asked to participate in emotional manipulation, meant to induce a “spiritual” experience in these teens, specifically my brother. I, an atheist, was being asked to “help” my brother find Jesus.

“Woah there,” you say. “What makes you think that? Maybe these people just want to help build self esteem in these teens.” I wish that were the case, but I’ve been to a few religious retreats and conferences myself, and even had what at the time I considered “religious experiences” there. As was true with many things in religion, the more I thought about it, the more I realized something fishy was happening.

If you’ve ever been to a retreat, you may have some idea what I’m about to say. There’s this phenomenon I like to call retreat euphoria, which is that happy, “Jesus is awesome!” feeling that makes you want to be very religious, that at most, generally lasts a week or two after the retreat. I’ve experienced it firsthand a few times, and the time I experienced it most strongly was when I attended the Steubenville Catholic Youth Conference in 2010 with a group of homeschoolers from my area. These conferences are quite well attended, and they do a lot to try to create that retreat euphoria in their attendees.

That conference I experienced is structured similarly to a retreat, only on a larger scale. It has music performances by Christian (Catholic even) artists, and speakers there give talks about purity, callings to priesthood and religious life, and other Catholic topics. As is the case with many large conferences, there are some parts of the conference that everyone generally attends. Everyone, for example, attends mass, and adoration. Other parts of the conference consisted of simultaneous talks and workshops that people could choose from. In a given time slot, for example, conference goers might choose between simultaneous talks on chastity, prayer, or abortion.

Some parts of the retreat are just appeals to reason, and those don’t bother me terribly. I respect speakers who try to build an argument for prayer, or abstinence. I get frustrated when I later realize that some of their information is incomplete or false, but at least they’re trying to get people to make up their own minds. That’s not what I’m frustrated about.

What frustrates me, is when they seize the fact that everyone attends mass and adoration–especially adoration–and use that to artificially generate what many there will quickly consider a religious experience. Here’s what happened to me.

They had gathered as many of the retreat attendees as could fit into this large space filled with extremely uncomfortable folding chairs, and they started with something very entertaining. I think adoration came immediately after mass, if I remember correctly. It was the most fun mass I’d ever seen, and would ever see during my years of being a practicing Catholic. Between the typical rituals were periods of pure entertainment. The priest who gave the homily (sermon) at mass was the epitome of the pop culture preacher from my last post. He did martial arts during his homily. We were all very focused on what was going on at the altar, because so many jokes had been told and so many exciting things were happening. We were so entertained, in fact, that we were surprised when after mass had ended, the lights began to go dim, and the music slowed down.

Ever been to a concert where there’s a big mood change, and the whole crowd reacts to the new music? It’s kind of like that. We didn’t know it yet, but it was time for adoration.

Adoration is what Catholics call special time devoted to prayer and reflection during which the Eucharist (holy communion), which they believe is really Jesus, is displayed in a monstrance (see the shiny gold thing in the picture below). Adoration may be accompanied, as it was that day, by a benediction (blessing). The priest may even choose, as he did at that event, to parade around the people with it, which was a common practice in some places historically. There’s a lot of ritual involved. For example, the priest does not touch the monstrance with his hands, but rather uses his robes, as you can see in the below picture. The Eucharist is the most sacred thing to Catholics, so it only makes sense at a Catholic retreat to use the Eucharist in your emotional manipulation scheme. Bear with me.

As the priest began to parade around us, the already hushed audience began to murmur, and a few people started crying. The focus on the Eucharist was so strong, and the rest of the retreat had been so successful at getting positive emotional reactions–laughter, entertainment, from us–that we began to expect something similar from the Eucharist. When we didn’t experience anything special initially, (as it’s just a piece of unleavened bread), we began to question why the audience was reacting in such a hushed manner–never mind the tendency to do as we’ve been taught since kindergarten, to focus on the authority figure and be quiet when someone is presenting something to us. A few more people started crying. Then more. Eventually, someone in my group started, and as we rushed to console her, we began to succumb to the same plague one by one.

I was one of the last ones to cry. I felt strange that I wasn’t crying like the people around me. They were experiencing some deep, moving religious experience, weren’t they? I don’t know how they got the first people crying. Maybe they’re just easy criers. I don’t know if they were placed there by the conference planners, or if there just so happen to be so many people who cry easily in every large crowd, but when they do, the sympathy criers join in, and then people like me–who just want to fit in–start looking for reasons to cry too. And I had nothing. I felt nothing. Then a thought occurred to me. I pictured the saddest thing I could imagine–at the time, a close friend’s near suicide which had happened shortly before we met–and there I was, one with the crowd, crying with the rest of them. I was immediately comforted by the chaperons and the other students in my group. I was hugged, my back was patted, and I was essentially being rewarded for faking a religious experience.

Then came the screamers.

At least two wailing people were carried out by a group of conference staff to another room. One of the people in my group told me they might have demons in them that would be exorcised. I don’t know for sure if that’s what actually happened because they were taken away, out of the room with everyone else in it, but seeing those people wail really did it for me. At the time, I believed in demons, and that only God could cast them out. I started to wonder if maybe my crying was an act of God, not me forcing myself to cry for the group–which only a second ago I had consciously acknowledged. Then I did it to myself again. I started imagining, what if my friend had succeeded at suicide? And holy crap, the tears kept coming. That was God, I decided. God had saved my friend, and God was making me cry now to tell me that. That had to be God. After enough repetition, your brain eventually begins to form the connection they’re looking for. The good things in your life come from Jesus. From Jesus. From Jesus. Not luck, not courage, hard work, or skill. Jesus.

If you’d asked me then, I wouldn’t have told you I had doubts. I would have sworn that the crowd around me was right, and that my tears were the result of an encounter with the Lord. But the same night that I had my religious “experience,” at adoration, I once again wondered if it was all in my head. I had consciously done something to make myself cry in the first place, and I hadn’t forgotten that. I am generally someone who likes to fit in, and that’s something I genuinely would do pretty much automatically. I began to wonder, what if I’m not the only person who’s like that? It wouldn’t have to be everyone, but enough people to get the room going. Group psychology is a pretty interesting thing, and it’s very powerful. Without even realizing it, we take social cues from everyone around us. What if that’s what happened to me?

But no, like they said, it was Jesus. I convinced myself when the crowd wasn’t there to convince me, and I did it over and over again for about a week after the retreat, while the euphoria lasted.

The next day, when they called up people to give testimony to how they would live their faith better, I heard The Addict and The Purity Pledger, and I wanted to join their ranks. I swore something that in hindsight turned out to be true: that I wouldn’t be Catholic only because it’s what’s expected of me. I also said I was going to LIVE that faith because I wanted to! Because Jesus!

Funny how things turn out.

Flash forward to last week. I was home for spring break and remembered my parents’ request to write that letter, so I asked my brother how his retreat went. Remembering my experience at the conference, I asked, “Was there a strange moment where they somehow got like…three quarters of the people in a large room to cry?”

“Yeah,” he said. “How did you know?”

I hadn’t been to that particular retreat, but I had a feeling. He told me he and a friend of his who attended felt very weird seeing everyone cry. They didn’t cry themselves, but they could tell that something strange was happening.

If you’re not an easy crier, you see the experience for what it really is:  the retreat planners manipulating you.  They dim the lights and/or play soft music to set the mood, right after you’ve been riled up for Jesus in a more stimulating way. You’re also probably a little tired from not getting enough sleep. It’s a retreat after all–you’re hanging out with your friends. Everyone knows not much sleep happens at sleepovers, but they don’t talk much about how not much sleep happens at retreats. I’ve got news for you:  it doesn’t, and it takes its toll. You become increasingly susceptible to the power of suggestion. After all the entertainment–the music, the talks filled with jokes by Pop Culture Preachers–you’ve spent a lot of energy participating in those audiences, and you’re asked to spend the last dregs of your batteries on Jesus.

It’s little wonder that when asked, attendees at the Steubenville conference tend to list adoration as their favorite part of the event. The conference staff probably thinks that’s because these people are finding Jesus, but that’s really not the case, as you probably know if you’ve ever met someone who went on a retreat and didn’t feel it. The vast majority (not all, but most) don’t maintain retreat euphoria, even if they experience it.

You can see a pretty boring clip of the conference that the staff must have put together at the link below. Start watching at 3:29 to skip the drawn out montage with Jesus music and go straight to the student interviews at the end where they talk about adoration.

This post started with my qualms about writing a letter to my brother, which I eventually decided not to write. How does a letter of encouragement play into this emotional manipulation, you ask? It’s simple. You know that pleasant sensation you feel when you get a really nice compliment? For me, maybe because I’m a writer, it’s especially powerful when I read it. A feeling of contentment washes over me briefly, and while it isn’t orgasmic, it’s extremely pleasurable. It’s my brain rewarding me for doing something worthy of a compliment, and what happens when that feeling is triggered at the tail end of what you’ve already decided is a religious experience? It’s simple behaviorism. You are being conditioned to associate religiosity with two things:

1) Positive feelings of self esteem and self worth

2) Familial (and community) approval

Who wouldn’t want to be part of the religion that the important people in your life approve of, and compliment you for? The religion that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside is surely the right one for you.

But it wasn’t the religion that did that. The letters did. The soft music, dim lights, and crowd psychology did that.

Fuck no, I was not writing a manipulation letter.

I briefly considered though, what I would write if I didn’t think my parents would read it beforehand. I settled on a direct quote from several years ago, when one of my favorite professors substituted for my freshman English class, and had to play a very boring video for 50 minutes. It was so long and dull that he stopped it about 20 minutes in and said “Did you like it? Was it crap?” and we had a class discussion instead of continuing with the misery. His exact words are probably what I would have written to my brother.

So here’s my question to you if you’ve made it this far:  have you ever been on a retreat? If so, did you like it? Was it crap?

As always, all opinions are welcome. Just be sure to be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


10 thoughts on “Religious Retreats and Emotional Manipulation

  1. Damn, you’ve been to some exciting catholic masses! Your priest did MARTIALS ARTS during the homily? Holy cow! People started wailing as if demon possessed? More wow! I’ve only seen that kind of thing in charismatic protestant churches, which can be highly entertaining. Here I thought catholics were *boring*.

    Too bad I only ever attended regular mass. My parents were uncomfortable sending me to a mixed-gender camp and thought I might get raped, so no retreats for me. Sounds like I missed out on a lot of craziness and fun (mostly just craziness). What a fascinating post!


    • Thanks! Yeah it was the craziest thing, but ordinary Sunday mass is nothing like it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that religious people have figured out that it’s good to get ’em while they’re young. At youth-oriented events, they pull out all the stops.


  2. I’ve never been on a retreat, but I have experienced the deliberate raising of emotional energy at an Evangelical service. I was there for a confirmation service so wasn’t one of the faithful. The energy in the church was palpable. Then the doors were opened and everyone flooded out. There was no attempt at grounding the energy. I’ve never been in an Evangelical church since.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hmm, the Catholic camp experience sounds amazingly like the Charismatic Christian camps I attended as a Protestant! Funny thing is, most of the people in the denomination where I grew up did/do not consider Catholics to be Christian (I know… little thing called “history” was also missing 🙂 and they would consider the idea of Adoration and even the Catholic theology of the Eucharist as idolatry. Ironically, the fervor and emotion sounds EXACTLY the same as our altar call and times of music/prayer/coming before the Lord! I’ve heard the same descriptions of intense services in other religions, including Islam and Hindu, which makes me think something is going on here other than God, since “god” is supposedly different in each case. i would disagree about the experience being cruely calculated – the people I know are very sincere, just as I was when I participated. I really believed it and know they do as well. It was more about “sharing the truth that sets you free”. There might have been some manipulation at a level I was unaware of, but I don’t think that negates the very real experience. I can’t explain the “mountain-top” experience. But I can no longer ride it blindly, either.


  4. I grew up in a liberal Protestant tradition. For us a “retreat” was when our Youth Group went off to a local camp for a weekend, and hung out together singing and talking and doing endless “bible study” and such like. We came back on a moderate high, with lots of lovey-dovey happy-clappy feelings, but not like what you are describing above.

    What we did have was Conferences. For Presbyterian young people on the East Coast, in my day that meant Montreat, held at a college in the Smoky Mountains. We’d go for a week, have services, musical guests, and all kids of breakout sessions with hundreds of other youth group teens from around the country. And it would end much as the retreat you describe, with an extended communion service with everyone crying (no ritual stuff like monstrances, though, we were protestants fer cryinoutloud) and we’d go home with a high that lasted about a week or two. Nobody asked for letters from home, though, that’s a new one for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. what you described here is NOT Catholic at all. True Catholicism is not based on emotion. It is based upon faith, the intellect and the will. Basing your religious beliefs on emotion is surely a catastrophe in the making. I have been to Baptist retreats as well as true Catholic retreats. The Baptistvreyreats I’ve attended were EXACTLY as you described. Horrible and sorta creepy! The true Catholic retreats I’ve attended are NOTHING like that. I’ve also attended non denominational ‘Christian’ services that are all about entertaining the crowd just like the YouTube videos I watched from Steubenville worship services. It’s not Catholic.


  6. I know this an extremely late comment, but thank you for this post. I went to a Steubenville conference and I am always super aware of what is happening to my emotions. The adoration was terrifying, people were crying, screaming, and laughing. My friends who went made me feel like I wasn’t catholic or open to God because I didn’t cry. There was no authority when it came to sleeping. I ended up having a seizure from sleep deprivation. I wonder if the people thought that was from God. I was so affect by adoration my mom talked to a priest and even he thought it was emotional manipulation.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m not the type of person to leave comments but after I read this I just had to. My freshman year of highschool my parents had to pay $300 to send me to a mandatory retreat with my communion class. I went Through that same exact thing we had concerts there was a little band I was happy to see that the main speaker had tattoos I was finally thinking wow this isn’t the judgmental “everything’s a sin” group of people. But that day when adoration started they did exactly what you said stopped the up beat music to a sad slow song turned off all the lights and when the priest started to walk around this girl infront of me fainted and the girl behind me kept screaming and the laughs I heard sounded like those laughs in scary movies and I also forced myself to cry feeling guilty that I was the only one not crying I focused on the monstrance and how bright and beautiful it was and made myself cry but the screams and laughs and crying was too much for me so I left and sat down in the hall then some lady told me I couldn’t leave and forced me back inside. That was honestly the worst experience I already had doubts but I don’t believe in religion anymore after that that I wish I knew you when I went there it would of made this traumatic experience so much better thank you for this I’m glad I wasn’t the only one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Leny, thanks for sharing your experience! 2020 was rough so I haven’t been online much, but these are the topics that keep me up at night. You are definitely not the only one. We were definitely not the only 2. I’d love to see some academic research into how people rationalize this stuff a few years later, when the euphoria has faded. What percentage of people still believe it?


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