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Toward an Understanding of Religious Extremism – Rachel Williams-Smith

Date: 19 November 2016

Speakers: Dr. Rachel Williams-Smith

Position:  Assoc. Professor of Communications; Dir. – Communications Graduate Program

Topic: Toward an Understanding of Religious Extremism

Venue:  Garber Auditorium, Chan Shun Hall

Attendance: 71


In introducing her topic, Dr. Williams-Smith cited several recent examples of religious extremism, including the 9/11 attacks; Westboro Baptist Church; Jonestown; the Branch Davidians; and the Fundamentalist LDS group.  She noted that the Amish and some Mennonites also separate themselves from society.

Her parents also got into a type of religious extremism when she was a child.  Her father, who had been an Air Force captain, was an authoritarian figure.  The family was very religious, and as young Rachel neared age 6, her parents had been reading Ellen White’s writings to try to understand how best to live and to prepare for the end of the world.  They implemented major “reforms” in their family’s diet, dress, and education with the intent of separating themselves from the world.  They eventually moved to a very isolated 50-acre farm in the mountains of Tennessee and lived without electricity, indoor plumbing, and most other modern conveniences.

They still thought of themselves as Adventists but were no longer attending church, regarding the organized Adventist Church as a form of Babylon.  The family had one-hour worships three times each day plus additional intense “training sessions.”  Eventually Rachel began to question some of her parents’ views, which were focusing more and more on minor details and prompting verbal fights with a neighbor over minute details.  Her parents’ refusal to take her brother to the hospital after he was badly burned caused further questions.  Eventually her father left home and she went to Fountainview Farms, a self-supporting institution in British Columbia.  There she met people who helped her understanding of principles as a basis for thought and action as opposed to rules.

Dr. Williams-Smith noted that extremism includes:  authoritarian-based, simplistic, unintellectual thinking; imbalance and upside down religion; polarization that includes either/or alternatives, us versus them thinking, and separatism and information control; and apocalyptic urgency.  She emphasized the importance of principle-based thinking instead of simply rule-based thinking, but said that relationship-based thinking and being is the most important.  She said that if one is raised in a fundamentalist way of thinking, one can easily be flipped back into that mode of thinking.  She added that for those who grow up in rule-based thinking and behavior, it is harder to look at someone who has messed up and have compassion.

Dr. Williams-Smith noted that many in the Adventist Church have focused too much on information-based thinking.  Principles must trump rules and laws.  An important lesson she has learned, she said, is that God created the world, not in black and white, but in full color – yet it takes the lenses of relationships to truly see that.

Dr. Williams-Smith considers it a miracle of grace that she has been blessed with the outcome she has had.  She does not feel angry about her upbringing, although she went through that stage.  Her advice to parents would be to “spare nothing in loving your children—both the nurturing kind and the tough love.”


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