INSIDE THE WALLS | Escaping the Gang Delusion: No Priests Required

When I was a baby my parents had me baptized by a Catholic priest. In my teens I decided to get baptized again, but this time it was done by gang members. The baptismal ceremony into my gang consisted of a firm declaration of devotion to the neighborhood, followed by a barrage of clenched fists that I had to fight my way through only to be embraced as a member once the melee was over.

After that there was no turning back. A high degree of certitude and conviction that bordered on religious faith took hold as I became more immersed in my gang’s dogma and activities. This meant giving up the right to think for myself, the right to question what the gang really stood for. Eventually, to my shame, I became no different than a jihadi extremist who detonates bombs strapped to his own body just to hurt the “unbelievers”—we both unleased a wave of pain and suffering on others in our acts of self-annihilation. Fortunately, I survived my intense closed-mindedness, and in the end I escaped what I call my gang delusion.

One of the strong attractions the gang life held for me was the solidarity and camaraderie it offered to someone who felt like he didn’t belong in the larger society. I developed the impression that the social structure I lived in was not created to accommodate or benefit any children of Mexican descent (such as myself). This feeling combined with troubles at home to increase my anomie and antisocial attitude as I grew older. But then came the answer to my problems—my neighborhood gang—that presented me with a new sense of purpose and identity and provided me with the guidance I yearned for on how to be a respected man. Unfortunately, this “respect” demanded a sort of hyper-machismo where exaggerated masculinity is exhibited through acts of violence. In the streets, violence, especially extreme violence, usually earns a lot of “respect.”

Thus my delusion became entrenched and secure after my official initiation into the gang. Yet, when I ended up doing my first stint in prison, my brainwashing only intensified as I succumbed to the gang’s mythology that told me I was a soldado (soldier) in a revolutionary movement with the supposed noble goal of improving the well-being of “the people.” Oh, how delusional I must have been to buy that!

Just as I now sit in a prison cell, my mind ended up in its own confinement, separated from all reality. Hence, I continued to be oblivious to the severity of the how my closed-mindedness disabled my decision-making. The few intervals of doubt that I did experience about my faith in my gang wasn’t enough to shake my mind free from the delusion. However, amid the chaos, I was lucky enough to discover something about myself that would ultimately help free me. I learned that I had a profound love of reading.

When you’re locked in a cell twenty-three hours a day, day after day, year after year, you will inevitably discover the freedom that a book can provide in such a lonely place. And it was in this environment that I unearthed the lost treasure from my childhood—the pleasure and joy I got from reading. With every new book I got to explore new worlds and ideas, challenging my faith in my gang without even realizing it. The more I read, the more I learned and the more I became aware of my ignorance. The more I realized how deep-seated (and dangerous) this ignorance of mine was, the more the walls that imprisoned my mind began to crack.

Then one day it hit me. I stood awestruck as I realized that my own gang beliefs were utter nonsense, a world built on make-believe. Thanks to my own cognitive biases, I hadn’t been able to see through the false promises that the gang life offered. How deluded I must have been to believe that the gang life would garner love and loyalty from my fellow gang members and respect and admiration from my community, especially for my violent acts against rival gangs. Most importantly, or should I say most absurdly, I thought that it would make my family somehow proud of me, the respect my name earned. A closed mind can be blind to almost anything.

Consequently, the discovery of my mind’s overwhelming strength to deceive led me to question everything else that I’d once accepted on faith. I even began to question those things that I thought too sacred to touch. Growing up in a large Catholic family with a devoted Christian-turned-fundamentalist mother, the belief in the supernatural was profoundly etched in me. But once I let that Socratic genie out of the bottle, the questioning could not stop. Hence, I began to apply critical inquiry and reason to all my beliefs and ideas, having learned how crucial this was to seeing through the delusion of gang life. It was only a matter of time before I stood bewildered and shocked once again with that same liberating feeling I had experienced when I escaped my gang beliefs. This time it was the realization that my lifelong belief in God and the supernatural was just another illusion to escape from. I had been seeing only what I wanted to see.

Freed from the prison of closed-mindedness that both the gang life and religious faith required of me, I had to reevaluate all of my old values and assumptions. Arming myself with the tools of critical thinking, I began to dismantle the racial tribalism, misanthropy, sexism, egoism, selfishness, and a host of other harmful views and habits that I accumulated as a gang member. No longer could I also continue to blame that wicked devil or my “sinful nature” for my abject failures and shortcomings. I finally learned to take responsibility for my own ignorance and selfish acts. In the end, reason replaced my superstition, self-empowerment replaced my dependence on dogma to validate my existence, empathy replaced hate and violence, and compassion replaced my anger and resentment.

I eventually reached a point where I could honestly say that my criminal mind had become rehabilitated, and this rehabilitation looked virtually identical to the philosophy of humanism. Unlike my membership in a church or gang, humanism wasn’t something I had to conform my mind toward to be accepted; instead, it became the name that best described my own rehabilitation long before I even heard the word. And humanism is a hard thing to find in prison, a place where religiosity, irrationality, and violence run rampant. Like a drowning man clutching at straws, many prisoners clutch at cultural myths to help cope with the loss of control in their lives. Unfortunately, myths about evil and sin do not help the criminal to gain insight into the causative factors of their criminal thoughts and actions. The failure to open-mindedly confront the true self sets the stage for repetitive harmful behaviors.

This life-altering change in my life required no baptismal ceremony, no water or gauntlet of punches, no dogma I had to accept. Instead, a sincere value for critical inquiry was what it took to free my mind from its own prison. These are just some of the reasons why I think humanism has immense potential to rehabilitate and free the criminal mind, where other philosophies and interventions fail. It’s a “baptism” of radical honesty in clear-headed self-study. No priests required.