(Warning: Long post ahead)
(Disclaimer: Remember this blog is only a description of my spiritual journey and conclusions and should not be mistaken for “scientific research” or “rhetorical argument”)
There’s been much debate over at DeConversion blog about losing one’s faith. I’ve met pastors, housewives, scientists, philosophers, and people from every other walk of life who are in the throes of faith-loss. Many of us are in various stages of mourning. Some can get over it quickly and are upset with those of us who can’t. Some take forever (hand waving) and can’t seem to get a handle on their newfound loss of faith, who keep slipping back into mind-numbing fundie-think. But the majority of us realize that we can’t continue believing what we have and maintain our own integrity. There are those posting who are trying to talk us out of it. At least I think that’s what they are doing. I suppose they see it as a mission field or their duty or they may honestly be dealing with loss of faith issues themselves. I know I was when I first joined up.
I’ve tried for several years now to release myself from fundamentalism. It is indeed an insidious thought process. I think I just might have that part licked. I don’t know. But, it’s religion in general that I have a problem with now. What is fundamentalism? Well, the “fundamentals” are these:
The original formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897) and, in 1910, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which distilled these into what became known as the “five fundamentals”:
- Inerrancy of the Scriptures
- The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus (Isaiah 7:14)
- The doctrine of substitutionary atonement through God’s grace and human faith (Hebrews 9)
- The bodily resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28)
- The authenticity of Christ’s miracles (or, alternatively, his pre-millennial second coming)
If you believe these, you are a Christian fundamentalist. I can say that I most definitely do not believe in #1 any longer, nor is #2 necessary to faith. I also do not believe in miracles and gave up my belief in a premillenial second coming ages ago. These two things do not matter to faith either. (All of this begs the question, ‘is my intellectual assent to doctrine necessary at all when it comes to faith in a deity?’ But that’s clearly for another post.) Which leaves the atonement and resurrection, both centered on the man/god Jesus. I have yet to reconcile what I know is true in the real world and what we are told is true by ancient texts, bible interpreters, pastors, teachers, web sites, etc. I doubt I will ever reconcile it. And that is precisely because of this very dichotomy between reason and faith, between what we learn about life here and now and what we are told life is supposed to be about, between these two irreconcilable differences that will most likely never be reconciled, that most people of faith will either choose one of two paths. They will either quell all doubt whenever it occurs, believe what ancient texts tell them to believe, or they will try to understand why doubt persistently appears, explore why they believed at all, and deconvert. I’ve chosen to explore the latter.
What is this phenomenon of persistent doubt about the truth claims of Christianity or any other religion for that matter? Christians will tell you that a person of consistent doubt is probably not a “true” believer (1 John 2:19). That God will not answer the prayers of the double-minded and therefore we are doomed anyway (James 1:8). This tactic of us vs. them relieves them of the mystery of having deconverts in their midst (one of the few mysteries they refuse to accept by the way). Psychology comes in handy here when defining this kind of doubt. There’s a term called “cognitive dissonance” that explains a lot about what deconverts go through when they are confronted with new information that doesn’t jibe with what they used to believe:
According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.
Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent….
Let’s examine why someone of faith might experience cognitive dissonance. Take the example of what Christian’s call “God’s love.” We are told over and over that a God loves us. It was one of the main reason I converted to faith to begin with. It was such an appealing idea to believe that there was someone over and above the human that would love me; that there was something called “God’s unconditional love.” But wait, there’s a catch. God’s love is not unconditional at all. We are told that God loves us, yes, but hates us too because of inherent sin. God’s now in a quandary. He’s (sic) got some cognitive dissonance of his own to deal with. We are told that the very fact that we aren’t dead right now is because God got tired of destroying the world due to sin after he caused the flood. Therefore, we should be most thankful God doesn’t wipe us off the face of the earth again because of our sin (which he caused us to have by creating us capable of it; another mystery). Now, witness that there are wars, plagues, famines, child abuse, droughts, tsunamis, 9/11’s, serial killers, and other phenomena. We are told this is our own fault. Again we are told God loves us, but chooses not to stay these disasters for our own good, you know, much like a mother who would allow her child to get run over by a car to teach them not to play in traffic! God wishes he could, but really, it’s for our own good or destruction that he doesn’t intervene. This belief is not consistent; a God who loves yet does nothing about evil. Yet millions of Christians try to reconcile it by saying it is a “mystery.” We can’t understand it! Don’t even try, just accept. Yet, there are those of us who refuse to accept it. It’s senseless. Therefore, we must give up the belief to relieve the dissonance. We have no choice. It’s not reasonable to believe consistently contrary evidence.
Therefore, the only logical conclusion for the Christian is to see that we aren’t really worth that much if God never intervenes. We are certainly taught that the earth is not worth much. We hear that the only thing of worth is the hereafter. The only concern we should have is where we will spend eternity AFTER we die. That’s it. That’s all the Christian lives for is death. While we are here, living our lives, we should always think of our lives after death. Everything we are taught is geared toward heaven or hell. Every thought is taken captive toward that end, nothing else matters. Now there will be numerous Christians ready to defend all of their beliefs with various arguments. But they are all trying to reconcile inconsistencies in their own faith systems. My point is that some of us choose not to reconcile what cannot be reconciled. Rather than have faith in a “mystery” we choose to face it head on and realize the god of Christianity is not as “loving” as we were told. Examining scriptures closely bears this out, as does simply looking at life as it is lived out by billions every day. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there is a god who LOVES this world in any meaningful sense of the word. (Absence of destruction is not evidence by the way)
Meaningless also are the actions we are told we must do in order to be made acceptable to such a god. Actions that signify nothing but the reflection of ancient purification laws and holy codes, are encouraged as signs that we are trying to clean up our lives in order to be ready for heaven. Doctrinal assent is another action we are told will effect our eternal destiny. If such actions are not performed then hell awaits us. We are told that by living a holy life, even though no one can precisely define “holy” consistently, God will love us. This also begs the question, “why live a holy life if Jesus saved you anyway?” What difference would it make how we live if Jesus’ act of dying and rising “brought salvation” to the world? In fact, the larger question would be, what difference would our lives make to any god outside space and time or even inside space and time, where destruction and creation go hand in hand? Of course, the first thing Christians will do is point to various passages of the bible to prove this or that point, but there is no evidence that god sanctioned such texts as authoritative at all. Why should we believe what ancients had to say? And besides, reliance on such texts for thousands of years certainly hasn’t proven that a god exists, let alone a god who loves.
Take another example, churchgoing. When we become Christians we are told over and over that not to go to church is tantamount to not having faith. We are told that there are no “lone Christians” that we are meant to worship in groups, etc, etc. This is obviously a tactic by those in charge to stay in charge and keep their salaries coming in by enforcing tithes and offerings. If no one went to church, then no one would be susceptible to their teachings and group-think. There would be no guilt foisted upon people Sunday after Sunday. And, there would be no money for these “ministries.” Psychology says that the herd mentality is again at work here. No one likes to think they are believing things alone, especially unprovable things, so they convince themselves of its necessity:
Here are some examples [if group behaviors and cognitive dissonance] provided by Morton Hunt in his classic work ‘The Story of Psychology’:
* When trying to join a group, the harder they make the barriers to entry, the more you value your membership. To resolve the dissonance between the hoops you were forced to jump through, and the reality of what turns out to be a pretty average club, we convince ourselves the club is, in fact, fantastic.
* People will interpret the same information in radically different ways to support their own views of the world. When deciding our view on a contentious point, we conveniently forget what jars with our own theory and remember everything that fits…. [parentheses mine]
This describes the Christian to a T. Deny, deny, deny. The first obvious step then in resolving our dissonance is to stop going to or stop reading where we get most of our group-think messages; church and bible. Shutting off the source of dissonance is necessary in recovery. So, now I’m back to where I started; explaining why it’s better to relieve the dissonance by not believing, by not going to church, by not reading a bible. Rather than play numerous mind games with myself about this or that inconsistency in the bible or this or that contradictory teaching by pastors and teachers in various churches, I choose to not hear it at all. I choose to close off the conduits of unreason and contradiction. I choose to go by the evidence right in front of me rather than the “evidence” we were offered, all of which never proved to be true except in our own minds. Edward Babinski, a famous deconvert, wrote:
Fundamentalist Christianity was for me an 11-year ordeal of confusion, self-censorship and self-abasement. After the joy of my initial religious experience wore off, I moved into the modus operandi of Christian fundamentalists everywhere: I shut down emotionally and instead relied on the Bible to dictate my feelings. In Christian fundamentalist circles this is known as “living by faith.”
I felt as if I was issuing a direct challenge to God himself, and lived in great fear of divine retribution. My doubts led me to discover that it was indeed possible to make sense of life, to make decisions for myself, to set and attain goals, and to know my own heart. My spiritual path forked. Do I remain true to honesty, or true to the faith? I chose honesty. Thus was I deconverted. (Babinski, Edward T., Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of former Fundamentalists, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995)
Many of the faith will say we weren’t true Christians, or we did not understand how to live the Christian life, or that we misunderstood what we were taught, or ________ (insert favorite excuse here), but that’s just a form of rationalization and their own cognitive dissonance speaking. All I know is that my head’s clear for the first time in years (especially minus the Lipitor! 🙂 ). So why do those of us leaving the fold keep discussing it? Because it only takes a moment to fall for a belief system that claims to have all the answers, but it takes years and years to recover from it. Blogging is therapy.