Abandoning My Faith: One Man’s Deconversion Story (Video)

Today, instead of reading something from me, I would much rather you set aside 15 minutes to watch this fantastic video by Brandon Fibbs.  Brandon was raised in the Assembly of God and left his faith about the same time I did mine.  He works in video production and had the enviable honor of helping to make the Cosmos series what it is, something that will be evident as you watch this testimony (or as several of my friends call it, his ex-timony).  Brandon’s story illustrates how, for many of us, the most powerful draw out of faith and into reason isn’t a direct dismantling of the dogmas of our youth; for some of us it’s the slow, steady siren song of scientific curiosity and wonder.  Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited* with putting it the best:

A mind, once expanded to a new idea, never returns to its old dimensions.

 

 

_______

* As with most quotes, it’s hard to locate where they said these things, if they even said them at all.  And people tend to tweak the words to make them sound better.  But whoever said it this way said it best.

 

Posted in Deconversion, Media | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Where Does an Atheist Find Purpose?

Jack_Last_SceneI hear this question a lot, and it can come from two totally different places.  Some who ask this are not genuinely asking a question, they’re making an accusation.  I’ve previously noted the same variation of motives behind a similar question: “Where do atheists get their morals?”  Sometimes when people ask this they already know their own answer.  They believe their worldview is uniquely capable of satisfying the longings of the human heart, and they’re asking that question in hopes that you will find their story better than all the others.

To that group I say:  Of course your story speaks to our deepest longings; that’s why it was created in the first place.  Your story fits the needs of the human heart in the same way a puddle fits the hole it fills.  Douglas Adams famously quipped that reasoning from our need back to our own mythology would be like that puddle deciding that the hole it is in must have been designed precisely for the puddle to fit into.  But of course that’s getting it “bass ackwards” as my dad would say.  We project our own inner dialogue onto a cold, impersonal universe because we prefer to believe that a benevolent intelligence is behind everything, guiding the events around us to a logical and meaningful end.  It’s also our way of dealing with mystery.  When a person encounters a world he can’t explain, he says: “I think a person must be behind all of this—a really big, powerful person, a person who can do absolutely anything,” much like my children probably once thought of me when they were very small.

But not all who ask “Where do we find our purpose?” are trying to assert an alternative story.  Some are genuinely asking, “How can anything have meaning if everything is an accident?”  For them this is more of an existential cry for perspective and often it comes out of a place of deep anguish and loneliness.  A reader asked this question the other day in response to my article on “Becoming Human,” and almost the exact same question got posted to reddit by two different people in two different places on the same day.  My article was about discovering peace and happiness in my newfound godlessness even in the midst of some tumultuous circumstances.  But even as I wrote it, I thought about how incongruous my words would feel to anyone who has started down the same path and has found no such happiness, only loneliness and emptiness.  Clearly a lot of people deal with this because it comes up a lot.  So what is the answer?  What is yours?  I’ll give you mine in a second and we can go from there.

False Starts in Our Search for Meaning

First of all, humans are meaning makers.  We like to find meaning even in things that don’t naturally have it.  The arrangements of stars, for example, make us think of shapes, but the order we see above us is artificial—it’s an optical illusion.  We superimpose a structure to those lights which would totally change if we were standing on a different planet in a different solar system.  We create the order ourselves, and that’s fine.  It’s a fun game—call it a useful fiction—and it helps us keep track of our location in the world.  The shapes we describe may not be divinely ordained or objectively true, but they’re still useful to us.  They help us get where we want to go even if they are something of a subjective fabrication.

The same holds true for meaning in our daily lives.  We make meaning for ourselves and we can derive joy and enjoyment from what we do because our actions bring us things that we want, things that we need, and things that make us happy.  What makes us happy might differ from person to person, but some things seem to hold true for most of us:  We crave connection to others, we need to belong, we need to be engaged in purposeful work and play, and we want to live and enjoy life as much as possible.  The specifics may vary, but we all need these things and we are happiest when we are in rewarding pursuit of these things.

When I was a Christian, I was taught to judge non-theists as a hopeless bunch of misguided fools.  We were nice about it of course, but then again as Daniel Dennett said, “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”  He was talking about theism but the same can be said for Christian condescension toward atheism as well.  I was once a hack apologist myself and I learned to see secular humanism as a vain and hopeless worldview.  How could anyone derive meaning and purpose from a world that wasn’t designed by a purposeful intelligence?

The simple answer is:  We just do it, man; I dunno.  Life is what you make of it.  That may sound empty and unsatisfying when you’re used to being told everything happens for a reason and that everything is guided by an unseen, all-powerful hand.  But what you have to realize is:  The theist’s life purpose is just as made up by us as the atheist’s.  We made up the gods to create purpose and order and meaning out of chaos, and now that we’ve outgrown the gods, we still want to create meaning in our daily lives.  But first we must get clear that we haven’t really lost anything that was real.  What we gave up was a fairy tale, a story we told ourselves to meet a need we felt.  Once the story is gone, we still have the need, I agree.  But contrary to what C.S. Lewis said, the existence of our need for meaning does not automatically validate the ways we were taught to meet that need.  Simply wishing for something to be true doesn’t mean that it is, and too much of our religion is built around that sentiment.

It’s a bit of an adjustment though, isn’t it?  Trust me, I know it is.  I once wrote about how Buzz Lightyear’s fall from elite space ranger to favored child’s plaything illustrated this transition perfectly for me.  Like Buzz, sometimes you have to get through a period of hopelessness and disappointment, like the moments immediately following your discovery of the truth about Santa, only much bigger because you probably held onto this belief much longer.  It can take longer for some to get used to it than others, and some will take it harder due to the nature of their own peculiar psychological make-up.  Some of us are just more prone to be brooding and introspective, and unfortunately the smarter you are the more likely you are to struggle with this.  Like the robot Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide, the most intelligent being in the room may also be the most habitually depressed.  The real world can be a mess, and while ignorance is bliss, intelligence can sometimes make life suck because unlike everyone else around you, you see exactly why what’s happening is completely stupid.  This is why our dogs seem perpetually happy while we’re breaking open a new prescription of Prozac.  You may sometimes feel like the two protagonists in Idiocracy whose IQ’s were nothing special really, but who woke up one day to find themselves so surrounded by devolved human miscreants that the two of them looked like superhuman geniuses.  It can be a curse as much as it can be a blessing.

But enough with describing the problem, right?  Get on with it!  Like Jack Nicholson said in As Good as It Gets:

Look, you… I’m very intelligent, if you’re gonna give me hope you gotta do better than you’re doing. I mean, if you can’t be at least mildly interesting then shut the hell up! I mean, I’m drowning here, and you’re describing the water!

Alright, so here’s what works for me.

How I Find Purpose in My Life

1) I find ways to make myself matter to somebody.  Most of us already matter to people whether we fully appreciate it or not.  But the more meaningful connections we make with people, the more we can contribute to their lives in ways that are rewarding both to them and to ourselves.  It feels good to make a difference in other people’s lives.  And yeah, sure, some of us are more introverted than others, and the number of meaningful connections we can comfortably maintain will vary.  But have them we must.

We are a social species, and we are wired to feel rewarded by our connection to a group.  If you don’t have a group, then make it your long term goal to find one that suits you.  In some ways the internet can help considerably with that because you can build for yourself a sizable support network online if you take the time to invest in it.  Now, virtual friends can’t cook you a casserole when you’re sick or invite your kids over to play, but perhaps the online connections can eventually lead to “real life” connections with people you can talk to face-to-face.  Secularists like myself who live in decidedly religious contexts have to work much harder to create such communities because our religious friends and family feel threatened by the very existence of such a thing.  But that doesn’t need to stop us from trying, nor should our natural aversion to joining groups.  We need connections to people.  It’s how we’re wired by our own evolution.

daddy_noteOn a personal note, I have found that investing in my relationships with my children brings me more happiness than just about anything else I do.  Their love and affection and admiration fill me with happiness like few other things can.  Even during moments in which I’ve felt like the rest of the world had turned on me, my girls were there looking up to me like I was Mr. Incredible or Superman because to them I was the only one in the world who could answer to the name “Daddy.”  I’ll never forget going to see Wreck It Ralph in the theaters during one of my most discouraging weeks and losing it during the final scene when Ralph said:

Turns out, I don’t need a medal to tell me I’m a good guy. ‘Cause if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?

You can be the world’s worst screw up and your flaws can be as obvious as Ralph’s, but I’ll tell you what:  If you can find just one person in the world who loves you exactly as you are, it can make all the difference.

2) I get up and move around.  This may sound like a strange detail to include but I’m becoming more and more convinced that a great deal of our collective ennui and depression stems from (forgive me) just sitting on our asses too much.  We have become an increasingly sedentary people, and the more tech savvy you are the more likely you are to fit this profile.  Our bodies are wired to move around and do stuff, and our brains function best when we stay physically active.  We’ve lost touch with that, but multiple studies have shown that even in old age it is physical activity, not crossword puzzles, that keep our gray matter working on all cylinders.  Yes, you should feed your mind as well, but if you don’t move your body, it eventually has a deleterious effect on your mind.

I’m convinced that those of us who struggle the most with hopelessness and despair after leaving the faith are not ultimately suffering because of our loss of faith per se.  It’s more likely because of one of two things: 1) Intensely adverse social punishment for leaving “the club,” and 2) Pre-existing neurochemistry which may have been held at bay by the fairy tales but now has become exposed for the downward force that it is.  Religion persists for a reason.  It provides effective social cohesion and it also meets a psychological need.  When you leave your religion behind, those needs can rear their ugly heads and force you to deal with them without your former crutch.  As I said above, we need to work on the social support by building communities around common causes and goals.  But on an individual level, sometimes the most effective thing you can do to alleviate depression is just to find something active to do.

David Wilcox masterfully cut right through the layers of torturous introspection in a song called “Down Inside Yourself.”  I love it.  Take a listen:

 

“Well never mind the questions now
You don’t have to be so wise
Hey, your problem ain’t philosophy
So get it down to size
Right now it’s physiological
In a logical disguise
You’re just down inside yourself

“But the blues is not your final judgment
It’s no deep or evil power
Hey the cure is very simple
And it works in half an hour
Get some sleep, eat some broccoli
Run a mile, take a shower
You’re just down inside yourself.”

As trite as it must sound, it bears repeating that we are physical beings, and our bodies affect our psychological state.  With my personal history, I should be in the deepest of depressions right now, but I am not.  Why not?  I really don’t know.  Honestly, I think some people are just less prone to struggle with that by their own genetic makeup.  We’re all prone to spikes and dips in moods, of course, and some types of depression seem to come with age.  But it may also be that my natural wiring plus a commitment to regular exercise have kept both my neurochemistry and personal functionality in a healthy place.  If you have a family history of depression and/or mental illness, there should be no shame in fighting fire with fire by going and getting any chemical imbalances treated by someone who knows how to help.

For me personally, the knowledge that several people depend on me for their provision and care has kept me going as well, which ties back into the first thing I said about staying connected to people and finding a way to matter to somebody.  Even if it’s not kids of your own, there are always people (or even four-legged friends) around who could use someone caring about them.  Again, we are a social species.  That’s why looking out only for ourselves never completely satisfies us.  And I don’t need a preacher or a religious text to tell me that’s how we’re “designed.”  I can just look at the world and see that’s how we work, and I don’t see why any invisible spirits or overlords have to be involved in order to make sense of that.

3) I support the forward progress of my species as a whole, and of the ecosystem that makes up my home.  Whatever you believe about purpose and destiny in the cosmos, you have to admit that organic life has amazingly progressed from something simple and humble to something impressively astounding.  Human creativity is endless, and our capacity to learn and evolve and reach higher is boundless as well.  I’d love to see that keep going, but I also see some major hurdles we have to overcome if we are ever to survive what Carl Sagan termed our “technological adolescence.”  At the moment we seem to have avoided global nuclear destruction, but we keep coming up with new ways to endanger ourselves.  Our addiction to fossil fuels and our insatiable appetite for animal products are leaving a carbon footprint that our planet cannot long sustain without significantly disrupting our ecosystem.  Runaway income inequality is bifurcating the human race at a dangerous rate, which could destabilize the more progressive civilizations that are currently in place.  Even the creation of our own hands like artificial intelligence and nanotechnology may one day do us in as a race.

There is no shortage of things to keep us up at night, and overcoming these challenges could keep us occupied for some time to come.  Pick any topic you see that challenges us as a species and ask yourself what you can do to chip away at the things that threaten our collective well-being.  It seems to me that as long as I can find some connection to a larger narrative which supports the progressive evolution of intelligent life, I’m a part of something that has meaning.  Just because that meaning wasn’t assigned to us by a higher power doesn’t mean it’s not worth devoting our lives to it.  I’m telling you from my own experience and from the experience of others that it can be immensely rewarding to know that you give parts of your life to something larger than yourself.  It contributes to your own happiness to make others happy and to help them thrive.  No gods needed, I promise.

I remember how disappointed I used to be at the end of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (one of my favs) when Clark Griswold opined about the meaning of Christmas:

See kids, it means something different to everybody. Now I know what it means to me.

As a Christian I was indignant that he would take my own holiday, rooted in what I was convinced was indisputable history, and turn it into such insipid existentialist pabulum, like it’s some kind of inkblot or abstract painting that means whatever you want it to mean.  Today I just pat my younger self on the head because now I realize that the story I held so dear was almost certainly made up entirely, which makes my former outrage all the more ironic.  Griswold was more right than I realized.  We make our own meaning in the world.  Call it shallow if you like, but it’s exactly the way it is, and you can be quite fulfilled with the meaning you make.

clark

Posted in Atheism, Deconversion, Humanism, Personal, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Becoming Human

I’ve lately come to a startling realization that I’d like to try to put into words.  Perhaps more accurately I should say that I’ve had a growing realization that has suddenly dawned on me and has surprised me by its incongruity with so many other elements of my life.  In a word, I’ve been surprised by peace.  If I may riff on C.S. Lewis’s phrase borrowed in turn from Wordsworth, I have to confess that I’m finding a sense of growing happiness in the midst of an externally challenging life situation.  Make no mistake:  My newfound atheism puts me at odds with my environment since I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt (and yeah, everybody says that in the Deep South but I’ve got statistics on my side for this one).  People around me think I’m broken and needing fixing.  They tell me I’m “on a path” to something bad, although they’re usually too shy about their inner fundamentalism to openly use the word “Hell” in my presence.  When pressed for specifics they are unable to delineate which behaviors I currently engage in that justify their great dread and concern, only that I don’t think the right things about their religion, I guess.  In the end it’s not my daily ethical choices they object to; it’s simply that I don’t believe in invisible people, and this upsets them greatly.

But amidst the tension and strife which my skepticism generates for me in a culture permeated by religion I must admit that I’m becoming more and more comfortable in my own skin.  Underneath the stress and strain of living on a teacher’s salary in the poorest state in the union (don’t tell me to move; I have personal reasons to be here), I sense a growing contentedness with who I am and with what the world is despite its chaotic messiness.  Now let’s be clear: It’s not that I don’t feel the pain and sadness that everyone else feels when confronted with a steady stream of bad news.  Someone around me is always sick and/or dying and people are always in need while the “haves” get richer and fatter and the “have-nots” get poorer and less powerful.  These things bother me, too, because they should.  Today the world is still reeling from yesterday’s news that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine shot down a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people, 100 of whom were on their way to a conference to further the cause of AIDS research.  Later that same day, yet another bout of violence erupted in the Middle East, this time with Israeli forces invading Gaza.  The world’s a mess, depending on where you look, and people around me cite all of this as further evidence that the human race is naturally wicked and that divine retribution is on its way to “set things right.”

The big difference between them and me is that I no longer believe the world is “supposed to be” something other than what it is.  Yes it is messy, and yes we have great obstacles to overcome.  I’m not even convinced that we will necessarily be successful in overcoming them.  We just might destroy ourselves one day.  It remains to be seen.  But it makes more sense to me that we face these challenges by dealing with the world as it really is, not as we think it should be.  To me, that is what’s wrong with the approach to life used by so many around me.  They are constantly being frustrated by their own inability to make the world do what they were taught it’s supposed to do.  They keep trying to make gay people straight; they keep telling women they shouldn’t do “men’s work;” they want teenagers to quit thinking about sex so much and put on more clothes for godssake!  They keep wanting Palestine to be okay with having nothing, and while they’re at it they think every country in the world should be Christian.  It’s a stressful thing to pour so much energy into trying to make the world fit into a mold it simply refuses to inhabit.  And frankly, I don’t miss that preoccupation.  It was both a futile endeavor and an unnecessary burden; I am happy to be free of it.

big_running_in_the_rainBecoming at Home in the World

As I write this, it’s raining outside.  It’s not a stormy, angry torrent, just a gentle steady rain.  It’s early in the morning and I would usually be out in this, running my morning run (running in the rain is the bomb, btw).  I’ve come to need that because it loosens me up and gets me ready for the day.  I’m inside today because I always take a day off of exercise after I’ve lifted weights.  My life demands an almost manic pace, so a “rest day” is a welcome treat (I’ll still be spending the day caring for short people, but that’s all I have to do today, thankfully).  Like the weather, our lives work best when they have a certain rhythm to them, conforming to the needs of our bodies and minds.  This is still a new thing for me, and while I’ve just about gotten the exercise part down, I’m much more slowly learning the value of things like rest.  Maybe it conflicts with my “Protestant work ethic.”  Maybe it’s also hard for me to rest because I feel the need to compensate for all the disapproval, both spoken and unspoken, which my culture heaps upon me for just being me.  Whatever the source, it takes effort on my part to embrace the notion of rest, giving myself permission to need things rather than deny myself as Jesus and Paul taught us to do.

I mention running in the rain because I’ll never forget the first time I did that as an adult.  My initial reaction was to go back inside because rain is supposed to ruin your plans.  People don’t want to get soaking wet, and we’ve spent many years building climate-controlled environments for ourselves to ensure we don’t have to be subject to the elements at all.  Inside we can be as comfortable and dry in monsoon weather as we are on a gentle spring morning.  But that particular rainy morning I decided I just didn’t care.  I was going to let the rain fall and just run right through it.  It was delightful.  I don’t know how else to put it.  I got an unexpected rush of pleasure from simply feeling the rain on my skin as I ran.  It cooled me as I exercised and the smell of the wet ground and the sight of the deepening hues of foliage around me made me suddenly feel so present, so incredibly aware of my physical surroundings and my connection to them.  I was drinking in my senses, fully inhabiting my body as a physical being enjoying the beauty of my natural surroundings.

In retrospect, it seems odd to describe that moment as if it were something unusual, but the way we live it kind of is, isn’t it?  In modern times, we’ve so removed ourselves from the natural world that we feel constantly inconvenienced by things like seasons and rains and the passage of time.  To some degree, I think this results from our boundless addiction to progress and to controlling our environment.  Our drive to overcome the elements has disconnected us from them so that a rediscovery of their delightfulness seems strange to us.  I sound like one of those artsy hippie types talking about feeling the rain on my skin and drinking in the sensations of nature and all of that nonsense, right?  Well, I’m bringing this up for a reason, and I don’t think it’s altogether disconnected from my usual subject matter.

I think that part of the reason we’ve become so disconnected from nature is because our controlling theology has taught us to see our bodies as bad somehow.  If not technically evil by constitution, then perhaps “tainted” in such a way as to render almost anything we do in our bodies as brutish and base.  We eat and drink and sleep and have sex because we have to, but we must be careful not to enjoy any of those things too much, for therein lies wickedness.  You can get in trouble for talking too much about enjoying sensual pleasures.  In fact, the word “sensual” has come to have a certain negative connotation in the religious circles in which I used to run.  I was taught to view the body as somehow vaguely bad, perhaps not an evil in itself but clearly a distraction from the things that really matter.  I’ve written before how I detect a clear dualism present in the teachings of both Jesus and Paul, and that dualism only grew in time until the church became known for its antipathy toward what is “natural” rather than its sympathy with it.  Even the exercise that I’ve come to love is looked down upon by some as a vain preoccupation with an “earthly tent” which is only meant to be discarded one day. That is the legacy I inherited and that is the culture I find myself endeavoring to overcome today.  I am learning to be at home in my own self, in my own body, and in the world.  I’m becoming more human.

Becoming Human

I was taught to dislike being human.  “We are only human,” we are taught to say as if that automatically connotes weakness.  We say it like it’s a bad thing, and it’s no wonder.  Christian thought for most of its history (both Eastern and Western) has been anti-human.  Catholicism in particular did it; Protestantism did it, too; and then Evangelicalism raised self-hatred to an art form, thanks in part to Puritan theology.  I think that is a major source of the unhappiness I felt as a Christian.  Granted, I managed to derive a sense of satisfaction from the belief that although the world was messed up, I knew the answers to all the world’s problems.  Mankind was broken and I knew what it needed in order to be “saved.”  So yeah, I had a reason to be happy then, too, and I wasn’t miserable as a Christian by any stretch.  But my way of seeing the world was still at odds with the way things really are.  That kind of tension produces a dull ache, like a background noise that runs so constantly that you forget it’s even there.  I was taught not to feel at home in the world.  Like an old Petra song from the 80’s said:

We are pilgrims in a strange land
We are so far from our homeland
With each passing day it seems so clear
This world will never want us here
We’re not welcome in this world of wrong
We are foreigners who don’t belong

We are strangers, we are aliens
We are not of this world

Leaving the Christian religion for me became a first step toward becoming more human.  I am slowly learning to become comfortable with who I am and with what the world is, despite its turmoil and controversies.  My growing inner peace is not the product of an alignment of external circumstances.  On the contrary, I could fill your screen with the list of practical challenges I’m facing at this exact moment.  But underneath it all I have to say that I am happy with being a human, happy with being alive in a way that I never knew as a Christian. There’s just a sense of being grounded in reality that I didn’t feel in the same way before (I led off with that very thing in a previous post entitled “What Has Atheism Done for Me?”). Of course, that’s not acceptable to anyone who has been taught that atheism makes you a miserable, empty shell of a human being.  Some people need to think, perhaps because they are so insecure in their own views, that they must caricature all others as terrible wastes of human life.  But the truth is that despite a number of very painful life circumstances, I see a growing contentedness in me with being me, with being alive in the world.  I see that I only get one life, and it’s pretty short.  So I want to make the most of it that I can.

A new friend of mine who clearly thinks the same way but also has kick-a$$ professional video production skills and a killer radio voice to boot made a video that captures this ethos so well.  I have to share it with you.  In fact, I’d encourage you to subscribe to his channel because I’m confident what he will put out in the future will be no less inspiring.  Take a look, and watch to the end.

 

Posted in Atheism, Christianity, Deconversion, Humanism, Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

Men Who Stare at Facts

clooney2A few nights ago I had dinner with a friend who encouraged me to reconsider my stance on faith, arguing that the Bible encourages us to “test and retest” what it says for ourselves to see if it’s true.  While I disagreed with his interpretation of the language of the particular verse he used, I agreed with him that, at least in some places, the Bible does precisely that.

The Bible’s not consistent on this, of course, because there wasn’t really one invisible mastermind behind the production of this chaotic book.  It was produced over several centuries by wildly divergent communities and in some cases even by opposing factions (see James vs. Paul on what the word “faith” even means).  And the way it gets used today is even more diverse, with one group insisting that testing the claims of the Bible is totally legit while another group says “How dare you!” and argues that encouraging us to pass judgment on the Bible puts us in the place of God, which is blasphemy.  You see how frustrating it can be to address “the Christian view” of almost anything.  Something as subjective as religion can shapeshift and reinvent itself so many times that it’s impossible to say a single thing against it without at least two groups calling “straw man” simply because what you just described doesn’t fit with their peculiar variety.

But there are in fact places where the Bible encourages us to test for ourselves what it claims.  People in the Bible frequently asked God for proof of his claims and he obliged them.  Sometimes he even offered it on his own, like when Thomas doubted the resurrection and Jesus just said, “Here…touch the wounds yourself.”  If that story were being rewritten today, more likely they would have had Jesus berate Thomas for his skepticism and tell him that if the disciples’ word wasn’t good enough for him then tough luck, that’s his problem not God’s.  “It is a wicked and perverse generation that demands a sign,” they might say (Hey, I told you it wasn’t consistent, didn’t I?).  They talk about proof this way because twenty centuries have taught the church to hone its rationalizations for why real proof never comes.  Nowadays you have to be okay with descriptions of proof that other people got many centuries ago because that’s all you’re gonna get.  And shame on you for wanting more!  How dare you use the same standard of verification for faith that you use for all other areas of life!  What a disappointment you are.

Some Christians, however, are insulted by this anti-empirical approach to their faith.  They want to believe that it’s intellectually respectable to believe in floating zoos, parting seas, and men walking on water.  They reject Paul’s embrace of “the foolishness of the cross” and insist that if you just study everything hard enough you’ll see that claims of the Christian faith are completely reasonable, perhaps even academically defensible.  I think my friend falls into that category.  His intelligence has clearly garnered him great wealth, and I suspect he makes more in a month than I make in a whole year, even with all three of my jobs combined.  His financial success in life only reinforces his belief that he’s doing it right because clearly God is blessing him, right?

His affluence is probably what led me to bring up the challenge in Malachi to test God to see if giving to him brought financial prosperity.  Both Jesus and Malachi (and disputably Paul as well) encouraged us to give in order to get back more.  Interestingly, they didn’t couch their challenge in terms that guilted us for wanting more than what we already have (more inconsistency); in fact, they positively capitalized on it.  They encouraged it.  And they claimed that if we test them on this matter we will see empirically that this claim is true.  Well, I did that.  For many years I did that and no such benefit materialized, not just in terms of material provision but in terms of every conceivable reason for prayer and faith.  And I know, I know.  Shame on me for even thinking that way, right?  Never mind the fact that I learned this way of thinking from the Bible itself.  Most self-respecting intellectuals would distance themselves from this approach because most aren’t surgeons whose idea of a “lean month” is quadruple my gross monthly salary.  It’s easy to believe that God provides materially when you make six figures (or, alternately, if you talk about your needs so much that people often give you things out of pity).  But my friend took a different approach, one which I’ve previously heard applied not only to the promise of material provision but also to all other failed claims for things like healing, miracles, church unity, or just about any other thing under the sun.  His interpretation was that I just didn’t wait long enough.  Twenty years was apparently “not long enough.”

Horoscopes, Faith, and the Death Touch

When you believe something strongly enough, no amount of contrary evidence will dissuade you from your belief.  You will overlook mountains of contrary evidence, and no validation will be too small or too weak for you to bank your entire system upon.  That’s just how faith works.  Keep in mind I don’t say that as one who has always been an outsider.  I say that as one who occupied that mental world for decades but who now sees the whole enterprise in a different light.  If you are willing and “your heart is right,” you can be persuaded by arguments so weak that one day you may very well look back and say, “Are you kidding me?  Did I really believe that? Tell me I wasn’t this deluded!”

During our long conversation, my friend claimed that the Bible presciently describes everything from the hydrologic cycle to the Big Bang to dark matter and dark energy.  Where does it do that, you ask?  Frankly, I’d rather not take the time to recount it all.  You can pick up the work of Hugh Ross or one of the “Intelligent Design” proponents to see what they have to say (I went through one of those phases once, years ago).  Let’s just say it was awfully sneaky of Yahweh to hide such wonderful nuggets of science inside Hebrew poetry.  But it would have been nice if he had also included some kind of decoder pin with the text, or perhaps if he had disclosed something more pressing, like the germ theory of disease or how to grow penicillin.  While he was at it, it would have been nice if he had made a bit more clear that people shouldn’t be considered property, and that rape and genocide are always bad.  But oh, well.

To be honest with you I showed my friend little patience as he started in on this line of argumentation.  He probably found it rude of me to cut that discussion short the way I did; but at this point in my life, I just refuse to dignify this talk with any more attention than I already have.  I explained to my friend that Muslims do the exact same thing with the Koran, anachronistically finding advanced scientific knowledge throughout the text.  If you hold your head just right, and forget how primitive the original writers of the texts really were, you just might be able to accept the idea that something magical happened there.  God was speaking in code, the sneaky prankster, and kept us in the dark about it for ages.  It’s purely a coincidence that God chose to finally reveal the hidden message of his holy book at the same moment that modern science discovered those same things through the hard labor of scientific inquiry.

Never mind the fact that these people thought the earth is stationary and at the bottom of everything.  To them, celestial bodies like the sun, the stars, and the planets revolve around us and could “fall to the earth” without utterly incinerating the whole planet.  It’s not their fault; they just didn’t know what we know.  But that’s not an acceptable view to someone who needs to believe that this book is special, immune to the limitations and imperfections of the men who wrote it.  For example, my friend wanted to believe the book of Job predicted dark energy, so that’s how he reads it.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?

There’s something going on here—a psychological process that I wanted my friend to see for what it is.  I illustrated it to him by comparing a reading of the Bible to the reading of a horoscope.  For example, looking at my horoscope for today, I read:

horoscope

That’s amazing, isn’t it?!  Thank you, horoscope!  I do have the talent!  And as a matter of fact, I had lunch with another new friend just today, and it was brilliant.  See?  This stuff really works!  If someone were so inclined, he could make any day’s events conform to his daily horoscope.  We’re practically geniuses when it comes to things like that.  The person writing the horoscope doesn’t even have to work very hard at it.  The reader does all the work for him.  You possess the raw data of your own day, and you will actively organize it in your mind to ensure the story comes out in a way that makes sense to you.

We are all boundlessly creative storytellers, every one of us.  If you doubt that, look no further than your own dreams every night.  What brilliant writers we all are!  I’m convinced that those whom we call “geniuses” are merely people who have access during the daytime to the subconscious creativity that the rest of us only possess while asleep.  That’s why horoscopes and religions both thrive the way they do.  As long as the faithful are willing, there will be endless ways we can make the words of our supposed authorities fit what happens in order to ensure our faith in them remains strong.

When I told my friend that the promise of provision never materialized for me in my life (I could have replaced that with any one of the other failed promises but that was the easiest criteria to measure), he told me it just hasn’t materialized yet.  Evidently twenty years wasn’t long enough to wait for the promises to come to fruition.  But I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck; I know this game.  I was taught to play it, too, and I did it for years until it finally dawned on me that I was only playing tricks on myself.  This game is illustrated perfectly by a short scene from the movie Men Who Stare at Goats.

 

Just like the “Death Touch,” the promises of God will never fail as long as his subjects remain so eager to reinterpret whatever happens to conform to those promises.  This kind of faith is a versatile thing.  It’s incredibly elastic.  Retrospectively, it allows you to shoehorn modern science into the poetic language of primitive Mesopotamians (“See?  No conflict between religion and science!”), and it allows you to reshape your own life story as it unfolds so that if you want it badly enough, you can find whatever you think is supposed to be there.  At this point in my life, I see no valid reason to pretend like this is a legitimate belief just because people engage in it so instinctively.  It makes for great comedy in a movie script.  In real life, it’s just as silly.  Time to put it away.

Posted in Atheism, Bible, Christian Apologetics, Christianity, Faith, inerrancy, Movies | Tagged , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Why I Quit Believing (Revised)

The other day a close family member asked me to explain to her why I left the Christian faith.  Three years ago I did what I could to boil down my main reasons for doing so for a handful of friends, all of whom were pretty theologically-minded and had a ton of question and challenges afterwards.  That prompted a second, longer letter that enumerated some of the things which nudged me in this direction.  Those letters are there for anyone to read, but this time around I decided I’d rather just give it another try and start over.  It takes time to develop a comfortable vocabulary for explaining something as hard to nail down as this, and the passage of time makes some things a lot clearer.  Below you’ll find my updated attempt to answer this question.

I have to first say again that I don’t usually spend much time doing precisely this because talking people out of their faith isn’t a particular burden of mine.  It’s not that I find anything wrong with that per se, but I just know that changing minds on really big things takes a long time and can’t be done in just one or two pithy conversations.  Most of my writing and talking to people is directed toward those who are already outside of (or on their way out of) their religion.  I couldn’t have said it better than Captain Cassidy said it recently:

I’m not out to change minds. I don’t know many bloggers who are out to do that. I’m out to crystallize people’s half-thought thoughts and show them they’re not alone in thinking what they think. Maybe illuminate some dark corners and give name to some shapes. I don’t know if I’ll ever run across someone who deconverts because of [her blog], but I do know I run into people all the time who realize they’re not alone because of what they read there and who suddenly get that light-switch-flip moment of illumination because of something I talk about. Makes it all worth it, really.

Or like a great meme I saw the other day said:

why_i_write

But someone close to me asked a direct question and unlike most people who seem only out to show me up and prove their beliefs are superior to mine, I believe this question was asked in earnest.  She just wants to try to understand how someone can go from fervently believing for decades to not believing at all anymore.

I also need to point out that any one of these issues taken alone might not have had the same effect on me, and could have been passed over because of any of the explanations people have come up with over the years for them.  But for me, it was more like a death by a thousand cuts.  It was the cumulative effect of all of these things that led me to decide that it made more sense to drop the belief in the supernatural than it did to hold on to it.


Dear [name removed],

I don’t usually go into all of my reasons for leaving the faith for people who are still in it because it usually leads to arguments and it always feels to them like something precious is under attack.  But you asked for some kind of explanation and this is my best shot at doing that.

For me it started with realizing how good we are at fooling ourselves about things we want to believe.  I noticed that people (including myself) are capable of overlooking mountains of information in order to leave undisturbed whatever beliefs we hold most dear.  Take Dr. Oz products for example.  I can tell a customer five different ways that the product she wants is useless and will not cause her to lose fat but she still will buy it anyway.  There was something she wanted to believe, and nothing could convince her otherwise.  The more I’ve noticed this tendency in other people, the more I’ve turned to analyze myself to see how many things I believe against contrary evidence.

Being in church leadership only intensified this for me.  For example, getting to watch the decision making process that goes into guiding a church made me see that: 1) There’s no magic to it; people just do the kinds of things people do, good and bad, only in church you’re taught to believe that something supernatural is happening when it’s really nothing of the sort,  and 2) People put more trust in religious authorities than is warranted.  They’re more willing to suspend their critical thinking skills in church than anywhere else, and that sent up red flags for me.  And while we’re on that subject…

I noticed that critical thinking skills in general are discouraged in both the Bible and in the Christian faith (or at least in most of the versions I’ve encountered, excluding the most liberal ones).  Sure, I could find one or two “proof texts” which mention reason and intellect, but the overwhelming drift of the Bible is against trusting reason.  Experience has taught me that this is a bad thing.  Anyone who tells you to suspend your critical thinking skills in the interest of trusting something or someone should usually be noted and avoided.  Both the Bible and our Christian culture as a whole do this far too many times to not raise my suspicion that something isn’t right.

Next I suppose I started to look outward to see that people all over the world believe very different things and that they are as convinced that they are right as I was that I was right.  I started to ask more earnestly how I knew better than they did?  How did I get to be so lucky to be born in one of the right countries so that I was taught just the right religion out of all the choices available out there?  How come I believe the Hindus are wrong and there’s only one God, not many?  How come Muslims got the number of gods right but picked the wrong one?  They’ve even got their own “Bible” and it disagrees with ours on really important things.  How come we’re right and they’re wrong?  Hinduism is older than both Christianity and even Judaism so I can’t say we’re right because of being here first.  And while there are only about a billion Muslims in the world, statistics say that soon there will be more of “them” than there are of “us” because of population trends. So I can’t say we’re right because we outnumber them.

So then I started asking myself what reasons I had for believing what I believed.  The more serious I became about that the more I saw that my reasons for believing were all inside my own head.  Once I asked myself what demonstrates the existence of supernatural things outside my own desire for them to exist, I saw that there really wasn’t much there.  Now don’t get me wrong, I spent more time than most accumulating arguments to support my faith.  I collected reasons for my faith like some people collect pictures on Pinterest.  But I came to see that their persuasive power lies entirely in our own willingness to believe them before we even see them.

monster-houseIt reminds me of a picture I once saw of the inside of a haunted house in broad daylight.  When the lighting is low it has the desired effect on people—it casts a spell of sorts—but when you turn the house lights back on the effect completely evaporates.  In bright daylight a haunted house doesn’t look spooky at all.  Well, this is kind of like the reverse of that.  I was taught to see the world as “haunted” but in a good way.  But the lighting always has to be right, and it all depends on your prior willingness to see it the right way.  Incidentally, people seem to sense this instinctively.  You’ll notice that a great deal of careful control is exerted over the worship experience at church, especially at a place like First Baptist.  The same could be said for a concert or a retreat or a camp experience.  There’s a good reason for that.  Those kinds of experiences rely on generating just the right emotions and experiences.  It’s like the opposite kind of haunted house experience.  Once you look at it from a different angle, and in better light, you see there’s not anything supernatural about it.

I could go into a bunch of other things but I would rather keep this short and just mention three more things which at one point in time felt like good reasons to believe but in time I came to feel they just weren’t.

I’ll start with the Bible itself.  I could spend way more time that you’d want listing all the ways the Bible isn’t what I was taught it is.  And you know it’s not because I didn’t take it seriously enough.  Quite the opposite; I took it more seriously than everyone else, which is why I started to figure out it’s a deeply flawed book.  Besides the internal inconsistencies and the historical and scientific mistakes it makes, it also makes promises which I found to fail almost uniformly (kind of like Dr. Oz’s products!).  It promises things about prayer which in my experience don’t match real life at all unless you first decide on principle to disregard or dismiss every instance in which it fails.  I was taught to make excuses for it and explain away all the many ways prayer fails to deliver what the Bible says it will (e.g. It wasn’t God’s will, You didn’t believe hard enough, You weren’t living right, etc).  But it finally dawned on me that this wasn’t really true to the way the Bible itself speaks of what prayer and faith can do.  And then there’s the character formation which the Bible promises will accompany the one who believes.  As with prayer, this belief only endures if you first decide to discount any time it fails to deliver (e.g. It was their fault, not God’s, They didn’t do it right, etc).  In my experience, people who are naturally kind and generous will be kind and generous no matter what their belief system.  And the jerks will be jerks no matter what, even though I’ll admit the overwhelming social pressure of Christian culture teaches some to keep it tucked under a nicer façade.

Belief itself can be powerful; I cannot deny that.  But that doesn’t mean it’s correct.  Beliefs can lead people to be very nice to others and they can also lead them to be very cruel and uncaring.  They can empower one person to forgive others of great wrongs, but they can also convince a group of devoted men to fly a plane into a building to kill as many as possible.  The power that belief has over us doesn’t mean that our beliefs are correct, it just means they’re powerful.

I want to know if my beliefs match the way the world really is.  My need for that seems to be stronger than some people’s.  I cannot change that about myself.  I can’t even fake it.  And for me, that need has led me to where I am.  I had to eventually realize that my need to understand the world was not a weakness—it’s not something to overcome or squelch—and that it was so central to who I am that fear of people disapproving of me wasn’t enough to keep me from asking the questions I asked of my religion.  The disapproval hurts.  I hate it.  I feel like I’ve fallen from everyone’s good graces just for following my own drive to understand the world around me.  I don’t know if you have any idea how sad it makes me to know that people are disappointed in me for simply wanting to get to the bottom of things, for wanting to understand the world “too much.”  I know the people who love me aim higher than that.  But in my experience faith teaches you to see this insatiable need to know as a bad thing.  It’s okay up to a point, but once you start questioning certain things it becomes very bad.  And I just can’t go along with that.  I’ve always felt I should go wherever the evidence leads.  For me, that led me out of the Christian faith.

I don’t expect anyone else to follow me out of it.  You’ll notice I’ve never tried to convince any of you that I’m right and you’re wrong.  I wish that I could expect the same in return, but I know that some aspects of your faith dictate that I am “going down a path” which will end in either temporal misery or eternal punishment.  So the best I can hope for is that people who love me, once they’ve said their piece, can get back to just relating to me like a normal person and not a project, or a prospect for re-conversion.  People can sense that and it feels truly icky.

Thanks for asking, by the way.  It’s always a good exercise for me to try to put some things into words, and I’ll probably share it with some others.  Maybe it will help somebody else do the same.  As always, I’m open for conversation and questions about this, so consider yourself invited.

–Neil

Posted in Atheism, Christianity, Deconversion, Personal | Tagged , , , , | 36 Comments

Workshop Offering @ Apostacon (plus New Look)

Every year in mid-September, the Omaha Atheists and Recovering from Religion put on a huge party disguised as a conference called Apostacon.  This year they’ll be having it at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Omaha on the weekend of September 19-21.  The keynote speaker will be Dr. Lawrence Krauss, and there will also be a special talk on Friday night entitled “An Evening of Scientific Inquiry” featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the Emmy Award nominated documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

aposta_conference

In addition to the main talks, there will be numerous breakaway sessions and workshops conducted by  a host of nationally-known writers, speakers, and secular activists.  This year I’ll be added to the slate as well, conducting an interactive workshop entitled “Coming Out Atheist to Religious Friends and Family.”  I’ll give a brief intro to the subject and then some group discussion with conference participants as they share with each other about how they dealt with letting their religious friends and family know that they no longer hold to the same beliefs which they were raised to believe.

 

If you follow this blog and plan to sign up for my workshop, I’d appreciate your using the speaker code in order to help defray the cost of travel to the conference.  My registration code is NCAR1442, so help me out and type that in when you register if you haven’t done so already.  I’d love to meet some of the folks who write in to the blog on a regular basis.

New Look!

If you’re not new to Godless in Dixie you may have noticed that it’s got a slightly new look.  David Simms, who does graphic design, thought up a few logo ideas for me and this was what we came up with.  The banner above is new, and you’ll see the logo below in a number of places in the future.  Perhaps one day we can even make some shirts and mugs and stuff with individual Deep South states in the middle that say “I AM Godless in Dixie.”  Would you have the nerve to wear something like that?

circle_logo

Posted in Activism, Atheism, Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Learning to Care Less about the Disapproval of Others

misunderstandingFew things upset me like being misunderstood, and here lately that’s been happening a lot.  Leaving the Christian fold was an eye-opening experience in more ways than one, not least of which was in showing me how unable to think outside of their box this faith makes people.  As a Christian I was taught to believe that everyone is a God-believer at their core, but that some merely lie to themselves and/or to others about it.  Poor deluded atheists!  The Devil has blinded them to their own folly. Only a fool says in his heart that there is no God, amirite?  No wonder it always feels like my friends and family are misreading me all the time.  They’re looking at me through a lens which claims things about me that are patently false.  Seeing me the way they do requires ignoring several important things I tell them about myself, and that is no way to love someone.  If you aim to love someone, it is incumbent upon you to attempt to understand him on his own terms, and not misrepresent him.

But some cannot do this.  They just can’t.  It’s not in them.  And some who could…won’t.  They choose not to because their loyalties have already been claimed.  They’ve invested too much of their lives into a tribal identity and asking them to see you in a different light would feel to them like turning against their own team.  I know the family members of LGBT folks struggle intensely with this.  Their loved ones plead with them to understand and accept that they did not choose to be different, but many cannot accept this.  They are too committed to seeing the way they were taught to see.  They would sooner cut their own children out of their lives than betray their own tribe, which insists that sexual attraction is a choice, or at least a product of improper socialization.  Like atheism, an atypical sexual orientation will be seen as a flaw or a disorder which at best can be cured or at worst tolerated, but never completely accepted.  The guardians of orthodoxy will not allow it.  And before anyone leaps to insist that No True Christian™ would cut off family members out of loyalty to their tribe, I’ll remind you that it was Jesus who insisted that you cannot be a follower of his unless you are willing to put devotion to him above all else, including your own family.  If you want to call this non-Christian behavior, you need to be honest about the fact that you’re cherry-picking which teachings of Jesus you feel you should follow.  As I’ve said before, it is for things like this that I am not a fan of Jesus.

So like the meme above says, some people are committed to misunderstanding you.  We could go thirty rounds about how much say they have in choosing what they believe, but in the end we’re still stuck with a decision to make:

How much power over you will you allow people who do not understand you?  Are you willing to forfeit your happiness and well-being to them, knowing they will never give you their blessing?

At some point you have to come to see it this way.  People-pleasers like me have a hard time accepting this.  But until you come to realize that it’s no use begging for something you’ll never get, you’ll always be unhappy, wasting days or weeks of your life chasing a chimera.  But how does one do this?  It comes easily enough for those who are naturally oblivious to other people’s opinions, and when we’re not talking about close friends or relatives then it’s no big deal.  But what if you’re not so naturally impervious, and what if the “godly rejection” you’re facing comes from the very people who are supposed to love you most?  What can you do?

Steeling Yourself against Godly Rejection

Personally, this is a great weakness of mine because I struggle with a compulsion to take ownership of other people’s feelings.  I give others far too much power over me, and I find that certain people cannot resist using that leverage to try to manipulate people like me, coercing us to conform to the expectations of their in-group.  Some are overt and straightforward in their use of coercion.  But most people I know are more sophisticated than that, and they are too self-aware to be so blunt and obvious, although not self-aware enough to recognize that they are still trying to coerce.  Sophisticated people use passive-aggressive means of coercion.  That way they can get what they want without having to deal with the guilt that comes from knowing they bullied someone else into doing what they wanted.  Extra points if you can be so subtle and skillful at justifying your actions that you even fool yourself.

Because I’m still learning how to play these games at the adult level, I had to turn to my friends to ask them how they deal with these things.  They wrote in some pretty great advice and I’d like to share it with you.  Their words of wisdom and experience seem to fall into three broad categories:  building a new support system, establishing and maintaining firm boundaries, and adopting new perspectives on the troubled relationships.

BUILDING A NEW SUPPORT NETWORK

1) When your old community pushes you out (whether overtly or more subtly so as to remain above the guilt of it) you should begin to search for like-minded people who can identify with who you are today.  You’ve probably already begun that at least in some small way.  Learn to lean on them for support and encouragement if your old family/community cannot offer you that anymore.  Build a new family, so to speak, when your old one fails you.

And incidentally, stop making excuses for your old one.  If they cannot accept you for who you are today and insist that you revert back to who they want you to be, they have become unable to function as a support network for you.  A community that only supports you as long as you do what they want is not a support network, it is just a system of control.

2) Learn to recognize the mature/well-balanced among your new community and learn from their example.  Find the role models and take advantage of their wisdom and experience.  In time the approval of those you’ve come to admire will make you no longer miss the approval that your old community/family can no longer supply.

ESTABLISHING AND MAINTAINING FIRM BOUNDARIES

3) It shouldn’t take long to figure out which topics lead to conflict, anger, and tears.  Once those are identified and it’s clear that you cannot discuss those topics without people losing their tempers, stop talking about those things.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Like Newhart said, “Just stop it!”  Once you’ve identified trigger topics, if you desire to maintain a good relationship with these people you will have to agree to leave those topics alone.  They don’t go anywhere positive.  They only produce strife.  So leave them alone.

personalboundaries2

Who determines which topics those are?  The one being marginalized, the one being rejected or coerced, the one who finds herself out of favor with the group, that’s who.  If you’re that person, it will ultimately fall to you to identify those boundaries and hold people to them.  If certain things cannot be discussed without you feeling threatened and condemned, you must learn to cut the discussion off and tell them to drop it.  If they cannot or will not, even after you ask them…

4) Sometimes the only way to keep people from trying to manipulate, guilt, or coerce you is to put real distance between you.  Get some space. Even geographical distance may be necessary.  You may have to disconnect from the sources of manipulation on social media.  Get a new phone number.  Whatever it takes.  You must take charge of creating that distance and you will be in control of when communication is restored.  You get to set the parameters.  If they cannot live with that, tough luck!  You’re in charge now.  It must be that way.  They have proven that they cannot have that power without using it to try to control you.  So take it out of their hands.  Move across the country if you must.  Whatever it takes to be free to be who you are without their interference.

This requires learning to recognize when people are being manipulative and controlling, and that’s a challenge because the truly skilled can do it without anyone realizing what they’re doing.  But you must learn to recognize when it is happening.  You probably already have to some degree because you can feel it in your gut; you’ve just never given yourself permission to act on it.  Well now you need to decide to change that.  No one else will do it; it will have to be you.  And maybe at this point, the aforementioned feedback and support from your new friends will help you see what needs to be done.  There’s a good chance many of them have been through those motions themselves and they know how to recognize the signs.  Lean on them for help in making and keeping these boundaries.

ADOPTING A NEW PERSPECTIVE

5) First and foremost, you must learn that you cannot control other people’s reactions to you.  You cannot assume ownership for both your actions and theirs, or for your feelings as well as theirs.  Their job is to learn to love you as you are; if they cannot, you will have to find that love somewhere else.  A friend of mine put this struggle beautifully:

I seem to just turn a switch inside. I have to. If I don’t switch it off, the part of me that cares won’t allow me to let it go. It’s not that I don’t still love them, but I have to shut off a part of my mind to them. It’s as if they are old toys I have outgrown, and have decided to box them up and put the box in the attic. I know they are there, and I still love them, but they are put away for now. I can always get the box back out if I need to.

Part of the process is coming to terms with and realizing that everything they have a problem with is *their* problem. It is entirely theirs to deal with. Not only have I done nothing wrong, but I am not responsible for their unhappiness even though they think I am. Not only is their unhappiness their own, but its origin is an IMAGINARY source, which is inside their heads. That is even more removed from me, and nothing I can do will fix that for them. The only thing I can do is remove myself from the equation, even though that is very sad for me.

They are the only ones creating all this sadness for both of us, but I can lessen the confrontation and the open wounds by distancing myself from them. I have done it before due to my father being the controlling type, but this is different. They clearly blame me. But I can only shake my head and pity them, and put them in a box in the attic of my mind until they are no longer useless broken toys with sharp rusty edges.

6) Try to realize that they’re likely afraid and seeking security themselves, and that’s why they do the things they do.  People who manipulate and control others do it because they’re needy.  Learn to recognize that neediness so that maybe you can find a way to be gracious to them even as you maintain your boundaries.  Sympathize with them, but don’t validate the control tactics they use.

7) Keep pursuing a clearer understanding of what you think about the world, about the subjectivity of the narratives we push on each other, and about how one arrives at a more reliable grasp of reality.  The veterans of this process report that in time this gets easier because as you become more well-rounded in your new understanding of the world, some of the emotional sting of your old group’s rejection fades because you see too plainly how wrong they really are.  Of course it’s always good to maintain your own sense of how easily you can be wrong about things as well, but in time the outright silliness of superstitions and unfounded religious dogma becomes too apparent to be greatly bothered by their fanatical defenders.

Another way the passage of time can help is that often the mere act of passing through these trials toughens us up.  In other words, sometimes the only thing that makes us stronger is passing through the fires of these conflicts so that the next time we come upon them, we are tougher and we can take it.

8) Lastly, there are times when the dysfunctionality of a family or a support structure is so beyond repair that you must learn to view them not as your family but as merely people you know.  I know that sounds terrible at first because if we’re talking about family, that’s not how it should be.  But in the situation I’m talking about here, those family members aren’t really functioning in their proper roles anyway so you’re not likely losing what you think you’re losing.  And if you can remove yourself and your history with them from the equation, viewing these people as simply people you know—evaluating them as objectively as you would any other people—you just might come to view them and their behavior in a more accurate light.  Once you remove the emotional charge of their supposed role in your life, you can better see them for who they are and relate to them accordingly.   This can make it easier to put up and maintain those boundaries that are so necessary to your own psychological well-being.

Learn to internalize the gist of this little speech.  Let it become a template for how you relate to those who feel compelled to manipulate and coerce you into being who they want you to be:

Look, this is who I am.  I know you think it’s wrong (You’ve told me.  All of you have told me.  You don’t have to keep saying it), but it’s probably not going to change.  Now, I want a relationship with you.  So can you accept me as I am and relate to me as I am?  If not, I will find others to fill what’s lacking.  You don’t have to be okay with that.  You can choose to reject who I am.  But if you cannot accept me as I am then it is not me you love, it is some idea of what I should be.  I have no use for that.  If that is how this is going to be then I will have to go find the love that I need from somewhere else.

Posted in Abuse, Atheism, Community, Deconversion, Family, Fundamentalism, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments