Last post I talked about the intellectual points that led me to question my belief in God. I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t have gotten me to where I am now, though, without the emotional changes that took place at the same time. There are so many workarounds for evidence that contradicts something you want to believe: if the evidence is really convincing, you can move into a more liberal, less literalistic interpretation of your faith (something Christendom as a whole has been doing for decades.) There are some compelling emotional reasons to hold on to a faith that you aren’t fully intellectually convinced by.
The first of these reasons is social bonding. When you grow up in a religious family, centered within a religious community, inevitably most of the people dear to you are going to be adherents of that religion. The language and philosophies of that religion are going to be built into your interactions with them. You will inevitably hear criticisms, however mild, directed at non-believers, or outsiders to your particular sect. All your social and tribal instincts will be directing you to stay within the religion, for fear of being outcast.
Or at least that’s how it was for me. In addition to growing up within the church, I was homeschooled, which for me meant that almost my entire social world centered around the church. My parents themselves were on the moderate side compared to many I knew, but my greater “tribe” was entirely Christian. Interestingly, my close friendships growing up were always with non-Christians or casual Christians; it wasn’t until my college days that I developed some strong faith-centric relationships. But those relationships were strong. In college I joined a group of wonderful, smart, fun people, and they became extended family to me. And the love and friendship between us was always tied up with the faith we shared. Is it any wonder I couldn’t bring myself to seriously question this faith? It never even occurred to me as a real possibility.
When I came home from college, I joined a more conservative church than the ones I’d grown up in, a church that matched the doctrines believed in my college-era church. I lived in that community for a full year: took part in a small group, made many friends, dated a man who was everything I was supposed to want in a godly partner. I call that phase of life the “reductio ad absurdum” of my religious ideas. I had gravitated toward the more conservative side partly because it was more intellectually rigorous, but what I found over time was that it was also intellectually narrow. There were questions people just didn’t ask (questions like, “what if my gay best friend is actually doing God’s will, not rejecting it?” — one which lay heavy on my mind at that time), books people didn’t read, areas of thought people didn’t explore. It was drought to my intellectually thirsty mind.
Enter Kurt. When I first had a conversation with Kurt, I felt as if my entire brain had been electrified. In a good way. It was as if huge areas of my mind which I’d been letting die of disuse were zapped into vitality again. I couldn’t get enough… so Kurt and I spent a lot of time together. And so it was that I developed my first friendship with someone who was openly, unapologetically atheist.
Now the conversations Kurt and I had were undoubtedly important in moving me away from belief, but the friendship was just as important. For the first time in my life, leaving my faith would mean moving closer to someone I cared about, not farther away from everyone.
It shouldn’t matter this much. The importance of personal, emotional ties in choosing what to believe is a dirty little secret we keep swept under the rug as much as possible. And my guess is that most of the vocal atheists, today and through history, are by nature less swayed by personal considerations than the mass of humanity is. But the fact is that the need for community and tribal identification is much older and deeper than the need for intellectual satisfaction and exploration. As long as people feel that abandoning their belief will mean losing their tribe, only a very few courageous and independent people will do so.
So there was the gravitational move toward Kurt and away from my church group (toward whom I began to feel some resentment for their role in the stifling of my intellect). Another big push came when my parents converted to Catholicism. Catholicism is different enough from Protestant fundamentalism that it felt as if my parents, too, were leaving the tribe. Suddenly I felt as though the field of acceptable belief was wide open. So I started exploring. For the first time, I measured Biblical accounts against recorded history with a truly impartial eye. That led me very quickly to lose any faith in the literal historicity of the gospels. I decided that, to the extent that the gospel accounts of Jesus were true, they were legend and metaphor, not historical fact. And that was the point that made me face head-on the fact that I was walking away from my tribe. I was accepting doctrines that I’d previously looked on with scorn; while I still at that time considered myself a believer, I knew some very conservative people would not. Finding myself in that place — and seeing with horror how strong a hold the social considerations had on me — was the final step needed to divorce myself from the social bonds that were helping to hold me within Christianity.
Next time: the third and final part… existential cushioning.