Reading Time: 9 minutes

ZOMG two posts in one day? I’m spoiling y’all! But this was on my mind.

There’s a Connie Willis short story called “Even the Queen” wherein a group of women in the not-so-distant-future discuss menstruation at a ladies’ lunch. I ran into it when I was just out of college and in the process of deconverting from Christianity, and it had one bit that really sparked my interest: each of the women was apparently on a totally different fringe diet system. One orders a salad of flowers; one orders only fruit, etc. Isn’t it weird what we remember and what sticks out in our minds?

Now, my mom was of Polish-German descent, and the idea of just being a vegetarian was weird enough to me. Meatless days done for religion were all well and good, but I couldn’t even imagine living without meat, much less without vegetables! I laughed off the characters’ diets as being just more absurdities in a story filled with absurdities. To my astonishment, not long after reading that story, I discovered that actually, yes, some people do follow some awfully strange fringe diets. Learning about these diets actually helped me break some of my Christian conditioning by making me do some serious thinking about the similarities between different types of extremism.

While it’s impossible to generalize such diverse groups, vegetarians are usually fine with eating animal foods like butter and honey and wearing animal products like wool as long as no animals were killed by humans to provide the product (in college I wore a pin on my favorite leather vest that proclaimed that it had been made from animals that had committed suicide in the wild). Vegans take it a step further by saying they won’t even use non-lethally-obtained animal products and wear and eat only non-animal-derived things. Most of us have encountered these two eating and living styles. Within each of these categories we have varying levels of commitment; some vegetarians are happy to get their food from the grocery store, others must have it straight from a farm, and still others won’t eat something unless it came out of the ground just this morning. Some vegetarians are in it for health reasons and not out of some particular love for animals, while many do it out of a sense of ethics more than anything else. But once you get past veganism/vegetarianism, things get weird.

Raw-foodists are vegans who don’t cook anything they eat, but only eat it raw. There are entire cookbooks about how to do it properly–and if you’re willing to purchase things like obscene quantities of nut butters and food dehydrators to make gummy-looking fake cheesecake, more power to you. From everything I can tell, people on raw diets lose weight like absolutely crazy, so in terms of short-term weight loss at least, a temporary spin on that wheel might not be so bad. “Sex and the City” had a bit about a raw restaurant, which lent some credence to the movement and got its name out into the public eye, but it remains on the outskirts.

If going raw isn’t hardcore enough, then you can opt for being a fruitarian. Fruitarians only eat fruit, but they also classify avocados and sometimes even peppers and seeds as fruit. The fruit is usually consumed raw, of course.

But it gets worse. Breatharians think the human body should only need air and light (though some will generously also concede water) to survive, and many of them think eating’s just a hoax pushed on people by The Man. One of these folks was in the news lately over on HuffPo. Their leader and founder couldn’t even live that way when a news show asked her to prove her amazing claims and set up objective tests of the diet–which she failed spectacularly, almost permanently injuring herself. Some sources attribute deaths to trying to live this way. But people keep trying it.

A raw, paleolithic-style dish: A sashimi (raw ...
A raw, paleolithic-style dish: A sashimi (raw fish) dinner set (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the meat-eating end of the scale we have low-carbers and then the paleo-diet people, with the same level of commitment ranging from just avoiding grains and sweeteners all the way up to eating nothing but meat and even to letting one’s meat rot a little before eating it. I’m not going to diss low-carb as I did lose about 75 pounds on it (under a physician’s close care, thanks) and have kept it off about 10 years except to note that I’m not religious about it anymore and suspect the weight loss had as much to do with my swearing off processed and junk foods as it did to following the Atkins regimen to the letter.

Of course, we also have movements dedicated to eating whatever the heck someone wants, with militant fat-acceptance organizations out there, and yes, they can be vicious to those people who break ranks to lose weight for any reason. I once read a heartbreaking LiveJournal account from a woman who’d gone that route due to some serious health complications from her morbid obesity. She wasn’t abusing or belittling fat people at all–she just had to lose weight or she was going to die, so she lost weight rather than die. She wrote of how the fat-acceptance community turned on her and called her a traitor and far worse for her sin of losing weight. Her pain and confusion at being treated that way by people she’d trusted and considered friends still makes my eyes twinge even years after the bookmark to her entry was lost to the mists of Avalon time.

I’m sure that you can see how I might draw some comparisons between various eating styles’ associated food communities and the religious world. And the parallels just keep popping up. Naturally, every one of these true believers is convinced that his or her eating style is perfect; very few accept that not everybody’s body does well on every particular diet. And the venom spewed at people who physically can’t endure the One True Diet is simply nauseating to behold. I used to hang out on vegetarian boards (I’m an omnivore but needed recipes for the vastly-increased amount of greenage I began eating) and had to stop because it just got so sickening to see people tearing each other apart–or worse, beating themselves to an emotional pulp because they’d realized they simply couldn’t continue to eat all-raw or all-vegan or whatever else, and the comments from the rest of the community upon reading these sad confessions were far from loving or kind.

Fruitarians, though, were my general focus. I wasn’t tempted to join them–I like having tooth enamel, thanks, and I was Texan, remember, so barbecue–but I was fascinated by the mindset of someone who’d join a movement like that. I wondered what made such people tick; I wondered what it’d take for them to realize how much damage they were doing to themselves. I read accounts of ex-fruitarians with complete attention. I wasn’t that long out of Christianity at this point, and still struggling with what had drawn me into it. And somehow I felt that this wacky diet system was related somehow to my search for answers.

Funny how stuff intersects, isn’t it?

One common thread I saw in these accounts rang very true for me: people wanted to feel like they were doing as much as they humanly could in the name of their health. And something went a little wrong in their heads along the way–they began to get more and more extreme, thinking they were getting closer and closer to the Perfect Health Answer. Like a frog slowly boiling to death, they didn’t notice the slow decline in their health until something major happened–their teeth fell out, they were hospitalized for malnutrition, their families staged interventions–to make them come face to face with reality. Until then, they denied their decline in health and vociferously defended their diet gurus to the skies, and refused to even consider or contemplate any challenges to their delusions.

Barring such an irrefutable confrontation, the people who wrote these testimonies doggedly pursued any and all pseudo-science that seemed like it halfway supported their claims, rejected mainstream science’s refutations of those claims, and tried to get other people to believe the way they did. They genuinely believed that there was some vast conspiracy to keep people sick and unhealthy, and their guru of choice was the one who was crying in the wilderness for his children to become free. Are you wondering now if I’m talking about food or religion? Because I literally just lost track myself.

As I read, it seemed to me, also, that the same sorts of people who seem most likely to fall for a fringe religious claim are also the sort most likely to fall for other fringe claims. All through my time as a Christian, I saw people fall over and over again for fad diets, financial scams, and religious predators. It was like we were pre-programmed to believe nonsense with no proof supporting it, so scammers had a nice easy time in our churches. Also there was a sense for me of “what if this person is right?” It was Pascal’s Wager writ large. I for one felt like I was the keeper of a holy secret when I was a fundamentalist. I knew something everybody else didn’t.

And, too, there was a delicious sense of superiority in thinking that all those eggheads who disagreed with my church’s teachings were totally wrong. Some of them I was sure were just sadly mistaken, but others were obviously deliberately confusing and misleading people straight to hell. Biff was even worse–you wouldn’t even believe me if I told you all the crazy schemes he and his friends hatched to make money or convert people. Anything that fed our appetites and propped up our delusions about ourselves tricked us, over and over and over again. Now it’s almost a running joke among ex-Christians that Christians are so gullible and so incredibly easy to trick and fool, but the smiles are tinged with deep sadness for many of us because we were there once too.

What really spoke to me though was the idea that even a redneck girl could learn enough to confound professors, the idea that even I, a young woman, could educate myself enough to argue with the learned and wise. Nobody likes to feel stupid or ignorant, and when the path out of that perceived ignorance is super-fast and easy, it’s hard not to jump at the chance to be superior without having to spend all those years learning actual truths and facts. If the pseudo-stuff lets its believer feel persecuted and embattled, so much the better. What’s the use of having the Holy Grail if you don’t have to defend it against anybody?

It doesn’t matter if the topic at hand is food or religion or sex or anything else; some people just want to be known as doing the most in that area. I think there’s just something in the extremist’s psyche that desperately needs to be the most extreme at whatever it is that psyche’s latched on to as important. As Penn Jillette said not long ago, if religion vanished, people would still believe nonsense; it’d just be different nonsense. Do you imagine if Christianity collapsed completely tomorrow that all those bigoted, misogynistic, angry extremist Christians would just take our hands and sing with us? No. They’d just find something else that stoked their anger, rewarded their fear, celebrated their ignorance, and validated their desire to oppress others. It is ignorance and the love of the easy buck and the quick angle that we must fight, not religion itself. It is distrust of facts and the inability to distinguish the truth from fiction that we must peacefully combat. It is unwarranted self-importance and unwillingness to treat others with respect and love that cannot be tolerated.

Studying fruitarianism and its related fad diets helped me to see all of these things in a non-confrontational and gentle way. Nobody was attacking religion at all in any sort of direct manner in the accounts I was reading, but the parallels were crystal-clear to an ex-fundamentalist like me. It was impossible for me to escape the conclusion that some people just want to be hardcore, and they latch onto different ways of doing it. I was still struggling with an extremist propensity (I went through a super-brief phase as an AIDS denier after deconverting, I’m ashamed to admit), but learning these things helped me resist leaping from one extreme mindset to another. It would have done me no good to leave Christianity but end up buggy about faked lunar landings or raw-foodism. But knowing what I did now about my predispositions, that was far less likely to happen.

In this way I was learning about moderation in all things, including moderation, as the saying goes, which was in its way a much scarier proposition to me than any kind of extremist religion ever had been. Being extremist is very easy–there’s usually some objective points you have to believe and concrete actions you must take. Taking the middle path is much harder. I had to rely on my own wits and my own judgement and discernment now, without benefit of a god telling me what to do and feel. Of course, I didn’t realize I’d been doing that all along–there’d never been a god telling me any of that, so obviously it was me all along–but knowing I was on my own was quite intimidating at first. At least before I’d had a husband and pastors to tell me what to do if I questioned my own judgement before deconverting! It was difficult to find that middle path and I made some mistakes, but the nice thing about trying is that if you keep doing it, you’ll usually make progress in time. So even someone as stubborn as I am learned that when you’re swinging from extreme to extreme, it’s harder to move forward.

Once I realized there was no god telling me what to feel or think or do, though, that led me to the inexorable conclusion that there was also no god handing me a cosmic purpose. Yikes! That was even rougher for me. We’re going to talk about that next, friends–so until next time, adieu.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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