Recently I was reminded anew of something about the Christian worldview that I shed long ago: its strange way of looking at both the world and my place in it.
The Dissonance Dance.
Cognitive dissonance is that very uncomfortable feeling someone gets when they try to believe two totally contradictory ideas. One way that I felt very stressed out as a Christian was by belonging to a denomination that bought into Young Earth Creationism while I, myself, wasn’t a Young Earth Creationist. On the one hand, I was comfortable saying that the Earth was incredibly old, but on the other, my view of the Bible as inerrant and literally true (“every jot and tittle!”) meant that it was also only a few thousand years old, tops.
So if the Bible said the Earth was created in seven days, then that, by golly, was what happened. The Bible said it, I believed it, and that settled it.
… But then the discomfort began when I thought Wait, what about all this geology and paleontology and genetics and embryology and all these other disciplines?
It wasn’t easy for me to consider just how much reality contradicted my religion’s claims. Creationism was only the really big honking Bahama Mama Burger of dissonances that I struggled with. There were many, many others.
Life Has No Value, Yet Also Infinite Value.
This one really messed with my head.
A lifetime is what, 75 years or so? That’s nothing but a tiny drop compared to the vast ocean that is eternity. That eternity is either spent in Heaven, singing songs to Jesus and feasting (often while gloating over the screams of the damned, depending on the exact Christian you’re talking to), or in Hell screaming and entertaining the partying Christians who were “smart” enough to believe the right things. So any hardship that occurs during someone’s lifetime is hardly even worth mentioning. Life itself becomes a mission to serve Jesus so that the Christian won’t be set on fire after he or she dies. Whatever happens during that lifetime, it’ll all be generally forgotten once Heaven is achieved.
Literally the only really important event that can occur in a person’s life is their decision to convert to Christianity–because obviously, it is always a decision made voluntarily. I’ve been noticing these past few years that whenever a Christian talks about suffering some great misfortune, the general tone of responses is “This won’t matter in Heaven, so just get through it the best you can.” People did much the same thing back when I was Christian. We spent a lot of time muddling through awful situations and enduring stuff nobody should have endured, all because we were sure that Heaven would make up for all of it.
Once a person has converted, what follows is a lifetime of servitude. In the religion’s folk-beliefs, “God” has a very special plan for each and every Christian which no other Christian can possibly do, and it usually involves persuading others to convert.
This servitude ends in Heaven, theoretically, when the servants become the feasting, singing, cavorting masters. Until then, Christians are taught to negate themselves, put themselves last, deny themselves, and credit their god for all successes while blaming themselves for all failures.
Worst of all, Christians are encouraged to view themselves as fractured, broken, worthless, disgusting, rotten piles of dead flesh that only a god could possibly love.
I’m not really sure how anyone could possibly design a more humanity-denying, spirit-crushing ideology than that.
But the other side of that sanity-destroying coin was that people were also the glorious inheritors of a vast divine legacy. A god had made the whole universe just so people would have something to look at, wonder about, and maybe explore one day if time allowed. And then he made a way for people to get forgiveness for their piddling little lifetime’s worth of sins so they could join him in paradise after their deaths instead of being physically tortured forever. He made himself get born, killed himself, had a bad weekend, resurrected himself, and then floated into the sky after messing with the heads of his followers because that is apparently never going to be not funny to him.
So at the same time as being a worthless worm, people were also the children of a King.
It was pretty confusing.
When the Dissonance Got to Be Too Much.
When I was Christian, I believed that my faith should be able to stand up to any amount of inquiry and examination. I believed that I didn’t need to fear or hesitate before any challenge, and that my religion’s various claims had more than enough objective proof to them to satisfy anybody.
I know some of you are already snickering at my youthful zeal and innocence. That’s okay.
When I finally began noticing all the many, many ways that reality didn’t line up with my indoctrination, I was scared–of course. Eventually, my desire to know the truth won out against my fears. I struggled for a long time, seeing but not wanting to see, reading but not wanting the words to be arranged as they were, remembering and closing my eyes against what I was revisiting in my mind.
As I wrote in one of my very first blog posts, there finally came a night when I realized that I wasn’t at all afraid anymore.
I didn’t know if I’d get up that morning a monster or a criminal or simply a pathetic shadow of my former Christian self, but I did know that no matter what happened, I couldn’t force myself to believe again. Whatever makes someone believe, I just didn’t have it anymore. It was gone, and it was not ever coming back.
You know what happened once dawn broke, though? Of course you do.
Nothing scary, that’s what.
I stopped going to church, and began a long, slow process of self-discovery, and my dad later told me that he and my mom were very relieved when I became my old self again. I’d become a very frightening and different person who they had trouble recognizing, and they’d been very worried about me. (I never told them just how much reason they’d had to be worried.)
I discovered that life went on much as it had when I’d been Christian. None of the stuff that my religion said I’d lose got lost; none of the horrifying changes my church predicted occurred.
But some other important stuff did change.
I discovered that my capacity for love and kindness had expanded considerably–while my sense of personal meaning and happiness grew by leaps and bounds.
The world finally made sense to me.
I finally understood what meaningfulness and purpose meant to me, and why I hadn’t been able to find them in Christianity.
This wasn’t a scary world where cause and effect didn’t work, where one couldn’t trust one’s eyes, where up could, in fact, be down and down up. It was instead a world where objective reality actually worked exactly the way it was supposed to work, every single time, while the effects of magical thinking turned out to be–surprise!–exactly the same as no magical thinking at all.
I no longer had to fight against reality and bash my brains out trying to figure out why my indoctrination didn’t line up with what I observed going on around me. I no longer had to repeat explanations that didn’t even sound very compelling to me, or perform all those mental contortions that went with Christian apologetics. I could view evidence and evaluate it without worrying about how it’d impact my understanding of the Bible–or my salvation.
And yes: I could trust my own intuition to know what I should be doing and what would bring meaning and joy to my own life.
When my spiritual eyes finally began to clear of all the dust and dreck I’d allowed to cloud my vision all those years, I realized that the world really is beautiful.
And it really is enough.
It blows my mind to think that some people get miffed that this beautiful, amazing world owes them promises or that it’s a less vibrant and beautiful world without them. It amazes me to think that even as resilient, strong, and capable as people can be, some of them think they are worthless pond scum who need to be tended and parented their whole lives or else they’ll collapse into misery and emotional agony, or that they are totally incapable of figuring out what would make their own lives meaningful without some cosmic, invisible wizard nudging them to open an auto-care franchise in Ohio and plaster it with Jesus Fish so they can do OIL CHANGES FOR JESUS, because there is no way whatsoever that a regular person could ever come up with that game-changing idea on their own, now is there?
I spent years clinging to false promises, and I know now that they are not the comfort that complacent Christians imagine they are. They aren’t real. They aren’t true. It’s insulting to even insinuate that people should be told lies, as long as they are comforting lies. I love people too much to mock their grief and pain that way, and far too much respect for them to manipulate them even for their own good. We are more than strong enough to handle life without imaginary masters shackling us.
That said, I am sorry to know of the Christians who discover the hard way, as I did, that all those promises they sang and gushed and cried and exulted about aren’t actually worth the amount of breath it took to do all that. The second those promises get tested, the Christian involved will be disappointed unless they have a very vivid imagination–and at that point, you can bet that not only will that Christian blame him- or herself for the failure of magic to work, but so will all that person’s peers. They must, because their worldview depends on keeping their illusions alive for as long as possible. I did it once too, so I understand. Until someone’s really ready to let go of the illusion and walk through it, what ex-Christians have to say might not make a lot of sense. (Why yes, most of my friends and I tend to like The Matrix. Why do you ask?)
This life matters. It is beautiful, and I want as much of it as I can get before my time here is finished. The fact that this life is so short is what makes it meaningful. It’s finite, and once it’s gone it’s gone. There is no do-over, and whatever promises people get in this life, we’ve got to make them–and keep them–ourselves.
I cannot end a post about the perfect sufficiency of a belief-free life without quoting one of the most powerful parts of the gorgeous Tim Minchin beat poem “Storm.” I kept telling myself I wouldn’t, but it’s perfect itself, and so here it is:
Isn’t this enough?
Just this world?
Just this beautiful, complex
Wonderfully unfathomable, natural world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention
That we have to diminish it with the invention
Of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?
Yes. It is enough. It is more than enough. It’s more than I’ll ever be able to plumb; more than I will ever be able to experience; more than I will ever be able to bear.
I am a tiny little part of its vastness and staggering scope, and every morning I wake up contented. I don’t need more than what I can get for myself. I am greedy, but not so greedy that I’ll listen to lies that promise me the moon. I am sometimes a little scared of the things I don’t understand, those things that nobody understands yet, but not so scared that I need to be soothed with meaningless promises that aren’t true.
I would rather learn to content myself with somewhat less than the moon, and to make peace with those abyssal, frightening aspects to our human situation, than to be lied to about them and then discover, to my heartache and terror, that I must now make a choice between the threats my religion makes and the reality I see before me.
That is not a choice I would push onto anybody, not even my worst enemy, and it makes me positively see R-E-D when I see a sweet, loving Christian struggling with that particular heartache and terror that I did once. It’s so agonizing, and so unnecessary!
But what I learned isn’t really something you can tell someone who doesn’t even realize that the party lines aren’t true, the apologetics routines aren’t actually satisfying, the pat answers are more horrifying than reassuring, and the promises simply don’t do what Christianity says they do.
We’re going to be talking more about those promises when we touch on this topic next, and I do hope you’ll join me!