Beliefs don't develop in a vacuum. They are rooted in communities who make it hard to leave without causing some damage.
When I was still a Christian, I would bristle whenever someone tried to analyze my faith from a scientific point of view. The tools of the scientist, I argued, could not reliably detect the things of the spirit because they are only discernible by those with the right organs of perception.
You must have “ears to hear,” Jesus would often say, and in a manner befitting both evangelicals and fundamentalists (the differences between them are mostly cosmetic), I took that quite literally to mean that people with dead interiors cannot even come in contact with the things of God because they don’t have the right stuff to do it.
It seemed an affront to my most cherished beliefs to dissect the Christian faith with the same academic detachment with which one studies chemistry or physics or even psychology and sociology. I compared it to a man wanting to do a lab analysis of the spittle that Jesus used to heal a man’s eyesight as if a chemical breakdown of the substances would have yielded any insight into an event which could only be called a miracle.
As you can imagine, I see things differently now that I am outside the Christian faith. Now that I no longer privilege that belief system above all the other religions of the world, I see the value in applying the tools of the social sciences in order to understand what functions religion serves in the world. I’ve come to appreciate the insights these interpretive grids can give to help us understand how to relate to people who are still on the inside of these insular ideological enclaves.
Incidentally, you don’t have to jettison the spiritual significance of your religious tradition in order to appreciate the value of putting it alongside similar systems of belief so you can glean some perspective about the ways our belief structures work.
With that in mind, I’d like to take a minute to explore the sociology of belief and consider the possibility that the things we believe and pass on to others serve a few functions in society which are not immediately evident to those whose entire world is defined by those beliefs. In the end I will suggest a few things we can take away from this exercise for the benefit of promoting more humanistic values in our world.
Religion as a Social Construct
One explanation for the genesis and prevalence of religions in the world is that they help to organize communities and to codify the values and priorities we intend to pass on to successive generations. Religious beliefs and practices are a means of enculturation, a vehicle for communicating what matters to a community. They are also reliable identity markers by which a group can clearly delineate what puts you in…or out of…the group.
Religion is an outgrowth of tribalism. It is a social tool, a sort of intangible technology that we developed for encapsulating and transmitting what matters most to our communities. We are a fundamentally social species, so it should come as no surprise that we would hold most dearly those practices which most effectively preserve our values and our collective identity.
I can think of no better way to keep a culture from changing too much, or too fast, than ascribing divine authority to it. When you think about it this way, a whole lot more things start to make sense. For starters, here are three things we learn from thinking this way.
1) Suddenly it makes sense why it’s so hard to change a religious person’s mind.
The direct approach—critiquing the beliefs themselves—produces little change in the thinking of the believer because the real strength of the belief system comes from something external to the beliefs themselves. The real strength of our beliefs lies in their ability to hold together the tribal identity.
Have you ever tried changing the mind of someone who believes things that are irrational or lacking in evidential support? The mental gymnastics they perform in front of you will leave you dizzy, especially if they are relatively intelligent (and yes, intelligent people believe irrational things, too). If they are less articulate, they will just dig their heels in and keep restating their belief, but now in ALL CAPS, as if you didn’t just expertly disassemble the entire narrative undergirding their belief. It’s like talking to a brick wall.
But why? What accounts for the backfire effect? Why is it so hard to change their minds about things that are so easily deconstructed?
I recall an article a few months back wondering aloud why Trump supporters seem convinced of everything the man ever says even after showing them how he contradicts his own positions three times in a single week. They will defend anything he says or does, not because the actions or words themselves are rationally defensible, but because at some point the mantle for a particular group identity was placed on him and from that point forward it became about the tribal identity, not the man himself.
Would you go back and reread that last sentence? The reason Trump remains popular with his base no matter how dangerous or irresponsible (or demonstrably false) are his tweets and off-script public statements is that he’s become a symbol for a group identity, like a team mascot strutting the sidelines during a football game. People will root for their team no matter how consistently poor their performance because it’s not about the performance. It’s about the group identity.
That’s why directly critiquing religious beliefs (much like critiquing political policies) so often gets you nowhere. The cognitive dissonance kicks in and suddenly it’s like someone came through and deleted the last five minutes of conversation from the other person’s memory banks. It’s incredibly frustrating. But it makes more sense now.
2) This also helps to explain why people take it so personally when they learn you no longer believe the same things they believe.
How many of you had to break it to your parents that you no longer believe the central tenets of their religion? Did they react charitably, with sympathy, understanding, and grace? Or did they explode in anger, remorse, attempts at coercion, or possibly even a verbal assault because “How could you do this to us?!“
Wait, what? What do you mean “do this to us?” From your perspective, this wasn’t some kind of personal slight to them. It was an individual matter, an unavoidable consequence of following your own thought processes, your own search for truth, wherever it leads you. But that’s not how they experience it at all. To them, this was a personal slap in the face.
That doesn’t make any sense until you realize that religious beliefs are social constructs—they are the scaffolding around which communities organize themselves—so your departure from their belief system means undermining the social fabric through which their entire identity is woven. What will everyone think of them now?
There is virtually no inoffensive way to tell friends and family you no longer believe in their religion. To do so automatically takes something out from under their social edifice and makes the whole thing feel like it’s wobbling a little. That’s why they get so angry. That’s why they take it so personally. In their moments of greatest insecurity the nicest people in the world will say the meanest, most careless things because your departure fundamentally threatens their tribal identity. They almost can’t help it.
3) It also explains how positions on issues that are non-essential to a religion (like same-sex attraction) can become the hill they are ready to die on.
This one keeps surprising me. I’ve personally taken part in quite a number of discussions through the years about which beliefs are truly essential to the historic Christian faith—what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”—and yet I cannot recall a single one of those discussions including “fighting the gays” as a key component to the gospel.
And yet. Disapproving of same-sex attraction has become a litmus test for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians the world over. Scrolling through your newsfeed, you could be forgiven for concluding that this is why Jesus came to earth—to rid the world of homosexuality—despite the fact that the man never said a single word about the subject. I guess it never came up. But still, you would think someone with a direct line to Heaven would have included at least one quick mention for future reference.
For the life of me, I cannot explain theologically how disagreeing on this single issue could equal a betrayal of the entire Christian faith. It doesn’t really add up in my mind. Except that it does once you realize that at some point in the recent past it was decided that this would be an identity marker for the tribe itself, and that was the end of the discussion. Once that association was made, the battle lines were drawn and now they’re willing to go down fighting over this.
One could argue that the key issue with this particular point is really the family structure itself. Modern American churches are built around meeting the needs of the traditional American family, which means one man married to one woman with at least two or three kids needing entertainment, character formation, and good friends to play with. That’s the target audience for the evangelical and fundamentalist church (too bad if you’re single and way worse if you’re gay). That is the family structure they will fight to the death in order to preserve. Their survival depends on it.
This would also explain the church’s over-the-top obsession with sex in general, or rather with controlling how people do it. If you let people have sex outside of wedlock they may never get around to marrying and having those kids you need them to have so that they’ll start coming to church again (because who will teach the children morals?).
If you allow the family to start looking like something other than the template around which their subculture is built, what will happen to the tribe as a whole? It would likely dissolve into the surrounding world and the identity would be lost forever. Once again, sociology explains what’s going on better than theology does.
We could go on and glean more insights from a sociological analysis of the functions served by religions of the world but I’d like to wrap this up by offering a couple of observations about how this should change the way we approach those who are still religious.
What We’ve Learned from This
I would suggest that since religious beliefs are social constructs, you should be less surprised when a direct and rational deconstruction of those beliefs gets you nowhere. You are trying to push over a tree that is deeply rooted in a soil that won’t quickly let go of its produce.
And I’m not saying there’s no value to challenging their beliefs. I’m merely saying you should practice patience and adjust your expectations if you came into this thinking you could significantly alter a person’s entire mental framework with only a handful of challenging conversations.
I would also warn ahead of time that if you plan on “coming out” as an atheist to your religious friends or family, you should expect some pushback, especially if those beliefs are essential to how they define themselves. Sometimes it’s passive-aggressive and slow to surface, and other times it’s more overtly coercive and immediate. More likely it will be some admixture of the two.
You may be surprised by the behavior you see exhibited by people you’ve always counted on for support because they’ve never been put in this position before. Sure, they’ve interacted with outsiders to their faith on many occasions but have they ever had this crop up inside their own immediate family? This can feel incredibly threatening to them. Be prepared for some resistance when the time comes, and I would highly recommend waiting to do it until you have your own independent social (and financial) support structure in place.
Related: “Outgrowing Your Atheist Closet [Video]“
I would also point out that since religions continue to survive and thrive even in the midst of the Information Age, we should consider which social functions they have served so that we can do some thinking about what will replace them if and when they no longer have the strength they once had.
You want everyone else to be a skeptic like you? Or maybe even a full-fledged atheist/agnostic? Okay, fine. But what will replace the church or mosque in their lives and in their surrounding culture? Do you expect whatever needs were being met by religion will just go away?
What alternative culture do we have to offer those who we want to see leave their old beliefs behind? Human beings are not self-sufficient islands, and that includes the crotchety old guys who keep chiming in on social media to remind everyone who will listen to them that they don’t really need anybody. They say that, and yet they keep coming back, hoping people will listen to them complain about all this talk of needing people for things.
This is why I keep supporting groups who do whatever they can to organize and meet together on a regular basis. Even if that’s not your thing (and please don’t expect me sing and clap, I won’t do it) other people still need it, and from time to time so do you. It’s messy, people fight a lot, and there will inevitably be power struggles and naysayers and that one odd duck who thinks they should be able to address the group despite never having anything productive or useful to say.
Sometimes it will utterly fail and you’ll have to start all over again. But we still need to keep working on building a culture of support for people seeking to live their lives according to the principles of humanism.
Humans don’t develop in a vacuum. We need each other. And work has to be done in order to provide a place and a support structure for those who are leaving their religions to find something else to pour their energies into.
What other sociological aspects of religion do you feel help us better to understand it, and how to relate to people who are still in it?