Which is More Powerful? God? Or Belief in God?

The word “atheist” is fluorescent light clinically accurate. Here’s the formula:  a [without] + theos [god] = without god. Godless. God not present, not in thought, word, deed, or intent. Add ist [one who is, does, or makes], and an atheist is someone without god — a godless person. Add ism instead [system, doctrine, practice], and atheism is godless practice.

I never thought I’d be without God, a godless person, or engaged in godless practice. But now I’m all three.

“Atheist” usually calls up the notion of belief or lack of it – we say that an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. The corollary assumption is that God is out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter, waiting for us to get with the program. If we don’t get with it, we’re an atheist.

That’s the way it usually goes down. It’s not the way it was with me.

“Without God” is risky. You need to be careful of your surroundings. Aatheism is punishable by death in thirteen Muslim countries. Hindu regions offer up lots of gods you can get crosswise with and ways to make you pay if you do. In a quarter of countries around the world, being an atheist won’t get you killed, but don’t go having an attitude about it or the anti- blasphemy laws will get you – which is currently the case in Pakistan, where it’s okay to be an atheist but a 26-year old woman was recently sentenced to death by hanging for posting caricatures of Mohammed on her WhatsApp account, joining 80 other prisoners currently held under sentences of death or life in prison for violating anti-blasphemy laws.

Here in the USA, patriotism is the state religion, fueled lately with heavy doses of Christian Nationalism. We have our own iconic images that you don’t desecrate – some of which are caricatures of themselves – like football field sized American flags or the line “one nation under God.” As for God, we, like the Muslim countries, aren’t too concerned with offending Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna or the rest of that bunch, but mostly concern ourselves with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – minus the Muslim modifications and plus the Christian ones.

You really need a good guidebook if you want to practice safe religion.

But belief is invisible, so how could anyone know what somebody else believes? Well, they could make like Pope Sixtus IV and authorize Ferdinand and Isabella to round up Jews and Muslims who acted like Christians but were obviously faking it, and let the Grand Inquisitor’s 28 Articles torture the truth out of them. The Inquisition started in 1478 and didn’t end until 1834. That’s a long time to torture the invisible belief out of people. The USA declared itself into existence about fifty years before the Inquisition finally ended, and several former colonies passed laws banning atheists and ministers from public office to ensure separation of church and state. Presumably a minister would admit to being a minister, but I wonder how forthcoming the atheists were. It took a couple hundred years, but the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared those laws unconstitutional in cases decided in 1961 and 1978, but some of those laws are still on the books, and lately Republicans have been trying to get the minister ban lifted. The atheist part? Not so much.

And then of course there’s always the Taliban to keep the world pure.

Moving right along…

About the time the Inquisition had gotten several decades of brutality under its belt, French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote an essay in his Pensées (thoughts) that deals with the high stakes God vs. without God issue. His resolution is known as “Pascal’s Wager,” and people still rely on it (although I’m guessing most don’t know it by name – I never did, not until I became on atheist).

“God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline?” Pascal asked. Trouble is, “Reason can decide nothing here.” Uh oh. At least in this country we like to do our own research and make reasonable decisions (on things like Covid vaccination vs. horse de-wormer). But now here’s this French guy telling us we can’t reason our way to God. Yes, there are people who claim they’ve done it, but somebody else always comes along and makes them look stupid. So now what? “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is,” Pascal suggests, “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Ironically, although you can’t reasonably determine that God exists, it’s reasonable to bet that He does. (The Bible’s God definitely uses male pronouns, and with initial caps – kind of like referring to yourself in the third person.) Since we can’t know if God exists, we can save ourselves by believing that He does instead. It would be unreasonable not to, since the consequences of not believing are so bad. If God exists, we’re good, and if he doesn’t then nothing ventured nothing gained. But if God exists and we don’t believe, we’re seriously screwed.

It’s not reasonable to think God exists, but it is reasonable to avoid punishment. And oh by the way, that punishment happens on the other side of death’s door, so there’s also no reasonable way to know if it’s actually waiting for us when we snuff out.

Seriously?

Pascal’s Wager is Basic Childhood 101 – the religious version of “Wait ‘til you father gets home.” The threat of being eternally subjected to the Grand Inquisitor? No way to know. Better play it safe.

Just take the Wager, Dude. It’s not that hard. Anybody up for pizza?

I never heard of Pascal’s Wager when I was a Christian, and never settled my God issues that way. I just unthinkingly bought the assumption about God being out there waiting for me to get with the program. We used to claim that our faith was reasonable, but looking back at it, it was reeaonable only in the same way that Pascal’s Wager is reasonable – you start with belief, and reasons steps in to clean up after that fact. It’s reasonable to believe in order to acknowleddge the existence of God, which can only be done by believing. After that, every “reasonable” thought falls in line with what belief got started.

Okay. I think I got it.

But then the unthinkable – the unreasonable in light of beief thing – happened:  I became an atheist, but not by choosing to not believe in God anymore. God vs. not God was never the issue – not when I became a Christian and not when I un-became one. The whole thing went down the way Screwtape told Wormwood it would:  “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” It all happened — slow and ( not always) easy like. Life changed, I changed, and along the way God just kind of… went away. It was like being on a road trip, taking a rest stop, and realizing a ways down the road that God hadn’t gotten back in. For years I tried to figure out how to go back and find him, haunted by a proverb I’d heard at church– “If God feels far away, guess who moved?” If God hadn’t gotten back in, it was my fault. (That’s how it works in Christianity – it’s always your fault.)

I never did find the way back. I went seeking for it but did not find it. I thought maybe God would do the seeking and finding – you now, flag down a passing motorist and chase me down – a modern version of Jesus’s parable about the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to look for the one that wandered off.

Apparently the expiration date on that parable had expired.

In the absence of finding or being found, my life made a slow motion U-turn from “with God” to “without God” and neither God nor I seemed to mind.

Years later, I had the most stunning thought:  I made that happen by not believing.

I know, duh. But stay with me.

Belief was the common thread in all of that torturing and law passing and philosophizing, also in my first believing in God and then not believing anymore. None of that happened without belief or lack of it. Either way, belief rules – by its presence or by its absence. God goes away if there’s no belief in him. That makes belief more powerful than God. I bring God into my life by believing in him. I delete God from my life when I don’t believe anymore. God present or God absent, and all the things the human race does and has done in the name of God – all of it depends on belief. Belief is more powerful than God – it can bring God close or send God away.

The Inquisition? Dying for lack of belief in Allah? Laws against blasphemy that threaten you with death by hanging? Laws against ministers and atheists holding public office? None of it needed God to happen. None of it needs God to keep happening. Belief made all that happen., and belief can take it from here. Belief does all the work. There doesn’t need to be a God out there, existing in divine perfection apart from our opinion on the matter. By believing, we rule.

I didn’t abandon God. He wasn’t out there, existing apart from my opinion on the matter, waiting for me to say I was sorry and take the first step, rev up the belief again, reach out to him and reconcile. I thought God would care, would make the first move, but he didn’t. Now I realize I did all the work, by believing or not. God was irrelevant, absent.

Hell wasn’t on the other side of death’s door.

My old man wasn’t going to come home and give me a whoopin’.

And Pascal just probably needed some time off.

The self-helpers and life coaches love this stuff about the power and primacy of belief. They’ve been telling us we can believe the Italian villa with the Lamborghini out front into existence for some time. But let’s not go gently into the good night of Napoleon Hill’s “whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” It’s dark over there. Belief has a dark side that poses a greater risk than Pascal’s Wager.

Let’s talk more about it next time.

The Trouble is, We Believe

Belief is something humans do.

Beliefism is belief metastasized — belief unmoored, unhinged, runaway, with no object but its own self-referenced purification.

Every belief carries the seed of beliefism– the potential to grow into something toxic, with no purpose but to propagate more of itself.

Which is why…

Belief is a clear and present danger.

Belief should come with a warning — “Handle With Care.” But it doesn’t, and so we don’t — we just go around believing things like it’s no big deal. What we believe is a big deal. We should be more careful.

We’re probably careless because belief makes life feel better. It provides purpose and meaning and mission, lays out incentives and rewards, hypes us into feeling inspired and enthusiastic, fired up to do great things.

Belief is how we get to act like God.

Belief is how we create worlds, build civilizations, found nations. Belief anchors us in collective and individual identity, defines who’s us and who’s them, carves out space for us in the world. Our brains are wired to value those things.

Our brains are wired to believe.

Belief is indiscriminate. It doesn’t care what’s believed, what’s fact or fake. As far as belief is concerned, all reality is alternate reality. Our brains have a bad case of “whatever.” If we want to believe it, they’re good with it.

Belief isn’t choosy.

Belief doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. It’s amoral, indiscriminate, undiscerning. Belief only makes self-referential judgments — what conforms to the thing believed and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish and ban.

Our brains don’t discriminate.

Our brains readily swap belief in this for belief in that — religion, science, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives… they’re all the same.

Belief is fun.

Beliefism is about getting inspired, believing impossible dreams, going for it, realizing your unique calling, becoming your authentic self – all those things that make Hollywood and self-helpers and entrepreneurial heroes rich and famous.

Sound familiar?

Belief has been king in the New World for 400 years. The New World brought it from the Old World, where it was king for millennia. Belief is America’s root religion. It gave us the Puritans. Now it gives us the self-helpers, alternative healers, life coaches, and evangelizing Christians and atheists. We do belief in the USA. We’re belief experts. We got it down.

But there’s more:  belief morphs into beliefism.

Beliefism is when belief goes public. It’s the Unicorn IPO, the blockbuster premiered. In psychological terms, beliefism is when belief emerges – moves beyond internal subjectivity and takes on form and substance in external human reality, becomes ideology, builds institutions, develops its own mythology and metaphors, becomes law and economics, dictates cultural norms.

Beliefism turns what’s believed into knowledge.

Beliefism is evident in a street evangelist’s pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” he said, “so there must be a God who does.” He could have understood but he didn’t. He took a shortcut – he believed instead of knowing. Then he reversed the order:  his belief became knowledge — he knew what he believed.

Beliefism is unethical.

Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and reality is whatever belief makes it. Beliefism has no ethics – it runs in a circle; there’s no outside reference, no checks and balances, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it. Belief is unaccountable, therefore unethical.

Beliefism polarizes.

Beliefism separates who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe. It manages entrances and exits, reinforces conformity, and punishes dissent.

Beliefism radicalizes.

Once it’s got a cause, beliefism takes it to an extreme. Belief becomes fundamentalism. If you’re not with us you’re against us. No neutrality. You go to the edge or you suffer and die.

Beliefism trends to fundamentalism

Fundamentalism decrees doctrine, prescribes ritual; banishes and punishes discourse, doubt, and dissent. It builds silos and hunkers down; lobs bombs at them. Fundamentalism can be religious or secular – same dynamics either way.

Beliefism practices mind control.

Beliefism runs on brain conformity – for the sake of personal identity and survival, for group cohesiveness. Cults are built on mind control. Every belief-fueled cause is a cult in the making. Nations, corporations, religions, academic disciplines, societal institutions… they’re all built on mind control. None of them exist if we don’t believe them into existence. The process of entering and sustaining membership is the same no matter what.

Beliefism lives in our blind spots.

Beliefism runs in stealth mode. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine what beliefism is doing to our perspective, worldview, reality — we just know the reality that emerges from it.

Beliefism promotes delusional thinking.

Beliefism removes belief from examination and critical thinking. Unmoored belief trends to delusion. You become a danger to yourself and others. Your risk/return matrix warps. You drink the Kool-Aid. You storm the Capitol. You flock to super spreader events.

There’s good neuroscience behind beliefism.

Beliefism works because we’re biological beings. We’re powered by hormones, chemicals, electrical charges. We believe from the inside out — our bodies and brains construct our reality from what’s around us, including how other people are constructing reality. We share perspective with each other and a shared reality emerges. We build things together to support and perpetuate that reality — institutions, architecture, art, economics, law, government, religion, norms and customs, rituals and practices, metaphors and icons. The “higher” portions of our brains dream all this up, the “lower” portions keep it rolling.

That warning label idea is no joke.

Beliefism has hurt a lot a people for a long time. It still does. It hurt me. It might be hurting you.

Maybe we should talk about it.

We Seriously Need to Get Over Our Addiction to Ancient Wisdom

Where did we get the idea that Ancient Wisdom is such hot stuff?

You shrug. You don’t know, you never thought about it. I hadn’t either.

An “ancient wisdom” Google search generated the usual 89 million results in 0.65 seconds. The first couple pages were mostly life coaches trying to out-reverence each other.

Lesson learned:  call what you’re peddling ancient wisdom, and you’ll sell more of it. (Remember the opening of The Secret promo movie?)

Not exactly the answer I had in mind.

Ancient wisdom is an assumption:  of course it’s better than anything we might think of on our own — everybody knows that! It’s better because it’s… well, because it’s… un, because it’s really old… it’s so old it’s… ancient.

Sigh.

We assume ancient wisdom will give us an edge – rocket us from clueless to competitive. I mean, those ancients, they had it going. They’re the Who’s Who of Law, Art, Philosophy, Religion, History, Literature… The ancient texts. The ancient ways. The ancient teachings. The ancient books. The ancient heroes. The ancient incarnations of gods walking the Earth. Miles and piles of traditions and holidays and customs. Wars, wars, and more wars. Greed and evil, corruption and cruelty, with a sprinkle of nobility now and then. On and on and on… Ancient this, ancient that.

Ancient is most potent when it’s sacred ancient, which is as close to God as you can get. God is old – really old, older than old, older even than ancient. That means sacred ancient-ness is next to godliness.

Sigh.

We’re so addicted to ancient wisdom that we’re blind to our addiction, which makes it hard to talk about. It seems obvious, like asking why we breathe.

  • We breathe to live.
  • We revere ancient wisdom because we breathe.

Or something like that.

When’s the last time ancient wisdom made your life better? I mean really better, not just “I believe this old stuff will improve my life” better?

Here’s the problem (one of many):  We think those guys (yes, guys – ancient pronouns are definitely male) were just like us, living the same kinds of lives, dealing with the same kinds of issues, so that what they thought about how life works can help us out.

Not so.

This is the time travel problem:  the idea that if we could zap ourselves forward or backward in time we’d still be us, the same as we are now, only with some adjusting to do — so if we time-travelled Socrates into today, the bedsheet clothes would have to go, and he’d need a shower and probably a trip to the dentist, but otherwise with the help of Google Translate he’d fit right in.

Not a chance.

Humans function in context. We feel, don’t feel, think, don’t think, act, don’t act… see, perceive, conclude, decide, and all their opposites… only in context. We happen in the moment because that’s all we’ve got. We have no experience except here and now, and everything about our experience comes from our brains’ processing what we’re experiencing. We take in all the external stimuli – through our senses, through spatial and subliminal biological connections –and our brains process it all internally. The amalgamation becomes “reality.” A little of that happens consciously; most of it doesn’t. To the extent we’re aware, we are conscious only in context.

Ancient context was different. Ancient people and their ancient reality were different. The ancient human consciousness that created ancient reality was different. We and our reality and consciousness are different from theirs. We are not like those guys. They weren’t like us. If we could ever meet – which we can never do, not even metaphorically or intellectually or otherwise – we would barely recognize them as human. They would return the favor. We’d both notice the naked ape resemblance, but common ground would be hard to find. Maybe after some who-knows-how-long acclimation process we might learn to experience a new, shared context together. Until then, things would definitely be awkward.

We give ancient religion special status in our ancient addiction. We re-energize ancient events and teachings, beliefs and practices, by the application of our fervent belief. By our belief, we invest ancient relics and rituals with living virtue — antiquity reconstituted. We think we brought the ancient back to life, but that’s delusional because our believe is also processed in context – our current context. We’re making up the experience in the here and now. We cannot do otherwise.

Which loops us around back to where we started:  if we didn’t believe ancient wisdom is something special, we wouldn’t believe its relevance to us. And no, calling something “sacred” and “holy” and “eternal” and “immortal” doesn’t help — it still has to be processed through our mortal, temporal biology. We’re not creating ancient meaning and experiencing it in its original form — we’re only creating this moment’s version of it.

The best our believing can do is to treat ancient wisdom as what philosophers call a “first cause.” If you trace everything back through some impossibly tangled mega-gigantic cause and effect chain, you eventually get to the place where you can’t trace back anymore, so you need a “first cause” that gets the whole thing started.( Once you find the first cause, you sound like a parent:  “Because I said so, that’s why.” )

God is the first cause of choice. You can’t go further back than God, can’t prove or disprove God, you either believe in Him (yes, God’s pronouns are also male) or you don’t. Full stop. Ancient is the same way:  you either believe it’s good and true and valuable and worth fighting wars and making converts at gunpoint or sword point or on the rack or in the Inquisition or whatever… or you don’t. Belief is what makes ancient relevant, but when it does, it only gets the current version. Even if sacred holy other ancient could get a pass, there’s no sacred holy other compartment in our brains to process it.

Suppose we could break our ancient addiction habit – what would have to gain?

Ironically, the answer might be what we were after in the first place:  wisdom – the ability to think useful thoughts about what’s going on around us. Consider the following passage from a Pulitzer price-willing journalist, prolific author, and general awesomely intelligent and articulate human being, taken from I Don’t Believe in Atheists:  The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist, by Chris Hedges (2008).

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of consciousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others.

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

Nicely said.

We’re not such hot stuff, and neither is ancient wisdom. We’re not so in touch and in control as we’d like to think we are — in fact we bounce around and mutate all over the place – and always in context. We do our best to push back the night, still the churning seas, halt the careening clouds, tame the void to make it less awful. It’s worth the try – the effort, however vain, gives us a sense of purpose, meaning, agency. But we’re not going to banish our limitations by latching onto ancient wisdom, because the latching process ultimately takes place only in us. We are what we are in the context of the moment, just like those old guys were.

A bunch of old guys tried to figure things out. So do we.

Chances are they were about as good at it as we are.

Which isn’t saying much.

Beliefism [7]: When the Good News Isn’t

Quick review…

“Beliefism” refers to the dynamics of belief.

Belief promises it can do the impossible – actually do it, not just make you think it did.

Christianity and self-help take the same approach to doing the impossible – following advice that originally came from Jesus:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Mark 11:24 ESV

Believe, don’t doubt, believe it’s a done deal, and there it is – the impossible! What if it doesn’t work? Self-help’s answer is to keep trying — which usually means keep buying. Christianity says it’s because the impossible you wanted wasn’t God’s will.

 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. 1 John 5:14-15 ESV

Even Jesus didn’t get a free pass on that one.

We know the story, and it’s as horrible, gruesome, ugly, awful as it gets.

Jesus is about to be arrested, beaten, whipped, and tortured to death. He goes off to talk to God — his “Father” – to see if there’s a way out.

 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39 ESV

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.[a] Luke 22:39-44 ESV

Sweating blood? This is from healthline.com:

“Hematidrosis is an extremely rare condition in which you sweat blood. It’s also known as hematohidrosis and hemidrosis. It’s so rare that many people don’t know it exists or if it’s real. But sweating blood has been seen throughout history. The Bible mentions Jesus sweating blood while praying before the crucifixion. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about soldiers sweating blood before battle.

“While these may or may not have been real depictions, hematidrosis is a real condition. Blood sweat can occur on any surface of the body. The face and forehead are common locations.

“There isn’t much information available on hematidrosis. Because it’s so rare, it isn’t clearly understood. However, hematidrosis generally happens when a person feels intense fear or stress. Someone facing death may have this kind of fear or stress, for example. When you are under stress, your body goes into flight-or-fight mode.

“But in rare instances, the flight-or-fight response can trigger the rupture of capillaries in the body. Capillaries are tiny blood vessels located throughout tissue. They carry essential nutrients to different parts of the body. Capillaries are also located around the sweat glands. In cases of severe fear or stress, these tiny blood vessels can burst and cause blood to exit the body through the sweat glands.”

We know how it ends. God was committed to Jesus’s murder. He didn’t answer Jesus’s prayer.

Some Father….

Its gets worse.

Jesus is Christians’ model in all things. No surprise then, that the Bible chapter Christians often regard as definitive on the topic of faith (the book of Hebrews, in the Christian New Testament) teaches that not getting what you want is Christians’ highest achievement. It starts this way:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 ESV

This sounds familiar. We see the mountain, we want it to move, but it’s still sitting there, big and immoveable. As far as we can see, it hasn’t moved, but we have to believe, be convinced that it will.

Mind over matter.

The power of positive thinking.

The passage continues…

“And without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6 ESV

To get something from God, first we need to believe in God. Okay, got that – seems pretty obvious. Then we need to believe God “rewards those who seek him.” Okay, got that too – that’s why we’re asking God for what we want.

And what are the rewards we can believe God will give us? The passage answers by listing faith heroes, and then we get these summaries of how God rewarded them:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:13-16 ESV

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two,[a] they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews 11:35-40 ESV

Talk about bait and switch.

We just went from moving mountains to it’s a good thing to get mocked, flogged, chained, imprisoned, stoned, and sawn in two….

The Good News That Isn’t

I never saw this when I was a Christian. I knew all these passages of scripture, heard them taught over and over and over, but never did what I just did – never tried to follow the “do the impossible” line all the way through. If I had, I wouldn’t have done it the way I just did. I would have kept to the party line – I would have patched up the holes with all the rationales and explanations, all the convoluted theology, all the hack sermons, all the spin on why not getting the “reward” you want, why getting something horrible instead… is the “good news.”

I didn’t see that because Beliefism keeps you in the fold, keeps you close, keeps your mind from asking too many questions. But once you’re out, you can start to think again. You can wonder what was Jesus thinking when he said all that stuff about believing the impossible into existence? And what was I thinking when I spent years and years living in this failed reality? Obviously I wasn’t – thinking, that is — I was deluded, under the thrall of Beliefism.

I can’t blame Christianity and self-help, or the people who practice them. They are what they are. What made them toxic for me is that I believed. I put myself under Beliefism’s spell.

But those days are over. I don’t miss them. I don’t miss trying to do the impossible. I don’t miss Beliefism.

Requiesce in pace.

Beliefism [6]: Christianity and Self-Help Do The Impossible

I was a Christian for two and half decades and a self-helper for a few years after that. Both had the same source code for doing the impossible. Jesus was the original coder and pitchman:

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

This is classic mind over matter – or more accurately, heart over matter. Ask “Where’s your heart?” and most people would point to the place in your chest and throat where you feel strong emotion. The belief that moves mountains is something you feel strongly. Plus you need to not doubt. Doubt is when you switch the channel to your intellect and wonder if it’s really going to work. Finally, you have to believe that the thing you want “will come to pass.”

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Mark 11:24 ESV

That’s classic power of positive thinking – no surprise that self-help is all over it:  visualize, use “affirmations,” create vision boards, keep it fresh by buy buy buying more books, classes, seminars, and conferences, and if you’re really serious, hire a coach.

Jesus, on the other hand, preferred to ramp up the emotional commitment with inspirational stories about being persistent (the widow who pestered the judge, the guy who pestered his neighbor, etc.) and about going all in on your heartfelt ideas (the pearl merchant who sold his entire inventory to buy one perfect pearl).

Let’s give this a try.

One night a circuit-riding evangelist told our campus Christian group we could use all that believing in our hearts, not doubting, and believing we had already received it to heal anything we wanted. I was nearsighted. Next day I put my glasses in my pocket and sailed out across campus. People kept saying hi and I didn’t know who they were. I felt stupid and antisocial, and was getting a headache. I put my glasses back on.

When it Doesn’t Work

Beliefism’s response when the mountain doesn’t move is…

  • It’s all your fault.

You don’t have enough faith. You’re doubting. You don’t actually think it’s going to happen./

As in Jesus’s stories, belief only has one solution:  go deeper, further, invest more, take a bigger risk. Belief seeks its own perfection through the elimination of doubt — that’s why extreme belief always  ends up as fundamentalism. Once you’re in, you need to get further in, and you can’t look back and start questioning, because that would be doubt. Trouble is, if it didn’t work the first time, it’s probably not going to work the third or the thirtieth – you can double down, triple down, quadruple down, but nothing is ever enough. You’re trying to move a mountain – or walk across campus without your glasses – which is something you’ve never done before, and of course you’re going to be wondering if it’s going to work or not. But as soon as you start wondering, that’s doubt, and doubt means it’s over. So cover your ears and eyes and plunge forward.

Rewind, repeat.

How much faith do you need?

Jesus makes it sound like it shouldn’t have to be that much.

“For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”[a] Matthew 17:20 ESV

Most of us have never opened a package of mustard seeds to see what size they are, but we assume from the context that a mustard seed must be small, so when it comes to believing things, small is beautiful. That’s how this advice was rendered when I was a Christian.

Nothing like a little false consolation on Sunday morning.

Start talking about mustard seeds and now you’re trying to measure faith. Christians did that all the time. “I don’t have enough faith.” “I need to pray harder.” “I wish I had more faith.” “I need to stop doubting.” Things like that. It’s crazy-making.

One thing is sure:  the buck stops with you. If the thing you want doesn’t happen, you fail. You didn’t believe enough, you’re doubting, etc. etc.

But there is something else you might try….

Schmoozing the Old Man

“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” John 14:13 ESV

“Be sure to use my name when you ask my dad for stuff,” Jesus advises, “he likes that, because he likes to take the credit for what happens.” That advice is why Christians end prayers with “in Jesus’ name, amen.”

But wait… we started with Jesus saying we could tell themountain to move. Now we’re fussing about asking.

Read the fine print, I guess.

One of Jesus’s disciples refined it further:

 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. 1 John 5:14-15 ESV

So if we want to be confident – i.e., not doubt – we need to ask “according to his [God’s] will.” As a friend used to say, we need to ride the horse in the direction it’s already going. This is Belifism’s second response when the impossible doesn’t’ happen:

  • The thing you want has to be God’s will.

The impossible we want has to be something God already has in mind, otherwise it’s not going to happen. Even Jesus wasn’t couldn’t get a free pass on this one.

We’ll talk about that next time.

Beliefism [5]: The “Do the Impossible” Gospel

Reality. Illusion. Delusion. Possible. Impossible. How do you know which is which?

Did that really happen?!

In 1983 David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear in front of a live television audience.

Except he didn’t. The statue was still there, it just looked like it wasn’t.

A magician manipulates our attention – we follow the decoy and miss the trick. An illusionist manipulates our perception – we look right at it but don’t see it. David Copperfield was performing as an illusionist – he didn’t change reality, he changed the audience’s perception of it. They only thought he did something impossible.  

Impossible can’t happen, by definition. The odds against it are infinite. If something impossible happens, the realm of possibility expands to take it in. The thing we declared was impossible wasn’t impossible after all – we only thought it was.

Christianity and self-help share the same “do the impossible” gospel. Can they actually pull it off? Let’s look at the self-help version first.

Self-Help Does the Impossible

Roger Bannister breaking the “impossible” four-minute mile barrier has become a self-help gospel trope. You can find a version of the following just about anywhere — I found it on a job website:

“Bannister broke the psychological barrier that had held back the greatest runners for over a century. Other runners now believed wholeheartedly that it was possible. It is no surprise then that within a few years, several other runners broke the four-minute mile too.

“For the majority of us who will never attempt to break a running record, the four-minute mile represents the limiting beliefs of what we think is possible to achieve in our lives.

“We tend to limit our goals in business, relationships, finance, health and profession within the realm of what society says is possible or impossible. But throughout history, there are a handful of people like Bannister, who break the limits of what’s possible and leave a lasting legacy.

“What makes them different isn’t their talent, skills or resources, but their belief system. They’d rather take the lead, step outside their comfort zone and risk failure, than wait in their comfort zone for permission from others to achieve the impossible.

“Followers wait for leaders to show them what’s possible. Leaders break the barriers of what’s possible.

“Which one will you choose?”

Talk about rewriting history to match your sales pitch….

Raise your hand if you think limiting beliefs and comfort zones and the rest of the self-help mumbo-jumbo was going through anybody’s minds at the time.

Me neither.

Now raise your head if you think all the other runners suddenly “believed wholeheartedly” that they could do it, too.

Me neither.

That was 1954. Roger Bannister was a competitive runner – of course he “would rather take the lead.” Duh. But now, we’ve got the four-minute mile self-help gospel memorized. Want something that feels impossible? The problem is your limiting beliefs. Believe you can have it, then go for it — break out of your comfort zone, take a risk. Ta da! – you did the impossible!

Don’t you wish.

Christianity Does the Impossible

Self-help has deep roots in Christianity – the original believe-the-impossible-into-existence religion. Here’s what Jesus said:

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

“All things.” Nothing left out. Carte Blanche . Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

Raise your hand if you’ve done the impossible that way, or seen it done that way — live and in person, in real space and time.

Me neither. But that didn’t stop me from trying for over two decades.

Reality. Illusion. Delusion.

The idea of doing the impossible plays with our notions of how much “reality” is objective — the thing is really there, whether we think so or not – vs. subjective – the thing is only there because we think it is. If we only think it’s there, we can think it somewhere else. But if it’s really there, well now that’s a different story.

Current neuroscience says it’s both and neither. There’s external (on the other side of our skin) stimuli coming at us, but we don’t have any way to actually find out what’s “out there” because our experience of it is entirely shaped inside the hot, wet biology of our bodies and brains (inside our skin). So people like celebrity neuroscientist Beau Lotto think there’s no such thing as delusion, because everything is an illusion – reality isn’t out there, it’s in here, it’swhat we make up inside ourselves. (Yes, there is such a thing as a celebrity neuroscientist, and yes, that’s what Beau Lotto is. For lots more, check out and his book, TED talks, and Lab of Misfits.)

I get that… I think… sort of… at least the part about internally processing external stimuli. But I still think there’s such a thing as delusion – especially if the topic is doing the impossible – mostly because I’m quite sure I was delusional about it for all those years.

“Then I’ll get on my knees and pray/ we don’t get fooled again!”

I became a Christian as the 1960’s rolled into the 1970’s. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and the Jesus Freaks fit right in. Their Jesus served up counter-cultural radical ideas like turning the other cheek (“all we are saying/ is give peace a chance”) and loving your neighbor (“c’mon people now/smile on your brother/everybody get together/try to love one another right now”). Their Jesus tossed out predatory capitalism and invited us into charity and community and trusting our “Heavenly Father” for food, clothing, and shelter. Their Jesus upended our assumptions about what was true and how the world worked, and taught us to believe the impossible into existence. Their Jesus was always sticking it to the Man and liked to hang out and party with the losers (freaks) of his day. I was 19 and ripe for a way to be a Hippie without being stoned all the time. Of course I joined up.

Eventually I cut my hair and got a real job, but stayed committed to proving that Jesus’s counter-cultural, new truth, do-the-impossible vibe worked in primetime adult life. I wore a suit and tie (!) to work, but still pushed the Jesus Freak agenda to the max, and might still be doing that if I hadn’t gotten lucky and got myself kicked out of the “church renewal movement” I was part of for doing exactly what I’d been taught. (A story I’ve told elsewhere and won’t repeat here.)

On the way out of Christianity, I stumbled into self-help. It lacked Christian ecclesiology, iconography, doctrine, vocabulary, and historical trappings, so for awhile I thought it was some kind of new psychology-based way to successful living – which is precisely what the self-helpers want us to think. But after awhile, it was all too familiar. “God” was often still “God” but more often “the Universe.” The Bible was misquoted in pseudo-Biblical sound bytes. Jesus was mentioned now and then – usually with the lame “good teacher” title —  and sometimes was completely reinvented — like when The Secret declared that he was a millionaire. And on it went. Before long it was clear that self-help was a wannabe substitute religion for Christianity. Its belief dynamics were identical. Like Christianity, it declared that doing the impossible could become the new normal if we just believed. Both religions claimed they could show you how believe effectively enough to get the impossible things you wanted.

As far as I can tell, Plato was the first one to write, “wisdom is what works.” I pushed the “do the impossible” gospel to the point where it finally failed the “wisdom is what works” test so completely I couldn’t make excuses for it anymore.

If that’s not delusion, it’ll do till the real thing comes along.

Now I’m in recovery. I’m done with doing the impossible. That shit is toxic to me now. I can’t go anywhere near it.

Next time, we’ll look at the beliefism source code for both religions.

Beliefism [Part 4]: Believing is Seeing/ Belief Turns Toxic

Believe your way into a new reality – visualize it, set an intention, create a vision board… soon you’ll manifest it! You’ll get the mansion, the corner suite, the all-inclusive beach vacation! That’s how life works – it’s the law.

So goes the self-help gospel, and guess what? It works. Well sort of. The world does conform to what you believe. You actually do see what you believe. Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and there it is – right in front of you.

Only trouble is, it’s a self-validating loop. You are in fact seeing what you’re believing. And that’s a problem.

Behold Your Algorithm

Belief works like the Algorithm Gods. You shop something online, now it’s all over your feeds. You think, oh come on, that’s so obvious. But algorithms are dumb, they don’t know any better, they just crunch the data. You looked at some ads, you must want to see more, and never mind that you already bought it — algorithms are slow to get to message. Our brains process belief the same way – they’re fleshy lumps of responsiveness. Once you believe something, your brain is on it. Get interested in that car and it’s all you see on the road — it’s the same dynamic, except once you buy it, your brain is quicker to move on.

Join the Club

The Algorithm Gods offer up social media support to keep you focused and happy so you’ll tithe that five-star review. Our brains have been doing the same thing for a long, long time – long before the Algorithm Gods were a gleam in some techie’s eye, since the human race developed language about 150,000 years ago. You tell somebody what you believe, and their brain zips through the dummy algorithm belief thing, and now there’s two of you with neuropathways installed and running the same outlook on life. Then the two of you then share it with a bunch of other somebodies who share it with more, and soon everybody’s brains dutifully line up and you’ve got a group, team, tribe, cult…

When communal belief goes viral, it consolidates, strengthens its grip on all those brains. They share a similar outlook, which creates similar experience, which reinforces similar outlook, and around it goes. All that similar outlook and experience builds institutions, creates cultural norms, myths, and symbols. Now you’ve got law, government, economics, religion, literature, history….

The process is known as emergence:  what starts inside (as belief) takes on external shape; the word becomes flesh and dwells among us until we share worldview and reality. If you don’t see it the way the community does, it’s because you don’t believe. Change what you believe, and you’ll get with the program.

Beliefism 101

I was immersed (baptized – literally) into this communal belief dynamic when I went back to college after becoming a Christian during a gap year. At first I hung out with my old friends in party central, but it  was boring, listening to Led Zeppelin when everybody else was taking hits when the joint went around. So I hung out on my new dorm floor, which was not a party animal zoo, and we got busy doing the non-party things you do at college.

I’d see my new Christian friends at meetings, say hi around campus, sometimes join them for lunch… but before long I got the word:  I needed to be around more. I needed to stay “in fellowship,” needed to sit with the pack at meals, that sort of thing. I was new at the Christian gig, so I complied. I complied so well that pretty soon I’d been selected to be “discipled” by the leadership, so I could help take over and run the fellowship after they graduated.

That was the end of my new friends in my new dorm. My roommate was a nice guy from Iowa, a serious student who’d lived — , mostly as a spectator — in party central where I did the year before my gap year. After I got my calling into campus Christian leadership, I became the Christian Roommate From Hell – never around, always too tired from being up late every night “doing ministry,” nothing to talk about anymore, always doing something weird, apparently too uppity to hang out and do the usual dorm stuff. It never occurred to me to change course – my new Christian life was too important.

Sigh.

Beliefism is the same, no matter the object of belief.

What I experienced was communal belief in action – the power of a shared belief system to control thought and behavior – what I now call “beliefism.” I have since converted back out of Christianity, where I’ve learned that what I experienced back then would have been the same if I had joined a different belief system (such as the campus Communists, which my roommate accused me of doing). Beliefism readily swaps belief in this for belief in that — religion, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives, you name it, it’s all the same.

Beliefism also doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. Reason and discernment only enter the frame once beliefism has built its self-referential judgments about what is reality and how things really work – that’s when they get busy codifying what conforms and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish or eradicate. They also start keeping a list and naming names of who’s with the program and who isn’t, who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe, who’s us and who’s them.

Communal belief and its institutions manage entrances and exits, enforce conformity, and punish dissent, resulting in a special kind of brain shutdown known in other circles as “mind control” as “brain washing” – terms coined in the Korean War and developed in the Cold War, when American fingers pointed at China and the Commies because we’re the good guys and we would never do that! Yes we would. We do it all the time. It’s an everyday, worldwide experience – it’s what happens to the human brain and to human culture when we build individual and cultural identity around beliefs.

Brain Shutdown

Beliefism shuts down nonconforming brain activity. There are some places we just don’t go – they’re out of bounds, they don’t conform. We don’t see them because we don’t believe them. Our mental options are now limited – like what was going on in the mind of the street evangelist I heard once who made a pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” went his pitch, “so there must be a God who does.” That was his proof for the existence of God, and for Creationism. He could have understood the complicated universe if he took the time to learn the math and physics, but instead he took the shortcut:  he believed instead of knowing. But then beliefism led him to take another step:  he started knowing what he believed it was The Truth, with two capital T’s. His reality was True; the rest of us unsaved people waiting for buses needed to get clued in.

He wasn’t in possession of all that Truth and Reality, his brain was possessed by it – his brain was running it over the requisite neural pathways, supported by the requisite brain chemicals. That’s why he was certain that he knew something else the rest of us didn’t. Being a decent sort of a guy, since he was now in possession of the Real Reality Forever and Ever Amen, it was worth lugging his amp and microphone to the street corner across from the bus station to tell the rest of us about it. He was there on the street corner to help us out, because part of his pitch was that if we didn’t get it right, we’d all go to hell. But the good news was, all we needed to do was believe what he believed and we’d be good, no problem.

The Path to Toxic Belief

It’s not hard to see how belief’s mind control goes toxic. Beliefism runs in stealth mode:  we see the things we believe and all the doctrines, ideologies, societal structures, institutions, and practices that support it, but we don’t see beliefism at work. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine the worldview our beliefs have created, or how that worldview creates and sustains our world. Instead, we see the emergent reality and accept it as The Way Things Are, Forever and Ever Amen. We believe in the things we believe in until we know them. And when we know them, we defend and promote them, we become faithful believers, we become evangelists.

At that point, belief becomes ideology – honored and held sacred to the point where the risk/return matrix gets warped and passionate belief becomes mass delusion and unchecked ambition, where belief’s communal mind-control becomes way too powerful for its own good — a clear and present rolling on, gaining momentum because there’s nothing to check it, no outside reference, no commitment to an external ethical standard, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it except its own good opinion of itself. Belief-as-ideology consolidates its power, crowns itself with its own authority until we’re left with only what is belief-approved – the standard, authorized version.

That’s when belief takes its final shape as fundamentalism and fanaticism, committed to the eradication of its longtime nemesis doubt. Power becomes domination becomes oppression, and belief opposes, bans, shuns, shames, punishes, tortures, and murders doubters and unbelievers. It becomes nationalistic and militaristic, launches campaigns of domestic and international terrorism and genocide. The faithful march off on the Crusades. They seek the purity of the race. They drink the Kool-Aid. They storm the Capitol. They repeat history. They replay the western civilization biograph in the name of the western God. And they call it all “progress.”

And to think it all began as a release of brain feel-good hormones in satisfaction of an evolutionary survival urge to band together and share information. We needed that, all those 150,000 years ago. We still do. Which is why belief still gives usa sense of purpose and meaning and mission, still provides incentives and rewards, still makes us feel inspired and enthusiastic, fired us up to try to do great things.

But now this….

Continued next time.

Beliefism [Part 3]: Evangelists on the Rebound/ Belief is Biological

Evangelists on the Rebound

Life without God offered plenty of substitutes:  self-help and its academic sibling positive psychology, “New Thought” churches that tried to make a science out of religion; Age of Enlightenment intellectuals, rationalists, humanists, skeptics who were determined to purge our thinking of nonsense, materialists who think “the meat thinks,” and an assortment of New Agers, vortex-finders, shamans, psychics, dietary supplement pushers, energy healers, kinesthesiologists, life coaches, “alternative healers,” magical thinkers, and miscellaneous gurus. They were a free-for-all of mixed motives and monetization strategies — confident, happy, friendly, an doften rich , And unlike me — the Christian evangelist failure — they  had no problem evangelizing like crazy. Part of that was a sign of the times — evangelizing was trendy back then, corporations were in the first wave of creating job descriptions like “brand evangelist,” which meant a salesperson on a higher plane –credentialed, trustworthy, cool.

Plus there was all this God-talk. In my Christian days we were careful about too much God-talk, lest we scare off the lost/unchurched. These Christianity substitutes didn’t have that problem. They were religions claiming they weren’t religions because they didn’t use religious vocabulary  — xcept for the ubiquitous “God,” which eventually morphed into “the Universe.” Free of old religion language meant they were free to carry on like that good ol’ time religion – for example the atheist group that met on Sunday mornings for music, teaching, and fellowship. Seriously.

One of the more fascinating new religions was atheism. I was just starting to suspect I’d become one of them when I discovered the “new atheists” and their “four horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett). I thought this will be great, these new atheists will help me with my new atheism. I sampled a couple of Sam Harris’s books, and they were ferociously evangelistic. They and the other atheists, humanists, rationalists, and skeptics I came across always seemed to be looking for a fight  – they were out to convert you. (One exception:  Christopher Hitchens and his book Mortality. I read it twice, and we’ll talk more aboutthat topic another time.)

I suppose it was like being on the rebound – having just left one broken faith relationship, it was tempting to bounce into another, but for me the temptation wasn’t hard to resist. I wasn’t ready, all that similarity made me wary. So I kept my foot on the brake, watched, studied, took notes. After a few years, I started to see that the issue wasn’t God vs. non-God, religion vs. non-religion, it was believing in the first place. Like Christianity, these new religious substitutes all started with things you couldn’t know, you could only believe (or not). The whole structure grew from there.

I was seeing Beliefism in action. As I said last time,

Beliefism is about the dynamics of belief –what happens to us individually and when we believe things in groups.

Belief always works the same way, regardless of the thing believed.

Beliefism 101:  Belief is Biological

If there’s anything we need to understand about belief, it’s that belief is all in your head. The phrase usually comes with an eye roll:  you’re out of touch, delusional. Strip out the accusation and the more precise version is, “At this moment, your brain is creating different beliefs about reality than what my brain and the other brains in our cultural context are creating.” Belief is both individual and communal, and it happens in our heads.

Belief is biological. We believe with our brains.. Our brains are cells, tissues, differentiated regions, pathways, circuits, hormones…. That’s where beliefs, ideas, dreams, visions, things we imagine, causes we support, ideals we embrace come from. They’re all biology in action.

We weren’t taught that; we don’t think that way. Instead, we think beliefs come from an alternate reality – Someplace Other that’s not made of the same cosmic stuff we are. Beliefs aren’t grungy like the here and now, they’re elegant and aloof, enduringly above the rabble. They have classy names like Mystery, Eternity, Heaven, Somewhere Else, Up There, The Other Side of the Veil. Beliefs give us Spirit and Past Lives and The Universe, the Eternal Soul, God and gods, Angels and Archangels. (Devil and Demons, too, which you’d think we could do without, but not so fast – the bad guys have their own useful purpose.)

If we’re going to have there and here, them and us, we need passageways and communication links. Trips back and forth (round trip for supernatural beings, one-way for humans) are invested with special solemnity, fear and reverence, and communications come with special zest and fervency – they’re not just more spam, they’re revelation, awakening, inspiration, conversion, flashes of brilliance and insight, dramatic impact. We’re taking Moses and the Ten Commandments, the voice from Heaven, the disembodied fingers writing “mene, mene, tekel, parsin” on the wall.

All those connections engage and empower us, connect us to Truth and Higher Power. They line us up with all the meaning and purpose that all the supernatural beings and ancestors and wise ones who live in that invisible realm of spirit, soul, truth, celestial glory and power are a position to offer us – all of them “up there” who “look down on us” and care enough to magically set things in motion to teach us a lesson or even give us a hand now and then. We want all that, and we’ll go to great lengths to get ourselves properly aligned to keep the channels open.

All for the sake of something that happens in our brains. All that transcendent, invisible, spiritual, mysterious realm that accompanies us through life exists in the spongy stuff inside our heads. Belief in God is generated by the same biology that distinguishes a tree from a toadstool.

Belief is biological.

Got that?

We need to get that.

We almost never do.

There’s a piece of lab equipment they call “the God helmet.” The lab tech puts it on you and zaps a certain area in your brain (the same area that’s responsible for epileptic seizures), and you have a religious experience. They tested it on a group of nuns. Their response was, “Isn’t it wonderful that God put a receptor in our brains so we can communicate with him!” Science can create religious experience, but nobody – scientist or not – can prove or disprove God or anything else that exists in the realm of belief. You can only believe it or not, and when you do, you bring it into existence. You become the belief’s God, it’s creator and lord. So, brain-zapping lab tech or not, if you want to believe it’s God making your religious ecstasy happen, you’re going to believe ii.

Most people like it that way. Too much “it’s all in your head” makes us feel small. We’d rather follow the grand tradition of dressing up the Other and what it has to say with poetry, and writing it in a book:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:  8-9

And then, having said that, we fill up the book with God’s thoughts, having just said we’re not capable of knowing them.

Anybody else see a problem with that?

How can we do that? Easy:  God and God’s thoughts both exist in our brains. They sit in there not far from each other, with highspeed wiring linking them together. Belief makes the trip from “I can’t do this” to “I can do this” in a nanosecond.

Belief becomes Beliefism when it grows up. We’ll talk more about it next time.

Beliefism [Part 1]: The Accidental Atheist

Seeing the Light

I didn’t mean to become an atheist. It just sort of happened until one day I checked the “none” box and made it official. No ceremony, just a realization. “Atheist” wasn’t an option for “religious preference” – “none” is less dramatic than “do you consider yourself to be one of the faithless, the godless, the terminally backslidden?” Well yes, as a matter of fact  I do, but that doesn’t mean I dash from cover to cover to evade the Heavenly Zot Finger. In fact, being an atheist isn’t at all like I once thought it would be.

Then and Now

I went to church when I was a kid because everybody went to church when I was a kid. After a year of Hippie wannabe partying my first year of college, I became a Jesus Freak, then a Pentecostal, a charismatic, an evangelical before there was such a thing, a fundamentalist although nobody would admit that’s what we were, plus I booked time in “nondenominational” churches and “parachurches,” and along the way hung out with Baptists, Catholics, Episcopals, and Lutherans. A journeyman Christian, we’ll call it.

The Redemption Story

All those versions of Christianity pretty much believed the same things, plus each had its own points of doctrinal purity that justified producing under its own label. Mostly, we preferred just “Christian” –our way of signaling don’t worry, we’re not sectarian here, we’re in the sweet spot, right down the middle, no other adjectives needed. The basic story was pretty much the same everywhere.

  • The human race enjoyed a utopian past when life was good.
  • But then we blew it. We “fell.”
  • In our defense, we had help – the Devil made us do it. But still it’s all our fault we’re so screwed up.
  • Before we get blasted by the heavenly zot finger for being terminally incompetent at life, we get a knock on the door of our “heart” (not the one that pumps blood, but the one that chokes you up when you get emotional). If we answer the knock, Jesus is standing there with an invitation back to the Garden. We’d love to go, but we can’t get there, not in our current condition.
  • So we’re going to need help. We need God to forgive us for falling, and we need a Savior to handle the necessary arrangements. That’s Jesus, too.
  • Once Jesus gets things fixed up with God, all is forgiven and we get citizenship in God’s Kingdom. People today who’ve never had a king in charge before think having a king is just the greatest thing.
  • Plus, everybody in the Kingdom is related, so we’ve got all this new family we never knew we had, with God himself presiding fatherly-like at the head of the table. There are definitely benefits to showing up for family gatherings and remembering birthdays.
  • Having a king means we’re subjects and servants – which people today who’ve never had a king also think is just the best thing – which includes being conscripted into the King’s army, which means we’re always marching off to war with the cross of Jesus going on before. Since our new King is more powerful than any human pretenders, that means we get to totally waste everybody who’s not part of us, because if you’re not with us you’re against us, and if you’re against us you lose. We have God on our side, after all.
  • So we go along through life and if things go as promised (they never seem to) life is better than it would have been if we’d never answered the knock (which by now seems a long time ago), except that part of the deal is that we need to suffer and be persecuted and if we’re lucky we might even get martyred. (You don’t get free grace for nothing.)
  • What keeps us going through all those trials and tribulations is that one great day (which is always going to happen any minute now and never does, but we need to live on the alert in case it does) we’ll have it really good forever and ever amen.
  • If you die before that day comes and you believe all the right things, you get the pre-opening move-in special to Heaven, unless you’re a Catholic, in which case you might need to wait in a giant waiting room for awhile.
  • Meanwhile the heavenly zot finger has been charging up all this time for one good last blast. Some branches of the family think we’ll get a free pass out before that happens and everybody else will be Left Behind where they’ll get a taste of what hell is like before they get there for good. Other branches aren’t really sure the world is going to blow up quite that way, even though we could do the job ourselves with nukes or climate change.
  • One way or another, when you get to your own end, it could be anything from “no worries, it’s all good” to “this is really going to hurt.”

Okay, so maybe that was a little snarky.

But it is a fair summary of what I heard and learned and personally believed for over two irretrievable decades of my life. Snarky gets old fast, and I don’t want to make it a habit, but it has its place. The pen is not always mightier than the sword, but irony and sarcasm can put things into useful relief. I go back to snarky now and then, like I did above, when I want to remember what it felt like to look around and wonder, did I really believe that? Looking at it now, it seems so complicated. convoluted, contradictory. Snarky is the voice of anger, and we need anger to tackle big challenges — like refashioning an outlook on life .that’s different from what you’ve been believing and practicing for a long time.

Snarky gains traction by fueling inner outrage. For me, that involved being willing to admit that I had some not so nice and friendly feelings about where I’d come from.

  • Regret and resentment about what my God days cost me.
  • Disgust about what the Bible actually says, and dismay that I never noticed.
  • A revulsion reflex that kicks in whenever I see Christian symbols or see Christians doing Christian things or speaking or writing Christianese. (My wife is a Jesus fan. She says I’ve developed an anaphylactic reaction.)

Regret, resentment, disgust, and revulsion keep me alert to the reality that there are consequences to what I believe. Feelings like that weren’t welcome during my Christian years. You weren’t supposed to feel that way – you needed to forgive and be forgiven, put it behind you, be grateful that you were reconciled to an angry God who had every right to punish you for that original Adam and Eve transgression.

Emerging from the Christian faith is hard.

But it’s harder to resist the dawn.

Impossible, really.

“It suddenly dawned on me,” we say. Dawn has its sudden moment when the sun finally crests the horizon, but it’s been coming long before — gradually, inexorably. From the first hints of light, it’s going to happen, and no holding it back.

“I saw the light!” Christians sing, describing lightbulb flash conversion– like the Apostle Paul getting blasted off his horse with a heavenly light and a voice from heaven. People who had “testimonies” like that had special status in the Christian groups I was part of – you were cooler if you got “saved hard,” as one Christian leader liked to say. So you would make the fish a little bigger and little harder to catch every time you told your own fish story. I did that — most of us did — like my AA friend who said his group liked to tell “I got so drunk one time that…” stories.

By contrast, getting unsaved wasn’t like that. No light bulbs, no heavenly light, no getting saved hard.

Just the dawn.

Debunking the Debunkers

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

The Who[1]

Debunkers believe we’ll be better off without all the bunk. If only it were that simple: the basic premise of debunking might not hold up, the “truth that lies on the other side of bunk is elusive, and there are strong social forces that oppose it. Plus, once free of it, we tend to replace old bunk with new.

UVA Professor Emily Ogden defines “bunk”:

“‘Bunk’ means baloney, hooey, bullshit. Bunk isn’t just a lie, it’s a manipulative lie, the sort of thing a con man might try to get you to believe in order to gain control of your mind and your bank account. Bunk, then, is the tool of social parasites, and the word ‘debunk’ carries with it the expectation of clearing out something that is foreign to the healthy organism. Just as you can deworm a puppy, you can debunk a religious practice, a pyramid scheme, a quack cure. Get rid of the nonsense, and the polity – just like the puppy – will fare better. Con men will be deprived of their innocent marks, and the world will take one more step in the direction of modernity.”[2]

Sounds great, but can debunking actually deliver?

“Debunk is a story of modernity in one word – but is it a true story? Here’s the way this fable goes. Modernity is when we finally muster the reason and the will to get rid of all the self-interested deceptions that aristocrats and priests had fobbed off on us in the past. Now, the true, healthy condition of human society manifests itself naturally, a state of affairs characterised by democracy, secular values, human rights, a capitalist economy and empowerment for everyone (eventually; soon). All human beings and all human societies are or ought to be headed toward this enviable situation.”

Once somebody calls something a “fable” you know it’s in trouble. Plus, there’s no indisputable “truth” waiting to be found once the bunk is cleared out.

“There is no previously existing or natural secular order that will assert itself when we get the bunk out… There is no neutral, universal goal of progress toward which all peoples are progressing; instead, the claim that such a goal ought to be universal has been a means of exploiting and dispossessing supposedly ‘backward’ peoples.”

The underlying problem with debunking seems to be the assumptions we make — about what’s true and false, what we’ll find when we sort one from the other, and most importantly, who’s qualified to do that. Debunking requires what cultural anthropologist Talal Asad has called “secular agents” – a species that may not actually exist.

“Secular agency is the picture of selfhood that Western secular cultures have often wanted to think is true. It’s more an aspiration than a reality. Secular agents know at any given moment what they do and don’t believe. When they think, their thoughts are their own. The only way that other people’s thoughts could become theirs would be through rational persuasion. Along similar lines, they are the owners of their actions and of their speech. When they speak, they are either telling the truth or lying. When they act, they are either sincere or they are faking it… Modernity, in this picture, is when we take responsibility for ourselves, freeing both society and individuals from comforting lies.”

I.e., secular agency is a high standard we mostly fall short of. Instead, we do our best to conform to social conventions even if we don’t personally buy into them. A sports star points to the sky after a home run, a touchdown, a goal, acknowledging the help of somebody or Somebody up there… a eulogy talks about a deceased loved one “looking down on us”… a friend asks us to “think good thoughts” for a family member going into surgery… We don’t buy the Somebody up there helping us, the “looking down,” or the “good thoughts,” but we don’t speak up. Instead, we figure there’s a time and place for honesty and confrontation, and this isn’t one of them.[3]

“Life includes a great many passages in which we place the demands of social bonds above strict truth…. [In] the context of some of the stories we tell collaboratively in our relationships with others, the question of lying or truth does not arise. We set it aside. We apply a different framework, something more like the framework we apply to fiction: we behave as if it were true.”

So what’s left of debunking? Well, it still has its place, especially when it’s used to call the Bunk Lords to account.

“What then is debunking? It can be a necessary way of setting the record straight. I’m by no means opposed to truth-telling. We need fact-checkers. The more highly placed the con artist, the more his or her deceptions matter. In such cases, it makes sense to insist on hewing to the truth.

“[On the other hand,] the social dynamics of debunking should not be overlooked …, especially when the stakes aren’t particularly high – when the alleged lie in question is not doing a whole lot of harm.”

To Play Along or Not to Play Along

When I was a late adolescent and lurching my way toward the Christian faith, a seminary student advised me that, “Sometimes you just need to act as if something is true. You do that long enough, and maybe it will actually become true” – which I took to mean that, even if you’re full of yourself right now, in the long haul you might be happier fitting in.

Maybe, maybe not. You might also feel that, since the things we believe are always in progress anyway, why not be real about what’s up for you right now.

“At these times, what is debunking? It’s a performed refusal to play along.… It’s the announcement that one rejects the as-if mode in which we do what social bonds require.”

Plus, there seems to be a countervailing urge that sometimes prevails over socially playing nice: when we feel like we finally got it figured out, the scales fell from our eyes and we can see clearly now, we can see life for what it really is,,, get to that beatific place, and you want to tell everybody, even it if steps on their toes – which it does, but being newly enlightened and detoxed, you can’t help yourself.

Thus the “as if” game becomes a choice: playing along preserves social currency, opting out drains it. Which do you want?

Why Bother?

There’s also the “Why bother?” issue. Debunking is often preaching to the choir while the unconverted stay that way – in fact, they never even hear what you have to say; it never shows up in their feed.

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”[4]

In light of all this cognitive self-preservation, not rocking the boat can seem like the more reasonable choice:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”[5]

But even if acting as-if is socially acceptable, sometimes you just can’t help but go after it.

Take “magical thinking” for example — a socially acceptable practice and favorite debunking target.

Magical thinking is based on a claim of cause and effect, and therefore offers a sense of predictability and control, It sounds scientific and reasonable, which makes it socially acceptable, but it’s neither; it’s faux science because you can’t test or verify it, and its not reasonable because there’s no logic to it, you can only believe it or not. The masquerade makes it a prime target for debunking.

Magical thinking [is] the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world. Magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world. Examples include beliefs that the movement of the Sun, Moon, and wind or the occurrence of rain can be influenced by one’s thoughts or by the manipulation of some type of symbolic representation of these physical phenomena.

“Magical thinking became an important topic with the rise of sociology and anthropology in the 19th century. It was argued that magical thinking is an integral feature of most religious beliefs, such that one’s inner experience, often in participation with a higher power, could influence the course of events in the physical world.

“Prominent early theorists suggested that magical thinking characterized traditional, non-Western cultures, which contrasted with the more developmentally advanced rational-scientific thought found in industrialized Western cultures. Magical thinking, then, was tied to religion and ‘primitive’ cultures and considered developmentally inferior to the scientific reasoning found in more ‘advanced’ Western cultures.” [6]

Recent converts are notorious for their intolerance of whatever they just left behind[7] and therefore the least likely to play along with social convention. So, suppose you’re a recent convert from magical thinking and someone drops one of those refrigerator magnet aphorisms. You’ll weigh a lot of factors in the next instant, but sometimes there are just some things people need to stop believing, so you’ll go ahead and launch, and social peace-keeping be damned. You do that in part because you’re aware of your own susceptibility to temptation. This is from Psychology Today[8]

“How many times a day do you either cross your fingers, knock on wood, or worry that your good luck will turn on you? When two bad things happen to you, do you cringe in fear of an inevitable third unfortunate event? Even those of us who ‘know better’ are readily prone to this type of superstitious thinking.

“Further defying logic, we also readily believe in our own psychic powers: You’re thinking of a friend when all of a sudden your phone beeps to deliver a new text from that very person. It’s proof positive that your thoughts caused your friend to contact you at that very moment! … These are just a few examples of the type of mind tricks to which we so readily fall prey.”

The article provides a list of seven “mind tricks” taken from psychology writer Matthew Hutson’s book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, and invites us to “See how long it takes you to recognize some of your own mental foibles.” Here’s the list, with abbreviated commentary from the article:

  1. “Objects carry essences. We attribute special properties to items that belong or once belonged to someone we love, is famous, or has a particular quality we admire… the objects are just objects, and despite their connection with special people in our lives, they have no inherent ability to transmit those people’s powers to us.
  2. “Symbols have power. Humans have a remarkable tendency to impute meaning not only to objects but to abstract entities. We imbue these symbols with the ability to affect actual events in our lives.
  3. “Actions have distant consequences. In our constant search to control the outcomes of events in our unpredictable lives, we build up a personal library of favorite superstitious rituals or thoughts.
  4. “The mind knows no bound We are often impressed by the apparent coincidence that occurs when a person we’re thinking about suddenly contacts us. For just that moment, we believe the event “proves” that we’re psychic.
  5. “The soul lives on. [Why] do adults hold on so stubbornly to the belief that the mind can continue even after its seat (the brain) is no longer alive? The answer, in part, comes from the terror that we feel about death.
  6. “The world is alive. We attribute human-like qualities to everything from our pets to our iPhones. We read into the faces of our pets all sorts of human emotions such as humor, disappointment, and guilt. If our latest technological toy misbehaves, we yell at it and assume it has some revenge motive it needs to satisfy.
  7. “Everything happens for a reason. The most insidious form of magical thinking is our tendency to believe that there is a purpose or destiny that guides what happens to us… For the same reason, we believe in luck, fate, and chance.”

Magical thinking is one of my personal bugaboos, therefore my personal list would be longer than seven.[9] Those things make me twitch. You?

And speaking of mortality…

Miracles: Magic Gets Personal

We can (and do) make up all kinds of things about what it’s like “up there,” but we can’t really imagine it any more than we can our own death. There’s a lot of research about why that’s so[10], but as a practical matter we have to imagine death while we’re still alive in the here and now, but to do it properly we’d have to be there and then — a problem that explains the popularity of books that some call “heavenly tourism,” about people who go there and come back to tell us about it.[11]

We want our heroes and loved ones looking down on us because we miss them. Losing them makes us feel small, helpless, and powerless — like children. So we draw pictures of clouds and robes and harps and locate them there. Childish? Sure. But preferable to the idea that “they” vanished when their body and brain stopped biologically functioning. Why we like one over the other isn’t clear if we can step back and think about it, but we don’t. Instead we’re so freaked about the trip down the River Styx that we follow convention.

For the same reasons, praying for a miracle that staves off death persists in the face of little to support it.[12]

“Writing Fingerprints of God, my 2009 book about the science of spirituality, gave me an excuse to ask a question that I never openly considered before leaving Christian Science, one that was unusually freighted: Is there any scientific evidence, anything beyond the realm of anecdote, that prayer heals?

“It turns out, the evidence is mixed. Beginning in the 1980s, we’ve seen a rash of prayer studies. Some seemed to show that patients who were prayed for recovered more quickly from heart attacks. Another study found that prayer physically helped people living with AIDS.

“But for every study suggesting that prayer heals a person’s body, there is another one showing that prayer has no effect — or even makes you worse. Does prayer help people with heart problems in a coronary care unit? Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found no effect. Does it benefit people who needed to clear their arteries using angioplasty? Not according to researchers at Duke. In another study, prayer did not ease the plight of those on kidney dialysis machines. And don’t even mention skin warts: Researchers found that people who received prayer saw the number of warts actually increase slightly, compared with those who received no prayer.

“The most famous study, and probably the most damaging for advocates of healing prayer, was conducted by Harvard researcher Herbert Benson in 2006. He looked at the recovery rates of patients undergoing cardiac bypass surgery. Those patients who knew they were receiving prayer actually did worse than those who did not know they were receiving prayer.

“In the end, there is no conclusive evidence from double-blind, randomized studies that suggests that intercessory prayer works.

“Prayer studies are a ‘wild goose chase that violate everything we know about the universe,’ Richard Sloan, professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and author of Blind Faith, told me: ‘There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody’s thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person. None.’”

“And yet,” the author continues, “ science has embraced a sliver of my childhood faith, a century after Mary Baker Eddy ‘discovered’ Christian Science in the late 1800s. If scientists don’t buy intercessory prayer, most do agree that there is a mind-body connection.” She also finds some connections in “another new ‘science,’ called ‘neurotheology,’” citing how the stimulation of certain brain areas can deliver the same sensations as meditation, contemplative prayer, spiritual ecstasy, and even out-of-body experiences. As a result, she wonders if the brain might act as a kind of radio: “Is the brain wired to connect with a dimension of reality that our physical senses cannot perceive?”

“Researchers have tried to replicate such out-of-body experiences, which are always after-the-fact anecdotes that cannot be tested. These experiences, they say, suggest that consciousness can exist separate from the brain — in other words, that there may be a transcendent reality that we tap into when brain functioning ceases.

“I am not asking you to believe that consciousness can continue when the brain is not functioning, that there is a God who answers prayer, or that people who pray or meditate connect with another reality. I’m not asking you to believe that all mystical or inexplicable experiences are simply the interaction of chemicals in the brain or firings of the temporal lobe. That’s the point: You don’t have to choose. Because neither side possesses the slam-dunk argument, the dispositive evidence that proves that there is a God, or there isn’t.”

I.e., she’s saying that the impermeable curtain of death means we can’t prove or disprove either the brain-as-a-radio theory or the materialist belief that when your body stops so do you. Thus we’re free to choose, and one’s as viable as the other. Obviously, unlike the Psychology Today writer, this ex-Christian Scientist is not a committed debunker. On the other hand, her reference to the lack of “dispositive evidence that proves that there is a God, or there isn’t” takes us to straight to the ultimate debunking target.

Debunking God (or not)

God is the ultimate debunking target (patriotism is a close second), and the “New Atheists[13]” are the ultimate God debunkers. They’ve also been roundly criticized for being as fundamentalist and evangelical as the fundamentalists and evangelicals they castigate.[14] That’s certainly how I respond to them. I discovered them when I was fresh in my awareness that I’d become an atheist. I put their books on my reading list, read a couple, and deleted the rest. I’d left the fighting fundamentalists behind, and had no desire to rejoin the association. On the other hand, I am grateful to them for making it easier for the rest of us to come out as atheist – something that current social convention makes more difficult than coming out gay.[15]

From what I can tell, there are lots of people like me who didn’t become atheists by being clear-thinking and purposeful[16], it was just something that happened over time, until one day they checked the “none” box beside “religious affiliation.” Atheism wasn’t an intellectual trophy we tried to win, it was a neighborhood we wandered into one day and were surprised to find we had a home there. As one writer said,

“My belief in God didn’t spontaneously combust—it faded.

“I wasn’t the only kid who stopped believing. A record number of young Americans (35 percent) report no religious affiliation, even though 91 percent of us grew up in religiously affiliated households.

“Our disbelief was gradual. Only 1 percent of Americans raised with religion who no longer believe became unaffiliated through a onetime “crisis of faith.” Instead, 36 percent became disenchanted, and another 7 percent said their views evolved.

“It’s like believing in Santa Claus. Psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Jaqueline Woolley have found that children’s disbelief in Santa Claus is progressive, not instantaneous. First kids think that the Santa in the mall or library is real, then they think he’s not real but still magically communicates with the actual Santa, and so on, until they finally realize that Santa is composed of costumed actors. “Kids don’t just turn [belief] off,” Goldstein says.

“Likewise, losing faith happens in pieces.”[17]

It seems fitting we would exit religion that way, since it’s the way many of us got into it in the first place. Yes, some people seem to have those Damascus Road conversions[18], or maybe a less dramatic “come to Jesus meeting,” as a friend of mine says, but more often religion just kind of seeps into us from the surrounding culture.

“I used to love this illustrated children’s Bible my mom gave me. Long-faced Jonah inside a yawning blue whale felt warm and right. My brain made these feelings. When we enjoy religious or associated experiences, like snuggling up with Mom reading the Bible, our brain’s reward circuits activate. Over time, religious ideas become rewarding in and of themselves. This is a powerful, unconscious motivation to keep believing.

“When I began to see my colorful Bible as boring and childish, those same reward circuits likely became less active. Religious experiences produced less pleasure. This happens involuntarily in people with Parkinson’s disease, which compromises the brain’s reward centers. [That is why] people who develop Parkinson’s are much more likely to lose their faith.”[19]

The New Magic – Or, maybe I’m just skeptical about skepticism.

But then, it’s common that having been debunked of religion, we transfer that same commitment to something else – maybe magical thinking or some other unverifiable belief system. Turns out there’s a neurological reason for that: the neural pathways that ran our old belief system are still there, so we just load them with new content:

“For many years I believed in both creationism, with a God whose hand I could shake, and evolution, a cold, scientific world that cared nothing about me. Because when we lose faith, our brain’s preexisting belief networks don’t dissolve. They’re updated, like a wardrobe. ‘Even if someone abandons or converts [religions], it’s not like they’re throwing out all the clothes they own and now buying a whole new set,’ says Jordan Grafman, director of brain injury research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and a professor at Northwestern University. ‘You pick and choose what you leave and what you keep.’

“New beliefs join the same neurological framework as old ones. It’s even possible that an existing belief network paves the way for additional beliefs. [Another researcher] has found that kids who believe in fantastical beings are more likely to believe in new ones invented by researchers. “I think it’s because they already have this network that [the new belief] kind of fits into,” she explains. Sometimes the new beliefs resemble the old ones; sometimes they don’t.

“Most non-religious people are ‘passionately committed to some ideology or other,’ explains Patrick McNamara, a neurology professor at Boston University School of Medicine. These passions function neurologically as ‘faux religions.’”[20]

And then, having been newly converted to our new faux religion, we’re set up for another eventual round of debunking.

Meet the new boss.

Same as the old boss.

[1] Here’s the original music video of We Won’t Get Fooled Again. Watching it draws you all the way back into the turbulent, polarizing 60’s — if you remember them, that is — and the tone feels eerily similar to what we’re living with today. By the way, who said, “If you remember the 60’s, you really weren’t there”? Find out here.

[2] Ogden, Emily, Debunking Debunked, Aeon (Aug. 12, 2019). Ms. Ogden’s Aeon bio says she is “an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, and an author whose work has appeared in Critical Inquiry, The New York Times and American Literature, among others. Her latest book is Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (2018).” All quotes in this section are from this article.

nk’ means baloney, hooey, bullshit. Bunk isn’t just a lie, it’s a manipulative lie, the sort of thing a con man might try to get you to believe in order to gain control of your mind and your bank account. Bunk, then, is the tool of social parasites, and the word ‘debunk’ carries with it the expectation of clearing out something that is foreign to the healthy organism. Just as you can deworm a puppy, you can debunk a religious practice, a pyramid scheme, a quack cure. Get rid of the nonsense, and the polity – just like the puppy – will fare better. Con men will be deprived of their innocent marks, and the world will take one more step in the direction of modernity.

[3] This social convention has been around a long time: like the Bible (something else we might like to debunk) says, “There is a time for everything under heaven … a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”   Ecclesiastes 3: 7

[4]This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017):

[5]Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017).

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica.

[7] See Volck, Brian, The Convert’s Zeal, Image Journal (Aug. 22, 2019). See also this Pew Center report.

[8] 7 Ideas We Really Need to Stop Believing. Psychology Today (May 08, 2012).

[9] Mr. Hutson’s list is based on “a wealth of psychological evidence,” while mine comes from my own anecdotal judgment that magical thinking has led to all kinds of delusional decisions and disasters in my life. The irony of using my own subjective perspective to debunk my own life doesn’t escape me. – it ranks right in there with The Who’s resorting to prayer in the hope they won’t be fooled again.

[10] Doubting death: how our brains shield us from mortal truth, The Guardian (Oct. 19, 2019).

[11] Like Heaven is For Real, by Alex Malarkey. Yes, that’s his real name.

[12] The Science of Miracles, Medium (Feb. 7, 2019).

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Wikipedia.

[15] What Atheists Can Learn From The Gay Rights Movement, The Washington Post (Apr. 3, 2013). Coming out as atheist is even trickier if you’re in the public eye: ‘I Prefer Non-Religious’: Why So Few US Politicians Come Out As Atheists, The Guardian (Aug. 3, 2019); The Last Taboo: It’s harder in America to come out as an atheist politician than a gay one. Why? Politico Magazine (Dec. 9, 2013)

[16] Such as Andrew L. Seidel, an “out-of-the-closet atheist” and author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (2019).

[17] Beaton, Caroline, What Happens to Your Brain When You Stop Believing in God: It’s like going off a drug Vice (Mar. 28 2017).

[18] The Acts of the Apostles 9: 1-9.

[19] Beaton, op. cit..

[20] Ibid.