Transitioning out of your childhood religion can be a traumatic process. Nobody likes to discover, through a search for the truth, that they’ve been raised on a steady diet of bullshit. Some reject the discovery, but others, the ones who honestly want to know, have no choice but allow it to change them. It’s a process that a large portion of the population experiences, because we are not static beings.
To some extent I think everyone has experienced something like it…being forced to give up closely-held beliefs after a new discovery proves them wrong. So perhaps we can all appreciate how difficult it is, especially when the ideas that must be discarded were a source of comfort and happy memories.
It doesn’t help that those of us making such a transition away from religion are usually vilified by the tribe we are leaving, or that we have a different perspective from people who have never been religious. We’re sort of in the middle, still torn between reality and a religion that shaped so much of who we are.
I’ve noticed several things changing after I became vocal about not being a Christian. The most frustrating is that I’ll be in a normal, logical discussion with religious people, but as soon as they find out that I’m not religious, their entire argument focuses on that fact. Suddenly nothing I say means anything to them. Every response is some sort of passive-aggressive, self-righteous comment about how lost and confused I am. Of course, this doesn’t happen with all religious people, and I’ve had really good discussions with some of them. But it’s happening often enough that I’m starting to care less about getting along and just go straight to chewing them out for being stupid and arrogant when they treat me or other non-believers that way.
There’s also a common idea that life is meaningless without an afterlife or a god to believe in. Honestly, that’s putting it backward; if there’s an eternal afterlife, why does this temporary physical existence matter? Plenty of religious people have had that idea, which is how we get groups like Heaven’s Gate, Peoples Temple, violent Islamic terrorists, and other people who either hate this world or are enamored with a paradise afterlife, or both. Even normal Christians have told me that nothing matters other than believing in Jesus. The way it comes across is this: “Your life and opinions are meaningless unless you validate my opinions by agreeing with my religion.” Really, the lack of an afterlife would make this world more valuable, not less. Their heaven is a perfect basis for concluding that our temporary existence on Earth is, in the big picture, worth very little, so it’s no surprise that extremists with little regard for human life generally come out of religions that emphasize an eternal paradise.
One of the particularly troubling aspects of Christianity, which was partly responsible for my “deconversion”, is an opposition to intelligence and logic. I know I’m highly intelligent; it’s easy for me to learn new things, and I remember them well. This has caused some conflict, especially because I’m an idiot when it comes to social interaction and I sometimes sound condescending without realizing it. But setting my own autistic fumbles aside, many debates I have with Christians end with them attacking intelligence and logic. I wrote about one such event just over a year ago. I’ve been told personally that my intellect is “working against any hope of eternal salvation”, and I’ve gotten many more subtle comments about how my intelligence is a dangerous thing that’ll keep me away from god if I’m not careful. They would rather have me ignore facts, throw out logic, and treat my own ability to reason as an enemy.
How can such an approach ever lead to truth? By keeping your mind open to new ideas, you face the possibility of seeing the facts from a new perspective, and it’s in this light that the flaws in what you believe become more visible. But some people refuse to consider that they could be wrong, and focus so obsessively on the flaws of others that they end up projecting their own. It’s astounding how often I see Christians denouncing an idea or action while exhibiting the very flaw they are attacking. One common example is those who fight to prevent gay people from getting married, and then complain about how their own freedoms are being restricted. They want to restrict the freedoms of others, and when they are prevented from doing so, they project their oppressive attitude onto their enemies and turn themselves into victims.
I’ve come across the exact same gambit in many conversations with Christians on a wide variety of subjects. Some have insisted that my goal is to force everyone to live according to my beliefs, even as they argue that their beliefs should be made into laws, even as I tell them repeatedly that I want everyone to have the freedom to follow their own beliefs. Some have clearly contradicted themselves and then accused me of being inconsistent. Some have been very rude, insulting me and my friends, and when I called them out on it they tried to twist the situation to make themselves the victim, and claimed I was attacking them for no reason. Some have condemned me for thinking I know absolute truth and thinking I’m never wrong, while at the same time they claim to know that their bible is absolute truth, and have never conceded that they were wrong even when confronted with solid proof.
This sort of projection is certainly not limited to Christians, but I think the nature of religion makes a great environment for it to flourish. After all, just look at the relationship between the extreme factions of two opposing religions (say, Christian Reconstructionists vs. militant Islamists). Both think the other is evil, both think the other wants to take over the world, and both think they should stop the other from taking over the world…by taking over the world. This primitive, war-mongering mindset is found wherever people form tribes and refuse to accept those who are different, but nowhere is it so powerful and damaging as in religion. It tears apart families, it breaks up nations, it sets billions of people around the world against each other, for no reason beyond fanatical devotion to invisible gods.
Even the more moderate Christianity based solely on the New Testament has the same problem. Jesus gave Christians a perfect excuse for attacking people who are different from them: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-37)
He also made it clear that not a single Old Testament law should be disregarded, which is why Christian Reconstructionists believe they need to take over the government and institute the death penalty for gay people, women who can’t prove they’re virgins on their wedding night, and anyone who follows a different religion. Or rather, they would if they were consistent. Even the most hardcore believers in Old Testament laws seem to have better moral sense than their god and find a way to disregard the ludicrous bits.
Religion is all about control. You are encouraged to value your ancient scripture and its god above anything else in existence, and by extension, to value your own opinions (or the teaching of your church) above the well-being of other people. Every time someone shirks responsibility for their hurtful words by saying “that’s what the bible says, I’m just saying the truth, you can take it up with god”, what they’re really saying is “my opinion of the bible is correct, so I’m justified in using it to hurt people.”
There is no ideology that is untouched by personal bias. You cannot follow the bible or any other book as a source of ultimate truth without first deciding it is trustworthy, and you cannot claim it says something without first deciding that you have the correct interpretation. It all starts with your own mind. And while it’s good to distrust your own bias, you can’t disregard intelligence and reason, because without them you would be incapable of any ideas or beliefs. The Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen said, “Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principles that they are laboring to dethrone: but if they argue without reason (which, in order to be consistent with themselves they must do), they are out of reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument.”
The only purpose for denigrating intelligence or logic is to cover up the inadequacy of your beliefs. The goal of such arguments is painfully transparent; if I would give up on my “god-given” reason and turn against my own intelligence, then their religion could keep me enslaved to its nonsensical precepts. Sorry, I’ve already been there and it was a waste of time and energy. If an ideology can’t stand up to logical scrutiny, it has no credible claim to truth.