There were some questions raised by my last post regarding my brother-in-law’s dwindling faith. I thought it would be fun to make a new post regarding those questions included in its comment section and hope that Rebecca is cool with that. She begins with a question about the length of time it took my brother-in-law to realize how awful god was and then she asks about the difficulties people have in discarding their faith.
Question 1) I’m so very sorry to hear about your brother-in-laws struggles (they sound awful!), although I’m glad he’s edging closer to the “truth.” Still…I’m surprised… he never noticed, in his whole life as a Christian, that “God” is cruel/evil/indiscriminate? It took such personal tragedies to make him start questioning Christianity? Natural disasters, suffering children, other Christians’ difficulties, evil, torture, famine, rape, cruelty to animals – none of that ever made him question his faith or “God’s goodness” before? It just kind of baffles me, but I guess that’s the Christian brainwashing part.
My response: I can’t speak on my Brother-in-law’s behalf, but I do know how I addressed the repugnant cruelties so prevalent in the Bible and in the modern world. I read a lot of apologetic materials, especially Lee Strobel and Norm Geisler. They had a way of explaining things that seemed to momentarily satisfy my confusion. I also looked up to my mother. My mother, whom I love dearly, has always expressed how important a relationship with god is, and we usually attended church, more often than not.
I felt like most of the problems with suffering in the world could be explained away by thinking of it as a “fallen world”; the Armenian theology which suggests we are all under the curse of Adam and Eve’s original sin. Therefore, the suffering that occurs on earth is a result of original sin and not god’s doing. I bought into the whole notion that if there is no evil than there would be no room for god’s goodness to shine threw. It also helped to think that there would be ultimate justice when evildoers went to hell. I just started to look at it on a timescale. For example, I figured what Hitler did in his short time on earth pales in comparison to the eternity of torture he would endure. So, god really was the good guy in the end; it was just delayed a bit. The Old Testament is what really got me going in the opposite direction however. Like many people say: “If you want to make an atheist out of someone, just have them read the Bible.” I’ve read bits of the O.T. before but usually relied on the apologetic responses. Israel was a holy people and had to be sustained or Jesus would have never come. So, the infanticide and genocide were all ultimately necessary for the redemption of mankind. Nevertheless, reading the Bible made the wheels in my head start to turn a bit. Those little concerns in the O.T. turned out to be huge concerns later on.
In my brother-in-law’s case, I think it was a slow progression. One thing led to another and he started to realize that god just doesn’t seem to give a fuck. You have to understand that his dad is a Southern Baptist preacher, so he has been well indoctrinated. But, my brother-in-law isn’t the type to just go along with the flow, so to speak. He began to put some things together for himself and came to the conclusion that god isn’t a good god. So, to answer your question, I think that we all make rationalizations for god to keep him in the winner’s circle. When tragedy strikes, it was the result of someone’s lack of faith or sin. When something wonderful happens, it was the result of god’s goodness. I know it’s hard to probably understand any of that from an outsider’s perspective, but children tend to believe whatever their parents tell them. We were both indoctrinated from an early age.
2) As a lifelong atheist, someone who’s never had to deconvert or “give up Christianity,” I’m curious – what is so scary about giving up Christianity? Why is it so hard? (Maybe this should be a whole future post in itself!) Is it just the death part? (I don’t fully understand that, either – the millennia before I was born didn’t bother me; the “not thereness” when I’m asleep isn’t bad; I expect the “nothingness” after I’m dead to be fine, too. It doesn’t seem that scary to me.) So: Christians have to give up the idea of immortality… what else? You talked about the “emptiness.” Is this something that I, as an atheist, just can’t understand? Why do Christians hold onto the fantasy so desperately? I’d love as many things Christians are scared of (or whatever they are, whatever reasons they have for not seeing/believing “the truth”) as you can give. (There might be a poem brewing; call this my Market Research.) ;-)
My response: I think there are a multitude of issues with Christianity that keep people coming back. There is the group solidarity and cohesion aspect. Every time you go to church, you are acting as a supporter to each other’s beliefs which further ingrain them into your world view. This is crucial to keeping a religion viable. If you believe in an afterlife, you are going to be more prone to making sure you go to the right destination and are doing all the right things. I also think that people continue with whatever they were raised to do and think. Church is just a habit for many because it’s what you do on Sundays.
The whole notion of “emptiness” probably arises from the thought that we’re all alone in this universe. There isn’t a god(s) watching over us that care about us. It’s probably a negligible issue for those who have never believed someone was watching over them to begin with. It’s not always easy to realize that I’m not going to live forever when that’s all I’ve ever imagined. I used to put my trust and hope in that idea all the time. It was like having a crutch to help me walk with that has now been discarded. The difference between living 70 years, at best, and forever is immense. It just takes some time to get used to and put everything in proper perspective. Again, it’s probably not a problem for someone who never thought of the possibility to begin with.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject matter, and there are undoubtedly more sophisticated responses to these questions; Boyer Pascal’s book, Religion Explained would be a good place to look from an evolutionary perspective.