One of the strangest things about looking back at the past is noticing how certain I was about everything. It’s hard to explain, and people often have a hard time understanding it, but during the period when I really, truly believed, I was absolutely certain that I was never going to change my mind. I felt that I’d finally found the truth, and that could never be undone.
It wasn’t as if I was moving in line with a different worldview, more as if I’d discovered a new fact. People can change their opinions, but why would I ever think that France wasn’t a country, now that I knew it was? I didn’t usually talk of knowing, but that’s what it comes down to – I had special knowledge, and I couldn’t imagine that ever changing.
As an example of this certainty, I remember being told by someone with a “prophetic gift” (yes, I confidently accepted that as fact as well) that I was going to go through some rough times. I forget the precise phrasing, but my instant reaction was that this referred to a crisis of faith. However, the idea that I might ever have the slightest doubt was just inconceivable to me, so I ended up casting around for some other possible meaning.
Looking back, it seems ridiculous, but I genuinely thought there was no way I could ever doubt my faith, even though I just accepted the prophetic claim at face value. It all felt true – it really was as simple as that. In the end, I became convinced that something was going to happen to my wife (then fiancée), mainly because that scared me more than anything in the world, which seemed to fit the dire tone of the warning.
Over the next few days, I spent every free moment crying out to God. I stopped eating, and I didn’t even drink anything for over 24 hours. I thought of it as a fast, with the aim of asking God to stop whatever was going to happen, but it was really a clumsy, rather desperate effort without any clever theology behind it. I just knew that I had to do something.
Eventually, three days in, I got a sense that something had changed (more likely, I snapped out of it), and slowly started to eat again. But for that, which may just have been a basic self-preservation instinct, I think I would have gone on until I became quite seriously ill. And why did I do it? Because I got the idea, based on nothing at all, that something bad was going to happen.
Even after all that, despite that sense of change, I didn’t feel content or comfortable. I’d stopped because I felt that whatever would be would be, and there was nothing more to be done. The sense of fear and dread had lost its urgency and become less acute, but it was still there, gnawing at me. It faded in the end, but only after many months, and it scarred me badly.
When I have one of those moments when I start to miss the sense of certainty and purpose that I used to have, I remember this episode and remind myself that certainty isn’t all that great after all.
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Disc jockey, TV presenter, charity fundraiser, knight of the realm, and now alleged rapist and paedophile, it seems everybody has an opinion on Sir Jimmy Savile. Or as I suppose I should call him, devout Catholic Sir Jimmy Savile.
That probably seems like a cheap shot, but it’s not. I don’t think his religious beliefs have anything to do with his behaviour. But Dr William Oddie, writing for the Catholic Herald, was very upset last year that Savile’s faith wasn’t generally a major focus of his obituaries, calling it a “conspiracy of silence”. He wanted to make the connection between Savile’s beliefs and his actions, so it’s only fair to take him at his word.
I confess that I haven’t been devotedly following every twist and turn of this story, but I’ve yet to see any reports which connect his alleged crimes to his Catholicism. Despite that, neither Dr Oddie nor the Catholic Herald have uttered a word of complaint. How peculiar, when they were previously so keen to insist that his beliefs informed his actions.
Having got the sarcasm out of my system, there’s an important point here. People are complicated and their motivations are always opaque, but while religions try to claim credit for good actions wherever they can, they always find a reason (or more cynically, an excuse) for distancing religion from the bad things done by believers.
The church often claims the credit for ending slavery, while studiously ignoring the fact that the Bible endorses slavery and the church was content to follow that line for 1800 years. Philanthropists are claimed as evidence of the good in religion, while crusaders and inquisitors are simply dismissed as sinners or even liars about their beliefs – a classic No True Christian argument.
And yes, this works the other way as well. Atheists who are only too happy to point the finger at religion as the cause of all sorts of conflict and suffering will suddenly become very careful and pedantic when discussing certain well-known totalitarian atheist regimes. It seems we’re all much better at examining the details when our own beliefs are under attack.
Given that the vast majority of people throughout history have had a religious belief of some sort, it’s no surprise that religion has a mixed record. The problems start when you start differentiating between the positive and negative acts by employing different criteria for determining the influence of religion. It might give you the answer you want, but it does nothing to determine the truth, which is surely what we’re all interested in.
So don’t just accept it when a claimed association between beliefs and actions matches your prejudices, and don’t just dismiss it when your prejudices are challenged. Otherwise, you might end up looking as foolish as Dr Oddie and the Catholic Herald.
Photo by Bryan Ledgard, used under Creative Commons Sharealike License
Faith – how do you lose yours?
We all try to sustain our existing beliefs. We assess our experiences and new evidence through the lens of what we currently believe, and if we feel that our beliefs are threatened in some way, we find ways to defend or reinforce them. That’s not a criticism, just a statement of fact – we all do it, in all sorts of situations.
I’ve seen and heard plenty of cases of what could be described as people losing their faith. I’m not entirely comfortable with that phrase, as it implies that the faith was a valuable thing (which is up for debate), and also conjures up a strange mental picture of people turning their houses upside down looking for this faith that they lost, but it’s probably the best phrase to describe what I’m talking about.
Anyway, when I was a conservative Christian, I used to think that people lost their faith by stages, slipping ever further towards damnation down the slippery slope of liberalism. Then, as my views became more liberal because my conservative beliefs fell at the first hurdle of scientific investigation, I started to doubt that. I saw my growing liberalism as correcting errors and being faithful to the truth, not a step towards atheism. Given my current position, it’s fair to say that my later assessment may not have been entirely accurate.
There seems to be a well-worn trajectory from orthodox conservative belief, through liberal belief, to unbelief, with doctrines being abandoned, one by one, as they become untenable. But I’ve also known people who went very suddenly from a strong, conservative belief to atheism, without appearing to pass through liberalism in any way. They viewed their beliefs as more of an all-or-nothing package, so after an internal struggle, they changed their positions almost overnight.
I think these two ways of losing faith are described quite neatly in Lord of the Rings. No, seriously.
The steady slide away from conservative belief by rejecting doctrines for a more liberal or figurative alternative is similar to the defences of Helm’s Deep. Within the outer wall, there were a succession of inner walls. Whenever one wall was breached, the defenders could fall back to the next wall and regroup. They were conceding ground, and their territory shrank with every retreat, but each stage could be defended and would hold for some time.
Those who changed suddenly from orthodoxy to unbelief had a faith whose defences were more like Mount Doom. There were huge armies surrounding it in every direction, preventing anyone getting close enough to pose a threat, but if a single hobbit somehow evaded those defences and reached Mount Doom itself, it would spell disaster. Substitute terms associated with theology and faith as appropriate.
So there’s a split between people who discard their more extreme beliefs as they become unsustainable, and those who take the all-or-nothing approach of defending their whole belief system, and reject it completely if they conclude that any aspect of their belief is flawed or unsustainable.
In reality, I think everyone falls on a spectrum between the two extremes – some beliefs can be abandoned, but everyone has a bottom line sooner or later. I’m definitely more of a Helm’s Deep type, and I retreated further and further, but in the end, what finished me off was a line I just couldn’t cross.
So what about you? Are your beliefs more like Helm’s Deep or Mount Doom?
That’s a fairly imposing title, isn’t it? I obviously don’t believe in making it easy for myself.
This all stems from my previous thoughts about how tenaciously we cling onto our existing beliefs, and a recent discussion about what that means for how we should go about convincing people to let go of beliefs that are clearly wrong and potentially damaging. This is meant to be about the process, not the beliefs, so to avoid discussion of the rights and wrongs of particular beliefs, let’s say you have a friend who belongs to a group called the Bargles, who believe that black is white, and (because sometimes we decide to let these things go for the sake of friendship) that for some reason it would be dangerous to just leave him to his beliefs.
The question, which is one that I’m sure we’ve all faced at some time or another, is how to make your friend aware that he’s being led astray, and that black isn’t actually white. If people tend to cling to their existing beliefs in spite of the evidence against them, possibly clinging to them even closer, how do you get anyone to realise that their beliefs are irrational?
Obviously, there are ways of changing people’s minds, because no one has completely unchanging beliefs throughout their entire life. There must be something you can do, but when a challenge to someone’s beliefs can make their belief even stronger, what can you do if someone holds a belief that’s obviously wrong? Here’s my five-point plan.
1: Forget about a frontal assault. Don’t be aggressive, don’t point out the stupidity of this belief, don’t even criticise it in anything but the mildest terms. If he feels that his beliefs are under attack, he’ll stop listening to you, and in all probability become more entrenched in his position.
2: Be honest. Although it’s a bad idea to lay into him about his beliefs, you’re not going to fool anyone by pretending that you agree. Put your cards on the table, and tell him what you think, because this needs to be a discussion between friends, and friends are straight with each other.
3: Talk about his beliefs. This has to be a genuine dialogue, which means there needs to be discussion. You’re honest but respectful with him, which should mean that he responds in the same vein. This is more than just a PR exercise, it’s also about finding out where he’s coming from.
4: Explore why he believes that. If everything’s gone well to this point, you should be learning lots about what he really believes, and you’ll almost certainly have lots of questions. Why this? Why not that? What evidence have you got? As long as you’re still in a respectful exchange of views, this stage should come fairly naturally.
5: Ask what might change his mind. This, I think, is the important bit, and where you might be able to achieve something concrete. Robert Cialdini has argued that we want to appear consistent, and this is a weapon that can be used to our advantage. You can ask an open question (“What might convince you?”) or a closed one (“Would you change your mind if…?”), depending on what you prefer, or what you think will work better. The main thing is to discuss it, as specifically as possible.
And that’s pretty much it. Lather, rinse and repeat. Keep talking, keep discussing it, but above all, wait.
Of course, this might not work. I don’t think there’s a guaranteed way of changing someone’s mind, and if there was, I’d be unlikely to have it. But it’s based on the idea that people will find reasons to stick with their existing beliefs. If your friend discovers that the Bargles have been wrong in their view that the moon’s made of green cheese, he’ll most likely find a way of ignoring or rationalising that fact, to protect his faith in their other teachings.
But if you get there first and ask him whether such an error would make him change his mind about black being white, he’ll be quite likely to agree, because it’s only a hypothetical. If the Bargles then turn out to be wrong about the moon, he’s already set out his position, and his desire to appear consistent will make him much less likely to simply brush it off. That will make him more open to rejecting his previous belief that black is white, and especially if you’re still in contact.
There you are – I think this is a potentially useful way of getting round our natural tendency to stick by existing beliefs, but it’s untested and speculative. Please let me know what you think.
I’ve just had a guest post published on the Confessions of a Heretic Husband blog, about how I was drawn deeper into the church by the encouragement and support I received at a point in my life when I was feeling vulnerable. Heretic Husband’s got an interesting blog, and I’m sure he’d be very happy to see you over there.
I’m not really bothered about the monarchy. I think it’s a peculiar anachronism that our Head of State is decided by accident of birth, but as a constitutional monarch, the Queen has no real power, and when you consider the sort of people who tend to get elected as councillors, mayors, MPs and even Prime Ministers, it often seems like quite a relief that this is one position that isn’t going to be won by grubby political manoeuvring. But for at least one day next week, during the Jubilee celebrations, I will turn into a staunch republican.
Well, not exactly – it’s not that I change my opinions all the time (although I’m not afraid of revising my position if necessary), it’s more that I react more to the behaviour of others the more I’m exposed to it. I suppose you could call me a contrarian or a nit-picker, either of which would be harsh but probably fair, but I prefer to think of it as having a tendency to identify errors, and wanting to correct one-sided cheerleading for a particular cause.
So when it seems like the whole country’s supporting a particular viewpoint, I’m likely to be found in the minority, raising objections that I feel are underrepresented and generally observing that it’s a bit more complicated than that. It isn’t so much that my views change, more that the views around me do, and in the name of balance, I feel compelled to offer my own form of correction. I suppose that makes me awkward and difficult, but it’s just how I am. If everyone else was shouting republican slogans, I’d probably come across as a monarchist.
Of course, while that’s a trait that tends to protect me from particularly extreme beliefs, it also means that I very often find myself on the fringes of any group I belong to. Seeing (and arguing) the opposite point of view doesn’t tend to help in being accepted as a member of a group, except possibly a debating society. But if I can see any room for argument, I’ll argue the point, because I care about truth and fairness, and like to see the full picture, rather than just one side.
That has interesting and uncomfortable implications for my beliefs and my search for answers. If I tend to kick out against any overstated or overrepresented viewpoint, might any conversion to atheism be followed by a period of rebellion against the stance I’ve just adopted? It’s something that concerns me – I’d like to be able to settle on a position, and I don’t want to go through the difficult process of leaving the church only to sidle back a little while later, but I know what I’m like, and it seems a very plausible scenario.
Ultimately, I’m frightened of my own character, which sounds odd. But if my fears were realised, I’d only have myself to blame.
Photo by HerryLawford, used under Attribution License
This is something I was trying to write a while back, before putting it aside for a while because I got distracted by an idea for a silly parody which seemed more fun to write. I’ve been thinking a lot about children, and how best to bring them up. No doubt I’ll post more on this subject in time.
It’s often assumed that children are naive conversion fodder who’ll believe anything they’re told. It’s true that young children haven’t developed the tools to evaluate claims for themselves, they believe lots of things before coming to realise they’re untrue as they grow up, and plenty of people have stories of how they were brought up with particular beliefs before finally rejecting their faith as an adult. But even so, I think this assumption might be an oversimplification of a rather more complex reality.
I was brought up in the church, and was familiar with the stories and ideas from an early age. But despite that, I remember my confusion on being taught about the feeding of the five thousand at school, aged probably seven or eight. I understood the story, but maybe there was a spirit of scientific enquiry already developing somewhere, because I wanted to know how it worked, and I wouldn’t let it lie. Did the bread and fish grow back every time a bit was broken off, I asked. “I suppose so” was the closest I got to an answer.
The irony is that in a complete reversal of the popular view, I stopped asking difficult questions like that as I grew up and became more “intelligent” and “sophisticated”. That’s not the sort of question you ask, you see, because it’s inexplicable. Asking such a stupid question is like passing wind in front of the Queen. It’s just not the done thing. So I learnt to accept that there were times when I couldn’t ask the obvious questions, because it’s a mystery.
I was reminded of this recently by something my five-year-old son said. “I don’t think God exists,” he said to me out of the blue. That caught me off balance a little, so I asked why he said that. “Because I talk to Him, but He never says anything.” A basic argument, but pretty good for his age, I think, and a specific rejection of what he’s being taught on Sundays. Even as he said it, it occurred to me that in a few more years he’d have learnt The Rules, been told that God talks in a special way that’s not like talking at all, and this incipient curiosity and scepticism would have been suffocated with a pillow of imagery and nuance.
That’s partly why I worry about him going to Sunday School. It’s hardly pushing fundie dogma, and even if I left the church I still can’t see any likely alternative while my wife’s still going, but every week’s likely to weaken that instinctive rebellion just a little bit more, drip by drip, until it’s gone completely, replaced by an identikit Christianity. Maybe I’m overreacting – I’d hope and expect that he’d develop beyond his current rather facile line of thought anyway – but it seems symbolic of the way his thoughts are being directed, and it saddens me.
Children may not simply believe everything they’re told (which is something of a relief, all things considered), but there’s clearly a lot of truth in the cliché: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The ideas we’re brought up with don’t completely determine our views as adults, but they frame our thoughts, putting us in a mental straitjacket from which many struggle to ever escape. How many people find that they still live with various church-related hangups many years after deconversion? I think that worries me more than children being taught any particular belief or doctrine.
I don’t want my children to grow up thinking someone else’s thoughts, even my own. They should grow up to think for themselves, and thinking about this has increased my resolve to do what I can to ensure that they have the information and freedom to do that. I may not be able to provide a completely neutral environment, but at least I can offer some thoughts and a listening ear, making them aware that people believe all sorts of strange things for one reason or another, and that they need to make their own minds up. After that, it’s up to them.
When I was young, I naturally identified with certain historical characters, for very odd reasons. As a result of reading Asterix books, I found Gaius Julius Caesar a very sympathetic character. When I was taught about the Norman Conquest, I instinctively found myself “supporting” Harold Godwinson, as he seemed properly British, in contrast to William of Normandy. Even though I eventually discovered more about them and concluded on a conscious level that they were both rather unpleasant and far from heroic, it’s hard to shake that instinctive, deep-rooted sympathy and identification, and it’s never really left me in either case.
Similarly, one of the things that had a real effect on me when I first started to notice professional cycling was the thrill of watching Marco Pantani attacking on the stage to Les Deux Alpes in the 1998 Tour de France, beating his rivals by minutes on the day and effectively winning the race. Since then, I’ve become far more cynical about doping, and the full extent of the use of performance-enhancing drugs by both Pantani and just about everyone else at the time has become very clear. I know he doped, and normally that would appal me, but I can’t completely shake that initial admiration.
I think we all do that quite a lot – we keep mental lists (either conscious or subconscious) of people who are worth listening to, and people who aren’t. People we like, and people we don’t. People we agree with, and people who are wronger than wrong. It can be very useful as a kind of mental shortcut, as long as we’re not totally blind to it. If you’ve ever said something like “It might be X saying it, but he’s got a point”, that’s probably a good sign. But when those mental lists change, it makes everything far more complicated.
So having seen my beliefs change over the last few years, I’ve sometimes found it quite difficult to get my thoughts straight when my mental shortcuts have become completely useless. I used to be deeply suspicious of atheists and even liberal Christians. Once upon a time, believe it or not, I even found a lot of sense in the sanctimonious reactionary mewlings of Anne Atkins on Thought for the Day. (For non-Brits, imagine a well-spoken vicar’s wife taking four minutes to smugly explain why conservative Christian theology/morality is great and everyone else is just plain wrong, being paid per logical fallacy.)
It’s not a total disaster to have to think a bit, although it sometimes startles me to realise that a particular person is still filed in the “wrong” mental pile, but it colours so much of my past life. I have a huge amount of residual thought and belief which is the result of an automatic reaction based on how I thought at the time, so even when my mental filing’s up to date, it’s not straightforward. I still have a legacy of things I opposed because they were done by people who were on my “bad” list at the time, and things I supported because they were associated with my “good” list. Even my own past opinions can betray me.
So it’s a long road ahead to make sense of things and settle into a new, stable set of beliefs where I feel fully comfortable. Please be patient with me.
As Gwyneth Paltrow said in Sliding Doors:
If I had just caught that bloody train it would never have happened
I often find myself thinking in similar ways, thinking about how things could have been, and wishing this or that had happened differently. Losing my faith after pretty much a lifetime of believing has that effect. Not so much because I used to lean on God as a support I no longer have, but because I’ve lived my life according to beliefs that I’ve now discarded, and that change sends tiny ripples across my entire history, affecting how I relate to it and how I feel about it.
There are obvious things I’d like to have done differently – I wish I’d got out and done something more interesting than wasting my youth in a tedious, stuffy rural church; I wish I’d spent more time studying, instead of getting deeply involved with the Christian Union at university; I wish I’d avoided getting sucked into beliefs that were and are painful and difficult to escape from.
But conversely, however much I wish it had never happened, I can’t leave it behind. I have a huge number of friends from these sources, and as far as I’m concerned, they remain my friends, even if I think they’re mistaken about the thing that initially brought us together. And for all my regrets, wishing things had been different won’t change anything – I’ve still spent the Sundays of my life in church, rather than playing football or cricket. I still have to live with the degree I know should have been better – would have been better – if only I’d spent less time cultivating a belief I now consider deluded.
Then there are the things that tear me in half. I have some very happy memories which are now slightly tarnished by association with beliefs I find unsettling or damaging. And I’ll be honest – it’s very hard not to look back wistfully at the sexual encounters I could have had over the years, had things been different. But at the same time, I don’t know whether I’d want to change anything. Because, of course, I met my lovely wife through these parts of my life, and I can’t imagine what life would have been like without her. I can’t even seriously imagine wanting to be with anyone else, even though her faith is one of the scariest barriers to me potentially coming out as an atheist.
Finally, there are the things that have happened recently, which I feel uncomfortable about. I’m content – if not exactly happy – for my boys to be christened and brought up within the church, because there’s a tension between my beliefs and my wife’s, there’s a strong cultural element involved, and we’ve settled in a pretty sane, liberalish church. Something has to give where we have different views, and I can provide my own correction to any excesses. But given a completely free choice, I’d rather they had the freedom I would have wanted for myself, and were spared the indoctrination.
That’s both the pain and the joy of where I am right now. There’s so much I’d like to have done differently, but if I had, I wouldn’t be where I am, I wouldn’t have my wife and children, and I possibly wouldn’t even be recognisably the same person. The concept behind Sliding Doors, that one event can have far-reaching consequences through your whole life, makes it very hard to make peace with the interwoven “good” and “bad” aspects of my past.
Of course, it’s possible to imagine a potential alternative life, even a much better one, but I’m not sure if I want to, as it would be no more than fantasy, and would hardly help me to deal with the current situation. I somehow have to come to view my past as (to paraphrase Homer Simpson) the cause of, and solution to, all of my problems.
I sometimes find I can see a lot of sense in what church leaders have to say, and I sometimes find myself in broad agreement with Richard Dawkins, but it’s not often that I find myself agreeing with both on a single issue. This is one of those cases, because I really like Christmas. It’s hardly surprising that senior members of the church agree with me there – it’s a very literal example of a “Pope found to be Catholic” story – but finding out about Dawkins’ views seems to surprise a lot of people. I’m not all that surprised, though, because I seem to view Christmas in a very similar way.
For one thing, there are a lot of elements of Christmas that are entirely cultural and secular, if anything owing more to the pagan celebration of Yule and the Winter Solstice than the Christian festival which was later positioned right on top of it. There’s nothing particularly Christian about mince pies, holly or Christmas trees, for example, and even where traditions appear to have been started or encouraged by the church, their connection to the Christmas story tends to be tenuous at best.
I also love Christmas carols, even though I rarely find much that I can agree with in the words. Once you’ve taken out the implausible supernatural events from the Biblical account and the bizarre additions which are best descibed as “pious tradition”, there’s very little content left, but that doesn’t bother me. Give me a carol (with a few exceptions – Little Donkey and Away in a Manger are too awful for words) and I’ll raise the roof with my singing. I generally find I have little inclination to sing songs and hymns I don’t agree with, but in this case I find it almost impossible not to.
I don’t know why that should be. Is it because I value the tradition over the truth of the claims? Because I associate the carols with happy times of celebration? Because they’re familiar tunes which return year after year, forming the backdrop to Christmas celebrations for as long as I can remember? Because I only hear them at a certain time of year, so I’m always left wanting more? Probably a bit of each, but that’s largely guesswork on my part.
And to be honest, I find the story at the root of Christmas as unlikely and unbelievable as almost any in the Bible, with practically every element scoring a 10 on my personal WTFometer. I’m generally pretty obsessive about the truth of any claims that are made, so it seems very odd that I can enjoy a celebration based on a narrative about which I’m so dubious. Maybe it’s because the story’s so well-established in my mind that I can get away without thinking about it too much. Maybe it’s about belonging to a sort of shared culture. Or maybe I’ve been taken in by a romanticised Victorian idea of what Christmas is.
So is it a good thing that I find it so easy to join in when I find the underlying story so incredibly implausible? I suppose it depends on your point of view. Some hardline Christians and atheists might feel annoyed that I want to have my cake and eat it, but I hope most would be happy for me to celebrate an occasion which has always been bigger than the church in whatever way makes sense to me. And while irregular churchgoers who only appear at Christmas and Easter are hardly the sort of engagement the church wants, it’s surely better for them if such irregulars exist than not.
In any case, whatever your beliefs or practice, I wish you a very merry Christmas.