It is my contention that leaving Christianity is an emotional victory, not primarily an intellectual one. The day I finally closed the door on nearly 30 years of Christianity was a moment full of both exhilaration and fear, joy and grief, clarity and confusion; it laid the foundation for a wonderful process of healing, integration, taking responsibility, and engaging more fully with my life and the people in it than ever before. And intellectual reasoning was not the main thing that got me over the line.
You don’t have to be a genius to realise there is no God.
In a certain sense, the fact that there is no God is so blindingly obvious that no sophisticated intellectual argument is really needed to dispense with the belief. Ouch. This important point cuts both ways - for believers and atheists alike. I see too many self-proclaimed “atheists” believing themselves to be intellectually superior to all the “stupid” believers out there. But what cause is there for arrogance?
Being arrogant because you disbelieve in God makes about as much sense as being arrogant because you know the Earth is round - both are important facts, but neither takes any special intelligence to acknowledge.
Am I saying that Christianity is stupid? No. Christianity can be made as stupid or as intellectually sophisticated as you like - and therein lies the problem. The basic premise - the concept of “God” - has been thoroughly discredited by now, and certainly rendered quite unnecessary in the light of scientific understanding and the successes of secular society. But that doesn’t mean you can’t build an edifice of supremely complex thought (e.g. theology, Biblical studies) on top of what is essentially a silly idea.
So why do intelligent people believe in God? Generally, for the same reasons stupid people do.
The psychology of belief is a vast area of research that I am only beginning to dip into. But let me relate a bit of my own story by way of illustrating some of the central pillars that support a belief in the Christian God, long after it makes any rational sense to continue.
First, there is childhood indoctrination. Children seem to be wired to believe whatever is told to them by authority figures, particularly their own parents. The constant round of church-going, Bible-reading, prayer-making and song-singing is a massively powerful influence on a young developing mind. Children can become habituated to just about anything, including utter nonsense, and I found this influence supremely difficult to uproot later in life.
A related pillar is what I would call the infantilising effect of religion, or “making sure grownups live as spiritual babies”. Praying to our “Father” God, handing all our troubles to “Him”, asking Him for “guidance” in every decision in our lives - all of these are mechanisms of infantilization. I wanted to have the “blueprint” handed to me, readymade, instead of facing up to the necessity of creating my own meaning in life.
The community or bubble effect. The philosopher Daniel Dennett once described a trick you can do with a bunch of people each sitting on one another’s laps - this only becomes self-supporting when the people form a closed circle. “The circle of mutual self-supporting” is a phrase I think you could well use to describe religious communities. This is the mutually-reinforcing power of “so-and-so believes it, and I respect them, so it must be true”. The churches I attended ensured that just about everyone I knew was a Christian. Practically all the activities I had time for were with other Christian people. I didn’t even feel a particular need to make friends outside of this circle, because the church made it so easy to meet “nice, Christian” people just like myself. And so the bubble persisted. I started thinking that non-Christians must be terribly sad, depressed, lonely, “lost without God” - despite all the clear evidence to the contrary.
Then there is the power of fear. For me, this took the form of fear of punishment (hell), of meaninglessness (how could life make any sense without faith?), of thinking outside of the herd, of losing friends, of losing disapproval of the group, etc.
A seldom-considered psychological pillar of belief is aversion to admitting we were wrong. This becomes pertinent if you have been a believer for a long time. It gets even worse if you were very committed, considered yourself an intellectual Christian, or spent a lot of time convincing others of the truth of Christianity. The ultimate worst would be if you were a pastor or leader of some sort. I, like most others, prefer to think of myself as reasonably intelligent and immune to at least the more obvious self-delusions out there. Which makes it so hard to say, “Oops - you know that thing I’ve been believing, and trying to convince you of for the last 20 years or so? Well, uh, I was wrong. Sorry.”
When the doubts got strong, I even found myself cultivating a weird self-flagellating glorification of confusion, where I imagined I was heroically “dealing” with the deepest existential battles. This is the sublimation of the ridiculous: I could hold on to faith as not-knowing, not-understanding, in spite of the suffering which must, somehow, be for my own good. It is a bit like staying with an abusive partner! I could see my struggle with doubt as some kind of “dark night of the soul”, which can even pass into a weird feeling of self-transcendence or self-abnegation which can feel like spiritual progress. There is something interesting in such experiences, no doubt, but we need to pick our spiritual battles carefully - no need for “great faith” when battling one’s doubts in the existence of the Easter Bunny, for example. So why torment yourself over Christianity?
I sometimes think it can be even harder for intellectual types to break out of Christianity, because they have so many intellectual resources to argue their way out of trouble. Debating skills can be put in the service of the most dazzling defences of utter nonsense (Intelligent Design, anyone?). Obscure theologians and semantic gymnastics can be hauled out to turn the most barbaric of belief systems into a seemingly-sophisticated religion worthy of respect. The powers of compartmentalisation allow people with fully functional bullshit-detectors (in every other area of their lives) to persist in believing fairytales for adults.
At the time of my final “deconversion”, I had just gone through a series of severe personal difficulties. These included: having my first child, financial difficulties, severe illness (myself, my baby, my spouse) and some family troubles. In parallel with these developments, I had been seriously re-investigating aspects of theology, Biblical history, philosophy, science, etc. and had been reading extensively on these subjects. Intellectually, I had gone through a long journey from fundamentalism to liberal/progressive Christianity and it was becoming clear to me that there wasn’t much left that was worth taking seriously.
But the intellectual stuff was really an excuse to not face the reality of my own life. Seeing all that had happened to me, I so desperately wanted to have the comfort of “knowing” that God was in control, etc. but it was becoming increasingly clear to me that this was just a crutch. I remember one night, my wife and I were discussing all that had happened, and the question arose, “Why is God allowing this to happen?” In a moment, we knew the answer: He isn’t. Because He doesn’t exist. Suddenly, it all made perfect sense.
And, wonderfully, throwing away those crutches I found that I could actually walk. Even better, I realised I had been capable of walking all along.
Ex-believers can know a special joy, that of realising that in all those dark times when you prayed for “God” to help you, and He “answered” your prayers - that was you all along. You did it, all by yourself. You had the strength to get through things, even the worst experiences of your life. You talked yourself into not giving up. You were the one who gave comfort, who did what needed to be done. What feels like a loss, initially - “So God wasn’t there for me all this time?” - becomes an amazing “testimony” to oneself of one’s own ability and fortitude, and an occasion for deep gratitude for the help given by fellow human beings. This is both a motivation and a sobering realisation. As Spiderman said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Scepticism, honest research, consulting the most knowledgeable sources, reading carefully, debating, etc. are all important tasks, especially if intellectual arguments are part of our self-delusion. We need to follow “wherever the evidence leads”, even if what we discover is going to hurt. But it is that place of hurt and fear, the place we’re trying to avoid, where we need to do battle. The intellectual arguments may help get us there, but we need the psychological strength to face up to our fears to get “through” to liberation.
So how do we help others get free? By all means, have the debates, do the research, make the arguments... But as ex-Christians we need to learn share our emotional stories, show compassion, comfort others, and ultimately help fellow human beings to face the fears that we have known, and overcome, in our own lives.
We need to come alongside others as they walk this path, helping them through the potential rejection, confusion and grief that can accompany “deconversion”. And point them to the freedom, joy and deep appreciation of life that awaits on the other side.