People who know me well know that I think in movie clips. Growing up, movies were my literature, and I still find great pleasure in going to the movies. So it’s no surprise that whenever I want to illustrate something really complicated or important to me, some scene or character from a movie always comes to mind (often it’s from a Pixar movie, but cut me some slack; children have ruled my life for the last 15 years. Also John Lasseter is a genius). To show you what I mean, I recently started a short series of posts about which movie moments have stuck with me over the years because they do such a good job of illustrating something I’ve noticed, or learned, or experienced along my journey from faith to skepticism. Today I’ll start with the one that I think does it best: Toy Story.
Discovering the Truth
People often ask me what it was like leaving my faith. Sometimes they are asking about the social repercussions (there were too many of those for just one conversation), but other times they mean for me individually. What was it like transitioning from believing in God to not believing anymore? Was it difficult? Was it disorienting or scary? Disappointing? Sad? What emotions did I experience? That question always makes me think of the moment in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear discovered that he was not an elite intergalactic space ranger but a kid’s toy with pre-recorded catch phrases, phony stickers, and entertaining sound effects.
This discovery hit Buzz hard. As it was for most people I know who went through losing their religion, for me it didn’t happen all at once like it did for Buzz. For Buzz, all the cognitive dissonance and the shock and the emotions came crashing down in the same instant. Fortunately, leaving one’s faith usually happens much more slowly so you get more time to process what’s going on (sure would be nice, though, if there were more qualified and sympathetic professional therapists to assist with the difficulties that arise along the way. May their tribe increase). But Buzz’s epiphany illustrates this experience well in a short time.
One minute you’re defending the WHOLE GALAXY, and suddenly you find yourself sucking down Darjeeling with Marie Antoinette and her little sister.
Can you imagine what that would be like? Yes, as a matter of fact, I think I know exactly what that feels like. See, most Christians are taught that they are a part of a sweeping, cosmic drama with a story arc that spans all eternity. There’s a courageous hero, a sinister villain, an army of invisible evil henchmen, and an all-powerful creator orchestrating all events toward a carefully-planned and victorious resolution. In my particular version of the story, the church served a crucial role in the unfolding of this epic adventure, exhibiting “the manifold wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 3:8-11). It was almost as if the entire universe revolved around what was going on inside my own little world. How important that made me!
As a member of the elite Universe Protection Unit of the Space Ranger Corps, I protect the galaxy from the threat of invasion from the evil Emperor Zurg, sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance!
But then one day he saw something (in this case a commercial) which opened his eyes to the truth. He checked his sources of information again (pushed his buttons, then later peeled back a sticker) and discovered that they weren’t reliable sources of information after all. All at once the realization came crashing down on him that everything he was led to believe about his identity and his purpose in life was just made up. It’s quite a letdown to learn that the cosmically significant narrative which you were programmed to believe was never real in the first place. As it turns out, your own significance, while real to you and to those to whom you matter, plays out on a much smaller scale than you were taught. Buzz took the news hard. First came the shock. Then came the depression. Then came the absurd irrational behavior.
People will do some uncharacteristic things while working their way through the far-reaching implications of this change in storyline. It takes some time to get your bearings. It’s a lot like learning that there’s no Santa Claus. Something previously fun and magical disappears, and the loss of it can bring sadness for a while.
But for me, the sadness of losing a belief in the supernatural was offset by the settling, grounding feeling of realizing that you no longer have to cling to things for which you don’t really have good evidence. As a devout Christian you learn to tolerate the constant tension of living in a world that doesn’t operate the way your belief system says it’s supposed to work. You expend a lot of energy trying to make the world act one way while it seems fundamentally wired to behave entirely differently. You don’t even realize how much energy this takes until you finally let go of it. You take a deep breath, accept that the world simply is the way it is (it’s not “broken” and needing fixing, nor are you), and you learn to reorient yourself accordingly.
Buzz learned to find purpose again. Was it as grand or epic as the narrative he was originally taught? No, honestly it wasn’t. But it was real. The most exciting fairy tale in the world isn’t more satisfying than a story that happens in real life. Buzz had plenty of adventures ahead of him, and he had a group of friends with whom he could embark on his new missions. He still had a lot of cool gadgets and some skills that weren’t too shabby. His life wasn’t a waste just because it turns out there’s no intergalactic battle to fight. He found purpose and excitement and companionship in the real world. In the end he didn’t lose anything that was real.
Reaction from Others
People often ask what it’s like relating to others now that I’m “outside the fold.” There’s plenty to say about that as well, and a couple more moments from Toy Story perfectly capture two common elements of that dynamic.
I often find myself interacting with Christians who have never really looked at the world through any other perspective than the one they were given when they were young. They were taught that life without God must be miserable, empty, and cursed. They are wrong about that, but because they’ve never tried seeing the world any other way (you have to “take captive every thought to make it obedient”), they never question this assumption and consequently look on us with condescending pity. “I’m so sad for you,” they often say. Or better yet, they may say something like a guy on a dating website recently said to a friend of mine:
What a ladies’ man. Maybe ridiculously superficial derogatory stereotyping is a big hit with the Christian ladies, I dunno. I kind of doubt this level of condescension goes over well with anybody. But he’s only verbalizing without a filter what many Christians I know are thinking, whether they say it or not. I know this because they’ve actually said almost the exact same things to me on several occasions.
You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity. Farewell.
Pre-enlightenment Buzz said that to Woody, feeling sorry for his lack of awesome cosmic purpose. What a pitiable existence it must be to just be an earthbound toy, when you could be a part of the most important struggle in the galaxy! Buzz’s condescension frustrated Woody, who needed Buzz’s help to solve a pressing problem (getting home). But as you will discover, it is impossible to motivate someone to expend energy on a problem that doesn’t fit into their narrative. For example, just try telling someone who believes Jesus is coming soon that you need their help managing the natural resources of the planet, or that it’s worth the investment to research other planets or to detect asteroid threats. Good luck with that. Woody had to trick Buzz into thinking that heading to Pizza Planet would enable him to escape Earth (quite clever). Perhaps for some the best you can do is find some kind of common goal and use that to elicit their cooperation to the best of your abilities. At some point you have to directly address the faulty narrative, though. Until that changes, you won’t get a ton of help from them.
Jumping ahead to Toy Story 2 (one of the rare instances in which the sequel to a classic animated film was even better than the original), Buzz one day found himself on the receiving end of his own previous zealotry when he encountered a pre-enlightened duplicate of himself.
“Tell me I wasn’t this deluded.” Man, can I relate to that.
It’s an embarrassing thing to encounter a younger version of yourself. So clueless about so many things! Yet so utterly confident in his knowledge about everything! You can only facepalm so hard before it begins to leave a mark. Beyond mere annoyance, however, you often find that the younger version of you (who may even look older, but appearances can be deceiving) is on a mission. He has direct orders from Mission Control to bring you in. Resistance will not be welcomed. He will pursue you and do whatever it takes to coerce you back into compliance with the mission (“You’re breaking ranks, ranger!”).
In time, unenlightened Buzz will find another occupation (in the movie, it still required finding a way to trick him into seeing their goals as integral to his own mission). He will move on and find something else to sweat over, but it can be a humbling thing to see just how convinced of something totally made up a person can get. It’s like looking into a mirror, or rather into a picture of yourself from the past. These are educational moments, though. It should help remind us how religiously we used to cling to the stories we were told in our more formative years. Perhaps if we reflect on that for just a bit, we will work harder to fight confirmation bias and epistemic closure in ourselves today.