Imagine if a parent said this to you:
I’ve got a ten-year-old son. I love him very dearly. Today I’m planning to backhand him in the face. He’ll ask “Why did you do that, Mother?” But he needs to figure this stuff out on his own, so I won’t tell him that it’s because I overheard him saying disrespectful things about his school bus driver. He’ll probably spend a few days agonizing over why I struck him, and he’ll go through several explanations. He might not even figure out that the discipline has to do with the bus driver at all. But it’ll make him extra careful to be nice to the bus driver, I’m certain. Eventually. He’ll be so scared of another backhand he’ll be on EXTRA good behavior for a while, that’s for sure! Discipline’s vitally important, so next week I’m planning to set fire to his room because I just found out he’s pulling girls’ hair at recess. I do hope he figures out why this time.
You’d rightly think that parent is absolutely insane, not to mention abusive.
But plenty of Christians go through this same thinking every single time something happens to them. They try to figure out what the message is, like every unusual thing that occurs in their lives is some sort of omen or portent communicating their god’s pleasure or displeasure with them. Not even Hellenic pagans care this much about analyzing signs!
Sometimes it’s very easy for a child to see a cause and effect relationship. The favorite rationalization I’ve heard from Christians is comparing their god’s completely bewildering, inconsistent, disproportional “messages” to a parent letting a child put its hand on a hot stove burner. I’m from a Southern family, and that was actually a lot of my dad’s parenting style–“Let ‘er play with the electrical socket! She’ll fritz her hair and learn not to touch them dang ol’ sockets anymore!” And generally speaking, I learned quickly from such object lessons.
But the “message” from most events is maddeningly difficult to discern. Did you fail to get that job because you badmouthed the pastor? Did your car get hit by a hit-and-run driver because you touched yourself in a no-no place? Even when the event is favorable, it’s hard to tell what you were doing so right, isn’t it? Did you get that bonus because you tithed faithfully for the first time or for years? Did you get the promotion because you fasted and prayed?
Messages are one of those delusions that is especially hard for us to shake off because they hit us in two particular cognitive biases that are very close to the lizard brain, I think: they make up a pattern to us, and man are humans good at seeing patterns even where none exist, and they make us feel like we have some kind of influence over the world around us when we do not. False pattern recognition helped us survive long ago–it paid off to see leaves rustling and assume a huge ravenous beast was coming even if usually rustling leaves don’t mean a beast is hiding back there. People who saw the leaves and shrugged, saying, “Oh, there probably isn’t a beast there” were the ones who got eaten when the beast burst forth. Remember, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.
And let’s face it, we’re pretty damn puny when it comes to this universe and world; any amount of help we can get influencing events like disease and disaster, even if that sense of agency and power is totally misplaced, is going to be clutched at like a drowning person clutches a life preserver after a shipwreck.
Of course, the biases don’t end there. Those are just the major ones I see playing into the delusion. If you want to go further, you can find more ways that our minds can get entrenched in bad ideas. The idea that we get “messages” that punish or reward us also plays into the Just World Fallacy, that cognitive bias that states that people tend to think that people get what they deserve. That bad people get punished and good people get rewarded. To a certain extent, if I messed up as a Christian, I actually expected something to go wrong in my life. If I did something good, I expected to be showered with rewards. Even the basest redneck fundagelical who almost wrecks on the highway every day with road rage, cheats on his wife, and who drinks himself into oblivion every night can get a tax refund check in the mail and smile to himself and say “See, God likes me extra!”
The Just World Fallacy is where prosperity gospel becomes an alluring mindset–some Christians start thinking that they deserve wealth and power for being “good Christians.” And messages–especially negative ones–reinforce our illusion that when someone sins, the Christian god’s right there to punish us. Yet another bias, confirmation bias, helps us to see events that confirm our illusions about the world and forget the ones that don’t fit into that worldview, so we tend to remember the few correlations we see and forget all the times nothing happened to us after a sin or a good deed.
So all in all we’ve got a recipe for disaster here. It can be super hard to get out of that kind of thinking and see the whole idea of “messages” as not only totally false but harmful. But I did, eventually. Here’s why I discarded the idea of cosmic messages as I struggled away from my indoctrination.
First, these “messages” are usually totally unconnected to whatever prompted them. I know a man who grew up on a farm as a real live cowboy. One day around age 13 he thought it’d be fun to go shoot out all the light bulbs in the barn. He is an excellent shot so this task was accomplished well, quickly, and thoroughly. He turned around, full of pride, only to see… his father, a puissant ex-military man, standing right behind him. His dad’s arms were folded and he was staring levelly at his son. For a moment there was only a pregnant silence. “Well,” said his dad at last. “What are we going to do now?” The son said, “I guess I’m going to get a job to replace all those lights.” “I guess you’re right,” said his dad, and walked away. It took the boy all day to do it, and replacing the spare bulbs and lamps in the warehouse cost him quite a lot of money. But he never did anything like it again. That’s what discipline should be. It should relate to the “crime.” It should teach consequences for behavior. But “messages” usually don’t. They’re just good or bad luck that we attach to this or that success or shortcoming, and only rarely do they directly relate. I used to wonder why my Cutlass (aka “the flying brick”) had so much mechanical trouble. I’d wonder if I hadn’t prayed enough or if I’d offended someone. I’d get a pop quiz I hadn’t studied for and wonder if I maybe shouldn’t have watched (gasp!) a TV show on the television over in the Student Lounge earlier.
The worst part about false agency and patterns, of course, is that if you start thinking that you did something to “deserve” whatever bad or good luck you’re getting, you’re going to start doing all kinds of crazy things to try to duplicate that luck or avoid it. And indeed I did, and so did almost all the Christians I knew in my fundamentalist church. Our pastor would have head-desked if he’d only known what rituals his parishioners were coming up with in response to the “messages” we were seeing! But maybe not–he was the worst offender of us all. He constantly talked about signs and wonders–and about punishments. The current crop of fundagelicals convinced that their god will destroy America for giving gay people some civil rights are just acting the way they’ve been taught all their lives; they know that natural disasters happen, and they know that they’ve always been taught that when a natural disaster occurs, it’s because someone did something wrong. But what could we have done wrong? Well, it could only be gay rights! That’s the only thing big and serious enough (well, that and abortion, obviously) to merit a Category 5 hurricane or a volcano erupting! When something bad happens (and America is big so something’s bound to happen eventually), they’ll be right there to tell us all that we should have listened to them and refused to give gay people rights.
Second, these “messages” are inconsistent. I knew people who tithed faithfully but kept getting hit with one financial burden after another. They kept tithing under the assumption that if they didn’t tithe, their problems would only get worse. Me, I was pretty sure that throwing hundreds of dollars out the window every two weeks was a big part of why they just couldn’t build up the safety cushion they needed to escape their situations, but you can imagine I wasn’t really able to say anything like that in my position as the wife of someone on the leadership team. Tithing was just one inconsistent message after another. Someone might tithe sporadically and get all these windfalls; someone else might be faithful and be ground under financially anyway. Sometimes you’d get a tiny little break–a tax refund you forgot was coming, maybe–but so small compared to the promised riches my church assured parishioners would be theirs if they “trusted God.” (Yeah, we were prosperity Christians. How’d you guess?)
There was no rhyme or reason to any message I ever thought I got from doing anything. You might perform an action once and get a message from it (swear at someone and get your car dinged up, for example) but never again. That’s not discipline. It’s abuse. That’s how abusers work. When there’s no consistency between cause and effect, it makes life so uncertain that the victim begins to spend all his or her time trying to figure out how to find patterns. Keeping a victim dancing depends upon keeping that victim off-balance and off-kilter, uncertain how to please the captor(s) and even more uncertain of how to avoid punishment. If that’s how these Christians’ god operates, then he’s an asshole who doesn’t deserve love or worship.
Third, and rather briefly, let me say that the whole idea of cosmic messages is painfully egocentric. I thought I was soooooo important that no less than the author of the entire universe took time out of his busy day to whap me on the nose when I needed it. He couldn’t take enough time to actually communicate clearly–but look how important I was! Surely I was the child of the king of kings and lord of lords! I was constantly scrutinized and examined, weighed and measured. There was something very compelling about the feeling of being singled out and special. I wasn’t like everybody else. The god of the whole universe was keeping an extra eye on me. That mindset just didn’t square with what I saw going on around me, but the more marginalized and downtrodden I felt, the more comfort I could take in my little compensation fantasy.
Fourth, of course, we really don’t know who a given message is actually from. When I was a Christian, I felt like I was constantly getting signs and portents and messages telling me to do this or not do that. But my church taught, as do many evangelical groups, that demons send signs too. How does anybody know who actually sent that check or messed up the car? Not like these supernatural dudes sign their names, and obviously demons want Christians to think that they’re the ones sending the sign. I once tangled with a Christian who thought this way; when I mentioned getting a rather large check from a relative, he declared that it was a sign from Satan to keep me out of the church. If I’d gotten the check 20 years earlier, though, it would have been from the Christian god to encourage me to tithe or something. Obviously, if a sign makes one more certain of one’s Christian faith, it’s a sign from the Christian god. Or is it?
I once got a sign that indicated it was perfectly fine to have premarital sex with Biff (we’d been sexually active prior to conversion and were abstaining before marriage, and by “we” I mean “me,” because Biff was not what one would term respectful or chaste) and that sign made me feel very close to my god. Except of course premarital sex is a sin. Apparently some kids caught us going at it and reported us to the pastor, who yelled at us and informed us that this “sign” was not actually from the Christian god but from Satan to make us fall from grace. Whoopsie. And the list went on and on. It seemed like I was totally wrong about where messages were from about half the time, unless my god was actively wanting me to suffer financially or emotionally, which I guess is possible but which at the time I couldn’t even start to think. The Christians I encounter now seem very sure of exactly where their messages are from, and exactly where mine are from. By the wildest coincidence, all of mine are from demons and all of theirs are from Jesus. It’s the strangest thing. I know for damned sure that when I was a Christian I really had no idea what was from whom, and I know now that these guys don’t have any more idea what’s going on than I did back then. Being very, very sincerely sure about something doesn’t make that thing true. (And if I may be so bold, for a cosmic message from a god, you’d think the sex that resulted from getting the message would have been a lot better than it turned out to be.)
Last, the idea that things that happen to me are “messages” requires an awful lot of justification and assumptions compared to far more likely explanations. Think about it: for a god to be using my Cutlass’ car trouble to communicate with me in some way, I’d have to have evidence for a god’s existence, evidence for MY god’s existence, evidence that he cares about whatever it is that I’m doing that he dislikes or likes, evidence that he can actually influence the world physically, and in the case of my previous religion a good explanation for just why an omni-benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient god thinks it’s better to be coy and mysterious with his messages rather than just coming out and saying “Cassidy, stop watching TV in the Student Lounge! Rawr! I don’t like TV!”–and why this same perfectly just and merciful god is using such bizarrely mismatched messages when there are far more appropriate punishments and rewards (“watching TV” = “car trouble”? WTF?).
Compare all that mental contortion with this explanation: “Sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad ones do. In a surprising number of cases we can influence things our way, but in plenty of other ones, whatever happened was just random chance. In those cases, the fluke event doesn’t, in and of itself, say anything about our morality or our characters.” Once we get away from cosmic messengers and mysterious gibberish messages, we are free to look at just what happened with clear eyes. For example, the car acted up on that field trip to NASA because I didn’t pay enough attention to its fluid levels and had a broken thermostat; the car had 120k miles on it, so I should have been more diligent. For another example, I got that job because the office manager was impressed that I wrote her a thank-you note after she’d interviewed me; she valued good etiquette and I’d shown that quality.
No assumptions required. No outrageous claims to verify first. No inherent immorality and unfairness, no disproportional and completely out of scope responses, none of that. Just reality. And a clearer view of how to prevent mishaps and make oneself more available to good things happening.
But if I relied upon only supernatural explanations with no pattern whatsoever to them, I would not be able to truly learn and grow from anything that happened. Aside from the sheer immorality of the idea of “messages,” that’s the real danger in them. One might say “aw, who are they hurting with that nonsense?” and the answer is, “Themselves and everybody around them.” And this mindset isn’t even unique to Christians. I’ve known pagans who were big into magic rituals to help keep their cars in good working order–but the cars kept breaking down anyway. Because they were fixated on supernatural patterns, they weren’t realizing that their big problem was buying these old clunkers and then not maintaining them correctly. They kept buying these doomed cars over and over and over again, and kept doing those rituals, and the cars kept dying dramatically.
I’d rather have my eyes open and find patterns that really do exist. And when something bad happens that is just a random piece of bad luck, I don’t have to torture myself wondering what it means or what I might have done wrong. I can buckle down and cope with it and know that in my suffering I walk beside every person in the human race past and present. I am not singled-out for punishment but taking part in a universal struggle that my entire race has faced from the moment we first began walking upright. And that thought gives me more comfort than all the religious platitudes I once told myself.