A Critical Distinction: Belief vs. Compliance.

A Critical Distinction: Belief vs. Compliance. December 17, 2014

Lately–thanks in large part to that post I wrote recently regarding how belief isn’t a choice at all–I’ve been thinking about the ways that Christians tend to treat ex-Christians, what they ask out of us, and how they conceptualize our lack of belief.

Many of us have friends or family members who are sad that we don’t “choose to believe.” They “just want to help.” They simply can’t understand why we’re “choosing” to separate ourselves from their deity. And it’s coming up on that time of year when religious observances become important to even generally-religiously-unobservant families, so a lot of us are getting those veiled hints and occasionally-manipulative requests to attend religious festivals and ceremonies even when doing so would cause us a great deal of distress. They’re convinced that if they can just get us to read one more book–go to one more sermon–attend one more concert–watch one more video–talk to one more well-spoken Christian apologist–that we’ll just suddenly choose to ignore every single fact we now know about the religion, every debunked talking point we’ve figured out or learned, and every single fallacy we’ve discovered, and reconvert on the spot, reversing the exact decision-making process we used when we ostensibly chose to deconvert out of whatever foolish, shallow motivation they think ex-Christians use to rationalize deconversion.

Last time we talked, I covered why neither belief nor disbelief are conscious choices, but rather reactions and conclusions. Beliefs come from a pool that is all a-swirl with known facts, things thought to be facts, and simple hopes and wishes. If we believe that a particular friend is punctual, for example, then the pool is filled with things like “always a little early,” “calls ahead in case of a problem,” and “plans ahead for contingencies.” But if we slowly notice that this friend is starting to have a big problem being places on time, then our belief will be shaken. Those reasons, as we see them contradicted by our friend’s actual behavior in reality, drain out of the pool. We might care deeply for this friend, but we sure won’t count on that person to get us to work on time if we’re carpooling. If this friend continues to be habitually late to events, then we will no longer have any reason to believe that this friend is punctual, and we will stop believing that to be the case.

The same thing happens with religion. Someone who deconverts–I mean fully deconverts, not just pulls away from practicing the religion–once had a very deep pool filled with what was likely a huge number of things that person thought were facts and foregone conclusions, talking points, and apologetics tricks. But over time (some folks have this happen all at once, but usually this process takes months or years), bit by bit, the pool empties. A fact once considered rock-solid turns out to be completely untrue. A talking point once cherished turns out to be based on a fallacy.

When a pool of belief empties, then belief withers away. Nothing is left in the pool. That’s what disbelief is like. It’s the state of having nothing in the pool. Fill the pool up, and belief surges forth, unstoppable. But empty it, and belief is completely impossible.

Someone who has an empty belief-pool can still go through the motions and do Christian activities like pray, attend church, study the Bible, and even witness to non-believers, but those actions are not signs of belief any more than feelings of intense catharsis and euphoria are signs of the Christian “God”‘s divine infilling.

Not only are those actions not signs of belief, but they will not create genuine belief where none exists because they are not reasons to believe. The pool does not get filled by going through motions (though some Christians mistake feelings like that aforementioned catharsis and euphoria as reasons to believe, thinking they’re proof of a religion’s veracity, and to a certain extent someone who is motivated enough can kind-of, sort-of uneasily half-convince themselves of something by repeating it often enough–as I discovered myself, but the cognitive dissonance created that way was a very uncomfortable feeling).

And someone can’t choose what level the pool’s waters reach, if any level at all. The pool gets as full or empty as its owner’s understanding allows–as facts emerge, change, get challenged, and are adopted or ultimately discarded.

Could it be that the Christians who say they’re sad that we “chose” not to believe are really sad that we’re not choosing to comply with Christianity’s demands anymore? You see, belief isn’t at all voluntary. But compliance is.

I ask that because I suddenly realized something today. If, in response to this stated incredible and devastating sadness Christians often say they feel about my “choice” not to believe in their god, I suddenly said “You’re right! I totally believe again!” and started attending church, praying, being obnoxious on Facebook, and all the other stuff that Christians in their world think TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do, that’s all it’d take to remove that incredible and devastating sadness they feel. Even if I totally didn’t believe what I was saying, that I was going through the motions again would be all that mattered. Hey, who knows, going through those motions might inspire belief if they’re done often enough and with enough desire to believe, right?

When we see overzealous Christians trying to sneak official prayers into school and monuments onto public land, they seem perfectly aware that they’re forcing non-believers to listen to and pay for those ostentatious religious displays. They don’t seem to mind that their behavior alienates and distances non-believers even further from their religion. I’ve been thinking for a while that conversion doesn’t appear to be the goal–but compliance suddenly looks like the real desire in operation here. I don’t think they care what the rest of us believe, as long as we play along with them in their games.

Except ex-Christians know the truth about going through the motions. It’s hard to find an ex-Christian who didn’t spend a while doing exactly that, hoping to recapture the spark of belief. I did it for months and it was agonizing. Other ex-Christians I know did it for years.

Some are still doing it.

Just imagine the thousands of people who go to church every single Sunday, sitting in pews (or standing in front of pulpits!), choking back disbelief, wishing they didn’t have to waste that time, hating the hateful and dehumanizing message they’re hearing or spreading, but terrified about what the tribe would do to them for noncompliance. Many of them are married to Christian spouses who they know would discard long and happy marriages on the spot. Some are living with Christian parents who would, in the spirit of relabeled and redefined “Christian love,” boot their own flesh and blood to the curb in a heartbeat to punish their rebellious noncompliance. Others earn a living from Christian compliance in some way or another and while escape would be nice, they can’t risk losing that income.

And a few are desperately hoping that somehow, oh somehow, they’ll start magically believing again if they just drill down harder on doing the stuff that wasn’t enough to keep them believing in the first place.

These few will fail, and they will fail because belief isn’t caused by actions.

I was one of those few, once.

When I started to have doubts about Christianity, I mostly kept those doubts to myself. I already knew that expressing doubts constituted noncompliance, and I already knew what noncompliance meant in my world.

The last time I’d mentioned any differences of opinion about anything my church preached, it was about abortion. That display of skepticism earned me a super-confrontational “intervention” of sorts on the spot. I hadn’t made up my mind, but I’d been thinking about it at least. When I mentioned my concerns in casual conversation, I was sitting in a carload of people between two folks I thought were close friends in the middle of the back seat of a sedan going way too fast down the freeway, and not a minute later I suddenly found myself surrounded on literally all sides by screaming Christian zealots who wouldn’t stop haranguing me about openly questioning the party line about women’s bodily autonomy. I don’t think they realized just how they were coming off to me, but that doesn’t excuse what they did. I felt threatened and afraid, and the situation only deteriorated further when it became clear that they wouldn’t leave me alone no matter how much I asked to table the conversation until we could discuss it more civilly in a less enclosed space. This wasn’t an isolated incident, just the one that distressed me the most.

My peers leaped on dissension with both feet. While I’d once viewed that process as simply the result of robust and fervent belief, it took on much darker tones after that day. There simply was no room for me to believe anything or do anything that wasn’t what the tribe wanted. Nobody could examine an issue and come away from the same set of facts (or at least, what we thought were facts) with any different opinions. Things were black or white, this or that, yes or no. Because we believed that our interpretation of those issues were divinely-inspired, we couldn’t handle the ambiguity that different opinions presented. Obviously, more liberal denominations of Christianity don’t have quite the same problem, but even back in my Catholic days there were points of dissent that could be dealbreakers for some relationships. Conservative Christianity–the fundamentalist and evangelical branches of the religion especially–just has a lot more of those potential landmines. There are very few denominations in the religion that tolerate any range of opinions, and of those, the ones that actually do boast that degree of tolerance are the ones that wouldn’t give ex-Christians a lot of trouble anyway. Generally speaking, dogmatism–defined as someone’s unwillingness to admit he or she might be wrong–can cause no end of conflicts between people. When someone just isn’t willing to consider being wrong, then any dissent at all can get seen as not only a challenge but also a strike against that person’s integrity and good sense.

At the time of the car “intervention” I didn’t have serious doubts about Christianity itself–just about some details. Even so, I’m sure once news got out that I’d deconverted a year or two later there were some knowing glances between the folks who’d been in the car that fateful afternoon.

So when my examination of the Bible and dissection of apologetics contortions began revealing some truths that began emptying my pool of belief, you can be certain I kept that growing sense of unease to myself.

I spent months in that agonizing never-never-land between belief and disbelief going through the motions.

I guarantee you this: nobody even noticed. As long as I was present and docile, nobody even wondered if I was struggling or not. Nobody came up to me at services, put an arm around my shoulders, and shared divine visions with me to encourage me. Nobody pointed at me during sermons and told me some “word from the Lord” to lift me up and fill that pool of belief again. No miracles occurred that I could say for sure were supernatural in origin. And I tell you this not to pout and stomp my little feet about not getting a pony and a plastic rocket, but to tell you that my pool of belief was emptying and nothing at all was going into it to fill it back up again. Certainly going through the motions wasn’t making me believe again!

After my deconversion, my husband–who was a lay preacher and youth pastor–made it 100% clear that he wanted me to at least attend church with him to keep up appearances. When I told him how painful church felt for me–how dishonest it’d feel to attend, how hateful I now found the message–I might as well have been speaking in Latin for all he understood. He genuinely believed that if I’d only go to church, surely I’d catch the bug again and feel that old familiar joy and reconvert (if not on the spot, then soon-and-very-soon). And, of course, if I attended church again that’d go a long way toward him moving into the full-time ministry position he desperately ached to have. So it didn’t bother him in the least that if I went, I’d be going unwillingly and that I sure wouldn’t be believing a word I heard.

He loved church and enjoyed being around church people, and he couldn’t imagine how anybody could think differently. And he still believed in the Christian god, so he was convinced that I was just being foolish and petulantly denying in my heart what I knew deep down was true. When I continued to set him straight that no, I just didn’t believe anymore, eventually he decided I was demon-“oppressed” (that’s a more polite way of saying possessed, used when saying “possessed” would elicit indignation or hoots of laughter), which ushered in a whole new phase of what he called “spiritual warfare” for my soul. But every step of the way he conceptualized my disbelief as a choice, and I didn’t understand what’d happened well enough at that point to be able to verbalize what I was feeling.

Well, now I do. And even then, I knew on some level that what he wanted–and what I see many ex-Christians’ families and friends today wanting–was compliance, not necessarily belief itself. What they ask from us is outward shows of compliance that they think will provoke belief again. They’re not usually asking us to believe deep down. They’re asking us to go to church, to pray with them, to read this or watch that, in the hopes that it’ll provoke belief again. They don’t realize that in all the months and years we went to church, prayed, and read and watched stuff, after all that time we still ended up not believing–so doing more of it isn’t going to accomplish a whole lot now. And it isn’t loving to demand someone do something that is painful or hurtful, either, or to stomp on someone’s boundaries by making requests like that.

What’s missing from their blandishments and entreaties is a solid reason for a rational person to believe again. To be fair, there really aren’t any. But when all someone has is a cordless drill, then every problem starts looking like a house full of drywall. Every time I’ve challenged Christians who think belief is a choice by asking them to give me a reason to believe, they come back with more insistence that I just push myself into belief.

And I can’t. I tried as hard as any human can try, and I still couldn’t do it. Not only can I not believe nonsense on command, I don’t think they can either. Thanks to a raft of cognitive biases in humans, these Christians are solidly convinced that they rationally chose Christianity out of all the available options. They can’t even see that they just have what they think are reasons filling their belief-pools, reasons that spark their belief and give them confidence that their beliefs are true. If they ever figure out that those reasons aren’t actually good reasons at all, then their pools will empty and they will be faced with the same dilemma I was long ago:

Go through the motions in compliance, hoping my pool would fill up again with reasons to believe?

Or accept that my pool was empty and my belief was gone, and stop wasting my life on something I now knew was not only false but hurting me in a variety of ways?

After trying the former, I eventually chose the latter, and I haven’t regretted that decision for one second.

(I’ve got to wonder: do they realize just how little separates them from me?)

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