When Belief is Questioned (why is anger a first response?)

When Belief is Questioned (why is anger a first response?) October 1, 2013

Why is it that when our beliefs, theology, or long held doctrine is called into question, its easy to experience anger as a first response?

I recently wrote a couple of articles dealing with the “rapture”, the first being a piece that explains how bad eschatology can detrimentally impact our social ethics, and the latter was a piece that laid out a few of my theological reasons for rejecting doomsday eschatology. While I’m no stranger to hate mail, the issue of the rapture seems to have struck a nerve– so much so, that for the first time ever, I saw the number of likes on the Facebook page actually go down.

One of the members of the page accurately commented:

 The truth of the comment caused me to think about this on a bigger level, especially considering my own history coming out of a black and white religion and embracing the tension of living in the “gray” zone of faith. Back in the day, my first response to any theological question or claim which deviated from the script I had been handed, was anger. It was almost an immediate trigger the moment a question, thought, or idea was thrown out on the table. This anger would quickly tap into an almost instinctive reaction to try to turn the tables on the person asking the question, or making the claim. Winning the debate on legitimate merits was intellectually preferred, but discrediting them always seemed to be a valid, secondary option if I was unable to actually present a “check mate” argument.

Now, as a writer, I find myself frequently receiving e-mails from the old me.

Which, feeds my question: why do we get angry simply because someone holds different theological views than we do?

The answer I think I’ve arrived at, is that we actually don’t— we get scared. Like many other fears, this emotion manifests itself in irrational forms, and the way it plays out simply looks like anger.

But, its not. It’s fear.

When we encounter someone who has, what sounds to be a reasonable and convincing view on a particular theology that challenges one of ours, we get scared. The more our mind tells us that the alternative position sounds good, the more scared we get. The subconscious question then becomes: “If I’m wrong about this, what else am I wrong about?”

And well, that’s a scary position to be in. I get it.

Not only do I get it, I actually lived in that fear 24/7 for nearly my first year of seminary. If faith were a stool with four legs, we all have a particular leg, which if weakened, could make the whole thing topple over– or at least we fear that it would. When something even seemingly small and insignificant (i.e, the “rapture”) encourages us to rethink a previous belief, we opt to live in fear and denial in a subconscious effort to protect all the legs of the stool.

Ironically, when we choose to live in fear in order to protect our faith, the more progressively fragile it becomes. The more conscious we become about our own irrational fear, the more we actually feed that fear– because we start to realize that if minor matters, such as changing our position on eschatology could damage our faith, we didn’t have a very strong faith to begin with.

And so, the angry beast feeds itself.

Any faith worth having, should be a faith that’s big enough, and strong enough, to handle big and small questions alike.

Thankfully, I’ve come to believe that the faith tradition which seeks to emulate Jesus, actually is big enough and strong enough to handle my questions, doubts, or even changing theology. Now that I’ve come so far in my transition, I no longer respond in fear or anger because as I look back on the process, I see that the stool never fell over– even when I was sure it would.

It’s still there… and perhaps stands a bit stronger.

There is a treatment modality therapists use called “Prolonged Exposure Therapy”, which for many people has been extremely helpful in reducing symptoms of PTSD, phobias, and generalized anxiety. The way it works, is instead of avoiding a particular fear, you force yourself to experience it head on, repeatedly, until you realize the very thing you fear is something that won’t actually harm you. For example, if one had a fear of going to the mall, with prolonged exposure you would actually force yourself to go to the mall, and remain there until the feelings of panic had subsided. If repeated enough, one begins to internalize that going to the mall doesn’t actually harm you, and need not be feared.

However, there is a potential downside: if you were to leave the mall before your feelings of anxiety began to subside, you would actually make the situation worse by rewarding the drive of fight or flight– instead of starving that reaction to the point of realizing that you’re actually completely safe.

I think those of us who respond to theological questions and doubt with fear and anger, would benefit from some prolonged exposure. For me, seminary became my prolonged exposure– after three years deep in the questions, I realized that I was completely safe, and that my faith was intact (even though it looked different). Perhaps for you, it simply means that you give yourself the freedom and permission to spend some time exploring the question you have, but are afraid to admit having. Or, maybe it just means that instead of attacking someone or walking away, you begin asking, “That’s an interesting view. Tell me why you believe that?”

If you give yourself enough time in these questions and discussions, I think you’ll actually be surprised to discover that you’ll come out of it just fine.

Maybe even with a stronger faith, like I did.

And, for those of us who have already navigated this difficult paradigm shift, perhaps we can begin to show a little more grace– realizing that the “others” really aren’t angry and miserable people– they’re just scared.

If we become willing to walk and wrestle in the tension with each other, perhaps we’ll both arrive at the other side with a stronger, more vibrant faith.

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  • Dawkins, Harris, et. al. frequently lament how they’re accused of being jerks because of how harsh they are towards religion. They’ll say, “there’s no polite way to tell someone they’ve wasted their life.” While this may be true, naturally, they’re less than receptive to being told the same thing. No matter what our stance is, there will always be people smarter than us that think we’re wrong. Whether we have faith or don’t, our hold on these ideas should be tenuous. We’re probably wrong about lots of it, and that’s okay.

  • bobotheclown

    Hi! I’m psychology from roughly 90 years ago (literally) discussing primary and secondary emotions! Have we met?

  • Norman Walford

    I see it in myself often and I don’t know what it is but I don’t think it’s fear. I’m totally secure in my theology because in the end I know I’ve spent more time, more analysis, more thought on it than any of my disagree-ers. But still I abreact. What is it? Reels more like frustration than fear. For you and me the truth seems self evident and we think, HOW CAN THEY BE SO STUPID! I guess for them, their truth seems self-evident also, and they’re thinking similar thoughts.

  • gimpi1

    I have seen the fear you describe in the eyes of people I have talked to about their beliefs. The idea that anything other than total agreement is a threat has always been alien to me, but you explain very well how this works:

    “When we encounter someone who has, what sounds to be a reasonable and convincing view on a particular theology that challenges one of ours, we get scared. The more our mind tells us that the alternative position sounds good, the more scared we get. The subconscious question then becomes: ‘If I’m wrong about this, what else am I wrong about?’”

    I get it now. Its doubt. If I am talking to someone in this mindset, and make a good point about Obama or evolution or marriage equity or whatever, it engenders doubt about related beliefs. And when doubt is a sin, it’s hard to welcome it. When my information makes people question their beliefs, and questioning is a sin, it seems like I’m leading them into sin. Fear and anger well up in the person I’m talking to, and hit me right between my unsuspecting eyes, because all I thought we were doing is having a discussion about a simple topic. But nothing is simple. I’ll try to remember that.

    Thanks for the insight. I think you’re right.

  • “… all I thought we were doing is having a discussion about a simple topic. But nothing is simple. I’ll try to remember that.”

    Me too.

    Thanks.

  • George

    I wonder how much of the frustration people on the other side of this have is because we tend to think we have arrived and are still trying to win the argument rather than stepping back, realizing that we may simply now just be wrong in a new way, and even exposing the weaknesses of our own opinions?

  • Yes you’re right.

    I point out that we, as Christians, can use all these Internet debates and discussions as a wonderful opportunity to practice love towards those who insult us:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/blogging-as-a-spiritual-experience/

    but is far from being easy, especially while dealing with genocide-endorsing fundamentalists.

  • Worthless Beast

    The “You’re wasting your life / you are a waste of life sentiment”… I encounter it online sometimes, and I have to wonder “Is your life a waste if you do not think it is a waste?” If your life is meaningful to you, and if you enjoy it, I honestly don’t see how it is a waste except for people who are not you who think it is, in which case, it’s *their* problem.

    Looking upon my life as a disabled person who cannot keep a steady, “real” job and who’s only hope of “making it” is entertaining people with my fantasy and sci-fi stories, I tend to that I am and always was potentially a “waste of life” from the get-go and can be nothing else, but that it’s *okay.* Another example: I enjoy playing videogames. A lot of people see videogames as a waste of time. I feel like sticking out my tongue and saying “Go away, I’m having fun.”

    So, I find these “You’re wasting your life” judgments (in a world where we all have to die someday) kind of… odd, and certainly not motivating. I may not be polite to tell someone they’ve wasted their life, but I don’t see why the people who insist on telling people that think it’s a good motivator to become like them, either.

  • R Vogel

    Glad to see you on Patheos, Ben. Great post. I too am a recovering Fundie (are we ever really cured?) who still is surrounded by very Fundamentalist family. Bloggers like yourself are the only one who remind me that I am the sane one. (scary thought in and of itself!) Look forward to reading more!

  • Y. A. Warren

    We have been fed the fear that there are only so many seats in heaven by biblical scholars over the ages. We are also taught to turn fear into aggression because, otherwise it paralyzes us. Until religions open the door to believing that heaven is supposed to begin with what we do here, there will be no change in tribal behaviors to protect turf. Many who foment fear call themselves “Christian.” I don’t know who they follow as their “Christ,” but it certainly isn’t Jesus.

  • thrasymachus02

    Progressives are very mentally rigid and completely unable to cope with any challenges to their beliefs, all of which are fundamentally religious whether they are expressed as religious or not. They enforce these beliefs through shame and ostracism.

  • John W. Morehead

    Great essay. And good to find you here at Patheos. I think there are several reasons why this is the case. You’ve helped touch on some of this. Of course beliefs for Evangelicals and others touch on core issues of self-identity. If those are threatened my sense of who I am and my place in the world is suspect, as is my credibility. Beyond that, I believe Evangelicals have been especially prone to confrontational and defensive forms of faith identity. We are more boundary oriented than core oriented, more concerned with defending the fences of faith than emphasizing the core and letting the fences take care of themselves. Some of us are working toward less defensive postures in Evangelical faith identity as it relates to interreligious encounters in an increasingly pluralistic world. Thanks for this essay.

  • John W. Morehead

    Great essay. And good to find you here at Patheos. I think there are several reasons why this is the case. You’ve helped touch on some of this. Of course beliefs for Evangelicals and others touch on core issues of self-identity. If those are threatened my sense of who I am and my place in the world is suspect, as is my credibility. Beyond that, I believe Evangelicals have been especially prone to confrontational and defensive forms of faith identity. We are more boundary oriented than core oriented, more concerned with defending the fences of faith than emphasizing the core and letting the fences take care of themselves. Some of us are working toward less defensive postures in Evangelical faith identity as it relates to interreligious encounters in an increasingly pluralistic world. Thanks for this essay.

  • Terri Hemker

    Thank you, WB! I, too, am disabled and you just reminded me that tho’ I’m not what ‘society’ would deem a productive citizen, my life is not a waste and I am not a waste. That’s often hard for me to recognize as a member of a family where one member has told me that my illness is my own ‘fault’ and another member has told me what a ‘horrible burden’ I’ve been to ‘the whole family’. Bless you!

  • Terri Hemker

    Thank you, WB! I, too, am disabled and you just reminded me that tho’ I’m not what ‘society’ would deem a productive citizen, my life is not a waste and I am not a waste. That’s often hard for me to recognize as a member of a family where one member has told me that my illness is my own ‘fault’ and another member has told me what a ‘horrible burden’ I’ve been to ‘the whole family’. Bless you!

  • Steve

    What you describe as a fear-based reaction is a result of cognitive dissonance. When any part (or “leg”) of a core belief is challenged (brought into tension, creating dissonance), people typically react to reduce the uncomfortable dissonance. This is often manifested by rejecting the source of tension (in this case you and your view, supported by actual scholarship) as illegitimate.

  • Steve

    Most, but not all, people are mentally rigid about their political and religious views. They often react to challenges in anger. I’m sure you have seen plenty of conservatives do the same as the progressives you describe. All beliefs of progressives are obviously not “fundamentally religious”, unless you are fundamentally changing the definition of religious, in which case we’re just arguing semantics. That one is right out of the apologists’ handbook. I’d like you to logically defend that statement.

  • foxjazz

    That is a pretty good article and very perceptive of the correct feelings. It explains why when I challenge faith of believers that the appearance of anger or overwhelming desire to shore up a faith is usually the response.