People often ask me why I left my faith. There are no good short answers to that question, but one of the simplest ways to explain what happened is to describe the games I was taught to play to protect my beliefs and to keep them immune to falsification. Stepping outside of my own thought processes long enough to see how these games work probably went further than anything else I did to convince me that my religion was all inside my own head. “Know thyself,” the Greeks wisely advised. That’s certainly where it started for me.
Confirmation bias can be a powerful thing. When you have a strong personal need to believe something, you set out to verify your belief with a mixture of motives. You want to know if what you believe is true, but the cost of disappointment may be so high that you become susceptible to any number of tricks we play on ourselves to make sure our lives are not too greatly disturbed. Confirmation bias happens when we preselect for our attention only those data which support the beliefs we had before we even began our quest to find the truth. As long as we can find quick and easy ways to dismiss and ignore all data which contradict our preconceived ideas, we will find that the remaining “evidence” perfectly supports whatever we thought from the very beginning.
It’s a clever trick our minds play on us, but if we are ever to learn how to think critically, we must learn to recognize this process before it blinds us to the things we’d rather not allow ourselves to see. To illustrate what I mean by “games Christians play,” I’ll highlight three common claims of the Christian religion and explain the rationalization that kicks in to ensure their confirmation and avoid falsification. I’ve already mentioned the first two before (here and here) but they bear repeating.
Claim 1: If you pray for X, it will happen.
I was taught to inform the critics of my faith that you can’t view God like he’s Santa Claus, beholden to each of us who asks for a pony, for a raise, or for whatever our selfish little hearts desire. For shame! I was taught to make people feel guilty for thinking they can ask God for things. The only thing is: That’s exactly what the New Testament tells us to do. Jesus instructed his followers to ask for things. He didn’t guilt them for suggesting such; in fact, it was his idea. But Christians quickly forget that and rush to bury that fact under a plethora of qualifications and ad hoc provisions.
Take prayers for the sick for example. Both Jesus and James unequivocally tell us that if we pray for the sick, they will be healed. They forgot to supply the requisite fine print which stipulates that only prayers already aligned to the sovereign plan of God will be rewarded, and that your motives have to be right, and that you cannot doubt, and that there cannot be unconfessed sin in your life, etc. Also, if you ask for someone to be healed whom God doesn’t want to heal, you’re out of luck. So sorry. And as for determining which ones are which, that part’s easy! Just wait and see who gets better. Anyone who is healed, even if it took years of medical treatment, they were the ones God wanted to heal. As for the others, his ways are higher than our ways so tough luck, man. It wasn’t his will.
Once you take into consideration this arrangement of excuses, you see that it is impossible to falsify the claim that praying for X will make it happen. Over the centuries this claim has come to be flanked by rationalizations which ensure that this promise can never be proven false. Whenever what Jesus and James promised fails to occur, you can simply fall back on one of the following:
- Your motives were imperfect.
- It wasn’t God’s will.
- His answer was “yes, but not yet.”
- You didn’t believe hard enough.
- There’s a life lesson you have to learn from this suffering.
- Shame on you for expecting God to jump through your hoops and perform for you!
That last one is the most effective because not only does it sidestep any resolution between the expectation and reality, but it goes a step further into guilting you about having any expectation at all. If they can make you feel bad enough, you might even forget that the Bible is what gave you these expectations in the first place. Achievement unlocked!
Claim 2: God will never forsake you.
Like I said, I’ve written about this before, but I can summarize it in a sentence: Once you’ve established that even the worst imaginable injustice, tragedy, or loss may be God’s will for your life, this promise that he will never forsake you becomes utterly devoid of meaning or substance. The ultimate emptiness of this promise never stops people from feeling that it should somehow comfort them, but for the life of me I cannot see why. No matter what awful thing you can think of, it can be argued that this, too, is God’s will for you. So the claim is meaningless.
Claim 3: The Holy Spirit can mold a person’s character and empower him to live a virtuous life.
As a Christian, I was taught that all virtue comes from God. I was taught that people are naturally awful and despicable and that the only thing that can enable them to be virtuous is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Both of these ideas come from the Bible, not from some later perversion of Christian tradition. But like the other two, this claim becomes meaningless once you read the disclaimers in the fine print. Besides the numerous promises that this inner presence will produce a laundry list of virtues (love being chief among them), at one point the Bible even goes on to say things like:
God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
Watch how easily promises like this become meaningless: When a Christian exemplifies virtuous behavior, they say it was because “Jesus lives inside her.” But then whenever a Christian displays poor judgment or moral turpitude, this cannot be a failure of God to deliver on his promise. It is emphasized at moments like this that God can empower a person’s moral choices through the guidance of this invisible occupant, but it’s still up to you to choose to “let” him enable you to do it. “Don’t forget about free will, now!” Just like saying “God’s ways are higher,” when you say “People have freewill” it renders all promises about divine guidance and moral quickening meaningless. This incoherent reasoning sounds a lot like the contradictory scenario in the Garden of Eden wherein Adam was supposed to choose not to eat from the “wrong” tree before he was even imbued with the moral ability to know right from wrong in the first place. Not only is it logically inconsistent, it constructs and qualifies the promise in such a way as to render it impossible to falsify. Any time the promise fails to materialize, the blame shifts to you and the promise is kept above reproach. The one thing that cannot be allowed is that the claim was false. The entire system depends on it. Everything must bend to accommodate the claims.
That bending is what bothers me. It should bother any rational person. It sends up red flags to me when I see this compulsion to bend over backwards and perform interpretational gymnastics to ensure that these beliefs remain undisturbed, immune to critique. Most people of faith don’t even recognize when they’re doing this because they learned this skill at a very young age, or else because they learned it at a time when they were made vulnerable under the pressure of some emotionally charged life circumstances. I know that’s how it worked for me. But time, experience, and age have given me enough perspective to recognize that these games that we play display a kind of dishonesty toward ourselves. Once we’ve learned to lie to ourselves, there’s little hope left for approaching anyone or anything else in a straightforward, brutally honest manner. These games condition us to be more willing to embrace faulty reasoning in any number of other life circumstances, and that can be very dangerous. They teach us to trust people who haven’t yet earned it nor do they deserve it. They teach us to see things, not as they really are, but as we believe they should be. There’s no telling how many of our societal errors and dysfunctions trace back to this overeagerness to embrace unsubstantiated claims and prejudices which are rooted in the cultural biases of another time and another place.
I Remember Playing Them, Too
These games are second nature to the devout. They become instinctive through repeated reinforcement so that they kick in the instant someone cites any of the above claims. The disclaimers and qualifications got so drilled into me that I can still sympathize with those under their spell. It took time to learn to recognize just how willingly I embraced them as long as I was still trying to cling to the belief system that defined my young adult life. The emotional and mental cost of robustly questioning our most basic assumptions about the world around us can be incredibly high, and that makes us more prone to accept rationalizations which in reality do a terrible job of dismissing the inconsistencies in what we believe.
Does the failure of these promises necessarily mean that all religion is false or that gods cannot exist? No, it doesn’t. But it certainly gives us significant reason to distrust the texts from which they are drawn. And more to the point of this post, the mental gymnastics we put ourselves through to avoid losing faith in them should tell us something about our own lack of objectivity in the matter. We clearly have something to lose, and it clouds our judgment. If we learn nothing else from this, we can at least learn to recognize the games we play. It’s a start.