There is a recurring moment in the classic 1960 sci-fi movie “The Time Machine,” when, as a siren begins to wail, the gentle Eloy people within earshot suddenly become entranced and start walking slowly, robotically, toward the insistent sound.
The conceit of the film is that cannibalistic Morlock beings, from their underground lairs beneath a nearby mountain, use the siren to hypnotically herd the Eloy through an enormous entryway that opens in mountain — and to their doom.
Then, when the Morlock decide enough Eloy have entered their slaughterhouse, the siren abruptly halts, the door closes, and the Eloy still outside briefly shake their heads and rejoin reality, having completely forgotten what just happened.
A metaphor for faith
For me, this is a perfect metaphor for religious faith, which figuratively makes Eloy of the faithful, who are unaware of the risky irrationality of what they believe. Until they are no longer unaware, of course.
In the movie, the Eloy ostensibly have a lovely life, full of transcendent beauty, constant gentle and loving kindness from their fellow Eloy, a sense of absolute security, and complete freedom from material want. They take a pill that makes them insensible to the dangers and unrealities of their seemingly idyllic existence.
With divine religion, in my view, the constant and rigorous indoctrination of believers in supernatural ideology is akin to the “pill” the Eloy take to make them unaware of very real dangers and contrary truths all around them, allowing them to be satisfied with, even blissfully enchanted by, their tragically illusory lives.
This idea was starkly reaffirmed for me as I read a very interesting post last night by a guest writer named Scott Stahlecker for Linda LaScola’s Rational Doubt blog on the Patheos Nonreligious Channel. In his post, titled “On Becoming a Freethinker,” Stahlecker outlined the process by which he, a former true-believing fundamentalist Christian, became a full-blown atheist.
A sense of deep betrayal
It’s a fascinating, even wrenching, tale very, very similar to ones I’ve heard and read about over the years from former believers. They are often sad stories with a strong sense of deep betrayal, of the wholly unnecessary damage inflicted on apostates by dogma-forcing fundamentalist Christian parents, clergy and believing family and friends over many years.
The painful tragedy is that such indoctrination begins in early childhood and is fully, sometimes intractably, embedded in every single aspect of life long before adulthood. Thus, many late-stage apostates find themselves literally unable to extricate themselves from their religions even after fully realizing that none of the fantastic doctrines they’ve been resolutely force-fed throughout their lives seem to make any sense whatsoever in the real world. Family members and best friends suddenly and angrily turn against them if they even express doubt in their faith.
This process of budding apostacy is akin that of devout Catholics today discovering that many priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals are pedophiles or sneaky apologists. Worldwide. Simply ill-equipped to quit Catholicism, the true faithful start making up excuses and self-delusions so they can justify staying in the holy fold. God is still all-merciful. Jesus died for our sins, today and yesterday. Immortality in heaven awaits.
Non-Catholic fundamentalists respond to spiritual dissonance in much the same way as Stahlecker. Early in his deconversion process, he remembers the angst:
“These were scary times for my wife and me. My faith had been slipping for several years, but irrationality still had a stranglehold on my psyche.”
Transformation of disbelief
But those fortunate enough to reach the other side have often experienced transformative epiphanies but ones based on the here and now. In his post, Stahlecker wrote about his mindset eight years into his gradual apostacy:
“My only regret? Not having broken the chains of mental bondage sooner. Within this gap in time, it’s difficult to describe the transformation my mind has taken from first being shackled by religious servitude to full-fledged intellectual freedom. Some people can breeze through this process in a few short years. For others like myself, it takes decades.”
Unlike the Eloy in “The Time Machine,” though, after Stahlecker shook his head against supernatural nonsense, he was free. But a full realization of it wasn’t instantaneous.
He said it took 10 years living as an atheist “before I finally purged religion from my mind and had sharpened my mental skills enough to understand how religion was impacting all the other areas of my life.”
This is an important idea: that living a nonsuperstitious, meaning nonreligious, life requires learning how to think rationally, objectively, realistically. Formerly religious people — even long-committed atheists — often find that very difficult to do. Human beings are hard-wired for extravagantly creative, imaginative, emotional thinking. We can see where that leads in people with mental illness who display exaggerated versions of those instinctual behaviors. There are risks to unbridled thinking.
A practical way of thinking
So, to think rationally requires ignoring or at least being aware of the biases and other counter-productive foolishness that DNA embeds in our beings for reasons as old as time. To act reasonably, we must act first on what we know, not just what we feel or sense.
Religion, we should always keep in mind, is all about “thinking” with our emotion-laden imaginations. If it weren’t, we would all immediately ask, “Whither this God ye speak of?”
Stahlecker notes the subhead on late atheist gadfly Christopher Hitchens’ groundbreaking book, “God is not Great,” that reads: “Religion Poisons Everything.”
“The implication of this statement is that while we can pride ourselves from being freed from attending church, religious ideologies can still be influencing our values and thought processes,” Stahlecker writes.
Indeed, that is how religion perpetuates — as a sticky meme in our minds, regardless of the truth of its meaning.
The way forward, Stahlecker argues, reasonably, is to teach ourselves and others how to “free our minds” of religious influences by establishing a practical template for purposefully being real in how we conceptualize ideas.
But, wait, we already have such a template, if only we would rigorously teach it to children, starting in kindergarten, even pre-school.
It’s called critical thinking. And religion should be the very first thing kids are taught to investigate with it.
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