Editor’s Note: This essay about how people change as their religious beliefs change certainly got me thinking about the deeper effects of believing and changing religious beliefs. While I noticed many changes in the non-believing clergy that I interviewed during my research with them, this essay speaks to more integral, slowly forming and long lasting changes – the kind of changes an attentive, empathetic person would notice over time and would want to share, despite any personal embarrassment it might cause. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Scott Stahlecker
In the 2018 movie Serenity, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) portrays a disheveled fishing boat captain on a quest to catch an illusive monstrosity of a fish until his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) re-enters his life with a request for him to kill her abusive husband. Baker discards her tearful entreaty as easily as he flicks chum overboard. Karen dumped him before. She’d do it again.
Early one evening Karen returns to his boat, and in a last-ditch effort tries to convince Baker that her love for him never waned. The scenes that follow typify the overused Hollywood cliché in which couples make up—by making out—but the impasse in Baker and Karen’s relationship remains severed. Only after their tryst does Baker tell Karen that“People don’t change.”
Despite their mutual affection towards one other he knows they don’t have a future together.
“People don’t change.”
By eerie coincidence I’ve heard this expression twice in recent weeks, and like a haunting omen echoing in my mind I’ve been pondering the idea myself. Questions abound. Is there a developmental age we reach when our core personalities become forged? If we don’t like who we are, do we possess the mental abilities to become the person we want to become?
Both religious believers and former believers may recall this bit of advice offered in Jeremiah 13:23.
“Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”
Jeremiah, of course, was stating what he believed to be a point of fact: It’s impossible for a bad person to become a good person. Yet, we know this to be fake Bible news, because the New Testament also has a lot to say about how the wicked can become good simply by emulating the characteristics of Christ.
As a former Christian I can only rely on my own subjective experiences. My experiences convince me that Christianity changed my life in many ways. The qualities of compassion and forgiveness taught by Jesus were particularly influential. I see no reason to doubt that my mental focus on these noble characteristics over several decades produced positive physiological changes in my brain. I’ve also learned through years of meditation that I can change how I think but what I think about. So, experience tells me that the ideas we invite into our minds can change us, and by choosing the right ideas we can modify ourselves for the better.
Old habits die hard, but we can effectively kill them. We can increase our capacity for empathy. Bigotry can be replaced by tolerance. To be sure, we’re all capable of thinking and acting out the vilest of evil as well as exemplarily thoughts and deeds. And granted, as an organ our brains are subject to genetic, biological and other imperfections. Yet, from a scientific standpoint, there are a lot of things we can do to change our personality traits.
Being able to alter specific characteristics or even our core personalities offers exciting possibilities. Of course, this naturally implies that our brains are also making significant changes in how we process thoughts, emotions, and ideas. But suppose we encounter a revolutionary event in our lives which necessitates that we completely alter our worldview? What kind of transformation takes place in the mind when a person goes from thinking in highly religious terms to thinking in purely scientific terms? This is the magnitude of cognitive change I’d like to focus on for the next few minutes, which illustrates the differences—albeit in the most general of terms—of the way religious individuals are inclined to think verses those who think scientifically.
I’m sure many of us who have left religion can confirm that their ideas about life changed remarkably between the time they were Christians and years later after leaving the faith. I can definitely speak to the vast differences in my own thought processes when measured by the apex of my religiosity to my rationally based thinking today. This change in my neural networks began the moment I started doubting the legitimacy of my religious beliefs and giving more credence to facts and other scientific data. This change was so profound that I swear it was like being “born again,” but in the opposing direction, as though my religious self had suddenly died.
Yet, few believers in the supernatural will relish the idea of going backwards and being born again the wrong way! So it’s easy to understand the trepidations Christians or disciples of other religions feel when they contemplate the pros and cons of losing their faith. This is especially true if they think this change will also eradicate any sense of their spiritual selves. And if you do sense you’re at this precipice you should put your mind at ease, because you’re really embarking on a far more dynamic and advantageous way of thinking.
I distinctly recall one my own pivotal moments when I felt my spiritual self slipping. It’s a story I’ve never told a soul until now. The reason is I’ve long been embarrassed about the degree to which my previous beliefs in the supernatural possessed me and clouded my perceptions of reality. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to share this experience now, because it’s the best way for me to describe the commitment to the faith I once held and the depth of my religious fervor.
In 1985, while earning my bachelor’s degree in religion at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, TX, my wife and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment across the street from a small lake. The lake was surrounded in a park-like setting, bordered on one side by an expansive lawn, but on the other side the landscape gave way to tall willow trees and thickets of high brush. I did a lot of hiking in the acreage on the backside, but I also spent time there contemplating, praying, and reading the Bible.
It was my senior year, and I’d already begun sending out resumes to find a position as a pastor. I was also having serious doubts about the doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Truth be told, I was swirling in a cesspool of spiritual anguish marked by excruciating self-doubt.) What I needed—demanded—was a supernatural sign to banish my doubt. And so, over the course of the next few weeks, I found myself deep in spiritual thought, sitting at the far corner of the pond hidden in the bushes near the water’s edge, working up the courage to do what I thought God was requiring me to do, which was to cast my beloved KJV Bible into the brink and see if it would come floating back to me.
After all, IF JESUS COULD WALK ON WATER, He could easily MAKE MY BIBLE FLOAT.
I consider this my Joan of Arc moment.
She’s rumored to have been one of Christendom’s most dedicated disciples back in the early 1400s, whom some scholars and doctors think suffered from illnesses like epilepsy to schizophrenia. (Perhaps you can now understand my reluctance to tell this story?) I can’t say whether my religiosity was as fanatical as Joan’s, because this would be tantamount to admitting I suffered from delusions of grandeur. But I definitely know today, that I didn’t have a grip on reality then. Funny thing is, this kind of a spiritual experience is par for the course for one who considers himself to be a servant of God. Surely, there are believers today who would like these kinds of spiritually maddening thoughts to come to a full stop.
I never had the courage to toss my Bible in the water. I rightfully cogitated my Bible wouldn’t float, because the laws of physics wouldn’t permit it. But my spiritual predilections were trying to convince me that I could manipulate the laws of physics. What was actually happening in my brain? I was engaged in a pointless battle of wits verses faith. My mind was rebelling, in other words, against itself. The conscientious and rational part of my brain was revolting against the unnatural and unrealistic ideas I learned from religion. This was a pivotal moment for me. I had to make the right choice. Either I accept the fact that Bibles don’t float on water, or I continue to believe that I was so faithless that the Creator of the universe didn’t even have the time to suspend the laws of physics for ME.
Thanks to a few decades of rational thinking and about eight years of meditation, it’s easier for me to know these days when I’m thinking within a rational and factual framework, or when I’m drifting off into otherwise imaginative and interesting ideas about life. But when I was ready to toss my Bible in the shallows and grappling with how to bend the laws of nature so I could prove the validity of my religion, confusion reigned. So, I recognize how perplexing this battle of the mind can be for others.
We have a simple term to express this experience. It’s called “losing the faith.” This three-word expression is hardly adequate. It belies how emotionally tormenting leaving religion can be. What does it mean to lose one’s faith? Well, we’re inclined to think it’s over and done with by simply not going to church one weekend, and then never going back again. Far from it. The person who is losing the faith is learning an entirely new way of thinking, which will invariably result in the rerouting of some neural pathways as well as significant changes in how that person processes information in the future.
In a brain-shell, what’s basically happening in the mind is that information in the form of religious and supernatural concepts is replaced with facts and realistic assessments about reality. The tide of this exchange in information—from the imaginative to the realistic—causes permanent changes in how we process information. One begins to “see” a clear demarcation in their mind in which their reasoning powers can easily spot the influx and assimilation of “fake” religious concepts. With time, our emotional attachments and thoughts, which once bound us to the spiritual concepts we used to define ourselves and our worldview, are severed. As you can imagine, this amounts to an incredible intellectual metamorphosis.
This metamorphosis may seem like daunting possibility, but think of it as a blooming epiphany; or a paradigm shift of monumental proportions; or if you prefer, just visualize yourself as a leopard that’s finally ready to change its spots!
**Editor’s Questions** Have you changed any of your spots? If so, which ones and how did it happen?
Bio: Scott Stahlecker was raised a Lutheran but converted to Seventh-Day Adventism in 1980. After serving the church in both lay and professional capacities, he left the church in 1990. He identified as an agnostic until 2004 and has been an outspoken atheist ever since. Throughout his life he and his wife have owned many businesses to include hospice agencies in Texas and music stores in Alaska. He is the author of the novel Blind Guides and Picking Wings Off Butterflies, a memoir about raising a child with a traumatic brain injury. He continues to write extensively about the benefits of living life as a freethinking individual. Learn more about him at www.scottstahlecker.com
>>>> Photo Credits: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59771893 ; By Church of England – http://dewey.library.upenn.edu/sceti/printedbooksNew/index.cfm?TextID=kjbible&PagePosition=1, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25237408 ; By JanErkamp at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2003639 ; By Anonymous – Pinterest, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81796