Christians like to think their god talks to them. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Because they lack real communication, they must rely on signs and portents. Today, I’ll show you why that notion backfires so hard.
Daddy of the Year Award.
Imagine if a parent said this to you:
I’ve got a ten-year-old son. I love him very dearly. Today I’m planning to backhand him in the face. He’ll ask “Why did you do that, Mother?” But he needs to figure this stuff out on his own, so I won’t tell him that it’s because I overheard him saying disrespectful things about his school bus driver. He’ll probably spend a few days agonizing over why I struck him, and he’ll go through several explanations. He might not even figure out that the discipline has to do with the bus driver at all. But it’ll make him extra careful to be nice to the bus driver, I’m certain. Eventually. He’ll be so scared of another backhand he’ll be on EXTRA good behavior for a while, that’s for sure! Discipline’s vitally important, so next week I’m planning to set fire to his room because I just found out he’s pulling girls’ hair at recess. I do hope he figures out why this time.
You’d rightly think that parent is absolutely insane, not to mention abusive.
But plenty of Christians go through this same thinking every single time something happens to them. They try to figure out what the message is, like every unusual thing that occurs in their lives is some sort of omen or portent communicating their god’s pleasure or displeasure with them. Not even Hellenic pagans care this much about analyzing signs!
Cause and Effect, Out of Whack.
Sometimes it’s very easy for a child to see a cause and effect relationship. Christians haven’t progressed much further, emotionally speaking. Many times, I’ve heard them compare their god’s completely bewildering, inconsistent, disproportional “messages” to a parent letting a child put its hand on a hot stove burner.
Now, I’m from a Southern family, and that idea describes much of my dad’s parenting style–“Let ‘er play with the electrical socket! She’ll fritz her hair and learn not to touch them dang ol’ sockets anymore!” And generally speaking, I learned quickly from such object lessons.
But the “message” from most events is maddeningly difficult to discern.
Did you fail to get that job because you badmouthed the pastor? Did your car get hit by a hit-and-run driver because you touched yourself in a no-no place? Even when the event is favorable, it’s hard to tell what you were doing so right that you merited a good portent. Did you get that bonus because you tithed faithfully for the first time or for years? Did you get the promotion because you fasted and prayed?
Hijacking a Cognitive Bias.
Messages are one of those delusions that is especially hard for us to shake off because they hit us in two particular cognitive biases that are very close to the lizard brain, I think: they make up a pattern to us, and humans good at seeing patterns even where none exist. Such patterns make us feel like we have some kind of influence over the world around us when we do not.
False pattern recognition might well have helped us survive long ago. It paid off to see leaves rustling and assume a huge ravenous beast was coming even if usually rustling leaves don’t mean a beast is hiding back there. People who saw the leaves and shrugged, saying, “Oh, there probably isn’t a beast there,” they were the ones who got eaten when the beast burst forth. Hey, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.
And let’s face it, we’re pretty damn puny when it comes to this universe and world. We tend to clutch at any amount of help we can get influencing events like disease and disaster, even if that sense of agency and power is totally misplaced. We reach for such imagined aid like a drowning person grabs for a life ring after a shipwreck.
The Just World Fallacy.
If you want to go further, you can find more ways that our minds can get entrenched in bad ideas. The idea that we get “messages” that punish or reward us also plays into the Just World Fallacy, that cognitive bias that states that people tend to think that people get what they deserve. That bad people get punished and good people get rewarded.
To a certain extent, if I messed up when I was a Christian, I actually expected something to go wrong in my life. If I did something good, I hoped to be showered with rewards. Even the lowest-tier fundagelical who almost wrecks on the highway every day with road rage, cheats on his wife, and who drinks himself into oblivion every night can get a tax refund check in the mail and smile to himself and say “See, God likes me extra!”
The Just World Fallacy functions as part of prosperity gospel. Some Christians think that they deserve wealth and power for being obedient and sacrificing. And messages–especially negative ones–reinforce their illusion that when someone sins, the Christian god seeks to punish that person.
Yet another bias, confirmation bias, helps us to see events that confirm our illusions about the world and forget the ones that don’t fit into that worldview. Consequently, we tend to remember the few strong correlations we see and forget all the times nothing happened to us after a good or bad deed.
So all in all we’ve got a recipe for disaster here. It can be super-hard to get out of that kind of thinking and see the whole idea of “messages” as not only totally false but harmful.
But I did, eventually.
Moving Away from Signs and Portents.
Here’s why I discarded the idea of cosmic messages as I struggled away from my indoctrination.
First, these “messages” are usually totally unconnected to whatever prompted them.
Discipline should relate to the “crime.” It should teach consequences for behavior. But “divine messages” usually don’t. They’re just good or bad luck that we attach to this or that success or shortcoming, and only rarely do they directly relate. As only one example, I used to wonder why my Cutlass (aka “the flying brick”) had so much mechanical trouble. I’d wonder if I hadn’t prayed enough or if I’d offended someone.
The worst part about false agency and patterns, of course, is that if you start thinking that you did something to “deserve” whatever bad or good luck you’re getting, you’re going to start doing all kinds of crazy things to try to duplicate that luck or avoid it. And indeed I did, and so did almost all the Christians I knew in my fundamentalist church.
A Church Full of Heathens.
My pastors back then would have head-desked if they’d only known what rituals the flocks were coming up with in response to the “messages” we were seeing! But maybe not–in my group, they tended to be the worst offenders of us all. They constantly talked about signs and wonders–and about punishments.
Nowadays, we behold this current crop of fundagelicals convinced that their god will destroy America for giving gay people some civil rights. We must remember: they are just acting the way they’ve been taught all their lives. They’ve always been taught that when a natural disaster occurs, it’s because someone did something wrong. But what could we have done wrong? Well, it could only be gay rights! That’s the only thing big and serious enough (well, that and abortion, obviously) to merit a Category 5 hurricane or a volcano erupting!
When something bad happens (and America is big so something’s bound to happen eventually), they’ll be right there to tell us all that we should have listened to them and refused to give gay people rights.
You know who else overreacts like that? People who resort to domestic violence often hurt their victims way out of proportion to whatever was done. Remember that horrible woman down south who ran her precious daughter to death? Do you know what the girl did that merited killing her? She ate a candy bar without permission. Yep. A candy bar. And for this, her trusted caretakers ran her to death.
When you hear about horrific cases of child abuse and murder, the worst of it happens over the stupidest, smallest infractions–you know, like cursing Eve and every one of her descendants forever and ever, resulting in the deaths of billions of women and fetuses through childbirth, because she ate a fruit. It’s a good thing Cadbury bars didn’t exist back then, huh? Who even knows what could have happened to the poor woman if that’s what a fruit got her.
If that’s how these Christians’ god operates, then he is abusive and not worth love or worship.
Second, these “messages” are wildly inconsistent.
I knew people who tithed faithfully but kept getting hit with one financial burden after another. They kept tithing under the assumption that if they didn’t tithe, their problems would only get worse.
Me, I was pretty sure that throwing hundreds of dollars out the window every two weeks was a big part of why they just couldn’t build up the safety cushion they needed to escape their situations, but you can imagine I wasn’t really able to say anything like that in my position as the wife of someone on the leadership team.
Someone might tithe sporadically and get all these windfalls. Another person might be faithful and be ground under financially anyway. Sometimes someone got a tiny little break–a tax refund they forgot was coming, maybe. But it was always so small compared to the promised riches my church assured parishioners would be theirs if they “trusted God.”
There was no rhyme or reason to any message I ever thought I got from doing anything. You might perform an action once and get a message from it (swear at someone and get your car dinged up, for example) but never again.
That’s not discipline. It’s abuse. That’s how abusers work. When there’s no consistency between cause and effect, it makes life so uncertain that the victim begins to spend all his or her time trying to figure out how to find patterns. Keeping a victim dancing depends upon keeping that victim off-balance and off-kilter, uncertain how to please the captor(s) and even more uncertain of how to avoid punishment.
If that’s how these Christians’ god operates, then he’s an asshole who doesn’t deserve love or worship.
Third, and rather briefly, let me say that the whole idea of cosmic messages is painfully egocentric.
I thought I was soooooo important that no less than the author of the entire universe took time out of his busy day to whap me on the nose when I needed it. He couldn’t take enough time to actually communicate clearly–but look how important I was! Surely I was the child of the king of kings and lord of lords! I was constantly scrutinized and examined, weighed and measured.
Weirdly, though, I found something very compelling about the feeling of being singled out and special. I wasn’t like everybody else. The god of the whole universe was keeping an extra eye on me.
To be sure, that mindset just didn’t square with what I saw going on around me. All the same, the more marginalized and downtrodden I felt, the more comfort I could take in my little compensation fantasy.
A Problem of Sources.
Fourth, of course, we really don’t know who a given message is actually from.
When I was a Christian, I felt like I was constantly getting signs and portents and messages telling me to do this or not do that. But my church taught, as do many evangelical groups, that demons send signs too. How does anybody know who actually sent that check or messed up the car? Not like these supernatural dudes sign their names, and obviously demons want Christians to think that they’re the ones sending the sign.
It seemed like I was constantly totally wrong about the sources of divine messages. An outsider viewing the situation would be forgiven easily for thinking that my god actively wanted me to suffer financially or emotionally.
The Christians I encounter now seem very sure of exactly where their messages are from, and exactly where mine were from. By the wildest coincidence, all of mine were from demons and all of theirs are from Jesus. It’s the strangest thing.
When I was a Christian, I really had no idea what was from whom. Christians nowadays don’t have any more idea what’s going on than I did back then.
Being very, very sincerely sure about something doesn’t make it true.
Last, the idea that things that happen to me are “messages” requires an awful lot of justification and assumptions compared to far more likely explanations.
Think about it: for a god to be using car trouble to communicate with me in some way, I’d have to have evidence for a god’s existence, evidence for MY god’s existence, evidence that he cares about whatever it is that I’m doing that he dislikes or likes, evidence that he can actually influence the world physically, and in the case of my previous religion a good explanation for just why an omni-benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient god thinks it’s better to be coy and mysterious with his messages rather than just coming out and telling me what he wants or dislikes.
Compare all that mental contortion with this explanation:
Sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad ones do. In a surprising number of cases we can influence things our way. In plenty of other cases, whatever happened was just random chance.
Once we get away from cosmic messengers and mysterious gibberish messages, we are free to look at just what happened with clear eyes. Rather than seeing car trouble as a divinely-sent portent, I can understand that my car acted up on that field trip to NASA because I didn’t pay enough attention to its fluid levels.
No assumptions required, nor outrageous claims to verify first. No inherent immorality and unfairness, no disproportional and completely out of scope responses, none of that. Just reality. And a clearer view of how to prevent mishaps and make oneself more available to good things happening.
A Lack of Growth Potential.
If I relied upon only supernatural explanations with no pattern whatsoever to them, I would not be able to truly learn and grow from anything that happened.
Aside from the sheer immorality of the idea of “messages,” that’s the real danger in them. One might say “aw, who are they hurting with that nonsense?” and the answer is, “Themselves and everybody around them.”
And this mindset isn’t even unique to Christians. I’ve known pagans who acted exactly the same way, and suffered from exactly the same shortcomings, as Christians.
I’d rather have my eyes open and find patterns that really do exist.
When something bad happens that is just a random piece of bad luck, I don’t have to torture myself wondering what it means or what I might have done wrong. I can buckle down and cope with it and know that in my suffering I walk beside every person in the human race past and present.
That thought gives me more comfort than all the religious platitudes I once told myself.
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