One of the hardest things I encountered after my de-conversion from Christianity was how to live without second-guessing everything I did, thought, said, or felt.
It’s all fine to say “Well, it was you all along anyway, so all you had to do was skip to the end,” but it’s a lot harder to put that idea into practice. I was used to knowing exactly where to stand on a range of social issues and moral situations. This was good, that was bad, do this and not that, and there weren’t any middle grounds to any of it. I came from a church that taught its members to pray before eating lunch to make sure we were going out to the place our god wanted us to be. Who knows, you might run into a witnessing opportunity that otherwise you’d miss!
(I will say this, though; it was nice of my god to make sure I only got “called” to eat at restaurants that I could afford. And by “afford” I mean we’re talking the $3.99 Mexican buffet over in the bad part of Houston next to the tiny little Bible bookstore that sold every Chick tract and comic book in print. It was one of those restaurants where you hoisted little tableside Mexican flags for the waitress to come to the table. But in retrospect, I’m kind of peeved that my god didn’t arrange for me to get the windfall I’d have needed to do brunch at the Four Seasons lounge–did you ever get a chance to eat there at the height of the 80s? Squid ink pasta and things done with raspberries that should never have happened, people. I’m serious. And it was amazing. The one time I got to go there for one of Biff’s family functions, it was really good. But for some reason my god never wanted me to go there under my own steam. At least I learned the gospel of sopapillas and honey, which has stood me in good stead over the years, and I got all the Chick tracts and comics I could read, which are a source of comedy I’ve only come to love more and more over the years of apostasy.)
It can be really hard to take someone who isn’t used to making any decisions and thrust that person into the active role in his or her own life. I can’t speak to men particularly, but I can say that as a woman, especially, I felt that being assertive and making my own decisions was distinctly seen in a negative light. My church was one of the many evangelical churches that taught an early form of that sick misogyny we know now as “complementarianism,” the idea that men and women have distinct roles given by their god and based upon their biology. At the time I don’t remember hearing that exact term for it, but that’s what we were getting told: that as a woman, I had a certain role in life that my god meant for me to have, and this role couldn’t be changed or argued with or denied without significant peril to my immortal soul. Naturally, by the sheerest and wildest coincidence, that role involved me “serving” and “submitting” to a man–first my father, then my husband, and always my pastor. Not only were my personal decisions decided for me either by my “god” in my head or the men in my life, but so were my opinions. Christians get called “sheep” for a reason.
Oh, the men in charge of my life talked a big game about how harrrrrrd it was to be given their role and they sure hadn’t asked for it, how men and women were totally equal–just different (because that worked so well when they told it to black people), and how much sacrifice was involved in being the person doing all the heavy lifting of deciding everything, and they talked a big game about how husbands should always “serve” their wives by taking their wishes into account before unilaterally making their decisions, but folks, I knew perfectly well that I was getting the shit end of the flavor stick and though I tried very hard to accommodate what I was 100% positive was the desire of my god, it bothered me that I wasn’t allowed to make my most basic decisions or make up my own mind about anything. My feminist mom would have flipped if she’d known what kind of servitude I’d signed up for, but it was either this or hell, and a few decades of liberation weren’t enough to push me out of the flock if it meant risking eternal torture as part of my all-loving, ultra-benevolent god’s ineffable plan. I signed a great deal of my autonomy over out of fear and in the desperate hope that this would make my god happy with me. I don’t know if it made anybody supernatural happy, but it sure made the men over me happy. They’d have been much happier if I’d done so completely, but even then I knew that a lot of what I was getting told to do and think was way too coincidentally beneficial for the men involved at way too dear a price at my expense for it to be morally right.
The problem is that toxic Christianity, at its heart, is a system of slavery. Slavery is made into a virtue, and nobody in my church had any problem with the idea of being enslaved: the men to the pastor, the women to the men, everybody to the Christian god. Ownership and a clear chain of command were absolutely everything in that religion. Even now, I am persuaded that the entire abortion question centers around who, precisely, owns women’s bodies and decides their most intimate behaviors: men, or the women themselves. Just as gay rights challenges fundagelicals’ conceptions of gender roles and sexuality, reproductive rights challenges their conceptions of sexual power and autonomy. There’s a reason why such Christians waste so much time on these cultural wars, pouring millions of dollars into defeating gay marriage bills and trying to shut down abortion clinics, rather than doing the charity work that their Messiah flat out told them to do (Luke 18, Matthew 19). These two battles are paramount to what is very obviously a dedicated strategy to overtake and encroach upon the little free will and self-ownership that these two previously marginalized groups have managed to clabber together for themselves. If women and gay people realize they own themselves and can decide for themselves what they’re going to consent to allow and what they’re going to do with their own bodies, what’s next? Mass hysteria? Cats and dogs living together?
But those are the big decisions: who owns my body. What is allowed to violate and invade my body, for how long, for what reasons. I’ve already talked about some of that stuff. No, I’m talking more about much smaller decisions. Where to work. What car to buy. What major to pick. Who to vote for and why. What color to wear for the portrait session. Thong or granny. Boots or Keds™. Where to park. Where to shop. I felt crippled at first when I was confronted with the sheer number of decisions that I had to make just to function as a normal adult in a world without a magic invisible friend telling me what to do every minute of my day.
Over time I learned how to form my opinions and make my own decisions. And the process was a lot different when I’d been a Christian.
Take opinions. When I was Christian, my opinions got formed first, and then I found evidence for those opinions. Obviously this process was subject to confirmation bias–as with creationism, going top-down has its serious flaws, namely how easy it is to twist information to fit a preconceived idea. For example, when someone’s convinced that “regret” is a serious after-effect of abortion, it’s very easy to find women who regret having an abortion. When someone’s convinced that rock music is of the devil, it’s easy to find rock groups that do unspeakably awful things.
When I was a Catholic child, my sister and I found a Ouija board in the forest hidden among the roots of a cliff-growing tree (oh my gosh we were a pair of little dryads as children; I spent all day in the forest climbing trees and riding my bike down horrifically steep and risky hills, and everything I owned was stained green and brown from grass and resin and blood). We took it for granted that Ouija boards were real, and finding it among the roots like we did had a significantly weird cinematic feel. We took the board home with huge wild eyes and goofed around with it, but my dad went on a bender that day and demanded we throw the board back into the forest as he didn’t want that “occult BS” in the house. I wasn’t thrilled, but I volunteered to return it to where we’d found it. In the time it took me to re-cache the board game back in the tree’s roots and get home, my sister reported half a dozen weird things our dad had done and said, up to and including asking where in the world his elder daughter had gone off to and insisting he’d never told us we had to get rid of the board. We decided this was the demonic influence of the completely-real Ouija board because obviously occult stuff had an effect on people. We didn’t even consider that he’d been drunk as a skunk that day and was probably doing well just to remember that he had two daughters, much less what he’d told us to do. Because I had this opinion about the occult, his behavior took on tones that otherwise it wouldn’t have and I only got confirmation of that opinion because I already held it.
In the same way, I had certain opinions that flavored and colored everything I thought. I had to learn how to hold back my opinion till I’d gotten information. That’s a lot harder than it looks after a lifetime of forming the opinion first and only afterward seeing what confirms it. And I had to learn what goes into changing an opinion.
I’m not an advanced theologian, psychologist, or philosopher, but to put it simply, I had to learn on my own how to weigh evidence and how evidence is supposed to inform an opinion, not simply support it. Let me illustrate what I mean.
The death penalty was probably the last Christianity-informed opinion I had to change. Shocking, isn’t it? I mean, out of everything else someone could change an opinion about, that’s about the last thing you’d expect to be last in line. Some people leave Christianity and hold to the religion’s stance on abortion till the bitter end, but for me, it was the death penalty. Remember, I came of age in Texas, the Happy Land of Herd-Thinning. I read news articles about what condemned people ate for their last dinners with breathless interest. I celebrated when Jeffrey Dahmer got himself killed in prison in the 90s. Sometimes we had to cull people out of the herd.
I’d lived briefly in Japan while de-converting, and the fact that Japan has such a low crime rate really impressed me. Biff once accidentally left his wallet in a mall shop and the clerk in the store asked a customer to tend the till for him so he could dash all through the mall looking for us to return it; it had over $1000USD worth of Japanese money in it; also just before I moved to Japan, a renowned college marching band from Houston, Ocean of Soul, got in serious trouble for shoplifting from a Japanese shop and I remember everybody in my circle of friends being totally shocked that Japan got that freaked out over simple theft. I just had to think twice about how the United States handled crime. Clearly the problem was that we weren’t cracking down enough. Japan was super-tough on crime, as far as I could tell at least, so obviously that was why they had a low crime rate. See how that confirmation bias thing works?I know people who saw Lord of the Rings and credit Gandalf’s speech to Frodo Baggins for why they changed their minds about the death penalty: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” Not me. That wasn’t enough. The logic didn’t seem to follow. I always took a pragmatic “well, you do what you can” position and thought it was perfectly reasonable to give death to those I thought deserved it.
But slowly I began to see statistics that changed my mind. I saw how race and poverty seriously influenced death penalty decisions. I saw how certain areas and states seemed to really love the death penalty but somehow weren’t seeing a drop in serious crime rates (see previous link). I saw how innocent people were put to death despite every effort to establish guilt, and for some reason America’s not demanding DNA evidence in every single case possible before putting someone to death. I saw how America puts to death the mentally ill and we’re still, despite having decided that it’s bad, putting people to death who are mentally retarded. And I saw evidence that criminologists don’t think the death penalty even deters violent criminals.
Seeing these things took time. Until then I drilled down on my opinion: “Sure, but we still need to try something!” and the like. Finally I got overwhelmed and had to take a fresh look at my stance on the death penalty. The way the American criminal system handles death penalties is unfair in the extreme: racist, slanted and biased against the poor and mentally incompetent, prone to murdering people who are innocent of the crimes they’re charged with, and unwilling to take simple steps to establish guilt, and worst of all, despite putting huge numbers of criminals to death, it’s not even a real deterrent. There are other arguments against it, of course, but these didn’t resonate with me quite as strongly–the morality of killing people, for example, or the excellent argument that how we treat even the worst of our herd is a good barometer for how humane we are as a society. Those weren’t quite as strong for me. The unfairness of it is what struck me the hardest. So not long ago, I reversed my previous stance on the death penalty. Until we clean up our act, we can’t take the risk of inflicting death unfairly or erroneously, and if we ever do find a way to use the death penalty fairly and with justice, I’ll revisit my opinion again with whatever new information has emerged about the issue. I ain’t scared of being wrong.
In the same way, I revisited my opinion about the historical Jesus (here’s the link to the post I did about it) once I realized I’d missed a lot of information about the subject, and ended up heading straight into the mythic camp as a result of what I found. That’s one place where I very specifically set aside preconceptions to examine what the evidence suggested about whether or not he’d “really” existed. In the end, I had to say to myself, given these facts, what do they all suggest about the existence of the person described by the New Testament gospels? And I had to say, once I’d reviewed the objective facts I could find about the era, there really isn’t (and in many cases can’t possibly even exist) a real and specific person described anywhere in that era’s history who comes anywhere close to the gospels’ descriptions–though I leave the door open for a “kernel” hypothesis–that the mythic hero of Jesus might be based off of one or more of the many apocalyptic Jewish preachers floating around the area at the time.
Because I very explicitly went into that investigation having said “I don’t care what the evidence leads me to–I’m following this trail of crumbs to the end of the road no matter what,” and not caring either way what it revealed, I remember the process as clearly as a person can remember anything, I reckon. I laid out the “ingredients” for a historical Jesus and one by one went through them, and in the end, came out with… “precisely dick,” as Agent K put it so eloquently. So if not a single ingredient turned out to be corroborated in the historical record beyond a rather vague recollection decades later that yes, there were some Jewish guys running around screaming about the end of the world in that area and general timeframe, it seems foolish to keep believing in a historical Jesus. I don’t make a big deal out of it; as my post about the subject says, his reality or non-reality really doesn’t impact Christianity’s validity except insofar as Christians keep insisting there’s tons of credible evidence for him when there isn’t. But believe me, I was just as surprised as anybody else to end up in mythic-Jesus-land. I’m not ideologically bound in one direction or the other; what matters is the objective truth. And if I find more evidence, I’ll revisit that opinion. Again, I ain’t scared of being wrong. I’m more scared of ignoring evidence so I can hang on to a cherished opinion.
When we’re married to ideology (“well of course Jesus really existed”), it’s a lot harder to change our thinking or our behavior. The opinions we hold shape our actions and decisions, from who to vote for to how to dress. When I held the opinion that my modesty was important for men’s self-control, I was also buying into the idea that my body was essentially public property, that my personal and most intimate decisions could be overridden by someone else, and that I had at least some measure of control over how men around me thought and acted toward me. I dressed in ways that I thought were inoffensive to men and I acted in ways that I thought would keep me from attracting attention or lust. I kept my voice soft and modulated and my eyes lowered, all because if I got victimized, it was at least partially somehow my fault. (I’m sure this is going to shock my friends reading this blog entry now! Ha!) But when I realized that every person is 100% responsible for his or her own behavior and that my body–including my uterus, my vagina, my hips, my face, my eyes, and yes most especially my smile, damn it–belonged 100% to me and nobody else, and that no act of violence or unwanted aggression toward me was my fault but rather 100% the fault of the aggressor, that changed a lot of those previous behaviors and decisions, you can bet.
It was hard to get out of that mindset where my opinions were handed to me and accepted without question, and where evidence was sought only after the opinions had already been formed. But the result was living like an adult and being free to make mistakes, learn from them, and move on, instead of being locked in a mindset where even after being confronted with evidence contradicting a course of action or opinion, I just doubled down on the stupid.
After leaving Christianity, I found myself without any external sources telling me my opinions. It was even harder to live without being told what to do! To eat at this place or buy that car or take this other job. It could be really hard to decide what to do; sometimes I’d dither or just vapor-lock, unable to decide. But let me tell you: over time, I figured things out, and so will anybody reading this who is still a recent de-convert. It gets a lot easier over time. Your opinions might be hard to examine and change, but once they do and as they do, the behaviors and decisions that flow from them become much easier. Very soon it became second nature to decide things on the fly and do spontaneous things just because I could, which got me a reputation for a certain level of wacky Manic Pixie Dream Girl capriciousness, and some time later, it became second nature to examine situations from as many angles as possible to determine what was best to do, which calmed me down again.
This world is moving fast. Science is discovering stuff constantly that challenges our old assumptions about things. Psychology and sociology are finding new ways of engaging the world and making positive changes. We can’t be hidebound and hope to progress. We’ve got to be able to review our opinions anew when new information comes to light and we must cultivate a greater fear of holding a misinformed opinion than of being proven wrong.
Just as right-wing toxic Christians are being seen as total buffoons (or to be more specific, as even worse buffoons) for thinking that the morning-after pill is abortifacient when it just isn’t, when piles of evidence are mounting against that opinion and making their behavior look downright barbaric and misogynistic, when we desperately cling to an opinion that goes against evidence, we sometimes hold more than just ourselves back. The opinion of a so-called “expert witness” regarding North Dakota’s viciously anti-choice law was enough to convince a bunch of “pro-life” forced-birthers to push hard for the legislation, which would seriously have adversely affected untold numbers of women, but a judge used very harsh language about that “expert’s” testimony, saying her “opinions lack scientific support, tend to be based on unsubstantiated concerns and are generally at odds with solid medical evidence.” But it doesn’t take a mind reader to tell that this “expert” person’s ideology informs her opinion, not reality and truth, and also that her ideology matters more to her than reality and truth. She and her group are very unlikely to revisit their opinions even after a judge declared that those opinions are demonstrably erroneous, any more than the perpetrators of the various perjuries and deceptions in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District reconsidered their position regarding creationism after getting called out for their lies and errors (seriously though, if you haven’t already, check out the Dover judge’s final decision; it’s long but it’s hilarious to see toxic Christians repeatedly getting caught red-handed lying to a judge’s face). Opinions can have some serious impact on how we live and how the human race moves forward.
And we can’t be doing that. We’ve got to be able to live life as if it were the only life we’ll ever get, because it may well be.
Next we’re going to be talking about burden of proof: how to figure out who owns it, how to shoulder it, and how to push it back onto the people trying to mistakenly hand it off to you. It’s not easy to form an educated opinion if you’re busy taking on someone else’s burden!