The Vast Comfort of Literalism

The Vast Comfort of Literalism March 13, 2015

Sometimes it still shocks me that I ever converted into a fundamentalist, literalist religion after having been raised Catholic. Last time we talked, I touched on some of the science- and history-based apologetics techniques as part of our Handbook for the Recently Deconverted and wanted to break this out into its own post for a bit. Usually when you run into a Christian using those sorts of arguments, you’re dealing with someone who buys at least to some extent into the idea of Biblical literalism, and I want you to know what’s happening under the surface of those interactions.

Childhood indoctrination covers a lot of ground regarding why grown adults think that the world was created some 6,000 years ago by an invisible wizard trickster who planted dinosaur bones and sped up the light reaching us from faraway stars, all to fool everybody into thinking the universe was much older. Usually you have to be a kid to believe that sort of nonsense; older people know better. (And not even all kids fall for it!)

But that doesn’t quite cover people like me, who knew perfectly well what the prevailing scientific consensus was about the subjects of evolution, geology, astronomy, and paleontology–and still converted to a religion that has now become known for its self-serving science denial. I’ve had to give a lot of thought to just how I landed in something like that.

None of these reasons I’m about to give could be considered any kind of prevailing one; I don’t know if there even was a prevailing reason that dominated all the rest. Nor are they given in any order of importance, nor to be considered universal, though I’ve noticed that they’re common. I only want to give outsiders–those who’ve never been involved in anything like fundamentalism or evangelicalism–some idea of what the attraction is to some fundagelicals, so maybe they can engage better with those who are or who have been there.

Here is why I found myself drawn to the idea of a literal Bible:

* I was primed to believe in the idea of magic and magical thinking.

I use the term “magic” not in the sense of D&D-style wizardry, but more like psychologists use it: to mean the idea some folks have that doing some specific act or saying some specific words can have an effect on something totally unrelated to those words and deeds–like prayer or Wiccan rituals do. My entire world was permeated with magic from a young age. I was raised with fairy tales and mythology. When I was told as a child about angels and Jesus and everything else, I believed it 100%. I trusted the people around me to tell me the truth about the world and how things worked. Though I’m sure the vast majority of the adults in my life were well-meaning and believed what they were telling me, I got raised thinking, as they surely had before me, that invisible friends were real and that magic really happened. I got raised to distrust my senses and believe things for no good reason whatsoever. Even into adulthood, I struggled hard with this early indoctrination. I didn’t have a real way to evaluate magical thinking because I’d been taught that some magical thinking was okay (even great!). Because magical thinking isn’t based on reality, there’s nothing stopping someone raised that way from sliding further into the fundagelical pool.

* I didn’t understand science or critical thinking very well.

Even educated in a public-school system, I didn’t know much about what theories really are or how we know the facts we do about the universe. Certainly I never learned how to analyze Christianity’s claims on any kind of critical level. It didn’t even occur to me back then that people could sound very, very, very certain about a subject that they didn’t understand. I certainly never even imagined that someone might lie–be it by omission or commission–about something important like religion.

* My misunderstanding of the Bible led me to believe that “lukewarmness” was bad and that it meant “anything less than total freakout zealotry for Jesus.”

I’m sure a host of youth pastors across America are sort of regretting this tactic now. When I survey how young people especially are handled in fundagelical churches, it seems very much to me that their instructors and mentors are trying to inculcate them with as much rah-rah as possible so when the kids get older, they’ll hold onto that enthusiasm at least a little bit as adults. Youth groups are generally a lot more fun than adult church services, and the activities are a lot more relevant to kids and teens. Between mission tourism and camps and Vacation Bible School, kids get a lot of attention. I can’t speak for every church out there, but at the ones I attended, Sunday School, CCD (that’s the Catholic version of Sunday School), and the like were used to instill in children a sense of wonderment and devotion that would hopefully carry them through later in life. “Extreme” was a good word, not one that might alarm anybody. When I ran into the Pentecostals, I’d been disillusioned with how little fervor I’d seen among the churches I’d attended–and how much hypocrisy and blatant sinning I saw there. Fundagelicals seemed very different, and I didn’t notice till much later that all that fervor hid exactly the same hypocrisy and sinning–and maybe more of it. All I saw was the “on fire” part. The Bible said a lot of bad things about lukewarm Christians, and I didn’t want to be one. The last thing anybody could say about the Pentecostals I met was that they were anywhere close to lukewarm.

* Fundagelical culture–based as it is on what such Christians at least think is a “plain” reading of the Bible–is extremely structured especially for women, and I think I needed some kind of structure in my life.

Much like how the military provides aimless young people a strong sense of structure and purpose in life, fundagelical life provided me a lot of structure in my own. I’d grown up military and had moved a lot. I felt awkward and poorly-socialized, and it wasn’t till years after graduating from high school that one of my friends from back then let me know that I’d actually been popular and well-liked; I sure had not thought that during my time there. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and I didn’t have the faintest idea how to adult. By giving me a firm sense of direction and solid expectations for interaction and behavior, fundagelical culture provided something to me that I’d never had in my life. I didn’t know that what it prescribed for women was deeply unfair in practice, and I sure didn’t know that what they said all women wanted was far from a universal life-path for all women. My leaders said that it was fair, divine, and universal, and I took their word for it because I had too little life experience to know better.

* Literalism made a great many promises to me about the benefits I’d see from being a literalist.

I was taught that I’d be physically safer and face fewer tragedies and losses in my life by holding this worldview and complying with it. Women who dressed in a “worldly” way, men who drank or smoked, people who didn’t tithe, you name it–there are a lot of penalties thought to happen to those who don’t hew to the fundagelical model. I’ve seen Creationists threaten society with rapes everywhere if Creationism is rejected; I’ve seen pastors threaten the Earth with meteors and school shootings and worse if their literal interpretation of the Old Testament isn’t made law. Threats worked great on me because I had been raised with a lot of violence, uncertainty, poverty, and chaos. I felt I needed protection, and what gave better protection than a god? (What, indeed!)

* Literalism provides a solid sense of certainty to its believers–and feeds into fundagelicals’ near-paranoid distrust of anything new or different.

Quite a bit of literalism is talking points and groupthink. These talking points are quick, catchy, and simplistic–and that appeals to a lot of folks in fundagelical denominations. Book after book after book comes out regurgitating the same simplistic talking-points, logical fallacies, historical revisionism, and pseudoscience, to the point where this bullshit becomes all but Biblical canon. None of it is meant for non-believers, though; it’s meant for believers, who will read it and become more and more certain of their belief. When I read the writings of Christians, what springs out at me most is their yearning for certainty in a fast-changing world. I remember feeling that way too. Even in the late 1980s, the world was changing so quickly that it seemed like it’d be all but unrecognizable to me soon. When I sang “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” it was with the most heartfelt possible aching for something that was familiar and would always be familiar. I sank further and further into literalist churches and dogma seeking what I thought was “the original church,” and I loved best the Bible verse that talked about “God” being “the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” When people accuse fundagelicals of being trapped in the past, fundagelicals only wish aloud that that could be true.

* Literalism made me feel smart and superior.

I wasn’t stupid, but fundagelical culture made me feel like a mental giant compared to all the people around me who didn’t know what I knew. I was like one of those weird conspiracy theorists. I knew the world was going to end soon. I knew that the Rapture was going to kick-start Armageddon. I knew that there’d come a massive and awful persecution of Christians. I knew that the Bible was literally true, every word (somehow). I knew, I knew, I knew that there was a Hell and a Heaven–and that I could tell who was going where. I knew about types and shadows (which is how the Old Testament “predicted” the life of Jesus–as if it’s especially difficult to fire an arrow and then paint a bulls-eye around it! Also see this about whether those “predictions” hold water). Nobody else knew or understood what was really going on, not even so-called “experts” in theology. With very little effort and reading, I could make myself feel like ten times their superior. I could feel like an expert. That was appealing to someone like me, who wasn’t really good at failing and got frustrated fast with not understanding stuff.

* Literalism made me feel a lot more sure of my faith.

I didn’t need to grapple with the total lack of support for the veracity of the Bible’s mythology–my faith system was filled top to bottom with junk history and pseudoscience to support that it’d all really happened. I didn’t need to ponder why the Bible had so many contradictions in its pages–talking points handled that. I didn’t need to wonder why a divinely-written or at least divinely-inspired book had so many atrocities or barbarities within its myths–there is always a way to dismiss those or to read something miraculously-modern into its verses. It’s a very simplistic way to look at Christianity, and it’s popular for a reason. One thing I admire about Judaism is that there’s none of that nonsense in it; quite a few of its scholars know the source material is filled with problematic passages and don’t care if it’s totally authentic in its history or science. They wrestle with it and try to figure it out and fit it all together, and they accept that sometimes there’ll be some uncertainty. They don’t pretend to have all the answers, and they don’t pretend there’s some one-size-fits-all aphorism or folksy bit of wisdom that’ll explain everything just right. I’ve seen some Christians go that route as well, and they tend to be really decent folks. I just couldn’t, is all.

* Literalism made sense to my rather black-and-white way of looking at the world.

I’m not sure if I was that bad before Pentecostalism got to me, or if I got that bad after getting into it. But I can tell you that I was that bad a very short time afterward. I was “all or nothing,” “go big or go home.” I didn’t want to do anything halfway. Literal interpretations of the Bible present themselves as an all-singing, all-dancing, end-all be-all comprehensive way of seeing Christianity–and the world itself and society. The problem with this sort of interpretation is that if even one bit is wrong then it’s all wrong, but as long as nothing is demonstrated to be wrong then everything is okay.

* Literalism gave me an excuse to feel both dominant over other groups and persecuted by those selfsame groups.

Ever notice how weird it is that fundagelicals treat LGBTQ people like vermin (usually cloaked in pious-sounding declarations of “love”), and yet insist that there is some massive conspiracy on the part of LGBTQ people to destroy America or take away Christians’ Bibles or behead TRUE CHRISTIANS™ or something? That in a nutshell is where I was,decades ago. As a fundagelical, I was part of the vanguard of Christians meant to rule America and take care of all those lesser non-Christians (and not-so-true Christians). But I also saw that selfsame America as a very inhospitable place to my kind of Christianity. There was a conspiracy afoot to destroy the true religion of Jesus, and we had to stop it. That kind of weirdly militaristic apocalyptic thinking was very common in my denomination–and it seems like it’s only getting worse now. I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to feel superior–remember, I thought I was gawky and awkward, and I knew I wasn’t a genius or a supermodel–and religion gave me that reason. I had to learn at great cost where I stood in the world and I’m glad I did, but religion kept me from having to confront my strengths and weaknesses by exaggerating (or creating from whole cloth) the former and letting me ignore the latter. When I deconverted, I came face to face with reality in this regard, and it was not a fun or happy time for me.

Sewing 01
Sewing 01 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Creating something out of whole clo–OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT MARKER DOING THERE NEXT TO ALL THAT WHITE FABRIC?!? IS SHE MAD?!?!?

There you have it, friends. That’s a lot of what I got out of being a fundagelical Christian. Literalism–in the form of fundagelical teachings and culture–formed the backbone of a lot of my self-delusions and fed my illusions of how the world worked. Remember that saying we’ve talked about here before? “When someone’s paycheck depends on not understanding something, you can bet that person won’t understand it.” My paycheck was huge, and it depended utterly on buying into the false promises and assurances made by what I thought was a literal reading of the Bible. So yes, you bet your ass I held onto it for a long time even in the face of constant reminders that it wasn’t quite right.

Please notice I said–and often say–“what I thought was” a literal reading. Given how little we really understand of the Bible, its cultures, its languages, and its context; given how little we know about the provenance of much of its passages; given how long ago this stuff happened and how hard it is to corroborate anything about it; given how much Christians have clouded up and shat all over what we do know, I don’t think there’s a single chance in the world that there is a “plain” reading of anything about the Bible, much less any “literal” way to follow its commands.

I know what I’ve listed here might seem downright weird-sounding to outsiders. It sure doesn’t make my younger self look really bright! But I stumbled my way into fundamentalism and its weird literalist fetish at a time when the worldview it presented sounded infinitely superior to the one I was operating with before then. I needed structure and certainty; I needed to know how to fit myself into society. I wanted reassurance and a sense of community. By buying into this way of viewing the Bible, I bought into not just a general viewpoint but an entire way of life–one that pandered exactly to what I needed most.

That’s why it’s not as easy as just showing a fundagelical Christian why there’s no way the Exodus could have happened, or knocking down Creationism, or pointing out how drastically unfair and nasty a lot of its culture is. You’re not just dealing with the raw facts of the Bible. You’re dealing with an entire mindset and more than that, a mindset that makes its adherents feel smart, certain, superior, and correct. It’s a mindset that justifies any amount of overreach–and even encourages it. It’s an entire lifestyle and a sense of community with like-minded believers. It forms the foundation of one’s entire belief in Christianity and is often the only way its adherents believe is the correct way to practice the religion–and remember, deconversion means eternal torture. Losing one’s grip on literalism threatens so much that a literalist Christian holds dear. Even one’s sense of purpose and place becomes lost when that mindset is lost. That’s why fundagelicals struggle so hard to let go of literalism.

I’m nothing but happy that I found my way out, and nothing but happy that I got knocked down those necessary pegs. I’d rather build my sense of self and my opinions on what’s real than what I wish was real.

With this post I want to share why someone might get dragged into literalism. With that said, I want to reiterate that this kind of Christianity is declining fast–and I’m sure a lot of folks leaving its churches are, like me, more interested in the truth than in a worldview built upon the foundation of sand that is literalism.

We’re going to return to the Handbook next time, with a list of sources I use to educate myself about Bible-related stuff. Please do join me on Saturday!

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