Last time we met up, I shared a whole bunch of Bible verses and stories that I wish I’d seen while I was actually Christian–because they’d have helped me leave the religion a lot faster! I literally didn’t notice the Bible’s most troublesome passages. I don’t even think I was even capable of noticing them. At the time, I suffered from a malady that appears to strike many Christians: antiprocess. I was reading the words and seeing the pages, sure, but I wasn’t able to clearly perceive what they said. Through antiprocess, I protected myself from a confrontation with some truly challenging new ideas and contradictory information. Here’s how I did it–and why I had to do it.
The Fast Track (to Deconversion).
We need more atheists–and nothing will get you there faster than readin’ the damn Bible.
Penn Jillette, 2004
In Christian mythology, the Bible is a very magical book–containing both supernal wisdom and supernatural powers. In reality, it holds neither.
Christians could easily be forgiven for having that kind of faith in the Bible. In Christian-Land, regular, diligent Bible study is supposed to fast-track Christians to spiritual maturity and give them the strength to maintain their faith even through those inevitable periods of thorny, gnawing doubt–as well as teach them how to live like decent, ethical human beings and help them settle difficult questions about how to conduct themselves and their relationships. This is the only book anybody needs, they often tell anyone who’ll listen.
This faith is only reinforced by the growing numbers of Christians who claim in their testimonies to have been TOTALLY atheist before conversion, y’all. One of these, Marilyn Adamson, speaks of Bible study in the most glowing terms imaginable, and this Christian blogger certainly thinks that Bible reading, along with apologetics, will convert any “reasonable” atheist.1
But many ex-Christians sing a very different tune.
The Truth About the Bible.
When asked why we stopped believing, many of us say simply, “I read the Bible.”
(Our commentariat talks about it all the time; I’ll be posting a subthread here specifically for people to upvote or comment if this was also the case for them.)
I could say that myself–it was, after all, a Bible study that finally withered away the very last of my own belief.
The surprises didn’t end after deconversion, either. I still continually discover stuff in the Bible that I somehow totally missed during my years as a Christian–and in the comments on the last post, at least one person said that he’d been very surprised by a story that even he hadn’t known about.
Not surprisingly, my church leaders and the writers of the Bible study guides I followed somehow didn’t talk much about those verses.
And I sure didn’t notice them myself.
Wait. How Can Someone Just Not See a Bible Verse?
When I first began seeing these various verses, I was gobsmacked.
How had I missed them?
I mean, the Bible’s been around for many centuries–even for millennia, if you’re looking at the Old Testament. It’s not like it’s hard to find a Bible! New technology has only made the Bible more accessible. There are hundreds of Android Bible apps right now in the Google Play Store–and about 20 at least for one-year cover-to-cover study programs.
And yet somehow even the most fervent Christians avoid reading their most-idolized book.
Even in self-reported numbers, Christians barely touch the Bible. One 2013 study from the American Bible Society indicates that 57% of Americans read their Bible four times a year or less. Only 26% of Americans in that study said they read the Bible more than four times a week. A 2015 LifeWay study discovered that only 45% of Christians who claimed to regularly attend church bothered to read the Bible more than once a week, while almost 20% of those churchgoing respondents said they never did.
Ah, but I was one of those rare ducklings who not only believed that the Bible was literally true and divinely authored/inspired, but who also regularly read and studied my religion’s sourcebook. I made time almost every day to read it and also various commentaries on it. I attended and took notes during Bible studies at church and had a special study Bible set aside to be highlighted and filled with sticky notes and color-coded tabs. It didn’t even occur to me for a very long time that most of my peers in fundagelicalism weren’t doing the same thing I was.
So how did I miss all that stuff?
Antiprocess: It’s What’s For Dinner.
The answer may be found in the very human tendency to filter out anything that’s really uncomfortable–a process called antiprocess.
See, when we process new information, ideally at least, we take it in (by reading it or hearing it or whatever) and then we fully engage with it (as in active learning). We compare it to what we already know; we figure out how trustworthy its source is; we align it with our existing opinions and values. And then we either incorporate it into our body of existing beliefs, necessarily changing any old ones that turned out to be incorrect, or else we discard it after determining that it isn’t valid information.
Ideally, I’m betting that most of us like to think that we engage in this manner every time we encounter new information. In reality, very few of us manage it–especially if the information is contradictory to our existing body of beliefs.
Most of the time, we realize very quickly if something is going to agree with those beliefs or push back against them. If we start thinking that the latter is what’s happening, then we find ways to nullify it before it can get close to our inmost selves.
(Or we compartmentalize the information, but I’m getting ahead of myself; we’ll heading there next time.)
How Antiprocess Works.
That’s what antiprocess is. It’s simply that mental and largely subconscious filtering process that helps us get through our days with as little stress as possible. In essence, we gloss over and ignore most of the stuff that we encounter.
And it’s pretty safe to do it, most of the time. Most of what we encounter isn’t particularly important. It’s just white noise. We’ve probably encountered it a bajillion times before, and our minds have much more important work to do. So we’ll totally forget 99% of the stuff that flashes past us on the way to work, instead noticing a clown spinning plates on a street corner along the way. Even then, we’ll probably “fill in the details” of the clown and misremember he had bright red hair when it was really day-glo yellow, or that he wore a polka-dotted costume when really it was a striped-blue onesie, or that he was spinning three plates when it was really six. None of that information is particularly important, so it’s safe for our brains to ignore or fill in those details–though if it did become important, like if the clown turned out to be a criminal and a police officer was asking us what he was wearing, we’d still do the same thing because our brains can be real scumbags that way.
All that extraneous information just bounces away from our minds like arrows glancing off a shield. Ka-pwing! Ka-pwing! And we barely notice that there were any arrows fired at all.
We all do this filtering constantly. Indeed, we must. We can’t possibly process all of the stuff we encounter, and when we do process something we’re going to want as little stress as a result as we can manage. Having one of our beliefs challenged can be very stressful, and very few of us really enjoy learning that we were wrong about something. The more important the belief is to us and the more is riding on that belief, the less we’ll want to learn that it was wrong. And the harsher the penalties are for being wrong, of course, the harder we’ll fight to maintain those beliefs.
So what information does come through to us generally confirms or expands upon our existing beliefs, or makes us feel good about having those beliefs. According to one author, Margaret Heffernan, “we mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs.”
And we’re surrounded by modern technology that understands this dark secret about ourselves far better than we ourselves do.
The Strategies of Antiprocess.
People trapped in really untenable situations–and people who have a very pressing need to adapt themselves to a particular ideology–must be very careful about exactly what they take in and what they reject. They employ a number of tactics to get the job done–and again, most of it happens without them being aware that their defenses were engaged at all. Even people who say they’re totally interested in an open, honest, genuine dialogue can and usually will be be hamstrung by antiprocess, especially if that proposed dialogue involves their most important beliefs. They employ a lot of mental strategies for avoiding challenging or contradictory information. In this respect, antiprocess is very similar to Orwellian crimestop.The easiest strategy of all is to tune out, of course. Here, someone might pretend to be paying attention when they’ve actually long ago mentally departed a challenging conversation and are now only perceiving the equivalent of the teacher’s mwa-mwa-mwa droning from those old Charlie Brown TV specials. Creationists are past masters of this tactic, but they’re not the only ones who use it all the time; any fundagelical pastor who talks about what atheists are totally like almost certainly has tuned out anything that challenges the fundagelical party line about atheists. They need atheists to be a certain way for their beliefs about atheism to make sense, and nothing, not even actual atheists, will change anything they think.
Whataboutism and goalpost moving are other common forms of antiprocess. Instead of engaging with the information, the challenged person casts about for something that will hopefully redirect the conversation onto safer shores–and keep their beliefs safe and intact. When Christians challenged about Christianity’s atrocities splutter about what they mistakenly believe to be atheist atrocities or start whining about how everyone goes easy on Islam, that’s what you’re seeing.
Thought stoppers can be used as well to completely derail challenging information. Catchphrases like our god’s ways are higher than our ways and welp, I reckon it’s just a mystery! can be recited and parroted without a single independent thought. Thought stoppers prevent thinking in the same way that a pie gate keeps a runny pie’s juices from getting everywhere. If you’ve ever dealt with a Christian who copies and pastes Bible verses every time someone pushes back on their assertions, thought stopping is part of what they’re doing.
A person locked in antiprocess will keep these strategies going for as long as they must–until their conversation partner goes away or until they can move themselves away (or until they are themselves removed) from the information presented.
And remember, the whole time they’re going to be doing it all while convinced that they are having a real live two-way dialogue, or otherwise are totally and fully engaging with the information being presented to them.
The first time I experienced antiprocess in someone else, it was after I’d schooled a Christian in the totally false nature of his miracle claims. He acted like he totally got what I was saying and agreed that the evidence I presented to him was compelling and that he should withdraw his claims. The very next day, I spotted him in a different digital community making exactly the same miracle claims.
This intellectual dishonesty floored me–that first time. I’m used to it now. I know now why it happens. Miracle-Boy was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and his false show of understanding was the only way he could deal with some very disturbing new information.
The more fanatical the Christian, the more is riding on their maintaining a high degree of faith in a wide array of distinctly and obviously untrue ideas. Their eternal fates hang in the balance, but there’s a lot of real-world stuff at stake than just that pie-in-the-sky future promise. Their families may abandon them if they stop believing, while their friends almost certainly will. They might lose their jobs and their standing in their community. Young people may lose financial support from their parents, and thereby jeopardize their educations and thus their entire futures. Some people who lose belief in even only one aspect of Christianity, like the morality of their culture war on LGBTQIA people, even face the threat of violence from their “loving” tribe. Most of us would be hard-pressed to name a single belief we hold that carries anything close to that degree of life-altering importance.
(I hope nobody here thinks it’s some kind of cosmic accident that Christians attach such obscenely high penalties to losing faith in their various claims. A system works as it has been designed to work.)
So yeah, I saw those troublesome Bible verses many times over the years I spent in Christianity. But I didn’t possess the ability to really notice them, much less process them. I’d have found it extremely challenging or even frightening to engage with them squarely, so I glossed over them, or else I saw some hand-waving blahblah explanation for them that soothed me at the time–only for me to get snapkicked across the chest later when I saw them without my Jesus-blinkers on, after I’d figured out how truly worthless apologetics is in assuaging serious doubt.
While those antiprocess shields are in place, nothing challenging is going to get past them.
That’s why you can lead horses to water all you like, but they’ve got to be the ones to decide to drink it. Until they make that decision, nothing we say will get through to them–no matter how much thirsty they are. Even if you tell someone who is clearly experiencing antiprocess that it looks like that’s what’s happening, they’ll not only deny it to the skies, they’ll leave the interaction convinced that yes, oh jolly well bloody yes, today they totally set someone straight on something.2
Moving Past Antiprocess.
Science first came to know itself as a rebellion against trusting the word of Aristotle. If the people of that revolution had merely said, “Let us trust ourselves, not Aristotle!” they would have flashed and faded like the French Revolution.
But the Scientific Revolution lasted because—like the American Revolution—the architects propounded a stranger philosophy: “Let us trust no one! Not even ourselves!”
Less Wrong, “Science Doesn’t Trust Your Rationality”
A bit of the Bible is beautiful and poetic, and a few cherry-picked verses are concentrated on to the near-exclusion of everything else to justify various doctrinal stances. Those two categories of Bible verses constitute that tiny fraction of the Bible where my Christian community and I hung out. When I was Christian I couldn’t have handled seeing the truth about the Bible, and so… I just didn’t.
When I finally was ready to engage with the shortcomings and errors in my belief system, it fell away from me like a shroud, sure. But it took a lot to get me to that point, and most Christians simply won’t go through what I did quickly enough for it to matter.
Knowing how easy it is to fall into antiprocess makes me doubly dedicated to examining new ideas as rationally as I can to ensure that I’m not clinging to untrue beliefs just because they’re comfortable–especially if those comfortable beliefs date back to my Christian days or are particularly important to me (or make me feel good to hold).
Seeking the Truth, Wherever It Leads.
We can also use a sort of scientific method to engage with challenges. No wonder Christian extremists hate it so much! If the scientific method actually supported Creationism instead of kneecapped it, you can bet they’d love it. There are other methods that minimize our tendency to insulate ourselves from challenges, of course, and the more of them we discover and put into motion the better off we’ll be–as uncomfortable as it can be sometimes to get there. As the saying goes, The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
(Later on we’ll be talking in more detail about some of those methods of getting past antiprocess.)
But I don’t know what’s worse: when we just don’t take in the challenging information at all, or when we totally do take it in and yet lock it away and tame it so it can’t threaten our beliefs and our opinions about ourselves. That’s what compartmentalization is, and we’re going to tackle that topic next time–see you then!
1 In the comments in the original, people called him out on that phrasing too–not that he responded constructively or anything. He’s not the pastor I mentioned interacting with earlier, but both men are parroting the same party line.
2 This is how Christians and non-Christians both came away from the Ham on Nye debate convinced that their side totally won that thing.
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