Sunday, July 9, 2017

Phantom Faith

I spent the past week or so researching a fairly simple idea I had that I thought might help a few people understand themselves, and perhaps even understand one another.  After reading and listening to various people discussing their "journey" through their religious life, I think I finally have enough evidence to discuss it.

There is a common phenomenon I have noticed among two specific groups of people: those who believe in the God of the Bible but oftentimes question that belief, and those who once believed in the God of the Bible but now no longer do.  Thus, in this premise I'm excluding people who outwardly never admit to questioning the Bible or what's in it, and also excluding those people not raised with religion who generally believe that the Bible is nothing more than fan fiction.  I'll demonstrate the phenomenon with two scenarios, one with a skeptical theist and one with an introspective atheist.

Scenario 1:
A woman who is very active in her church realizes that there some things in the Bible she can never bring herself to accept.  She has a very close friend who is gay and she doesn't see anything wrong with it because to her, it's none of her business.  She also has several coworkers whom she thinks very highly of, but they follow other religions.  To her, they are all wonderful people and not one of them deserves to burn for eternity in Hell.  When the need arises, she dutifully serves on the church board and frequently gives her opinion to the Pastor and other church leaders even though the Bible speaks very specifically against this.  Yet with all of this internal turmoil, in the back of her mind she cannot bring herself to stop going to church.  A frightened little voice inside her worries that if she starts questioning her religion, her Pastor, or even her Bible, then she too will burn in Hell forever.  Thus, she gathers all of her doubts and stows them away by convincing herself that all the unpleasant things in the Bible are just fables anyway.
Scenario 2:
 A woman whose entire family is either moderately religious or fervently religious, and who was in fact raised by enthusiastic Christian parents, has decided that after years of research and study, she no longer believes in the God of the Bible.  She is comfortable in her decision, and decides that it is time to tell her family that she's an atheist.  She handles herself well through the squabbling and bickering between herself and other family members over her decision.  She even offers gestures of comfort and support as some of her family weep on her shoulder.  After all of the arguments, debates, and other emotional outbursts are finally over, and after most of her family have finally accepted who she is, there is still this lingering thought in her head that compels her to consider that they might be right and she might be wrong.  She finds that even in her lack of belief, she still struggles with the conclusions she has drawn based on her own rationality.
 Both of these scenarios have one common thread - that "phantom limb" of belief.  Or, what I'm calling "Phantom Faith".  Dozens of people's blogs that I read or videos that I watched all had this one common thread.  Granted, the Christian-turned-atheists were more likely to admit that they have this issue than the skeptic believer might, but in general they both seemed to have the same, "little voice" in the back of their minds.  It might not seem like much to either of them, but that tiny little nagging voice had wildly different results based on which person's mind was being affected.  On one hand, the nag caused the atheist to second-guess themselves a bit, or fear that they might still be wrong.  On the other, the skeptic theist fears real, physical pain on an eternal scale; a kind of pain that everyone who has ever had even a minor sunburn can attest to.

My thoughts on this phenomenon are that, in general, we're witnessing the result of precisely calculated and profoundly effective childhood indoctrination first hand.  If that is indeed the case, then it explains many things.  It explains why religious leaders insist that very young children should be exposed to their religious views, even though there is no way they have the experience nor the education to process it.  I often argue that this is why children are told whitewashed Biblical stories rather than what's actually written.  For example, if kids actually knew the entire story of Lot and his daughters, that whole pillar of salt thing would not nearly provoke the type of anxiety that it does when you omit the details.

And it also explains why religious leaders skip over various portions of the Bible in lieu of their own message or agenda.  I believe that religious leaders count on the fact that most people sitting in their congregation will accept his word over their own judgment.  These leaders also count on most people's lack of motivation to learn, especially in adults.  The religious leaders know that more often than not, people will only read the passages they he focuses on, and accept those passages in the context that he delivers it.  (Now I could be mistaken, but thus far I only see this type of careless acceptance occur in adults who were raised in religious homes.)

It is this phantom faith that compels perfectly sensible adults to accept things from the Bible that they would never accept from any other book.  It is this phantom faith that inclines Christians (or Muslims, as the case may be) to believe miraculous stories told by other Christians and disparage miraculous stories told by people of other faiths.  People tend to have very healthy skepticism when it comes to miracles performed by other gods or people of other faiths.  But as soon as they know their god did the miracle working, well that skepticism gets thrown out the window without a second thought.

They have been so conditioned by religion that their brain has accepted that belief as a literal body part, like an arm or a leg.  And once that phantom faith is perceived as an actual physical part of your body, it becomes extremely difficult to abandon it.  It's like telling someone in their 30's or 40's that if they cut off their finger they'll live to be 93 rather than die at 73.  It's easier to live now with your phantom faith than to lose it altogether.

The phenomenon is different with converted atheists, but it's still there.  When they actually do reach the point where they no longer accept there is a God and they sever that belief, that phantom faith still creates havoc in their mind.  Indeed, phantom faith induces chaos that can even be painful at times.

I guess my point is this:  Be mindful of what you are exposing yourself and your children to.  Understand the messages that your children are receiving, and exactly what feelings they have when they are introduced to them.  (Frankly, some of those stories are exceedingly harsh for youngsters and can most certainly be very frightening for them.)  Learn as much as you can about your religious text, and put that education to good use.  Do not accept that you cannot understand everything in it.  You can.  Give yourself enough credit as a functioning human adult to find out for yourself.  And above all, do not believe someone based on a well-rehearsed skit they perform every Sunday morning from a stage with perfect lighting.

You have the book right in front of you.  Read it.

Addendum:

For those of you reading this who might think they caught me comparing apples to oranges in my two scenarios, let me explain.  I purposely made the phantom faith in scenario one not as obvious.  The woman in scenario one is propping up the comfort she feels from her religious belief on phantom faith.  It is simply too difficult for her to make herself come to grips with what she feels is wrong about what her religion teaches.  Yet her phantom faith keeps her in check with the church.  Think about it this way, a man that has his leg amputated from the knee down is still able to stand provided he receives an artificial leg.  But that leg is still not his leg.  Similarly, as the woman in scenario one still believes she has her faith and her religion, it is certainly not the religion of the Bible.

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