If you met me when I was in college, I might have described myself as a Christian. (Or not. I was all over the place about that.) There were a few things I meant by this. One of them was, "Don’t try to convert me, I’m already as converted as I’m gonna get. Please go away now." One of them was, "Yes, I know you say that your stupid bigoted views about gay people come from the Bible, but I’ve read the Bible too, and I think Jesus would support gay civil rights. Because Jesus was a decent, compassionate, fair-minded guy. Unlike you, jerk." And one of them was, "I’m a Jesus fan. I think he had the right idea about stuff."
What did it mean, to be a Jesus fan? To believe in the ethical teachings, to respond to the metaphors and symbols of Christianity, but not to be objectively certain about the metaphysics?
In the years of my final involvement with the church, I wasn’t just wondering, "how can you be sure?," I was asking "do you, in fact, have to be sure?"
I didn’t know if I was a Christian or not, because I didn’t know what it actually meant to be a Christian. Did I have to believe in the factual truth of the resurrection, as well as the philosophical truth of loving your neighbor? If I believed it was all metaphor, but I still liked the metaphor, did that count?
I had a lifetime of being told being a Christian meant that you had "accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior," but I also had a lifetime of blank looks, or offended self-righteousness, whenever I attempted to interrogate what that statement actually meant. I eventually concluded it meant nothing. Nothing more than "you are a member of our club."
In the end, I didn’t stick around long enough to really figure it out. I quit the church again, for good this time, in disgust over the pervasive right wing politics and cultural conservatism.
There was a growing expectation that members of the congregation were naturally on the side of the Republicans in all matters. Not just on matters of social conservatism involving sexual taboos — otherwise known as gay civil rights and abortion and contraception rights — but in absolutely bloody everything. Economic policy. Foreign policy. Generalized lifestyle choices. And, most evidently, Republican politicians themselves. ("And Lord, just be with Oliver North — that great, Godly man — in his times of trouble.")
The Chickians, it seemed, had won. They had replaced the regular church entirely, like a pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I was around twenty-one. My mother no longer made me go to church. I no longer went.
For years afterward, I sometimes thought about going to a different church, perhaps one with a rainbow flag in the window and a different theological take — one where the ethical teachings were considered more important than the metaphysics. But I realized, eventually, that I didn’t actually care about church. I merely had a lingering phantom attachment to the notion that I ought to care.
This is the last post in the series. I thought it was lucky to have thirteen of them. (I’m superstitious that way.) I wanted to conclude with a few last thoughts on irrational beliefs.
I think people are simply prone to have them. It’s probably a bias toward false positives in our innate pattern-seeking behavior, or something, I don’t really know, but they seem to be pretty nearly universal. I have mine, other people have theirs. Other people’s irrational beliefs can seem pretty insane to somebody who doesn’t share them, but that doesn’t mean there’s some objective standard by which a resurrected human-god hybrid makes sense and reincarnation doesn’t.
Atheism won’t save you from the fundamental irrationality of human nature.
Richard Dawkins, for example, doesn’t believe in gods, but he seems to believe some unlikely things about people — first, that it is possible to get them to stop believing in irrational things, and second, that if you did, their behavior would improve. Christopher Hitchens doesn’t believe in gods, but he believed in the Iraq Invasion. And Bill Maher — Bill Maher, who made a whole movie about the silly things that religious people believe — Flying Spaghetti Monster preserve us, Bill Maher believes the germ theory of disease is false.
I think magic and superstition hide in many things that give the appearance of rationality. Self-help books, books about how to succeed in business, diet books. (I would mention The Secret here, but that one doesn’t even give the appearance of rationality, it’s just flat-out magic. And not very elegant or ethical magic, either.)
I think the best way to cope with the human tendency to have irrational beliefs is to be conscious of it. Recognize it. Use it, don’t let it use you.
Superstitions come in two basic flavors: received and directly observed. Received is superstitions that other people tell you about. I have always been highly skeptical of those, hence my longstanding embrace of the number thirteen and black cats as omens of good fortune. A lot of my worry about religious matters as a kid was based on me not seeing religion as being in the same category as ordinary superstition. The adults around me acted like they were a different category of thing, so I believed (at first, when I was young) that they must be. That meant I didn’t feel free to do as I did with other superstitions — embrace the traditional parts that seemed right to me, invert them if appropriate, ignore the rest, and make up my own as required.
Directly observed is personal. Like, when I was nine or ten, I had these bad luck pants. My mother would never believe me that the pants were bad luck. So she made me wear them anyway. They had ugly flowers all over them, which might have been the source of the bad luck, but whatever. I thought it was kind of weird that she expected me to believe in God and angels, but she wouldn’t believe in bad luck pants. It didn’t seem fair.
I like to think that if I were raising a daughter right now, and she thought that she had a pair of bad luck pants, (especially if they were covered in ugly flowers) I would be sympathetic, and we would give them to the Goodwill, after I explained that bad luck pants were a very personal matter and just because they were bad luck for her didn’t mean they would be bad luck for someone else.
But if she came to me a second or a third time with bad luck pants, I would explain that bad luck pants didn’t work that way, and maybe there was something else going on that we should have a talk about.
The thing you have to watch out for is reality itself. Your superstitions should not displace or override everyday reality. They shouldn’t be reality-proof. And they shouldn’t ask things of you that are outside the bounds of what would be appropriate if your superstitions aren’t true. Giving money to your god is appropriate, giving more money than you can afford is not. Believing in a god that is outside of the bounds of what can be proven or disproven is appropriate. Believing in thoroughly disproven notions like creationism, and calling them your god, is not.
Sacrificing yourself on the strengths of your beliefs is appropriate. Attempting to force other people to sacrifice themselves for your beliefs is — well, not only not appropriate, it’s starting to head toward monstrous.
This Friday is a Thirteenth, and I plan to celebrate in some small way, because I do that.
Maybe a Goth House if I get my act together. Although now I worry that I’ve jinxed it by making promises I can’t keep.