Israeli settlers are stealing other people’s land in the hope of bringing on the Messiah and a terrible war. On the alternative side– as it thinks of itself– the Islamic jihadists are preparing a war without end, a faith-based war, based on the repulsive tactic of suicide murder. And ALL of these people believe that they have a divine warrant, a holy book, and the direct Word of God on their side.
(Christopher Hitchens debating Dinesh D’Souza at Notre Dame, http://youtu.be/jhP-LOlPNX8).
Hearing that, I hear my old self, my formerly Christian self, blurt out what had become my stock answer to such challenges: “Well, those two particular religions are in hopeless error, in darkness instead of the gospel light, and no wonder they are pursuing evil ends; it all makes perfect sense within my Christian biblical worldview.” My go-to reply in essence was: ‘If they only knew what I know, they wouldn’t be so wrong.’
My current self has something to say to my old self and its pat answer:
“That’s the best you can do? That really satisfies you? The simple assertion, ‘I’m right, they’re not’ is all the perspective you require?”
Until I had set aside that thought-blocking Christian delusion, I could not have even put the following concept together, I was utterly incapable of contemplating it: ‘Surely all religion including my own is man-made, and faith is the dangerous commonality behind it all, unhinging whole swaths of the human species from their only hope of survival: reason.’ That idea is as painfully obvious to me now as it would have been utterly obscured from view back then, before I set aside religion and other delusions.
It’s amazing to me that anyone breaks free of what binds them to religious delusion. The number one reason people find themselves within one particular religious system is family; their family is Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Sikh, or Jewish, or Catholic, or Jain, or Mormon. They are immersed in that particular religion’s form of delusion from infancy; a geographical accident placed them in a certain continent, in a certain era of time, in a certain country, in their family. But inevitably, the delusion prevents them from thinking about that accident. They are trained to think teleologically; it was meant to be according to the creator’s plan that they are blessed to be in the One True Religion (the delusion also prevents them from contemplating that most religions think of themselves as the ‘One True’ religion).
How much courage does it take to break from your family’s traditional religion? Some religions attach threats of emotional or even physical violence to apostasy and heresy. Of course there are few former fundamentalist Muslims from the Mid-East and southeast Asia! They enforce a death penalty upon those who voluntarily leave Islam! Others stay in to avoid being shunned or outcast. They simply never are allowed to contemplate the possibility that they are wrong; there is too much risk inherent in such dangerous ideas.
Reason alone is not always sufficient to allow someone to leave the religion into which they were born. It also requires bravery to face the reaction they are likely to incur by breaking off from their family’s faith traditions; it takes courage to look over and above tribal, cultural, and superstitious wish-thinking, and the resolve to follow the evidence even if it leads one in very lonely directions. Reason can come along later, but it must start with the first step: opening your ego to the possibility that you (and it) are wrong about your most treasured beliefs. That possibility is, of course, not allowed to be contemplated within religious tribes and groups, which is why the delusion so powerfully persists and propagates itself.
Atheists, agnostics, and those who have left one religion for a competing one all share one characteristic from the point of view of the believers they leave behind: they no longer belong to the ‘in group,’ they are outsiders, they are (usually) now enemies of the One True Faith. Those contemplating the break must overcome the social stigma it will inevitably incur, especially if they must continue to live in a region in which the majority of the population adhere to a single religious tradition. The lucky ones live in those parts of the world which encourage individuality and independent thinking, such as most of the United States, the UK, most of the EU, Australia, etc. Even within secular states, there is always a cost to contemplating the possibility that you are wrong: usually your closest friends share your religious background, and normally religious believers do not allow themselves to become close friends with non-believers (it’s dangerous, and there usually aren’t sufficient common interests).
So the likely future scenario facing a believer who has followed through on the thought that they might possibly be wrong about their religious beliefs includes the possibility of losing friends, changing employers or even careers (if they, like I did, work for their religious organization), distancing themselves from their family members, leaving a tightly-knit social group which often connected them with fellow believers all around the world (an automatic network of worldwide acceptance), and the prospect of having to re-evaluate almost everything they believe about everything. Again, it’s amazing to me that anyone ever leaves their religion.
To anyone who reads this, if you are contemplating the possibility that you need to break free from your family’s traditional religion, and there are great costs to such a break, I offer you one tiny perk: my friendship and loyalty.
And to answer one likely rebuttal to this: Yes, I remain open to the possibility that I am wrong, and would run back to the waiting arms of God, and to the fellowship of His good followers, just as soon as He showed up in my life (in a way not otherwise explained by confirmation bias, wish-thinking, agency detection, or other such mental artifacts of bygone epochs). If God cannot, or chooses not, to make his existence obvious to all human beings in the way that is best for them, but instead remains hidden in the ancient scribblings of Iron Age tribesmen and the modern cults based on said scribblings, then I am forced to conclude either that He does not exist, or has chosen to hide himself from the view of a vast majority of human beings. Either way, his ‘teachings’ are irrelevant to my well-being, and that of all humans.