A few days ago, I posted a 2009 Discover Magazine article that explained, in the best layman’s terms I had seen to date, a study with fMRI components that demonstrated how believers process the beliefs of their perceived god egocentrically (that is, in the same part of the brain used for their own beliefs on these issues) instead of treating the beliefs of their god the same way they do the beliefs of other, distinct entities. The connection was so strong that if a given believer’s views on an issue changed in the course of a conversation, so too did the beliefs of their god on the same issue.
This led to some heated discussion on Facebook, particularly among people who felt that science has no business investigating the physical manifestations of belief. (Quite peevishly, I will add that these conversations always seem to pop up when scientific studies arrive at conclusions that discount claims to religious authority or spiritual autonomy; if a study emerged to demonstrate, say, the strong correlation between religiosity and higher “life satisfaction,” then it’s all well and good that scientists ran the study in the first place. I am quite happy to post such scientific articles–and do!–but seeing how much the specifics of a study’s findings mitigate reader response to the study’s validity–or even its existence–is still quite disappointing in the long run.)
Nonetheless, after a day of haggling with readers over philosophical aspects therein, a rather enthusiastic new convert to Christianity popped up via chat to discuss the moral dimension of the study (namely, how invoking god as a distinct moral authority becomes all the more difficult in light of study results that demonstrate how malleable a person’s sense of their god’s beliefs truly is), and we quickly segued to the matter of his very recent conversion from non-believer to strong believer in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
I inquired very gently about aspects of his conversion–with repeated assurances that if he was not comfortable discussing it we absolutely would not–but he was quite open and eager to talk about his experiences, so a very friendly, gentle back-and-forth ensued. I was curious to know what beliefs he held now (for instance, just at the end of our conversation I discovered he believes the New Testament to be without contradiction, though he has not read it all yet); in turn, he was interested in my thoughts about various aspects of redemption and the human condition.
Through this conversation I discovered (as I had suspected) a sense of despair at the foundation of his conversion–a failure in his quest for meaning when he thought about mortality, and a difficulty around suicidal ideation that he could not reconcile without first receiving forgiveness for the tremendous and legitimate guilt he saw in himself even just for having the potential to sin. (I asked about the origin of that potential to sin, but his answers were still half-formed on account of how recent his conversion was.) In the midst of this, we talked about Camus’ absurdism and touched on Buddhism, which he routinely commented was a system for which he could see no other end but suicide.
This last was an observation I never got around to addressing, even though it is very blatantly an argument from incredulity: Buddhism has been around for 2,500 years with no disproportionate suicide rate among believers, so to say one cannot imagine how the philosophy yields anything but suicide is an act of rhetorical sleight-of-hand. A better approach to critical inquiry would be 1) to acknowledge the relevant facts and figures for this belief set, 2) to acknowledge where the philosophy seems bankrupt according to one’s own understanding at present, and then 3) to try to bridge the knowledge gap.
It’s certainly what I try to do whenever I speak with theists. (I should probably clarify that I am not a Buddhist, but there are aspects of Buddhist philosophy I wholeheartedly agree with.) And perhaps at the end of the day, for all my attempts to understand, I will still find certain belief sets wholly nihilistic. There is, for instance, an equally dramatic counterpoint to the rhetorical appeal of “If you’re atheist, what keeps you from killing yourself?”–namely: “If you’re a theist, what keeps you from slaughtering as many babies as possible to ensure they’ll go straight to heaven?”
Monstrous question, no? But not without some alarming discursive precedent, not least of which being William Lane Craig’s defence of the slaughter of Canaanite children:
By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable. It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity. God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.
Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.
That said, however, I would no more raise my moral objections with this belief set through such a hyperbolic, disingenuous challenge as “I don’t understand why more theists don’t massacre their infants” than I would expect others seeking honest discourse to assert their incredulity with the existence of atheism by claiming not to understand why atheists don’t just kill themselves en masse if they believe there’s no god.
In short, neither question seems a path to greater understanding. So what is?
I raise the slight and malformed treatment of Buddhism as an exception, and not the rule, in my conversation with this friendly new Christian; for the most part, we had a very positive exchange of different foundational premises and differing experience sets. I asked many questions, but when it became clear he did not feel comfortable with his own level of knowledge about Christianity in those regards, I left off each such matter entirely. Some may disagree with that approach, but for me asking questions is the most useful approach one can use in such discussions; to what end drill someone about matters they readily admit they have not yet fully grasped or explored for themselves?
And because I wasn’t focused on tearing someone’s fragile new faith apart, I instead gained greater insight into myself. Specifically, this summer’s course on Evangelical Literature left me more aware than ever of how easily I might have accepted Christianity if it had been my established routine as a child–indeed, how the kinds of emotional trauma I experienced then seemed to make me an ideal candidate for the blanket reassurances offered by the Christian worldview.
But in speaking to this new Christian about our respective thoughts on guilt, it struck me that my traumatic experiences may have themselves granted me a metric for justice entirely untenable within the Christian worldview. I doubt far less now that, all other things being equal, I would still be an atheist in my adult life if I had grown up immersed in Christianity. (Since I do not believe Christianity is true, and I prefer to predicate my life on what I know to be true, there is great comfort in that thought.)
So what was the revelation? It involved the notions of original sin and guilt, as well as the other fellow’s reference to suicidal ideation; I found myself tackling all three when I described my childhood circumstances–of routine suicidal ideation stemming from an overwhelming sense of guilt when my parents did not handle their conflicts appropriately, leaving me to act as mature guardian for my three younger siblings in their stead. Being a child at the time, I could never perform adequately as an adult, and I internalized that failure; I grew up convinced that everything going wrong was caused by my inability to do or be more than I was.
Indeed, as far as a specific education in original sin goes, mine came from my mother’s claims that the reason she stayed in a circumstance that brought her and my father to wreak terrific harm on one another and the subsequent children was because she was pregnant with me when things first started going wrong in their relationship. Now, this may well be an accurate assessment for her of why she made the choices she did, but what it tells a child is that, just by existing, they have done harm.
To this day, I still feel an immense amount of guilt about the harm that surrounded me throughout my childhood, and all instances of harm to which I was a party–whether as instigator, as victim, or as audience–later in life. Absolutely, then: I know guilt.
But I also now recognize that none of the guilt I internalized over the years was either healthy or fair, and this has profound implications when we shift from one familial story to another–for while learning to acknowledge that one of my deepest-held convictions is wrong is going to be a lifelong battle, many people never even fight it. They are told early on, “Christ died for your sins,” and they accept without batting an eye that just being born human–and thus, with the potential to do both harm and good–was a sin.
The first vaccine for smallpox was a milder variant of the disease, cowpox; if you were given and survived cowpox, you were considered successfully vaccinated against smallpox. (‘If’ being the key word here; cowpox could be fatal, too.) Similarly, many children who confront such internalized guilt do not survive to adulthood. But I did–and in so doing, I came to a point where I could remove myself from the immediate cause of my sense of guilt and observe that whole engine of guilt-creation from a distance. I am not through internalizing self-hatred from my past experiences–but day by day, I survive them. On a really good day, I learn from them, too.
(Amusingly, this is a path to healing accounted for in Buddhism, which observes that suffering comes from our interactions with other people and our investment in other such worldly things. When we can learn to step out of these systems, to absolve ourselves of such dependencies, we move closer to a state in which we do no harm to others, and minimize the chance of harm being done to us.)
On instinct, then, I still “know” my sense of guilt is just; but the reasoning part of my brain (a part of me hard-won by time, distance, and careful reflection) “knows” that this guilt is not just at all. So I can appreciate, I think, the mantle of self-loathing adopted by most Christians (through the belief that original sin is at all a just concept)–and perhaps even the gratitude many must feel, to think they have been utterly forgiven for the sin of being born.
But if my personal experiences have taught me anything, it’s that one’s deepest convictions are absolutely not inherently the right ones–and that sometimes the healthiest thing a body can do, when faced with such erroneous convictions, however deeply rooted, is to learn to let them go.
I wish my young, newly converted friend much peace in his faith, which he seems drawn to for the hope it gives him to stay alive. Some might suggest it is wrong even to tacitly endorse the pursuit of happiness over truth, but that last component of this fellow’s conversion tale is tantamount for me: Whatever each of us may think of death, we share a common struggle to remember that with life comes hope. I can think of no greater fellowship than this–and none harder, whatever the road you’ve set yourself upon.