The cure you just don't need
Apparently ex-Christians make very good skeptics. It isn't hard to figure out why. I mean, if a person can safely negotiate a path out of the wild woods of religious belief it suggests they are persistent and capable of seeing beyond their own immediate desires. Thing is, once a person has surfaced and come up for air, why is it that so many people, and specifically people like me, tend to glance back and spend an awful lot of time sticking the proverbial boot in?
The religious explanation for this is typically wrong-headed; I'm simply angry and bitter and disaffected as a result of my religious experiences. Well, not really. Now let's be honest, my initial feelings when I realised just how many years I'd spent with my head down the intellectual toilet were of acute embarrassment. I mean, just why didn't I do the basics? Like check out what I was being spoon-fed rather than swallowing it wholesale? Why did it never occur to me to seek alternative perspectives? Well, I guess I was just happy to have found a kind of home and some level of acceptance from God, from others, and from myself. I was in a whole new place, and I was happy. I had a peace that I'd never experienced before; why should I go galavanting about trying to wreck it after I'd been seeking it for so long? In short, I liked where I was, and so it never occurred to me to look elsewhere. You can forgive me for that, right? So when the applecart does get overturned, why look back? Why not just head off quietly into the night, embarrassed and downcast? That's the decent thing to do, right?
It really isn't. But in order to understand this you have to grasp just how important truth is to me. It's everything. It's sacred. It matters in so many ways. These days I cannot go anywhere near my old church; I'm reminded of the times I had my hands in the air, sang the songs, fully convinced that I was at one with the creator of the universe. I recall how I used to view homosexuality, evolution, abortion rights. I remember thinking in terms of saved and unsaved, the righteous and the lost. What arrogance, what hubris, what ignorance.
This is going to be the point where some are bound to take offence, but if I want to speak plainly that's a necessary trade-off. You see, I often wonder whether many remain believers because it defines who they are so very strongly? Consider the following analogy: an anorexic stares into a full-length mirror, a grotesque image of skin stretched over protruding bone. They are utterly certain that what stares back is morbidly obese, and nothing you or I could say would alter this warped image. Only it gets worse: the anorexic often reaches the point where they don't want to change because they have begun to define themselves by their illness. Without it where do they stand? What are they for?
I wonder whether this comparison between the mental illness that is anorexia and the simple delusion of religious belief has striking parallels? Many believers are perfectly wonderful people, yet their self-image has been distorted by the words in an ancient text. You're a sinner, you're fallen, you can't get by without God. In effect, what religion does quite brilliantly is diagnose you with a condition that you do not have and then tries to sell you the cure. And don't think for a moment that peace or hope could ever be found elsewhere, because that's not the way faith works. No, the believer has the truth, the absolute truth, and all else is imitation. And this simple policy of misdiagnosis and phoney cure has served the churches and the mosques and the temples rather well down the ages. People want to find hope, to have assurances for this life and the one supposedly to come, so it's no mystery where the appeal of faith comes from. Combine this with close proximity to like-minded people, often of a kindly and benevolent disposition, and what you've got is a safety net that few would ever want to escape from. I understand its appeal, and I lived it happily for 13 years. That it's built on false claims and myth hardly matters because it makes some bad lives better, and some good lives better still. So if you can swallow the medicine, if you can manage to ignore reality and cling on I suppose I can understand why.
It's just that there's life beyond belief. It's not necessarily better, and it's less comforting, but it's honest in a way that religion can never be. And most believers are scrupulously honest except when it comes to treating their own claims with an honesty that would almost certainly require them to change.