Unlearning all the faulty logic and pseudoscience I’d learned while Christian was tough. But I had a much tougher time with unlearning how I’d learned how to learn and what knowing something actually means. I’d thought I had a handle on how to assess and absorb knowledge, but I was completely wrong.
(This post originally appeared in Ex-Communications on February 9, 2015. Since Patheos has decided to take down both my Roll to Disbelieve work and my Ex-Communication contributions, I thought it’d be fun to set some of those Ex-C posts here. I’ve tidied this one up for reading ease.)
Christianity gave me a vast framework for learning and assessing information–except the results weren’t true
My beliefs had given me a framework that I used to evaluate claims and approach the issues of my day. That framework had formed the foundation of how I went about figuring stuff out. I saw everything in terms of how it fit into my faith and how I should respond to it as a Christian.
Even as I moved from one denomination to the next, and long after leaving Christianity entirely, I clung stubbornly to some of the vestiges of that basic framework.
The framework had a lot of components. They all worked together more or less smoothly to keep me from engaging with the real world.
It almost kept me from leaving the religion. It’s that powerful. It not only colored what information I was getting, but made it even possible to see that information–or not to see it–at all. That’s why tearing it in half was so difficult–but so necessary.
(I’m just going to note these ideas in passing here; each one could easily merit its own post.)
“There are other ways of knowing,” except not really
I learned from my earliest years to think that there was some other magical way for something to be objectively factual without actually being credibly verifiable by measurement or senses. If facts didn’t support the claim, then maybe it could still be true.
No. There is not, and it can’t. There’s just one way of knowing. It comes from observable and measurable facts and data, like those gathered from testing falsifiable claims. As AronRa on YouTube points out, if you can’t show it, you don’t actually know it.
But clinging to this false idea was all that had made Christianity even possible. After deconverting, this part of my framework enabled me to keep believing in magical claims as well. So it was difficult to perceive, let alone challenge, this idea.
Living in “ought” rather than “is” causes misery to others
Instead of basing my opinions on how people operate in the real world, I should, I thought at the time, favor social policies that totally refused to take reality into account.
I’ve seen a lot of Christians do that. They’ll hold certain stances because they think than an ideal person or society should hold those stances. Sometimes, they even vote for or work to make those stances become law (or at least moral imperatives)–even though our very real society has demonstrated that it categorically can’t do that without multiplying misery upon those affected.
The idea I had that we should do these things took precedence over the damage and heartache those stances would cause if actually made binding upon real people. But then, I had to create all these escape clauses and “get out of X free” cards necessary to make those stances even halfway palatable to anybody with half a sense of compassion. (Yes, I’m thinking specifically of abortion escape clauses here, but there are lots more beyond that culture war.)
At least it kept me busy!
Gaining false knowledge from fake experts
Anybody who’s laughed his or her way through convicted tax scammer Kent Hovind’s utterly awful “dissertation” (which you can find right here, and which begins “Hello, my name is Kent Hovind”) knows that pretty much anybody can assume the mantle of expertise in Christianity.
Diploma mills like the kangaroo court that gave Mr. Hovind his laughably inept degree are only part of the problem. Sometimes Christians will actually have a degree or some kind of training–just in something totally different than the topic at hand, like this guy who is basically a lab technician passing himself off as a scientist, or the various big-name preachers totally lacking psychological training who nonetheless keep giving psychological advice to people.
People who actually have reputable educations and are speaking about their actual areas of expertise get drowned out by hordes of ear-tickling “experts” who only confuse Christians more by making them feel certain about nonsense.
It took a very long time to look carefully into exactly who was giving me information.
Lacking a foundation of critical thinking skills
I knew my share of philosophy majors in college, but generally speaking my peers didn’t trust the discipline a whole lot. Most of us saw it as something that would only confuse Christians and lead them astray. The generally weird behavior and speech of those philosophy majors only reinforced that opinion.
When I was Christian, I didn’t have the faintest idea what a logical fallacy even was, much less know that the favorite apologetics arguments of my day relied on them so heavily. It was a real sad moment for me when I did realize it, long after deconversion. I’d parroted those arguments so many times, all without realizing how foolish I sounded to anybody who could see through those weak arguments and ploys.
Weirdly, strangely, perplexingly, critical thinking skills just weren’t taught or emphasized at any point in my entire childhood or young adulthood.
I used to wonder what would happen if Christians, in particular evangelicals, learned those skills. But now, I don’t think it’d help much. Even evangelicals who seem sharp as tacks seem to compartmentalize their faith-knowledge away from their real-world-knowledge. They simply can’t apply the same scrutiny to their beliefs that they do to stuff like buying a car.
Not understanding the importance of good teaching
I really thought I could teach myself anything I really needed to know–and do it on par with formal education.
Call this one the Good Will Hunting Effect, or blame it on Americans’ eagerness to believe that any fools can teach themselves particle physics and statistics and be the equal of all the formally-trained experts in the world.
There was already a distinct anti-education bias going around when I was Christian and I see that bias getting worse and worse when I survey Christianity as a whole today. (It’s only gotten worse since this post was originally written.)
I sincerely believed that I could read popular books about history, theology, or science and come out of it knowing more than trained historians, seminarians, and scientists–and moreover that I could give these (likely atheist! gasp!) folks a run for their money.
But I didn’t realize back then what goes into the formal educations of those fields and others like them. Nor did I possess any background at all in the rigorous methodology they have to know. Thus, of necessity my results were going to be weak if not hilariously wrong.
About the best thing I can say, when I run into these homegrown historians, scientists, and theologians is “bless their little hearts, they’re trying so hard.” But I ain’t on my high horse here: I know exactly how seductive this thinking is.
Forming opinions before gaining knowledge, rather than the other way around
In the real world nowadays, I look at facts and what we know before I form an opinion–or at least allow myself to view even competing information in case my opinions are wrong. Doing this has led me to some surprising places.
When I was Christian, though, I started with the assumption that the Bible was real, that Jesus was a real live god, that Christianity’s claims were true, and that my various political and social stances were the morally correct ones to take. So I sought (and perceived) only information that seemed to support those ideas and positions, dismissing the rest or ignoring it.
And there exist a great many ways to dismiss and ignore contradictory information in Christianity.
Lording my fake knowledge over others
As a subset of the previous section, I developed this unfortunate tendency to think I knew better than other people did what was best for them. Often, I even managed to develop that knowledge before even really talking to them! Amazing, right?
That bad habit was surprisingly hard to break. It’s very easy to dictate for other people what they should “just” do. And I see a lot of Christians trying to do exactly this on a near-daily basis. Then, I see them get absolutely gobsmacked when their victims react with anger over being treated in such a condescending and thoughtless manner.
I wish I could say I was different from them, but I’m sure I wasn’t. Sometimes, I thought I was being given divine knowledge (what Christians call “a word of knowledge“) of what was best for that other person. At other times, I was merely working off of the rest of my knowledge framework.
Maybe the problem was that I was very inexperienced still. Maybe I was just an asshole. Either way, I worked hard to drop those bad habits.
As you can see, I left nothing to chance here
With this framework, I looked at the entire universe and my place within it and came out with opinions and stances that were by turns ignorant, hopelessly narcissistic, arrogant, and thoughtlessly cruel. And when I got pushback, I was able to reconcile that pushback with my framework by telling myself that those folks just didn’t like hearing the truth I was dishing out. Evangelicals still talk like this today.
My society just couldn’t handle real morality anymore. My world just didn’t like knowing it was hurtling headlong toward a date with the Rapture and the Tribulation. Truth? They can’t HANDLE the truth!
The problem is, this framework is like a gown doesn’t really fit very well over the dressmaker’s form that is reality. It stretches and tears in some places, sags and droops in others. I didn’t notice at first. I didn’t notice for a very long time. But eventually, I saw that not only was I not seeing stuff that other people saw, but that the way I had been taught to approach problems and issues tended to produce not coherency and peace but division and discord.
Climbing out of that pit started with a question:
What if all the knowledge I thought I had about the world and the people in it was just wrong?
It isn’t much fun to think that one’s entire worldview is in error. Nobody likes to think that their entire foundation is wrong. A lot of folks might deconvert from Christianity but still insist up and down that some of its ideas were correct. I wonder if the reason for that is because they just don’t want to think they were totally wrong. Surely some part of it was correct. Surely something is salvageable from all those years of belief.
I struggled for years trying to fit my deconversion to my previous beliefs. I wanted to arrive at a worldview that I could believe was moral and correct, then finally looking squarely at it all, as if I was one of those folks who wakes up from a coma and has to learn everything all over again.
That’s when I finally began to unpack some of the stuff that had happened to me. In turn, that’s when I finally began to recover from that previous life. I had to ask:
“Okay, so what if it’s all totally wrong? What if not a single bit of it is right? What if it’s all a toxic sludge and none of it is actually salvageable? How would I know, and where would I go from there?”
And the funny thing is, I did discover a couple of things about religion that aren’t totally awful–superfluous, yes, but not awful. I probably came out of the whole experience a lot closer to what Christians envision as a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ than I’d ever actually been as a Christian. Weird how that worked out.
Finally, I was basing my opinions and morality on reality rather than on wishful thinking and unfounded hopes and bad arguments. That has made a world of difference for me.
The good news is, we’ve got some time
When we deconvert, we don’t need to make any big personal changes right away. And often, we can’t anyway because of the emotional damage we have to deal with first. So it’s a good thing there isn’t a deadline.
Some Christians never get locked into the sort of framework I’m describing here. Or maybe they didn’t fall into every one of those mental traps. But I did. I’m speaking mostly about the really rowdy right-wing end of the religion, not the liberal/progressive schools of thought that don’t tend to be a problem for most folks anyway. Some ex-Christians have more to unpack and unlearn than others. That’s fine too. We all have time.
No, there’s no huge end-of-the-world life-or-death threat hanging over our heads, no Hell to fear, no divine fury to placate. Work at your own pace! That’s what it’s there for!
We can put the whole question down for a long time–even, as I did, for years. At our leisure, we can toy with it again like a Rubik’s Cube. Or we can even solve facets of it, then set the matter down again for later consideration of its other facets. (Indeed, that’s how this growth normally seems to happen.)
The scaffolding under the knowledge framework
Either way, I’m suggesting–very gently–that after we deconvert, that we often need to challenge the worldview that got us into religion in the first place.
Deconversion doesn’t magically lead to enlightenment all by itself. We might have dropped the label, but the indoctrination might still be lurking back there in the dark corners of our psyches. Because that indoctrination informs religious beliefs rather than flows from them, it can be insidious and hard to detect. I’m talking about beliefs like women’s value and freedom relative to men. The whole reason we have slews of regressive, misogynistic atheists running around is that they rejected the religious trappings, but kept the scaffolding. (And I don’t wonder why, either. That scaffolding is all they’ve got to feel good about themselves.)
It’s worth it to unlearn that indoctrination, to reject that scaffolding. Now that I have, I’m in no danger at all of falling back into something outlandish. I’ve also avoided some potentially catastrophic scams and predation attempts because I did that work years ago. This process of unlearning and relearning protects us in a lot more ways than just the obvious ones.
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