We’ve been talking lately about how sales-minded Christians really need their targets to have the correct worldview. As I’ve mentioned, I grew up with the absolutely perfect one, at least from that point of view. It was a wonder I lasted till my teens before some evangelical somewhere got ahold of me! But when I was a little tiny kid, that worldview backfired on my indoctrinators. Today, I’ll show you how.
(This post originally appeared in the now-defunct Patheos blog Ex-Communications on December 1, 2014. I’ve only made it more readable. From introduction: The sixth basic flavor; Amygdala mapping; Justin best ratboi frfr no cap (for real for real, seriously).)
(Today’s post first appeared on Patreon on 10/5/23. Its audio ‘cast lives there too and should be available as you read this!)
The worldview that made me susceptible to fears that couldn’t be supported by evidence
Most of us have, as children, done or said stuff that made our parents drag out their child psychology books and parenting manuals to try to make some sense out of their progeny. Here’s one of those events from my own childhood.
It all began very innocently. In fact, it’s one of my earliest memories. For my earliest school years, I went to school in Honolulu under the watchful eye of Diamond Head. It loomed up above all the buildings and trees, its top glistening on many mornings.
My mom or my babysitter walked me there and back again every school day. But whoever was walking me home that day was lagging a bit behind, so I walked home with another girl. She wasn’t a friend, more like a frenemy.
Before too long, we had a conversation that, as best as I can remember, went about like this:
“Yes! It’s a demon hand. It hides under your bed and then it grabs you.” She said this with an air of conspiratorial terror.
“No way. I don’t believe you.” Or rather, I didn’t want to believe her. But I still felt the beginnings of fear spark inside me as I listened.
She painted quite a florid picture: “No, it totally happens! My aunt said it does. So you have to keep everything on the bed. If any part of you hangs off the edge of the bed at all, it’ll just reach up and grab whatever’s there.”
“What does it do once it gets you?”
She gave me this significant look. “You don’t want to know.”
No, I absolutely did not want to know. But right away, my imagination helpfully offered a lot of suggestions. I don’t know if the girl herself feared this Demon Hand, or if she’d just been trying to get a rise out of me. Either way, she definitely got a rise out of me.
And just like that, my worldview adjusted to include this new threat
In fairness, there’d probably been a horror movie released around that time (the early-to-mid-1970s) about a disembodied, murderous hand. Maybe it was The Devil’s Hand (1961). That one isn’t really about a severed hand per se, but its poster sure features a scary-looking hand on it. My acquaintance had likely seen something like that and had drawn some startling conclusions from it. At the time, though, I didn’t know that.
Once I got home, I had to assess my risk potential. There wasn’t a way for a demon hand to hide anywhere under my pallet at home. I grew up poor, so my sister and I slept on makeshift sort of futons on the floor of my family’s tiny little shack.
But at my babysitter’ house, I took naps on a proper bed. And sometimes my mom let me sleep in her bed. Both of these had more than enough space for an enterprising Demon Hand.
It took some time for anybody to notice the quirk that resulted from my discovery of this threat.
I was far too embarrassed to say why I was so scared of sleeping under covers. But somehow I’d gotten the idea lodged in my head that doing this would let me keep better track of where my arms and legs were. Thus, sleeping like that might keep me safer.
Finally, someone noticed. Then my mom had to think of a good way to ask a terrified child why she was sleeping on top of the covers on a made-up bed and resisting naps and bedtime with far more vehemence than even was normal for her.
And this resulted in quite a strange conversation for my mom
At that point my mom had a problem. I’d been raised with a certain number of supernatural beliefs. At this stage in my family’s life, my mom wasn’t a very firm churchgoer. She was having a hard enough time surviving in Honolulu as a single mom with two very young children. But she still had allowed me to be taught—and had taught me herself—that supernatural things existed that couldn’t be proven or disproven with observation or facts.
So there really wasn’t any good way for her to tell her frightened child that the Demon Hand didn’t—couldn’t possibly—exist. When she tried, I asked her how she knew that.
She replied that nobody’d ever seen one.
That reply went nowhere fast. Nobody’d ever seen Santa, or the Easter Bunny, or Jesus or our very god, so what difference did that make?
Then she said that nobody’d ever had a real encounter with it. That was just as ineffective. Nobody had ever had a real encounter with those other things, either. In my world, saints and demons and angels and gods not only existed but made real pests of themselves with people. So why couldn’t a Demon Hand do the same thing?
In the end, my mother failed to convince me that there wasn’t anything to fear.
She and I shared a worldview that fully supported these sorts of threats
My mother believed in the supernatural and in all those Christian myths. So she didn’t really have a good way to disprove the existence of the Demon Hand to me. Though she expressed total mystification about my fear, she lacked the ability to convince me it was a foolish fear to have.
This childish terror was simply going to have to subside on its own, and thankfully, eventually, it did.
After a few months of uncomfortable, way-too-sparse sleep, my problem sorted itself out through sheer exhaustion. After a few nights of accidentally falling asleep in totally unsafe positions and coming out of it alive, I began to relax little by little.
But the episode left an indelible mark on me for the rest of my life.
Over time, I began to see—as I disentangled myself from Christianity—how belief in this supernatural stuff had led me to buy into equally ludicrous ideas because I literally had no idea how to tell if a claim was true or false. Because I bought into religion, which couldn’t be tested or falsified, I had a lot more trouble applying those principles to other claims. The scarier a threat sounded, the more likely I was to do whatever I needed to do to avoid it. Christianity had the scariest threats, that’s all. If some other religion had beat those threats, I’d have been there. I’ve no doubt of it.
It took years to untangle the damage that worldview did to me
Most Christians—indeed most people, I’m guessing—have a way of compartmentalizing their beliefs so they apply those principles of healthy skepticism to some things, but not all things. I didn’t have that ability. I had to learn that skill from scratch in my mid-20s when I deconverted. When I was Christian, I constantly fell for fad diets, financial scams, and I don’t even want to consider how many conspiracy theories.
Because I believed in one big thing (Christianity’s various claims) that totally could not be verified, that put me at a huge risk to buy into other things that had to be taken on similar faith, things that were contradicted by direct observation and all available credible evidence, things that could only be supported by fancy arguments and intricate diagrams.
Deconverting didn’t actually fix the problem, either. Mostly through stubbornness and a streak of dealbreaking disappointments, I’d figured out that Christianity’s claims weren’t true, and that had led to my deconversion. But the worldview that had led to me becoming a fundamentalist was still there. Those tapes were still playing in my head. I still had no real idea how to assess claims. I still thought in a very fundamentalist way.
So I still fell for cons and false threats. For an extremely brief while, I even got taken in by AIDS denialists. I’m really glad that didn’t last long. That lady had just looked so credible, glowing with apparent health in her photos! And she’d sounded so completely certain! And she’d thrown around all those Science Words!
For a while, I felt like half a person. I knew one thing that was false, but everything else was just a mystery.
A lot lurks under the hood of Christian belief, especially right-wing Christian belief
When I began to notice my own tendency to buy into unverified scams and conspiracies, I began noticing that my peers in church had been doing the same thing. Most of my church’s women had been involved in some kind of multi-level direct-marketing
scam “business.” Most of my church’s men had likewise been way into Rapture predictions or Jack Chick-style anti-Catholic or Satanic conspiracies.
When one of these scams or conspiracies got finally debunked to the point that even those who bought into it had to admit it’d been debunked—like a Rapture prediction that failed to materialize on the proper date, or an MLM that finally failed to the point where even the person doing it had to admit it was a failure, then the believers in it would just leap to the next unverified, untestable belief without missing a single beat. Sometimes the people doing this didn’t even notice it was happening. It was just surreal to consider.
I know part of that tendency to go in for conspiracies and scams comes from the Christian tendency to see huge, dark forces working behind the scenes to manipulate politics and world (and small scale) events. When someone is primed to believe that demons are everywhere pulling strings, it can be really easy to start believing in other conspiracies.
It can be very flattering for some folks to believe that they’re important enough to merit that kind of attention from powerful entities and forces. But without the influence of a Christianity-friendly worldview, it’s a lot harder for one of those ideas to lodge in someone’s head.
That’s one reason why I think that people often deconvert but still immediately end up smack-dab in other unprovable belief systems or heading into conspiracy theories. Without examining how we know what is true and what is false, without arming ourselves with those critical thinking skills, we remain at risk of falling right back into something untrue just because it sounds really impressive. Enlightenment doesn’t come to us automatically just because we reject religion’s overreach. We’ve also got to learn the skills to discern objective truth.
Christianity sure doesn’t teach those skills. I can see why, too!
As I slowly stumbled my way into learning critical thinking skills
It was the AIDS denialist lady, Christine Maggiore, who finally jolted me off that path. I’m ashamed to even think I went in for that now, but at the time it just sounded so convincing.
The belief sparked to life when I saw a magazine article about an AIDS denier who was raising her HIV-positive kids without drugs. This was almost before the internet, so I had no way to research the story, but it had a doctor in it talking about how we were creating a disease that didn’t even exist. OMG! What?!?
I didn’t know then that sometimes doctors are cranks spewing wacky ideas, or that fringe movements like AIDS denial rely heavily on what amounts to quacks and junk-science purveyors.
Thankfully, I slowly did get enough real information from real doctors that I found my way out of that mess after just a few months. Because I never got involved with its community or shared my delusion with anybody before it ended, I don’t think I hurt anybody before I figured it out.
But the path out of that delusion was painful and rocky. It showed me at last that I really didn’t have the faintest idea how to weigh claims, which was quite a sobering and embarrassing realization. That’s when I began to learn critical thinking skills in earnest and to apply those skills to claims I heard. I began making a project of testing my beliefs, and I was just dismayed as one by one, they fell apart under that testing.
It’s a big world, and there’s a lot in it jostling for our attention, belief, and buy-in. There are a lot of folks out there who want to sell us something—to get money or attention out of us, or even just get validation and affirmation from us as fellow believers in whatever it is.
It’s always been important to know how to tell what’s true and what isn’t. That skill’s needed now more than ever. But when someone’s escaping from the harm that religion does, critical thinking becomes doubly important to keep us from falling into some equally-harmful trap of the mind.
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