Psychological patterns behind aspects of belief
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight takes a look at the psychological pattern behind aspects of belief.
The recent themes of my messages have been centrally focused on aspects of belief, but the pivotal influence around which those aspects revolve tends to be how people have been brought up to think, as opposed to the specific tenets of knowledge that they happen to believe to be true. I have made it clear that those who adopt unjustifiably rigid or fundamentalist views are contributing to the rise of atheism in the more developed countries (particularly Britain and America).
But I think that point needs to be taken further; when fundamentalists argue for a particular cause or position I think it is a great error to believe that their strength of conviction is based on the matters of detail regarding those beliefs or the strength of data. In the greatest sense, the matters of detail are secondary to the psychology of the person, and that is what I wish to show in forthcoming weeks. Both the matter of detail and the matter of the generalised praxis (that is, the practical application of knowledge, as opposed to what is believed to be known) are too often seen to be the driving force behind the fundamentalists’ agenda.
As a consequence too many make the mistake of looking for counter arguments to the matters of detail (like when a rational Christian tries to refute creationism by responding to the pseudo-scientific claims) instead of realising that what needs challenging is not so much the detail (although for sure, the detail does need exposing) but the psychology behind the position. Please do not misunderstand me; I am not saying rational Christians shouldn’t expose the crass distortions of fact that are plastered all over creationist websites – I am merely suggesting that accompanying those retorts should be an understanding of the aforementioned patterning effect, because I think it is a key realisation in this subject matter.
I think it is fruitful to look for patterns or identify the patterns that present themselves to our senses; for in doing so we can notice that most fundamentalists’ positions have only a proximal relation to the details we see in their arguments, the distal relation goes much further back and much deeper, right into the heart of their psychology, and the polarising lens through which they view the world. What first set off my radar was the sheer number of new-wave atheists that called themselves ‘ex-Christian’ - it was a pattern too tangible to resist, and I knew that it was going to be impossible the ignore what was happening right before my eyes.
The whole new-wave atheism movement has little intellectual merit – my experiences have shown me that it is merely a Promethean attempt to win back something from those lost years that they feel was wasted in church life. In short, the pattern is particularly telling because it helps give exhibition to the weakness of the atheistic attacks on Christianity. Of course, the problem is, a Christian who espouses fundamentalist dogma has almost no hope of making any impact with the average unbeliever – because the chances are what the fundamentalist espouses is very likely to be a myriad of dodgy doctrines and miseducation from which the ‘ex-Christian’ atheist has long since escaped, and to which he has (understandably) no desire to return.
Of course, the issue of whether this is largely the responsibility of the church for not looking after its flock better, or the flock’s responsibility for finding a gate that’s slightly ajar and ramming it open, looms large. One does meet many atheists who have been in a sense born-again – that is, they were born and raised as Christians or they had a brief tryst with church life in their teenage years, and thanks to the current selection of atheist propaganda books (or perhaps events preceding them) they think they have ‘seen the light’ so to speak. As a Christian who has enjoyed many discussions which such people, I find a sense of honest relief that I can appreciate if not agree with them, but also a sense of loss, because the full power of that which they have rejected continues to eludes them. For in the truest sense their experiences have not revealed to them the falsity of Christianity at all, I think they have simply brought distaste to the palate. It is the particular human flavour of Christianity to which they object when they talk of their emancipation and liberation, not Jesus Christ Himself, but a bad aspect like a church or faith school or elder or parent(s).
Instead of feeding them the wholesome spiritual sustenance that Christ intends, they have been given a taste (or a mixture of tastes) that are too bitter (austere and cruel indoctrinations) or too salty (oppressive and repressive indoctrinations that stifle talent and original thinking) or too savoury (overly left-brained and intellectual that pays little regard to the emotional and creative aspects of worship) or too sweet (overly right-brained and super-spiritual that pays little regard to the intellectual aspects or scientific and philosophical endeavours) or too sour (consisting of many inner-coteries, most of which are unable to include people on the outside of them, or engage much with the outside world) - all of which, on their own or in various combinations, are more like poison than medicine to an intelligent and enquiring mind, and in the case of those who are willing to digest, people who go on to be complicit in poisoning the doctrines further (as in cults and cruel control freaks and sectarian bullies).
It is highly likely that the intelligent minds have brought with them some satisfying fragrances and flavours but if their background was not filled with the sort of Christianity that Christ mandated, rather than men and women who teach harmful doctrines, one’s oral cavity and the nasal cavity may mix too much of the bad fragrances and flavours in with the good and severely dilute the wholesome doctrines to the point of wanting to escape the vile tastes and smells and never sample them again. And of course when they meet a Christian in later years who invites them to consider the good news the prospect is about as alluring as eating a bowl full of those horrible tasting foods that they swore they never wanted near their palate again (and sometimes for perfectly understandable reasons).
I fancied that if the single mean Gaussian value creates a very steep curve showing 'New-wave atheists = ex-Christians' then there would likely be similar patterns within Christianity, giving some indication of why in the developed Western world Christianity is not making a strong enough impression on the present generation. Here’s an example of a pattern I have noticed. When one finds a Young Earth Creationist (YEC), you'll invariably find a stock of traits that form a very consistent pattern of personality profile. For example, YECs, I've noticed, tend also to be right-wing, they believe in a literal eternal hell for unbelievers (you hardly ever find a YEC universalist), they believe that homosexuality is a sin and unnatural, they believe that the Bible virtually interprets itself and that one’s own interpretation is almost unnecessary, they see life through a polarising lens of black and white and right and wrong (with a rigid rejection of any subjectivism or relativism), and as we know, they are defensive about science and philosophy.
Perhaps the most notable diagnostic feature of fundamentalists is their insistence on seeing the world too simplistically. Add to that their being unable to engage in the complexities of reality, and the creative thinking required to deal with subjects that require serious mental engagement, and we can see things don’t look good. If there is to be any progress made in bringing a credible and accessible Christianity back into the limelight I think fundamentalism needs to be turned back on itself and subjected to critical scrutiny by those ensnared in it.
The reason these patterns interest me is because they take us to a meta-level analysis beyond the tit-for-tat arguments about matters of detail. I plan to elaborate on this further into the coming weeks – but for now, take some time to consider the importance of patterns, and the realisation that they are not there because of anything trivial or coincidental. Just like the 'New-wave atheists = ex-Christians’ pattern which is too palpable to ignore, so too we see very noticeable patterns in Christian thinking which confirm beyond reasonable doubt that the devil is not really in the detail but in the psychology and the modes of thinking that bring forth the detail. Moreover, there is an all too stark reminder (for any that need it), that much of the historic struggle to improve the credibility of the Christian faith has been because patterns of thinking have been subjected to critical scrutiny with the insistence that paradigm shift after paradigm shift has been required to keep us moving on, and to help us avoid getting left behind as some sort of ancient religious antiquity.
To end on a positive note - I have much sympathy with the position of many of those mentioned I this article - but I must remind you that it is for Jesus Christ that one becomes a Christian, not Christians themselves (although many good Christians can, of course, be kind and helpful and informative). If one wants to live a life with Christ, it is going to require some sense of finding the right flavour to your church life and your education and your growth – different strokes for different folks – God did not make us all alike. The distinction is an important one, Christ is the head of the church – it is Him with whom we have the relationship - the other parts, the ungodly parts that do not suit our palate, are not contingent on His truth, and one might hope for their removal or eradication, and pro-actively attempt to catalyse positive changes, but they are not to be confused with the primary aspect of Christianity – Jesus Christ Himself.
It is my belief that that which unites us is far greater than that which divides us – and, thus, it is my hope that we are in the midst of another challenge to fundamentalism that may well have some impact in ironing out some more wrinkles in the Christian faith. I’m sorry to be a Cassandra figure here, but if we don’t, then the future for Christianity in the Western world may be bleaker than you imagine.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk