This post is part of a dialogue, In Two Minds: The Anatomy of a Christian Hate Letter, between former minister Brian Worley and psychologist Valerie Tarico . In the series, Brian Worley, an ordained Baptist, describes some of his encounters with Christian friends and family since he deconverted and Valerie Tarico responds. In Letter 3 Brian talks about what attracted him to the Christian faith and he puzzles over why Christianity provokes such intense and even violent reactions toward apostates and outsiders.
The things that attracted you to the Christian faith are the same that attract many people. Recently I attended a meeting called “Vintage Jesus” held on the University of Washington campus. There were two to three hundred local students who had come to hear a charismatic mega-church minister tell them who Jesus was. I watched with fascination as Pastor Mark Driscoll wove his story, subtly distorting, blurring ideas together, overstating agreement among Christians, and skirting biblical contradictions. But he beautifully played the factors you mention: earnestness, a single “truth” story, moral rigor, camaraderie, and a rock band that upheld their promise to “melt our faces off.”
When one is deeply immersed in fundamentalist Christianity, it feels beautiful. It feels like the real deal. It rocks! It feels like being part of a loving community with a higher calling—because, in fact, it is—even if that higher calling is based on utter fabrication.
To understand the intensity that gets triggered when outsiders question religious beliefs, it helps to understand how and why those beliefs get stuck in our brains. For the moment, let’s borrow from Richard Dawkins and think of Christianity as a “meme complex”, meaning a set of viral ideas that get transmitted from person to person.
Thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of religious ideas have evolved in human minds. Some of them never make it outside a single mind. Most of them simply die out within a generation or two. But some capture the imagination. They get passed on from person to person and generation to generation, even for thousands of years.
These successful idea-organisms, things like Epicureanism, Hinduism, Tao, Marxism, or Christianity, basically get humans to serve them—to spend their life energy passing on the compelling “truth” that has been discovered. “Compel” is the operative word here. The impulse to pass on this truth needs to feel urgent, important. The more like a compulsion it is, the more energy a person or group of people will devote to the ideology.
To be powerful in this way, the meme complex has to fit the structure of the human mind—how we process information. We have structures almost like templates in our minds; and information needs to fit these structures to get encoded and retained. (Pascal Boyer’s book, Religion Explained, does a beautiful job of outlining this.)
But the meme complex also has to tap deep emotions. Think about all of the forwarded email that comes across your desk. What do people pass on? Things that move them. Things that make them laugh or get teary. Things that make them get angry or scared or give them chills. Christianity would be dead in the water if it didn’t trigger powerful emotions.
How does it do this? Answering this question would take a book, I’m afraid. But the general gist is that it taps emotions that are wired into us for a variety of adaptive purposes:
· The social emotions of warmth and closeness, belonging, and love,
· Our inclination to seek and defer to social hierarchy.
· The moral emotions: empathy, shame, and guilt.
· Our sense of the numinous—the intuitive perception of things beyond the reach of our senses or rational cortex.
· Our capacity for pleasure, for joy, delight, peace.
· Our self-preservation instincts: fear, tribalism and wariness of outsiders, anxiety about death.
As I rattle through even this brief list, I find myself admiring the thoroughness with which the Christian belief system weaves itself into the depths of the human psyche. One of the benefits of understanding this is that it gives us empathy for people who are still bound to the beliefs that once bound us—your brother, my brother, and the 45% of Americans who call themselves born-again. It also gives us some empathy for ourselves, we who ask ourselves how could I have been so blind? ! How could I have spent 10 years or 20 or 30? and who feel guilty about all the others that we brought into the web who are still caught there.
I hope this helps.
Want to review another letter in this series? Just click the link below.
Introduction Letter Letter 1 Letter 2 Letter 3 Letter 5 Letter 6