Re-writing our Religious History

When people enter their religion, they usually enter for very simple reasons:

  • family tradition
  • mimicking admired people
  • pursuing lovers or friends
  • crisis, illness
  • depression, anxiety, fear of hell, fear of death
  • status, supportive community, economic security
  • moral network for children
  • rebellion, a niche
  • sense-of-identity, felt need for a worldview

… and many more mundane reasons. However, as they “mature” in their new-found faith, religious specialists (pastors, priests, fellow-believers) will tell them why they should actually be in the faith. The ‘growing’ believer learns to leave behind their mundane, raw, basic reasons for embracing their religion and the specialists will offer them more palatable reasons to explain their new faith. For example, Christian specialists will suggest to new believers that they use any or all of the following as their real motivation for being a Christian:

  • love of God, love of the Bible
  • forgiveness, unconditional love, carrying for the poor …
  • God-and-Country, God’s justice, God’s law

Over enough time, believers forget completely why they originally became Christians (and perhaps they never knew) and instead their religious self-history is filled with far more noble motives.  Good believers learns to play in step with the band.

Rather than engage a believer in debate about their dogmas, I often like to explore this phenomena instead of getting too distracted by the later layers of theology that cover the raw, concrete and real human motivations of the believer. By returning to our shared humanity, conversations can often be more productive. Ideas do not exist in a vacuum — peoples’ real lives are attached to them.

This re-writing phenomena happens in all of us, in many realms: why you start a hobby, join a club, get married, have children, hold a job and much more. We begin for one set of motivations but suppress these with correct layers of orthodox ideology and forget who we are.

Question for readers:  In coming posts I will explore both mundane and religious ways I have done this. But for now, please share how you yourself have done this in your past or your present. Don’t tell us how you have seen others do it, tell us about yourself.

Related Post:  “Re-writing our Histories with Head Nods


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

24 responses to “Re-writing our Religious History

  1. Earnest

    I became a methodist because the girls in that church were hot. About 16 years ago I went to an episcopal church once for the same reason, and to this day, despite multiple moves to new homes, I keep getting junk mail from this place, which for some reason I never bother to stop with a phone call.

  2. exrelayman

    Funny how different my experience is from the scenarios you posted. In my youth I had no other motivation for becoming a fundamentalist Christian other than being exposed to the idea that not doing so meant going to Hell. In the fundamentalist protestant culture in which I lived, there was never any shift of emphasis to any of the more humanistic ideas you have mentioned, except for the ‘great commission’ to want to save others from Hell’s unspeakable agonies.

  3. DaCheese

    Not sure if it’s the same thing, but I began to pull back from my initial infatuation with Buddhism when I realized that I could no longer “grok” some opposing points of view –the truth of my Buddhism-inspired positions just seemed so self-evident. I knew that I had held or at least seriously contemplated some of those opposing viewpoints not so long ago, so the fact that I could no longer fully comprehend or empathize with them was a real wake-up call. I decided that maybe I was becoming a little *too* complacent and certain in my beliefs (never a good thing, IMHO).

    BTW, I’ve found that many “born again” Christians are quite eager to tell you all about their conversion stories. They love to talk about how terrible their life was before, and how their new-found faith saved them from whatever vices or emotional issues were plaguing them at the time.

  4. TWF

    Like many others, for me regarding religion, it was just indoctrination, so in a way it is like you are asking what was the real reason I learned to speak English? 😉 Part of that indoctrination was the communication of the proper motives from the specialists, which, as a child, seemed mostly to focus on God’s love for us and why we should love Him back.

    As for the more mundane things, I’ve been pretty careful to stay true to my roots and to know my motivations. I can appreciate the stories and perspectives of the specialists, but I seem have a resistance to the fantasies.

  5. misterkel

    [deleted: blatant violation of comment policy. No interaction with post and mere self promotion.]

  6. Everyone needs “something” to believe in, something to provide a shining, realistic light. For me, that’s the promise that I made to my dog to never again binge and purge in the bulimic sense… and the connection that I feel to the writings of Ayn Rand. We forget who we are when we have a firm belief? I think not. My self awareness has only become stronger since implementation of my real beliefs.

  7. @ exrelayman,
    good point, I will add that to the list

    @ Earnest,
    another good point, I will add that

    @ DaCheese,
    Sorry, Dude, I could not follow your comment — especially as to how it relates to the post. One more time, please.

    @ TWF,
    Indoctrination as a child is a different matter from adults converting — as you say. In the end, for children, it amounts to loyalty, obedience, community and much more. And later a child is taught the theology to disguise these real motivations for their allegiance. Thanx for you thoughts.

    @ misterkel,
    Please interact with the blog and don’t simply supply sloppy self-promotional links. You were censored.

    @ Nicole Marie Story,
    Sorry, you links somehow threw your comment into the spam category. I am not sure what “something to belief in” means. We all believe all sorts of stuff, it is unavoidable, of course. I hope you can clarify in relationship to the OP. I am happy that a promise to your dog and your devotion to Ayn Randism is an anchor for you. I understand how beliefs can be useful. But that is not the point of this post. Was my writing unclear?

  8. I think that perhaps I did (and do) misunderstand the point of the post. It is my impression that you were asking of how we remember and practice the ideals that drew us toward our religions in the first place without confusion existing as prompted by external forces.

    So, for me, the two strongest forces in my life, maintaining my promise not to be bulimic and practicing my passion of individualism is my self created religion. Healthy objectivism. Both of these items, health and Rand, allowed me to reject Christianity after being scared to do so for my entire life.

    I suppose that my “everyone needs something to believe in” was just an introduction to my description of MY religion. It wasn’t necessary, and you could have deleted it (btw, I am very impressed at your deletion tactic used above, and I intend to use that)… My religion is my religion, thus I shan’t lose my identity because it’s all about me.

    Whoosh. Not sure if I am answering the question. But thanks for saving my comment from spam. You are a hero. Like Christ. 😉

  9. @ Nicole Story:
    Yeah, you got it. But you did not give an example of how you put false-layers upon your beliefs. Instead, you rejected your beliefs — Christianity — for a new belief system (your own). I think a lot of people do what you did.

    I agree with you — beliefs are inevitable. The question is: are you in touch with your real motivations. You seem to be boldly in touch with those! Thanks for elaborating.

    Yeah, I hate censoring, but sometimes you got to spank the naughty people. It was blatant, ugly, non-contributory self-promotion.

  10. Hm. How did I put false layers onto my former Christian beliefs? I didn’t. I rather stripped the false layers that had been created for me. 😀

  11. Exactly — you didn’t. Maybe you did (way back when), but you later created a new you.

  12. I’ve actually been exploring this idea a lot lately. Funny that you bring it up.

    Of course I can never be 100% sure of exactly why I became a Christian as a child (outside of the general influence of being raised in a Christian home) but just last week I was reminded of a series of movies about the Rapture that scared me senseless: “A Thief In the Night” and “A Distant Thunder”. While I didn’t become a Christian until about four or five years after seeing them, the threat of getting left behind stayed with me for most of 27 years as a believer.

    I’ve begun engaging with some Christians on blog posts where the topic is related to doubts that many of them face, but I try to get to the heart of the original motivations that you speak of here rather than going around in circles about the “later layers”. It’s not easy to do in an online setting, but it has been a good mental exercise for me as it forces me to constantly reevaluate my own motivations, both in the past and present.

  13. @ MichaelB

    It is not coincidence that you thought about this the same time I did. There are no coincidences. It is clear that Lord Shiva is working through both of us for his purposes. (sarcasm)

    Seriously, though, MichaelB, that is exactly what I am talking about. I have talked with believers in several faiths in person where it is easier to explore deep motivations. When we do this, I don’t push for deconversion — and when we walk away from such dialogue, I know it leaves the believer in a cognitive dissonant state when they see our shared humanity and mechanisms of mind. The world is not longer simple to them. Well, at least for a while.

    Thanks for understanding.

  14. Jim Baldwin

    I became involved with the cult run by Herbert W Armstrong. I had no involvement in any religion or church. I was looking for some stability during the 1960s when it looked like the world was becoming unhinged. I wanted a leader, someone who appeared to have the answers. I was the best kind of fodder for the religion mill, the Armstrong cult.

    Armstrong was the real Dr Feelgood. I found purpose, meaning, direction and a calling to fulfill. In 25 years I advanced from seat-warmer to teaching elder. I became a non-stipendiary ordained minister of the Worldwide Church of God now known as the Grace Communion International.

    I left the cult after Armstrong died and his successor set about to dismantle the doctrinal empire of the church.

    My recovery in the past 20 years has led me to atheism–I have no beliefs in any of the thousands of gods men have invented.

  15. @Sabio,

    In fairness, I owe a great deal of my methodology to you and watching how you interact with others. 🙂

    As a side note, I have spent a lot of time in the last several months on atheist sites that address (and often attack) the later layers of peoples’ beliefs and it always seems to put the believer on the defensive. While the posts may be factually correct in their criticisms, your explanation here really clears up for me why that approach rarely makes any headway.

  16. @ Jim Baldwin,
    I will add the idea of “looking for a leader” or “an answer” or “Order” amidst chaos or uncertainty to the list. Thank you for sharing the Armstrong story. What, in your new life, replaced the answers and security you may have found in Armstrongism? (if I may ask)

    @ MichaelB,
    Wow, that was a kind compliment — especially because it is a the level that I value the most. Thank you.

  17. Jim Baldwin

    Well, I just lost the long reply I prepared. I’ll not try a rewrite. I’ll Simply say that I found help in the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. She seemed to have some answers without wanting to exploit me.

  18. @ Jim Baldwin,

    (1) The Ayn Rand Lifeline
    Thanks for the Rand Info. We have another visitor here whom Ayn Rand has helped. Rand’s philosophy seems to be a great match for certain personalities or people with oppressed pasts or some combo of both. Personally, I have not read Rand.

    To bad you don’t have a blog where you could tell us your thoughts on that. If you feel like typing out a long comment again, you could do it here if you’d like.

    (2) Blog question
    Curious if WordPress is the culprit or you. Could you tell me what happened?
    For long comments, I usually open a .txt file and compose there, then cut and paste into the blog. Like you, I hate losing comments — and re-writing them is often too much effort, so I understand.

  19. Jim Baldwin


    I can’t say what happened to my original reply. I bumped my keyboard and next I was presented with a blank comment box. I’ll give some thought to a rewrite concerning your suggestion.

    Sorry to read you’ve not read Ayn Rand. Some of her non-fiction titles are actually collections of papers. I would recommend “Philosophy: Who Needs It?” The first item in this book by the same title was presented by her to the graduating class of West Point in 1974. In this same collection is “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World” (1960). I think her Playboy interview is online.

    Her biography by Barbara Branden, “My Years with Ayn Rand” is a good place to start to learn about Rand. Barbara’s husband, Nathaniel, also wrote a biography.

  20. By the way, this article was so good that you actually inspired me to write my own. Even more amazing is the fact that it is the first one I have written in almost ten months. (Egad. Has it been that long???)

  21. @ Jim Baldwin:
    Thanx for the Rand sources and recommendations. I may take a look.

    @ MichaelB:
    Thanx — I will check it out.

  22. @Jim, I read your initial comment about your experience with cult involvement and subsequent disassociation. I liked your comment because it seemed very rational. I wanted to offer feedback, questioning of your thoughts on Rand; but I optioned to continue reading further… and BOOM! A Rand fan! A pleasure to meet you! I am composing an article today on my personal practice of acting out of compassion and empathy v. acting out of guilt with regard to generosity. I hope you’ll stop by to offer your objectivist feedback!

  23. Jim Baldwin


    I could hardly be considered an Objectivist. I was just a fun-loving, naive and gullible fellow who was seeking some peace back in the turbulent 60s. I entered the Armstrong cult and exited 25 years later. I’ve been out now for 20 years.

    I have found some of the concepts of Rand quite helpful. Her rational approach to life is quite healing for this old chap.

    “Ayn Rand Answers: the Best of Her Q&A” (2005) is a good recent introduction to her thoughts.

    “Ayn Rand and the World She Made” by Anne C. Heller is a helpful recent biography.

  24. It would take a very long, long time to put forth the detail I would love to share, but for now, here is the shorthand version set to music:

Please share your opinions!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s