Belief, and the humans who wear it
In The Idolatry of God, one of Peter Rollins’s main thrusts is to suggest that when we identify strongly with our beliefs, it is likely we are actually identifying with what he calls unbeliefs. That is, when I say that I am Christian, I might think I’m giving intellectual assent to some cosmological statements about the universe, ourselves, and the Christian God. But Rollins provides a more piercing lens — he submits that I, and all of us, are in reality extracting a hidden set of huge cognitive and emotional benefits from this creed, and that subconscious exchange is what drives and reinforces much of our belief. In that case, he says, we have a habit of maintaining belief systems that we do not really believe — thus the neologism “unbeliefs”.
It’s a powerful notion. This implies we put on ideologies like clothes or shelters, as tools to help with the hard work of being human. We use these “belief shelters” to help navigate the many contradictions inherent in our existence, to disarm the confusion of our societies and cultures. A belief system then is something to cut through the pandemonium, something to provide us with a true north.
This makes ideology a deeply essential part of the human condition. Everyone must believe something, because we all have a deep need for meaning and orientation; we need to feel we have some understanding about our environment, and even some measure of control; we need some framework of scripts and actions, to help us figure what to do with our time and energy; we need to know what is right, what is not right, and why pain exists.
Belief systems, then, provide us with the nourishment that is demanded by our most important cognitive and emotional voids.
So belief systems are a necessity. But in order to get this nourishment, in some sense you have to pay for what is being sold. How do you pay for an ideology that is freely given? Simple: you copy its ideas and structures into your head and your heart, study them, practice them, rehearse them, propagate them. That is the “cost” demanded by membership in any ideological movement, be it religious or otherwise.
Such propagation, of course, leads to more people doing the same. When all those people begin to aggregate and identify as a whole, what do you get?
There you have one of the most powerful and instinctively nurturing systems in all of human experience: a tribe.
If belief systems in isolation address mainly our cognitive needs, then these tribes of belief answer our deepest emotional and social yearnings: companionship for the rough road of life; bright lines that distinguish who your people are; a safe cradle in which to individuate and form an identity; a pool of potential mates, which eventually give birth to blessed generations, through ages, all within the same fold.
None of these things are trifles. They are the very fabric of happy human existence.
In that case, we could say that my old warrior philosophy was a belief system with no tribe. It had no hope of competing with what the Christian world could offer me — both cosmology and rich community.
Costs and compromises
It becomes clear that every belief system, along with its associated community, can be understood as a matrix of benefits and costs, or compromises if you like. Different ideologies tend to require different forms of practice and propagation, and by the same stroke offer a different blend of benefits to their adherents.
Living in our post-enlightenment world, we tend to think that a cosmology or philosophy ought to be judged simply by whether it makes good sense. But this is in fact not what humans do — not any of us by nature, at least. Whatever rational truth claims are being made by a movement, those claims are only the tip of the iceberg. The real merit of the ideology is in this powerful and hidden calculus, humming along assertively below the level of our consciousness. Many people remain unaware of these invisible economics for the whole of their lives. Others have the good fortune to read a book or two 😀
Would you like to call bullshit?
If so, that’s okay. This perspective on belief is thoroughly postmodern, and academically geared. But Rollins didn’t just pull it all out of thin air. He is mainly recycling the long-wrought wisdom of today’s social sciences.
Still, does that backing make this all plainly correct? Likely not. And to be sure, Rollins’s approach makes no useful statements about whether any of our beliefs are in fact true. So it can’t do everything for us.
But at bottom, I find Rollins’s picture to be at least a useful framework by which to understand how you or I (and mostly I) are prone to making certain ideological decisions, at certain times … and not others.
Remember, I stumbled upon this whole perspective while trying to answer this question: why has my interest and zeal for Christian life dissipated, as I have moved into post-adolescent married life?
As I read Idolatry of God and took this all in, I projected the new lens backward in time. Without delay, an overwhelming hypothesis emerged:
I was first moved to jump aboard the Christian life raft because at that time, I desperately needed companionship, approval, and a safe place in which to form my identity. But in the last 2-3 years, all of those needs have become much less urgent.
Whether the Christian Gospel is true or not is outside the scope of this thesis. But what can be said surely is that, whatever intellectual hangups I had about Christianity in the first place, they could not stand up to my massive subconscious desire for these critical benefits — the bright new world, as I put it. At the same time and for the same reason, I was willing to accept the costs of adherence — abiding by the bright lines of the Christian worldview, and propagating its claims about the true nature of our reality.
But in the past 2-3 years, that original impetus has fizzled out. My adolescence has come to a close. I am largely at peace with who I am. And because of my marriage and my closest friends, I have a deep well of companionship and love, and it’s not going anywhere.
De-conversion, and re-conversion
For many people, the growth of love, identity, and security do not produce the same dissipation at all. The shift that I am experiencing mainly demonstrates how compromised my original motives were, and how my Christian practice has become unnecessary, and unsustainable, as a result. For others, it will likely be quite different.
For me alone, though, this life transition has kicked off a de-conversion process. Not only have the social benefits of Christianity become less precious to me (because I am not so poor as I once was), but the costs of continued membership have gone up. As I ventured out of the young vagabond bubble into a more confusing and diverse world, adherence to the bright lines of the Christian worldview demanded boundaries between myself and others that appear increasingly artificial. The doctrines I am responsible for have become more and more problematic, eventually giving rise to contradictions that have demanded a frustrated and sometimes robotic defense. This has all grown more painful and more costly than it used to be.
So as the underlying calculus has shifted, the fundamental impetus for my Christian existence — once strong and lively for years — has now largely unraveled.
What now, then?
My first step was honesty with myself about the true change that has happened. If I am outside the fold now, it is safe to admit such things to oneself, without horror or judgment.
The next step was to recognize that my digression, and the analysis in this post, offer no useful statements about the truth or falsehood of the Christian God, or about any god for that matter. I have only identified a powerful mechanism that once drove my conversion, and in turn is driving my de-conversion.
But I have no way of knowing whether that God might still be real.
What I can know is this: if I eventually find my way back into the Christian fold, it will necessarily have to be under different auspices, and by a different mechanism.
If I do embrace belief again, that belief will have to be of a new kind — less absolute, more tolerant of contradiction, less prone to bright-line distinctions, more conversant with the outside world. Because I am not in need of the same benefits that I once was, I am more skeptical of the old costs and compromises. In that case, it’s not that I have determined that Christianity is true or false. It is simply that my priorities have changed.