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Born Again

I like calling my exodus from Mormonism and religion an “awakening” because that’s what it felt like. Domokun reminded me of Plato’s cave allegory and how well it describes what leaving religion has felt like for me.

Imagine prisoners, who have been chained since their childhood deep inside a cave: not only are their limbs immobilized by the chains; their heads are chained in one direction as well, so that their gaze is fixed on a wall.

Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which statues of various animals, plants, and other things are carried by people. The statues cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows. When one of the statue-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows.

The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a game: naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of images. They are thus conditioned to judge the quality of one another by their skill in quickly naming the shapes and dislike those who play poorly.

Suppose a prisoner is released from his cage and turns around. Behind him he would see the real objects that are casting the shadows. At that moment his eyes will be blinded by the sunlight coming into the cave from its entrance, and the shapes passing by will appear less real than their shadows.

The prisoner then makes an ascent from the cave to the world above. Here the blinding light of the sun he has never seen would confuse him, but as his eyesight adjusts he would be able to see more and more of the real world. Eventually he could look at the sun itself, that which provides illumination and is therefore what allows him to see all things. This moment is a form of enlightenment in many respects and is understood to be analogous to the time when the philosopher comes to know the Form of the Good, which illuminates all that can be known in Plato’s view of metaphysics.

Once enlightened, so to speak, the freed prisoner would not want to return to the cave to free “his fellow bondsmen,” but would be compelled to do so. Another problem lies in the other prisoners not wanting to be freed: descending back into the cave would require that the freed prisoner’s eyes adjust again, and for a time, he would be one of the ones identifying shapes on the wall. His eyes would be swamped by the darkness, and would take time to become acclimated. Therefore, he would not be able to identify the shapes on the wall as well as the other prisoners, making it seem as if his being taken to the surface completely ruined his eyesight.

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Mistakes Were Made

Does this scenario seem familiar?

Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.

At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. “And mighty is the word of God,” she told her followers, “and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”

The group’s mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group’s members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech’s prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger’s.

(Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), via The Situationist)

Quite a few prophecies have failed, yet people still believe. We’ve expected Jesus to come again for two thousand years, for example. It seems like people have been saying “any day now” forever, at least since the day he died.

Why don’t we collectively say “You know what, we were wrong. Christ really isn’t coming.”? Even if Christ really is coming (the big tease), disbelief would be a reasonable reaction after two millennia of disappointment. Why does the biggest failed (so far?) prophecy in history fail to cause widespread disbelief?

One reason is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when there are two conflicting beliefs fighting it out in our minds. For example, if I believe myself to be an honest person, but I cheat on my taxes, this conflicting information will cause cognitive dissonance. I will probably do one of two things: I could either stop cheating on my taxes, or I could rationalize my dishonesty, perhaps by saying that I worked hard for my money and I deserve it.

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways. (Ibid.)

In the case of the Second Coming, we don’t want to believe that we could be duped. “I’m not the kind of person who could fall for silly stuff like horoscopes, crystals, doomsday cults, and the like. But Christianity is different. Christianity is real. If it weren’t, I would see right through it because I’m not easily fooled.”

Personally, I have spent a lot of time in my life telling people that I knew that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, that Jesus loves us, and God has a plan for our lives. I spent two years doing this full time. I spent countless hours saying this and hearing it repeated in church services. Much of my life has been spent inside the walls of a church. I estimate that I’ve spent at least one full year of my life in church meetings. The church received 10% of my earnings before taxes, my whole life, every last penny. After committing so much time and energy to my beliefs, it was uncomfortable to think that I’d sacrificed all that for a lie.

I’m no fool, or so I like to tell myself. If my beliefs were false, then I’d have realized it a long time ago. False prophecies? You’re reading them wrong. Polygamy? It was God’s will. Racism? Talk to God ’cause I didn’t make the rules. Christianity borrowed from previous mythologies? No, the mythologies borrowed from Christianity. Contradictions in Holy Scripture? Errors in translation. Unanswered prayers? Maybe the answer was “No” or “Wait”, or maybe you weren’t faithful enough for God to speak to you.

I rationalized from morning till night. Evidence against my beliefs surrounded me. I constantly battled to preserve my self image as an intelligent, independent thinker. The truth was that I spent my intelligence in rationalization and followed like a sheep because I was too proud to admit that I didn’t see the Emperor’s clothes. I was the very thing I pretended not to be. I held on to my beliefs kicking and screaming until I was forced to see their absurdity.

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Break On Through To The Other Side

Letting go of God involves letting go of the stories that gave meaning and purpose to life. This can be a very dark time. When I think about this part of my deconversion, I imagine myself skirting the brink of a bottomless abyss like those swirling black holes in old sci-fi movies.

Black Hole Bob

…the person’s former faith has collapsed, but they do not yet have anything to replace it with. Unfortunately, most people are taught that only through religion can they hope to find happiness, meaning, purpose or fulfillment in life, and this belief often persists after all the other aspects of religious belief have gone, leading to a feeling of emptiness and hopelessness, of having hit rock bottom. Fear, undirected anger, and feelings of depression are common. Often a person feels overwhelmed and lost, adrift in the world without a framework to make sense of it all. (Into the Clear Air)

One day while I was flailing around for meaning in my life, I happened to be driving through northern Utah and southern Idaho on my way to a family reunion. The overcast skies and the long, scenic drive conspired to put me in a contemplative mood. I wondered why it mattered whether I lived or died since I would be dead in the end anyway. The universe didn’t care. It would go on its mindless way, heedless of my death.

Then I began to think about my daughters and my wife. My death would matter to them. I didn’t want them to be unhappy or to struggle without me. I wanted to help my family.

Then I thought about my ancestors, about all of the hard lives they eked out on this earth, about the flashes of joy and the dark tragedies in their lives. They survived and I owe my existence to their perseverance. I pondered on the countless generations of mankind who lived and died before me. A sense of deep history overcame me.

I imagined even further back to the time of my ape ancestors. I imagined the strength and tenderness of a maternal ancestor grooming her new baby, protecting it with her own life from the dangers lurking in the darkness. I imagined the strength and determination of my paternal ancestors whose lives punctuated by violence made me possible. I began to feel a sense of deep connection with all of my ancestors back to the beginning of life on earth.

Then I looked on the plants and animals around me and realized that I was surrounded by family, distant cousins trying to live according to the dictates of their own drives. I worried about the brutishness of their lives and wished I could lift them out of it. I was filled with compassion for all life.

I looked to the future. I saw obstacles and uncertainty. There was no God to help us. We could only succeed by our own wits, by taking responsibility into our own hands. Only we had the power to succor and bring equity. Only we could love each other.

I decided to live in the service of the grand experiment: life on earth. If I could ameliorate the suffering of other beings present and future, I would count my life meaningful. My heart burned within me with an intense love and connection with the world around me. I felt at peace; I had finally found a safe harbor to escape the storm. I felt an growing confidence that I was on the right path.

I had broken through to the other side.

Most people, by this stage, have learned that they are not alone, that their path is one that many travelers have walked before; that there are whole communities of freethinkers out there, glowing like galaxies through the dark veils of blind faith.… this stage is characterized by a peak as high as those valleys [of the previous stage] are deep, a joy as high and sublime as the horizon of dawn. The exhilaration of breaking through the layers of things that you believe because you have been taught to believe, of discovering for yourself what is true, and of finally knowing who you are and understanding your place in the cosmos, is something compared to which the sterile and antiquated dogmas of religion seem puny and absurd. Returning to them, at this stage, is like trying to return to life in a small, windowless room after one has seen the soaring, sunny vista that awaits just outside. (Ibid.)

Since that time, I’ve met a few believers who have had brushes with atheism. They come to the place of darkness and meaninglessness but never seem to make it through to the bright vistas on the other side. They’ve dipped their toes in the pool and decided that a world without God is not for them. Or perhaps they leapt in and began to drown like I had. While I found the other side of the pool to save me, they returned to the place from which they dove in.

They have to find their own way and happiness, but I wish I could share with them what I found.

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Is It Naptime: Announcing

Lacey has written another post which relates to this blog. She’s torn over whether she should announce to the members of the ward that she’s married to an atheist.

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Update From Lacey

My wife posted a week ago about her current feelings seven months after I shared my disbelief with her. I kept forgetting to post a link to it. Sorry. :oops:

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