An Open Letter to Mattea: Love and Truth and the Survivor’s Bias

Hello again Mattea,

As promised, here’s a full post’s worth of a response to your comment on my Screwtape Letters review. Sorry for the delay; I’ve been a bit preoccupied with the political situation. In my post I took apart Lewis’ explanation of why sex outside of marriage is condemned, and I noted that I’ve never heard another good reason for why sex is bad, or bad outside of that specific context. You gave your explanation, and it makes sense from your perspective, but it doesn’t really contain anything that’s convincing to somebody who doesn’t already believe in, not only Jesus, but your specific interpretation of Jesus, love, and purity.

Hopefully you can see that yourself, and I don’t have to spell out why; if you’d like a fuller explanation let me know in the comments. That doesn’t really bother me because you also said you won’t tell somebody else how to live their life. As I said in that chapter, if you have made a person decision to remain a virgin until marriage, based on your understanding of your own religion, I have no problem whatsoever with that. I don’t think you’re a loser or missing out, as you seemed to think I might. Props to you for living life your own way; my only issue is with people who let their religion dictate somebody else’s sex life. Since that’s not you, we have no problem.

The part I really want to respond to starts here.

“But as a Christian, I have a deep desire to see the lives around me experience the same joy and love and peace that I have in Jesus.”

You were homeschooled, I was homeschooled, you mentioned you’re twenty-one and you have been a Christian your whole life (or at least you’ve been Christian 21 years and you are a college student, correct me if I jumped to the wrong conclusion there). I can relate to that. I was only a little younger than you when I left the faith. So much of what you said resonated with my memories of how I used to think, and particularly with my ideas of what the world outside was like. Because my access to that world was very limited, I had a lot of misconceptions about life from somebody else’s perspective.

You were willing to be very personal about your experiences and perspectives, so what I really want to do isn’t argue, so much as share what life has been like for me, growing up the way you did and then seeing another side.

For example, you said, “whenever I hear people’s stories about how they left the church, they [didn’t] believe God exists, or [they] ‘fell away.'” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the survivor’s bias. The classic example is WWII planes, where they tried to determine structural weaknesses in bombers by analyzing the bullet holes in aircraft that returned from missions. But however much they reinforced those areas, the number of planes shot down never changed, until they realized their mistake. They were looking at the bullet holes in the planes that survived. This gave them no information about why planes fell down.

In the church, you hear conversion stories, or stories about falling away and returning to the fold. Ministers and evangelists often assume these stories are typical of people’s experiences in the secular world, but they aren’t representative at all. And, for the record, atheist activists also make this mistake. They hear stories of former believers who had traumatic, toxic experiences, and assume that is representative of all believers. Again, it’s not that simple. This is why I don’t proselytize anymore. I want everyone in the world to be happy, loved and fulfilled; I don’t presume the journey there will look the same for everyone.

So here’s my deconversion story, which I share not to convince you to leave Christianity, but just so you’ll know something of the data that you aren’t being exposed to.

My faith was built on three things. First was a model of how the world worked. It was extremely self-referential, but it still had its own internal logic. Everything held up, but every piece was dependent on every other piece. Second was a community of people who all lived according to the same framework. Third was a handful of experiences that seemed to confirm a few of those pieces, and, by extension, the entire framework.

Yes, I too had experiences that, at one point, I thought made my beliefs unassailable.  There was a time when I was walking to an acting class, and I felt extremely anxious. I prayed, and felt a presence standing beside me. There was a time when I was confirmed, and I felt like I was about to step out of my body and soar. I thought this must be the Holy Spirit alighting on me. There were many times when I spoke in tongues during church services, and there were times when someone came and delivered a message to me from God.

So, if I had experiences like this, why would I ever doubt? Well, for one thing, I learned about how people from other religions, ones I considered absolutely false or even inspired by demons, had similar experiences. I read scientific explanations for them; states of self-hypnosis, group mentalities, cold reading, altered consciousness inspired by social pressure, etc. Learning this was positively creepy, because once I knew it, I had three choices.

Number one; I could believe that, of all the religions and denominations out there, one was divine and the rest were inspired by Satan, who was mimicking God’s work. This was comforting as long as I assumed I was in the right one, but the more I thought about the mathematics of that, the more terrifying this idea was. After all, the false, Satan-inspired religions outnumbered the one true faith, and most people blindly follow whatever religion they were raised in. Statistically, what were the real odds that I had happened to be born into the one true religion? If I assumed Satan could mimic God, I could never be sure I was following good and not evil.

Number two; believe that God existed, but was not the exclusively Protestant Christian God I had been raised with. He was in, if not all religions, than most of them, and if you got some details about his life wrong he wouldn’t hold it against you, so long as your heart was in the right place. This seemed sensible, comforting, and deeply blasphemous. If I chose to believe this, I could never admit it to the Christians around me. They were the sort of people who genuinely believed Catholics and Mormons were going to hell; to propose that God might speak through Islam or Hinduism or even Wiccan was as good as abandoning our religion altogether.

Number three; believe the materialistic scientists were right. All of this was a consequence of a brain that was easily deceived by social pressure and my own expectations.

As I read more about the way these feelings of mine could be simulated by stage magicians and fake psychics, the last seemed more and more likely. Also, I noticed disturbing patterns in the way all my churches talked about evidence for the supernatural. If a story was hard to confirm, it was by far more compelling and fantastic than any that I could confirm. People had stories of a friend of a friend of a friend who was healed of cancer, or prayed a man back to live. But nobody I knew was ever healed. Oh, but that was fine! God and mysterious ways and plans and all that. Meanwhile, I had the evidence of the divinely inspired outbursts people had in church; prophecies and messages from God and speaking in tongues. Of course, a stranger walking in might say that these people were just improvising and believing they were inspired by God because of social pressure…

It was all right to have evidence for God, but nobody was allowed to talk about evidence against. If evidence lined up, it was repeated and celebrated. If it didn’t, it was dismissed on any excuse at all. This was problematic, because in my own personal life, I felt like God was letting me down.

Take that anxiety attack outside the acting class, for example. It was far from the worst I ever experienced. There were jobs I had to quit, events I had to miss, and days I spent unable to stop crying. Once I had an anxiety attack so bad I couldn’t move. I don’t remember how long, because I couldn’t even turn my head to look at a clock. I just lay on a couch, feeling like I was encased in a cement mold, crying in terror. None of those resulted in a comforting presence.

The explanation most consistent with Christianity was that God had sent me aid when I needed it but also gave me opportunities to grow on my own. But the truth is, I didn’t really need that acting class. I wanted it, but it didn’t change my life or create lasting friendships. The opportunities I missed because of anxiety attacks were more important than the one where God “saved” me.

Besides, what I really needed wasn’t a sense of an angel. I had a mental health problem, and I needed to see a doctor. I couldn’t drive because of my anxiety, and my parents were willfully blind to my condition. When I told my parents about the paralyzing attack, they said it was because I hadn’t eaten enough. They were obsessed with healthy diets, and that was their go-to explanation for any anxiety attack of mine. But I knew for a fact that I had eaten enough that day. I had been keeping track, and diet wasn’t helping. The experience taught me that my mind and my body could betray me, and my parents would not take it seriously. If God was there when I needed him most, why didn’t he tell my parents to take me to a doctor?

The explanation a scientist would give for all that, on the other hand, was that the anxiety outside the acting class was relatively mild because the circumstances weren’t overly triggering, and my disorder was less severe at that point. Because it was mild, I could fight it by envisioning a comforting image, which, because of my religious upbringing, I gave spiritual significance. Later, as my mental health deteriorated, I lost the ability to comfort myself. This makes more sense to me.

As I said, three things upheld my belief; models, experience and community. By now you have some understanding of how the experiences that once seemed ironclad evidence became flimsy excuses. Research also meant that I could see how other people understood the world differently. I could see other models that people had, and how in many ways they explained the world better than mine. What remained was community, and that scared me. Because the truth was, my place in the community was entirely dependent on my faith. I could not exist among my old friends and family as an unbeliever, as a person with an adjusted model.

Remember how I described that model? How circular and self-referential it was, and how it stood on its own but moving or removing a single piece would send the whole thing crashing down? I envied those with other models, because they were malleable. They could be shifted around, repainted, parts replaced, replacement parts replaced again, and the whole thing still stood. They could learn that a certain part didn’t work, and make it into something better. I loved truth. I was afraid of going to hell if I happened to be wrong. So I decided to let my beliefs fall apart, and see if I could build up something better.

This was not when I lost my faith. This was when I remained in the church, but debated people, questioned my ideas, and tried to reform myself. It was also when I made new friends, and it was then that I discovered something. I had been miserable all along.

This is another statement of yours that got me.

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ – Philippians 3:8

I’m only “preaching” to you because I want you to have what I have. He really is everything.

I remember feeling that way. I remember believing that nothing in my life was good except the love of Christ, and I’m not even talking about my anxiety disorder. I’m talking about something I had been raised with since birth; the understanding the only thing of any worth was the love of Jesus Christ. In prayer and worship I meditated on this and believed. In those moments of worship I felt an overwhelming love that I lived on.

That love was like candy. It was an intense, blissful sensation that produced energetic highs, and then let me crash down. It did not build me up into a strong, resilient person, because to believe myself worthy of God’s love I had to degrade myself as sinful (the irony of that worldview; I was filth, and only by acknowledging it wholeheartedly could I allow myself to feel the high of a God who loved me despite my worthlessness). My soul, for lack of a better word, was emaciated, an anorexic surviving on tic-tacs and glue. When I left the church for the company of unbelievers, the love they offered me was not the empty, worldly thing that had been described to me. It was a rough, flawed love, not an idealized one, but it had the nourishing qualities of crusty bread, crunchy apples and thick stew. The ideas and love I was encountering were soup and bread and apples and milk. Being seen as the weird, curious, queer boy I was, and loved for it, put meat back on my bones.

After years of questioning, I realized that atheism made more sense to me than any of the religions out there. It was a pragmatic decision. I am perfectly comfortable sharing the world with people who have religious beliefs. I am also comfortable with the idea that I might one day encounter new evidence that might change my mind. In the meantime, I am growing, I am learning, and I am loved.

And that’s what I, in turn, want for you. I don’t care whether you find it in Christianity or Buddhism or some other religion or abandoning religion altogether. If you have it now, I am happy to hear it. If you don’t, don’t be afraid to go looking for it.

Sincerely,

Lane William Brown

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