Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Belief in God: An Analysis of My Early Years


I'd like to analyze my earliest beliefs about God, to explain why I believed what I believed as a young boy and young man. I'd also like to stop shy of my current beliefs, since those don't really matter for this post. I also do not want to argue any belief or disbelief in God. I'm not trying to convince you of that (even if I write in the second person). This is a self-analysis of what started it all, but not a statement where I ended up or of what you should think.

Because I Said So

The main reason I believed in God, of course, was because I was told he existed: by parents, by siblings, by teachers, by the television, by the President of the United States... As kids, we believe in all kinds of things. I remember sitting in front of the TV Saturday mornings sincerely trying to figure out if the people inside the set could see me and if I should put on some clothes or stay in my underwear. I also believed you could get a girl pregnant by touching her nipples. I'm not ashamed of these little boy beliefs. Very early human adults didn't know where babies came from either, and I'm sure they'd have had some odd thoughts about television.

There is a difference between those little boy beliefs and a belief in God. While I (badly) reasoned that the folks in the TV could see me and that thing about the nipples, God isn't something you really arrive at yourself. Even if it could be something you arrive at by yourself, you don't get that chance. You're bombarded with him before your cloudy brain turns into a firm one (and that takes a long time). And you're not just told he exists: you're told exactly what he's like, where he lives, what he wants you to do, and all the rest of it (with varying descriptions, of course, from different people). Your parents, siblings, teachers, and the rest are the authorities. You rely on them for all your information. Most of the information is good and valuable and provable. Don't touch the stove or it will burn you. Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals. But the thing that many hold (or pretend to hold) as most valuable of all -- God -- isn't provable.

So that's the first reason why I believed in God as a small child. This is an important fact. It wasn't until later that I realized that sometimes authorities are wrong and not to be believed without further investigation. You haven't really analyzed your belief in God unless you come to grips with the fact that this is what started it all for you, that your belief is not from deduction or revelation, but from what someone told you a long time ago.

The Good Book

After I was told that God exists, I was told how to find out about him in this thing called the Bible. What about the other God books? The Koran, The Rig Veda, Hesiod's Theogony? I either wasn't told about them, or -- when I was -- they were dismissed as so much bullshit. Ignore them or treat them as fiction. The Bible is the "Word of God." Period. Because I was accepting of everything else at that age, I was accepting of this dismissal too.

So the Bible soon becomes this invaluable text, whether you actually read it or not. You can take the Bible on authority too: just listen to someone's summary and interpretation of it and you don't have to wade through the pages and pages and pages.

For me, I did read it (or most of it) on my own at an early age, and I started noticing that people were saying things about it that weren't exactly there. I also started immediately questioning some of the more odd-sounding parts. I knew that when I read fairy tales, that the giants didn't really exist, and yet I was told that they did in the Bible. I knew that animals didn't talk, and yet they did in the Bible. I couldn't imagine all those creatures fitting on an ark. Was a man named Abraham really crazy enough to almost kill his son, and were we meant to believe that he was a good man for doing so? So even as a young and gullible kid, I saw lots of the stories from the Bible as more or less illustrative, exaggerations to prove a point. I didn't take everything as factual history.

But a few things I did. God created the world, Jesus came down and died and rose, the world is going to end and Jesus will take care of his people somehow. All the core stuff, whether it was believable or not. Like everyone, I played "pick and choose" with my Biblical beliefs. I guess the core stuff was just too big and important, so it was drilled in head more. But if I didn't believe that Moses parted the Red Sea, fine. At any rate, the Bible was a certain kind of truth for me and became a certain kind of "proof" concerning God.


I can explain my willingness to ignore other holy books and other conceptions of God in another way. I am the center of the goddamned universe. I knew that Jackson was the capital of Mississippi, the state where I lived; but I thought that Pearl (the city where I lived) should have been the capital because it was the best. I had the best and prettiest mother in the world. My school football team was the best, much better than the shitty team that lived in the next town over. And I lived in the greatest country on earth. God had once favored a handful of Jews and got them to write my holy book for me, but eventually he got tired of them and their stinky old desert and decided to pay attention to Americans instead.

You can see that there's nothing objective about any of the above, but it's more or less what I thought and what lots of people -- both children and adults -- think to their dying day. I think humans feel this way to save time more than anything. Do I really have to travel all over the world to see which country might be the best to live in, or can I just assume that the one I know is the greatest? Because it has to be the greatest, because I am the center of the goddamned universe and I will accept no less, no matter what the facts are.

Eventually I started realizing things that stripped me of my ego. For example, I learned that while most Americans are Christians, most Iranians are Muslim. Most Chinese are Buddhist. Most Indians are Hindu. Furthermore, while most all of my friends were Christians, some were Baptist, some were Catholic, some were Methodist--whatever their parents were. It started sinking in that you are what you are taught. My Christian ministers told me that those people in other religions simply didn't know any better and that -- if they were lucky -- Jesus would reveal himself to them and their nations too, but I was a little suspicious of what they said. Eventually I concluded that if had been born in Iraq, I would have been Muslim. But, as a Christian American, I still felt lucky that I hadn't been.

Just Lucky, I Guess

The life I was born into, combined with my ego, also helped convince me that God was real and that he cared for me personally. My family was neither extremely poor nor extremely rich. We had economic struggles, but we never missed meals or went without expensive toys at Christmas. We were very happy most of the time--at least I know I was. It seemed that I was blessed by God. Everything just magically worked out for me. If we had an economic hardship, God would see us through it. When a tornado struck down in our town, we'd hunker down in the hallway and pray that it wouldn't hit us and it didn't. If our car was stuck in a flood on the highway, God would send some nice men to push us out of it.

I'm not saying that the same theory doesn't work for the extremely rich, the extremely poor, or the extremely "unlucky." (It does.) This is just how it worked out for me: I was always provided proof of the goodness of God for the most part, punctuated by occasional rough patches that God got us through without fail.

Once again, I see there's no real logic here. In fact, it's a logical fallacy: false cause. But this is how it felt. Just like, when you're playing Monopoly as a kid, it feels like it helps to shake the dice forever while saying "Come on eight! Come on eight!" And when you do roll eight, it was because of what you did; when you don't, it was because your brother or sister had cursed you somehow. Life, too, feels like a game of chance, and it helps to believe that God loads the dice for us.

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

Probably the number one reason I kept believing in God (even after some of the realizations and rationalizations mentioned above) was emotions. I felt that I felt God. I experienced emotions that were not quite like the ones I experienced with other things. They were related -- involving tears, laughter, disgust, euphoria, sick feelings, giddiness, guilt, mourning, and many more -- but they had a slightly different God-like flavor.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this. One is to recognize that the only reason I felt they were of God was because someone (once again) told me that that's what they were. If, for example, I was a small child in church feeling overwhelming emotions while listening to music or praying, someone would say, "That's God you're feeling." I felt something I didn't know, and someone was there with a ready-made answer and thousands of years of religion to support it.

You can see why someone might think that music (to pick on music as an emotion-causer for a moment) that causes you to feel other, seemingly opposite ways might be called "the Devil's music." Perhaps Elvis's hips and rock music did eventually lead to the sexual revolution. Look at the hippies at Woodstock in a frenzy and compare them to people at church "in the spirit." It seems that the main difference is the music itself, the locale, and the amount of clothing worn. (And the drugs, of course. Religious ecstasies are drug-free.)

The other way of looking at this is to recognize that maybe there is something to these feelings that are associated with God, that they're associated with God for a reason. This isn't "proof" that God exists any more than it's proof that the Devil exists (when he forces us to headbang while listening to his heavy metal music) or that Eros the god of sexual love exists (when he drives us nearly insane with passion), but at least it gives a name to "godly" feelings, since we may not have much else to call them and all the forms they might take: from dancing "in the spirit" to raising hands to shouting to speaking in tongues. (I choose these Pentecostal or Charismatic incarnations since some of the less extreme feelings wouldn't have meant as much to me and I just associated them with warm feelings you might get at Christmas or watching a sad movie.)

A related reason I believed in God was because I didn't want to be lumped in with the grumpy ol' Atheists who seemed to be lacking these special feelers and thought only with their dry brains. I believed that the essential difference between Atheists and Theists was a presence or a lack of a "God antennae" that hooked up to our spiritual radio box (presumably given to you by God himself). I don't at all feel that way about Atheists anymore, but that's another post.

When You Wish Upon a Star

I have to talk about magic. I could call it other words, but "magic" seems to contain all the other words I'm trying to get at and with all the right connotations: numinous, artificial, otherworldly, cheesy, mythological, wish-granting, mysterious, fantastic, tricky, awe-inspiring, artistic... When I was a kid, I almost only read magic books. Most of my play and daydreams involved fantasy. I began to associate God with magic; he was the gateway to the other world.

So, as Freud argues, my belief in God here was based upon an illusion, a wish-based fantasy. I wanted my world to contain magic, and I figured God was the only "real" way for that to happen. Of course, as many have argued, the world is pretty darn magical without believing in anything supernatural. The main reason fantasies and legends are attractive is because they're not real, but not always because of anything necessarily special about them. The grass is always greener on the other side of the magic door. Is Atlantis any more special than Paris, France? Is Bigfoot any more special than Lucy the Australopithecus? Don't butterflies, fireflies, and hummingbirds seem almost as magical as anything in fairy stories? What about the Grand Canyon? Glow-in-the-dark underwater creatures? "The 1812 Overture"? Soft-serve ice cream? Personal computers?

Whether God had a hand in creating these things or not is debatable, but my point is that eventually I realized that I believed in God partially because I wanted magic, which seemed wrong or weird, and then I further realized that I had magic already anyway.

God à la Cart

No two people believe in the same god. This is a thing I'm convinced of, even if I'm not convinced of too many things. Even things that certainly exist aren't always "seen" or talked about in the same way, but at least with visible things you can point to them so that we can have something of a general consensus. But with invisible things, we have to personally invent and decide what we're talking about.

One of the things that became appealing to me about God was that I could pretty much make him whatever I wanted him to be. Everyone else did it. (The Catholics famously invented limbo because they didn't know where else to stick the un-baptized babies.) You can look at this historically for evidence, how God always changes with the times and culture. Or you can simply get a group of two or three together and ask them to talk about God. Get two or three from the same church, from the same family even. You'll meet with some agreement at first since they've been taught the same things, but keep going and you'll see that some things they've discarded, some they've picked up from elsewhere, and some they've just invented. (If they're willing to talk about it, anyway. You might just get some uncomfortable squirms from those who are afraid they aren't conforming to the correct picture.)

I never liked the idea of a god who tortured you in hell for eternity just for being born, so I got rid of that. I picked some bits I liked from Genesis about God regretting that he created man and then regretting that he destroyed them with the flood, so I imagined God as someone who actually could screw up, who wasn't perfect or even omnipotent. Etc.

I don't want this to sound the way it sounds, but I believe people (including me) like arguing about God the way guys in comic book stores like arguing about superheroes. Who would win in a fight: Hulk or Wolverine? The God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims (all three worship the same "character," by the way) may be the most dominant god in the world because he's described as the most powerful. The Bible itself says that these other super-villain gods exist (or at least that people thought they did), but Yahweh/God/Allah kicked all of their asses (including Thor, who is both a god and a comic book hero). Invention and debate about God's character is not only necessary but fun.

But, as they say, the fun all stops when someone loses an eye (and then another eye is required as payment), which is what ends up happening with religious arguments. We have so many wars and lesser denominational splits because every single person who believes in a god has their own conception. Which is one reason why I also eventually decided that if you're gonna talk about God, you need to have a sense of humor and not take yourself so seriously.


Although I spent all this time more or less debunking any reasons why I believed in God as a youngster, I want to say once again that the point of this post wasn't necessarily for debunking. It certainly wasn't to debunk anyone besides me anyway. I just wanted to examine my belief of God during my early years in as honest a way as possible, and what I found is that I believed in him because I was told so by authorities (who also told me why I felt certain emotions), because I saw the world in relation to myself rather than in an objective way, and because of wishes.

If you're curious about what I think now, I will only say this. If I do still believe in God (in whatever form), the remaining reason must only be because I'm incredibly stubborn. But if I don't believe in God, then I must be incredibly silly to spend all this time talking about him.


Ali said...

I grew up in an ultra-conservative Christian environment, and for many years I considered myself a born again Christian. Looking back on those years, I believe that my belief in the Christian god was based on fear. My earliest memories are of lying in bed at night and being terrified that I was going to hell for that lie I told my mom about whether I brushed my teeth that morning, or taking a cookie when no one was looking. As a grew older, I had many problems with what my religion taught: that gays are going to hell, that God is loves all equally yet he lets some have the obvious advantage of being born into Christian families while others are born into some “heathen” religion, etc. When I was struggling with my beliefs, I talked to a mentor who told me that he believes in the biblical God because if he’s right, he gets to go to heaven, while if he’s wrong then no harm was done and he’s lived a fine life. While there are many holes in this argument that I won’t get into, again it seems belief based on fear. Just in case there is a hell, I’ll follow Christianity so that I don’t go there. After I began to change my mind about the whole Christianity thing, the fear was still there, only this time it was fear of what people would think. Would my parents disown me? Would my friends hate me? Was it worth going through the motions to avoid external conflict, although internal conflict was eminent? What am I supposed to believe now? At first I secretly considered myself a complete atheist, but it didn’t seem to fit for me. I had beliefs that didn’t seem to fit any exact label, and I felt that religion/spirituality was too important of a part of human nature to disregard it completely. So here I am now. I wrote all that to share an extremely brief account of what motivated my early beliefs and to tell a little bit about how they have changed. Hope you don’t mind the lengthy comment. And as a disclaimer, I’m certainly not saying that all Christians believe in my brief description of what I was taught.

Rusty Spell said...

I like lengthy comments, especially when they're this well-written (rare for internet comments, I find). I was lucky enough to escape the "fear" thing somehow (at least when it came to basic belief, though it affected related areas), but it's certainly a big one for many, many people.

For my silly "answer" to your mentor's hell argument, see my "Belief in Marduk" post, the "Pascal's Wager" section. There's also a funny video I saw once of someone attempting to follow *every* religion, "just in case."

If you want to read an extension of this post, you can write me an email and I'll send you a "secret" God Blog article that I'm not ready to post to the general public yet.