Many months ago Neil Carter, Godless in Dixie, wrote an article about the Evangelical mind warping perspective on Philippians 4:13. (I particularly like the comment about his kids noticing the clock reading 4:13 as apposed to 4:20.) He also uses a cute analogy about Dumbo and the magic feather.
It is his follow on comment that I want to explore further:
In one sense Dumbo never needed a magic feather, but it sure was helpful at the beginning. Maybe the same thing can be said of religion.
I responded by saying that “This kind of sneaks up on you as subtly true.” And over the intervening months this idea has haunted me.
The reason Neil’s suggestion that religion might be helpful in the beginning struck me as true because that was my experience. Right at the time when I was most “lost” is when I became a Christian. That may actually be trite to say. Isn’t that true for everyone? This is going to sound like a religious testimony, but I have a point to make. So bear with me.
I grew up in a nominal Christian home. There were occasional references to God but he was never at the forefront of conversation. So much so, that I was curious about what the adults all seemed to know that I did not quite get. If I can quote Douglas Adams, my position on God as a kid went something like this:
Who is this God character, anyway?
The other pertinent piece of information is that I grew up in an alcohol and drug addicted family, specifically my mom. After years of broken promises and heartache when I was 17 my mom came to me and said, “Jesus told me to stop drinking.” “Sure, mom, whatever,” was my response. But she was clean and sober that day. And the next. And the next. She claimed God had given her a choice, “stop drinking or die,” and she chose to live.
This had a rather profound impact on me, as you can imagine. My mom did not push religion on me. After going to rehab and being clean and sober for a couple of months she bought me my first bible and gently suggested, if I was interested, to read one of the gospels. Which I did. Over the next year, I read it cover to cover.
With mom suddenly acting like an adult, this was my cue to fall apart. This was my junior year in high school. I had already had problems with school, mostly due to skipping class. But I was also dealing with what I now understand was depression and anxiety. I was panicked about projects where I had to speak in front of the class. So I did not go to school. Which made it harder to go the next day. Which made it harder still. The pressure and anxiety snowballed. I felt like I had a mountain of anxiety on my back every day.
So, I dropped out.
This is when I became a Christian. I had just watched my mother transform literally overnight. I had dropped out of high school. I was 17 years old, poor, with no prospects for the future. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. All while I was reading the bible which was presented to me as having answers. And it claimed there was a God who cared. I needed help. Of course, I reached out to God.
Here is the point where my secular readers are jumping up and down at the manipulative nature of religion preying upon the vulnerable at there weakest. This is, of course, true, but not the main point I want to make. I need you to feel how lost I felt: on the cusp of adulthood, with no education and no plans on how to make a living, nor any hope for a meaningful life. Because the rest of the story gets to the point.
I had the odd experience of reading through the bible before I went to church. Which means that upon arrival at church I was constantly wondering, “Where did they get that idea?” I was 18 and the church had no idea what to do with me. So, the youth pastor asked me if I could help out with their youth group. Turns out not everyone in the church has read their bibles, so I was pretty good at preaching and teaching it very early on.
Here is the critical point in the story. One day the youth pastor says to me, “you should go to bible college.” Now, I was a high school drop out, I had gotten my GED and was playing about at community college with no particular plan. But suddenly, the idea of going to college was not out of reach. At least one person believed I could do it.
I wound up going to bible college and graduated Cum Laude. I met my future wife there. I briefly became a youth pastor. On at least a few occasions, I spoke and preached in front of thousands. This was the same kid who dropped out of high school because he was afraid of speaking in front of the class.
You know there is a rest to the story. This entire blog is the rest of the story. There were dark days for my mom. There were problems with bible college. There were certainly problems with ministry. And ultimately, my recognition that none of it was based on reality.
So what is my point?
I wouldn’t be here writing this today. I wouldn’t have my life. I wouldn’t have my career. I wouldn’t be married to the woman I love (I am still not in my wife’s league but I really wasn’t before college). None of these things would exist had I not been given that little bit of hope when I was at my lowest point.
I was dumbo. I was holding the magic feather of religion. And I could fly.
One day, I discovered the magic feather was not actually magic. It was the people in my life who had lifted me up. But that does not mean the magic feather was not useful for a time.
Do I think God delivered my mother from drugs and alcohol? No, I do not. But the idea of God gave her hope to not drink that day. And the next. For ten years. Until it didn’t.
Do I think God took an anxious and scared kid and made him a public speaker? No, actually, I think it was the relationships with people in my life. That youth pastor who legitimately cared about me but just happened to be in the church. My grandparents who paid for half of my college. And even my mom who, despite all her flaws, let me know how much she believed in me. People believed in me, supported me and got me through very difficult times and allowed me to succeed.
The placebo effect in medicine is a well understood phenomenon. When people are given inactive sugar pills but they believe they are medicine they get better. The mind is a powerful thing and it has influence over the body (to an extent). The point is even though pills made of sugar have zero medicinal value people physically got better when they believed the sugar pills where going to heal them.
The point Neil makes above and the point I am extending here is that religion has a placebo effect. It can be helpful for some people some of the time. My mother’s belief in a deliverer (and not coincidentally one who watches over you and knows all) helped her overcome an addiction. My belief in the “Father to the fatherless” and a God who providentially guided me helped me overcome my anxiety and analysis paralysis and get on with my life.
Why in the world would would I (the Graceful Atheist) make the argument that religion could be helpful? A few reasons. But first let me clarify.
What I am not saying:
I am not saying that the magic feather of religion is actually magic. There are perfectly natural explanations for all of one’s religious experiences. In fact, that is the point, it is a placebo.
I am not saying that one should stay in religion. The point I am trying to make is a humanistic one: one’s own humanity and one’s relationships with other human beings are the magic. Not the religion.
I am not saying that religion is an unqualified good. It is more harmful than helpful because it isn’t true.
What I am saying:
What I am saying is that in some circumstances for some people some of the time religion can be a “crutch” or a talisman that helps a person get through difficulties.
Further, we in the secular community need to keep in mind that taking the magic feather away from someone by force leads to a crash. Placebos stop working when one becomes convinced that the pills are just sugar. But if someone else tries to externally convince, one is more likely to become defensive.
One of the reasons why I am not an anti-theist actively trying to disabuse the faithful of the magic of their feathers, is that this can be more harmful than good. When bubbles burst it can be painful. People self-delude sometimes for good reasons. Maybe they need that at the time. I tend to believe that when a person is ready they will start asking questions of their own volition.
We in the secular community should argue against bad ideas wherever they are found. Sometimes in public. But there is a tendency, particularly online, to see it as one’s mission to destroy religion at all costs. Not only do I think this is wrong, I think it is counter productive.
I have not actively tried to convince my believing family to give up their beliefs. Partly because, I perceive they are not ready. The magic feather is still keeping them in the air. Taking it away by force will just make them crash, not help them thrive as human beings.
We have to have something to give people to replace the magic feather. Something that will give them hope. Something that will carry them through dark times. As things stand today, I think this is the greatest failure of the secular community. Why would I yank the crutch out from underneath someone when I have nothing to offer but pure self-reliance? That just isn’t enough for many many people.
Avoiding the crash
After the deconversion process the single most important thing is finding community. Finding the relationships that keep one afloat. It is a secular community of caring people that needs to replace religious ones.
I consider myself a pathologically independent person. I decided at age 12 no one would be taking care of me but myself. The idea of a God who had my back was deeply attractive. It turned out I was still on my own. I tell you this to point out my greatest character flaw. I find it very difficult to ask for help even when I need it desperately.
A consequence of this is that when I deconverted, I did my thing. I did it alone. I read a pile of books. I got online and studied humanism, science and philosophy. I listened to hours of podcasts. I came to understand I was not alone. I was actually a part of a long line of history of doubters. I learned how to live life gracefully without God.
But here is the thing. Most people aren’t like that. Most people need more. If all we have to offer is “Good luck, you are on your own,” most people will reject that.
We need to do better at creating safe, welcoming and caring communities for the doubting, for the deconstructing and for the deconverting. We need to provide Secular Grace. We need to provide a replacement for the magic feather. It is we human beings who can do that.
What do you now see was a placebo?
I asked a few online secular communities I am a member of what they now thought of as placebo that they once believed was magic.
The overwhelming response reminded me (and you, dear reader) of the privileged position I have as a white(ish) cis-gendered heterosexual man in this society. Not everyone had positive experiences with religion. See the #ChurchToo. Some have experienced nothing positive at all.
I got pithy responses like: “All of it,” “None of it” and “Thoughts and prayers.”
There was a common theme of parents having transformed, angry fathers becoming loving caregivers and drug addicted mothers getting clean and sober.
Prayer was the big one people recognized as a placebo. Prayer feels like you are doing something when things are most out of your control. It is a tough one to get over post-deconversion.
In a mirror image of my argument for caring community, one person pointed out the false sense of community as placebo. They found out that the religious community who said they loved them and would always support them suddenly abandoned them as soon as they rejected the faith.
Also in juxtaposed from my experience of hope, one person talked about false hope. They talked about how devastating it was to feel hopeless when God did not come through for them.
I got strong push back from the spiritual but not religious who argued that the positive effects (“feel-good hormones) are not placebo but a direct result of spirituality.
What do you look back on now as a placebo that felt very real while you were in your faith?
There can be some positive effects from religion. It is OK to look back fondly on them post-deconversion even while you grow out of the need for magic feathers. Forcibly trying to dissuade believers is counter productive. Even if we could convince them we still need to do better at providing a safe and welcoming community for them to replace what they are losing.
Most importantly, you can be the magic part of a secular community that can replace the impotent feathers and pills filled with inactive sugar for the believers in your life.