Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: Once Born, Twice Shy

things that go bump
Once Born, Twice Shy
by James Alcock

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, He cannot see the kingdom of God. (John, 3.3)

Heaven is restricted. Being kind, decent, law-abiding, caring and helpful is not enough to gain admission. Seek no entry here, all ye Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, atheists and other non-Christians, no matter how upstanding you may be as citizens, parents, friends and neighbours. Even belief in Christian doctrine and adherence to Christian morality is not enough. To get into Heaven, you must be Born Again.

To Roman Catholics, one is ‘born again’ through baptism, in which the stain of Original Sin is cleansed away as one repents for personal sin and is transformed through God’s grace. Unless one is baptized, then, one cannot go to Heaven. Consequently, infants who die without having been baptized, even though free from personal sin, have no hope of ever entering Heaven. Instead, their souls are assigned permanently to Children’s Limbo (limbus puerorum), a state of happy oblivion somewhere between Heaven and Hell.

To fundamentalist Christians, however, Heaven has tougher entry requirements, and baptism is not enough. They interpret being Born Again as the active acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, although this concept is not without ambiguity. And there are even more rigid limitations for some Christian sects. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, believe that only a total of 144,000 souls will be ‘born again’ in the Resurrection and admitted into Heaven. Given the six and one-half billion people alive today, not to mention all those who have gone before, this means that the vast majority of people will never get to Heaven if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are correct.

Born Again Christians constitute a large and growing segment of the population of the United States, a group with considerable collective political clout that can count amongst its members some of highest political powers in the land, including the President, Vice-President, Secretary of State and Attorney-General. A 2004 Gallup Poll reported that 45% of Americans are Born Again Christians, while fewer than 10% of Canadians describe themselves in this manner. This reflects a substantial difference in general religious belief between the two countries: according to another recent poll, while 59% of Americans consider religion to be important to them, only 30% of Canadians feel the same way.

Born Again Christians in the United States are leading an attack on reason and science. For example, more and more states — approximately half of them at present — are imposing limits on the teaching of evolution in science classes, as creationism and its dressed-up cousin ‘intelligent design’ make their way into science classes.

What is it like to be Born Again, to believe fervently that the Holy Scriptures are infallible and literally true, to believe that God and Jesus are constantly watching over you, to believe that you will one day go to Heaven and be reunited with your (Born Again) loved ones, to believe that there is Satanic evil always present in the world that must be opposed, to believe that we are soon coming to the end of worldly existence as predicted in the Book of Revelation? I can tell you what it is like from first-hand observation, although for the record, I have only been born once, as was documented in the family Bible of one of my uncles. Inscribed in that Bible was a list extended family members and two columns of dates labelled ‘Born’ and ‘Born Again.’ I noted that dates were inscribed in both columns for most family members, even for grandchildren as young as two or three years, but for my siblings and myself, dates appeared only in the ‘Born’ column. My aunt saw me looking at the list and expressed the hope that she could soon add a date for me under the second column as well. (That never happened).

I was reared in a very tolerant and loving home. I was encouraged to think, but I was also taught to believe in Christianity, and was an active Christian until my late teens, at which time, over a period of two or three years, I wrestled with my faith, struggled with the resulting guilt elicited by questioning it, and eventually became a non-theist (a term I prefer to ‘atheist’ because of all the negative connotations that term can elicit). My father had been reared as a Baptist in England, but never showed any indication of having any religious faith whatsoever. He never spoke of religion, never attended church and never even closed his eyes when my mother said Grace at each meal! However, neither did he attack religion. Live and let live.

My mother was a member of the United Church of Canada, and this is the church in which I was reared. As most Canadians recognize, this is a generally tolerant, socially-progressive church which has often been on the forefront in promoting social justice. It was comfortable with intellectual inquiry and, at least in retrospect, seemed to be generally low in dogmatism, and rather practical in many ways. I vividly recall that when I was about 14, my Sunday School teacher, who also happened to be the school principal in my little town, told my friends and me that we were now old enough to take Communion. However, he cautioned that we should only do so if we were prepared to make every effort to stop sinning, and he went on to tell us that he was not yet ready to make such a promise, and therefore would not be taking communion himself! Shades of St Augustine in his Confessions: “Oh Lord, make me pure. But not yet!”

My mother’s family of origin was very religious; all but one of her siblings had been Born Again. Moreover, one of her brothers was an ordained evangelical minister, as was his wife. I had regular contact with my aunts and uncles, and one of my aunts lived just doors away. Thus, my everyday exposure to the spectrum of religious belief went from no religion (my father), to tolerant religion that encouraged intellectual inquiry (my mother and the United Church), to fundamentalist religion that rejected any questioning of a literal interpretation of the Scriptures.

Should I change jobs? Pray, and let God guide the decision.

To my fundamentalist relatives, as for other fundamentalists that I have met later in life, religion was the central core of daily existence. Virtually every picture on the walls of my relatives’ homes involved a religious theme. No decoration of the human body was allowed: no lipstick, no jewellery. Christmas trees were of course pagan and to be eschewed. Movies were considered sinful. (My uncle counselled my older brother that he could not attend church and go to movies as well. My brother elected to stop going to church!) Every decision my relatives made involved God in some manner. Should I change jobs? Pray, and let God guide the decision. Should I buy this house? Put in an offer, and if God wants you to have the house, it will be accepted. Why did the airplane crash? God in His wisdom ordained it, for some reason beyond our comprehension. Further exposure to Born Again religion came several years after my father’s death, when my then septuagenarian mother remarried, to a very strict Born Again Christian. He practised his faith to a fault, even saying grace over doughnuts at the doughnut shop. He fervently believed that the United Church was satanic and made my mother feel guilty for having brought us up in that church.

their absolute certainty about what is right and wrong, produces intellectual rigidity, if not intellectual rigor mortis

What has always struck me about my religious relatives, and other Born Again Christians whom I have encountered since, is the righteous certainty they have about their beliefs. Their absolute certainty that the Bible is literally true, their absolute certainty about what is right and wrong, produces intellectual rigidity, if not intellectual rigor mortis, for no reflection or discussion is necessary when one knows the truth. This intellectual rigidity in turn leads to intolerance of those who do not share the fundamentals of their belief system, an intolerance that contrasts sharply with the message of Christian love and acceptance of all that was taught to me in the United Church. Such intolerance leads sometimes to emotional abusiveness, as when, the day my father died, another aunt told my mother with some apparent sadness that since my father was not Born Again, his soul would already be in Hell. Even other Christian denominations are rejected as false religions. One of my aunts described to me how she was working to bring a number of unfortunate sinners to the Lord — a pregnant unmarried teenager, a young drug addict and a Roman Catholic. I asked her if I had correctly heard ‘Roman Catholic’ in the same list as drug addict and pregnant teenager. She replied that I had heard correctly, for all are outside God’s Grace.

Religion in general to some extent, and all-encompassing fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist religion in particular, constitute a belief system from which it is difficult to extricate oneself, even when motivated by reason to do so. Being reared from infancy in a religion generally makes it all the more difficult, for one has come to accept the basic tenets of the faith before intellect has fully developed. The intrinsic control mechanisms in religion are barriers to reason, and the more fundamentalist and dogmatic the religion, the more powerful are these mechanisms.

Barrier to Reason #1: Faith must not be questioned. If religious teachings do not make sense, or even if they seem absurd, they are nonetheless true and are to be accepted on faith. A simple example: When quite young, I was puzzled about the Bible. How could it be, I asked my Born Again aunt, that with only four human beings extant in all of creation — Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel — and leaving only three after Cain killed Abel, Cain left his parents and went away and got married. “Whom did he marry?” I wondered. It is wrong to question, I was admonished. You must accept it on faith. (I was subsequently interested to learn that in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925, prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, who was defending Christian faith against godless evolution, was unable to answer the same question about Cain’s wife put to him by defence lawyer Clarence Darrow).

Barrier to Reason #2: Guilt. If questioning one’s religion is wrong, then to ask such questions means that one is even more of a sinner, and this leads to guilt, which severely dampens one’s enthusiasm for further inquiry. Personally, I continued vainly to search for evidence to support my childhood faith. Once, I even devised a way to show God’s existence. My father arose early every morning and set out cereals for breakfast, and he always put the cereal boxes at the same end of the table, day after day. I prayed to God that, as a sign, could he please have my father put them at the other end of the table the next morning? I did not want to ask for anything that would interfere significantly with the laws of nature, but this seemed eminently doable without any untoward effects on the way the world works. No such sign was forthcoming, however. My father did not vary from his routine, or perhaps I would now be writing for a religious organ rather than Humanist Perspectives. Did I lose my faith? One cannot escape that easily and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, my guilt level increased, for I had been taught by my aunt that God does not like to be tested or trifled with. I was guilty of wanting proof for that which should be accepted on faith.

Barrier to Reason #3: God is watching, and sees into our hearts. While those who are not religious may enjoy their ‘guilty pleasures’ from time to time, it is not so easy for the deeply religious, for God is always watching. Even examining religious precepts in a critical manner will not escape divine attention, and one will have to account for these unfaithful thoughts on Judgment Day. There is no escape.

Barrier to Reason #4: Ignore contrary evidence. There is little discussion or true debate within a dogmatic religious group. Views contrary to the orthodox position are easily dismissed either because they are misguided or because they are inspired by Satan, who always lurks, waiting to tempt people to stray from the path of righteousness. And of course the views of any people who have left the faith are discounted: either they have answered Satan’s call, or they ‘obviously’ never had the true faith to begin with. While I respect people’s rights to their religious views, I regularly find that many Christians, and fundamentalists in particular, reject the value of anything I have to say as an ex-Christian, telling me that obviously I have never experienced the true faith. Inded, Born Again Christians go even further, rejecting the notion that I was ever a Christian to begin with. First of all, I was never Born Again. And secondly, “The United Church, you say…”

Barrier to Reason #5: Social pressure. Threat of social rejection by people you care about is a powerful deterrent in religious and secular settings alike, but all the more so, I believe, in dogmatic religious settings. Straying from the path will bring considerable pressure from those around you to return to the flock.

Barrier to Reason #6: Much to lose. Religion involves carrots as well as sticks. In accepting the doctrinal beliefs and not questioning them, and in living one’s life according to the dictates of the faith, there are undoubtedly many rewards. For Born Again fundamentalists, these rewards include being one of God’s chosen, knowing that you are in God’s hands and being watched over, knowing that you will go to Heaven when you die, and having certainty about what is right and wrong in life. Leaving the faith means giving up these comforts.

These barriers to reason make it very difficult to leave a religious belief system, especially one that is as all-consuming as Born Again Christianity. This is not to say that Born Again Christians are not good and decent people, but it does mean that they are very restricted in their willingness and ability to give fair consideration to points of view that conflict with their doctrinal beliefs. Moreover, because of the conviction that they are living in the manner intended by God, they need not draw a distinction between secular and sacred. They believe that their faith should rule, even with regard to the secular concerns of daily life.

Of course, not all Born Again Christians are cut from the same cloth, and my relatives were undoubtedly amongst the most conservative and doctrinaire. My aim is not to stereotype those who claim to be Born Again, but to point out just how hard it is because of these barriers to reason to leave a religious belief system, especially one that is as all-consuming as Born Again Christianity. I am not threatened by religious faith in general, and I certainly respect and admire the devotion of many religious people to great humanitarian causes. Moreover, there are many people who are both religious and intellectual. However, there is danger when religious fundamentalists — of any religion — try to shape the world to suit their literal interpretation of ancient texts. This ultimately leads to a division between believers and non-believers, not just on a religious level, but also on a political and emotional level. Such a schism has been at the root of much human carnage across the ages. Unfortunately, the earth is rumbling and the cracks are becoming wider.

James Alcock is Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto and a Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He has written or co-authored many books, including Psi Wars (Imprint Academic, 2003); and A Textbook of Social Psychology, 6th Ed (Prentice-Hall, 2004).

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