Saturday, 10 November 2012

Faith, Doubt, And The Power Of Positive Thinking

A loose acquaintance of mine recently got into a bad traffic accident.  You might call him a "friend of a friend of a friend"; we don't really know each other, very well, but we travel in similar circles.

Unfortunately, it appears as if he may now be paralyzed.  Obviously, it's a tough situation but, from what I hear, he is maintaining an extremely positive (even cheery) attitude in the hospital. For the record, and lest I be accused of implying otherwise, I think this is downright awesome. There is a great wisdom in learning to accept those things, in life, that we cannot control.  It reminds me of a saying that my mother taught me, when I was younger;

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference."

I now realize that this is what's known as the serenity prayer but, as a kid, it just seemed like another one of those deep things my mom said (she said a lot of those).  Of course, today, as an atheist, I no longer believe that it's god who grants serenity.  The truth is, it comes from within us.

A few days ago, I became privy to an update on this acquaintance of mine.  The message, in part, read as follows...

"...(he has) inspired many with his faith and total trust in the Lord as he seeks to honor Him while clawing his way back.  The most beautiful part of this is the fact that he knows the Lord has never changed in the midst of this."

As I was reading the update, and the above section in particular, it hit me that Christians routinely confuse the ideas of faith and positivity.  In the mind of the Christian, persistent faith and trust in god, even in the face of great tragedy, is equated with internal strength and fortitude.

In similar scenarios, you will often hear believers speak of how so and so has been a real "witness", to the doctors and nurses.  In other words, their positive attitude has caused the medical staff to wonder about (or even envy) their Christian faith.  This is part and parcel to being "salt and light", to "the world", a great source of pride for the believer.

But, let's suppose, for a moment, that you or I were to become suddenly paralyzed (or we received some other devastating medical diagnosis).  We would be faced with two basic cognitive choices, in the aftermath of such terrible news: a) believe that god has a plan and, as such, that we were paralyzed "for a reason", or b) believe that we were paralyzed simply due to a freak accident (no plan, no reason, it just sucks).

Now, which one of these things is easier to believe?  I'm not asking which one is better, or which one you personally believe, I'm asking which one is easier to believe.  (Go back, and read them again, before answering too quickly.)

It seems clear, when reflected upon in this way, that many would admit it's probably easier (at least for most people) to believe that their paralysis (or what have you) is all part of god's ultimate plan in some mysterious way.  If this is the case though, than why is maintaining faith in god viewed as a sign of strength in such situations?  Wouldn't losing your faith actually take more strength, according to this same logic?  After all, then you would have to fully admit that it's up to you, to make the best out of your really difficult situation.  No miraculous healing will come, and there is no grand plan from above.

At this point, one might be inclined to see the latter option as depressing.  Is it even realistic, to expect that someone could maintain a positive attitude, while viewing it in this way?

Yes.  I'm certainly not claiming it's easy, but many have proven that it can be done.

Allow me to offer up Christopher Reeve, as just one shining example.  I greatly admired (the late) Reeve, for displaying to the world a stellar attitude, despite his significant health challenges.  I have nothing but the highest respect for those who, like Reeve, steadfastly refuse to feel sorry for themselves. Incidentally, Christopher Hitchens handled himself with a similar grace, during his final days.  I think it's pretty clear that strength comes the inside, as I have claimed, and it actually has nothing to do with the supernatural at all.  Having said that, I do think that believing in god can make it much easier for someone to come to terms (internally) with such tragedies. I don't fault Christians for this.  I understand the appeal, of believing as they do, in particular since I once believed it myself.

All of this does imply, however, that religious belief acts as something of a crutch, or at least that it provides great emotional comfort, since it infuses meaning into things which would (otherwise) seem senseless and random (making them feel even more tragic). It's one of the factors that makes faith so prevalent, and difficult to shake off, especially for those experiencing a lot of hard knocks in life.  Staring reality square in the face can be pretty daunting. Incidentally, I've written a little already about how (I believe) faith acts as an emotional coping mechanism, right here, but it's a topic I will likely return to again and again.

For now, let's circle back to the question I started with; why do Christians equate faith with internal strength?  I think the answer is found by taking a step back to examine, more broadly, how Christians see the world from the outset.  When they trumpet the fact that so and so continued believing, even after something admittedly awful, what they're really saying is that he or she persisted in their faith despite evidence that might seem to suggest the contrary.  In other words, they're continuously affirming, to one another, that even though such and such may *seem* random (or meaningless), it's really not what it seems.  It's akin to saying, "our in-group believes that god has all things under his control, so we're going to esteem you verbally, for still believing in that, despite what you're going through right now".  It is for this same reason they will often admonish one another, with faith affirming platitudes such as "keep the faith!", as if doing so were just inherently a good thing.  This assumption, that religious faith is always good and right, by its very nature, is simply never challenged inside the Christian bubble.

My goal, in this post, has been to untangle the concepts of faith and positivity.  As it happens, I think the same sort of confusion exists, on the flip side, regarding the concepts of skepticism and negativity (or cynicism).  I consider myself to be a skeptic, and proud of it, but I am not a "negative person", nor am I cynical in any way (admittedly, I can be sarcastic sometimes :)). Doubt is not a bad thing, it's a sign of intellectual maturity, so a skeptic should never be accused of bringing negativity into a discussion (simply because they have introduced doubt into the given equation).


  1. " We would be faced with two basic cognitive choices, in the aftermath of such terrible news: a) believe that god has a plan and, as such, that we were paralyzed "for a reason", or b) believe that we were paralyzed simply due to a freak accident (no plan, no reason, it just sucks).

    Now, which one of these things is easier to believe? I'm not asking which one is better, or which one you personally believe, I'm asking which one is easier to believe. (Go back, and read them again, before answering too quickly.)"

    This is an interesting point and may reflect cognitive biases which are NOT universal -- or perhaps situationally dependent.

    It's much easier for me to believe that it's just bad luck than that there's some sort of insane "purpose" chosen by some psychotic power-hungry Stalin-like God for the bad things happening to me. If it's bad luck, then I could have good luck later. If God is screwing with me, that would suck.

    In practice, when I meet people who *have* gotten themselves into trouble -- who are injured because of their own carelessness, recklessness, and bad judgment -- they find it MUCH easier to believe that it was "bad luck" than to admit that it was their own damn fault.

    So I'd appreciate some more explanation on what psychology leads some people to find it easier to believe that bad luck is "all part of God's plan". To me that sounds freaking scary, like a rat living in a maze being controlled by a callous experimenter. Who would want that? I did read your previous linked article, but I *still* find the psychology bizarre.

    I think emotional comfort is better provided by explaining that it *IS* just bad luck! Well, emotional comfort for thinking people anyway.

    1. You raise some interesting questions.

      I think it mostly comes down to how one views god. You say, *it's much easier for me to believe that it's just bad luck than that there is some sort of insane purpose chosen by some psychotic power-hungry Stalin like god*. But, the thing is, Christians don't view god as *psychotic*, *power-hungry*, or *Stalin like*. In their minds, god is completely loving, and he is also working *all things together for good*. So, he would never, ever *screw* with people. It may not be according to our definition of *good*, but we need to trust him even when we can't track him (I was actually taught this). One day, we will understand what god was up to all along; if not in this world, in the next.

      Notice how, in the update on this acquaintance of mine, it says *he knows the Lord has never changed in the midst of this*. But why do they even mention that? What's the relevance to their medical situation? Well, when your world is shaken, as a Christian, and you feel like everything is reeling out of control, god is that one thing you can always count on. He is your rock. The unchanging one, who loves you and is never caught off guard by anything that happens in your life. He many not have *caused* such and such to happen, but he *allowed* it to happen, and you can rest easy knowing that he has a good plan for you and will never abandon you no matter what.

      In terms of the *bad luck* sense is that most Christians don't really believe in *luck*, per se. They tend to explain bad luck (and a host of other things) by invoking: a) free will, and b) sin. Sometimes we make bad choices, since we have free will, and this leads to negative consequences. And we also live in a *fallen world*, so this is why people die in tsunamis, and the like. It might appear to be just *bad luck*, and nothing more, but in actuality it comes down to the fact that our natural world has been corrupted by sin. Sometimes we suffer, as a result of the fall in the garden, and this will remain the case until god sets things right again.

      I know this all sounds crazy, to atheists (myself included), but it's how Christians think (at least in a rough sketch form).

  2. I like how you (respectful atheist) present your points or at least the ones I have read so far. It creates a much more productive discussion. I've come to a different conclusion, however, based on what I consider overwhelming historical evidence, logical reasoning, and personal experience. I would be curious about your read on Randall Niles for the historical evidence side (see his four part videos on You Tube)? The natural order of the universe speaks loudly to intelligent design for me (can't speak for others). With Jesus, life makes perfect sense to me as it is a temporary assignment. Before Jesus, it did not make much sense to me. God has promised me that in all things He works for my good if I trust Him (not that all things are good). Evil is the absence of God; I can comprehend that like cold is the absence of heat. Finally, life is good with Jesus. He has simple guidelines: Love God, Love Others. His life on earth demonstrated a "liberal" approach to those commands. And he did include a hefty warning about judging others. Some how I can't help but feel many Christian brothers and sisters missed that part, but I can't judge them either as it is clearly not for me to do. I'm 1000% sure I've got this one right, but if I am wrong; well, Pascal's wager sums that part up pretty well. That wager is not a good reason to believe, but certainly a good reason to investigate for as long as we are here on temporary assignment.

  3. Simply put, I was more negative, cynical, and miserable as a Christian than I am now as an agnostic atheist. XD

  4. I am a person who suddenly became a paraplegic through a motorcycle accident 32 years ago. I am strong, but not because of the accident. I was strong my whole life. I am also a positive person. I hope for a cure but know that there probably won't be one in my life time. So I live my life to the fullest . And I am an atheist. The problem of being a paraplegic atheist is that many Christians believe I am an atheist because I am bitter. I wish people would understand that I am an atheist because I have common sense .

    1. I grew up in Mississippi, the buckle of the Bible Belt. I was eight years old when I realized that I did not *honestly* believe that verbally accepting the invisible son of an invisible god who was born by the miraculous impregnation of a random poor man's virgin wife could possibly demonstrate my true intent, much less my true beliefs. It would be a very long time afterwards before I could finally let go of the beautiful notion that no matter what, the great father in the sky loved me and spied on me and read my thoughts so that I could promptly be flagged for a ticket to eternal hell, should I reject Jesus at any time.

      I blew out one disk and cracked another in an awful crash in an ATV race. The pain was intense, unrelenting chronic pain that ran from my lower back down my sciatic nerve. I would wake up screaming at the top of my lungs because the nerves lit up in my sleep for no apparent reason. At least I expected it as I moved about during the day. The following year my mother died unexpectedly while visiting. The next year I lost my fiancée. I lost my job in the Great Recession and my condo (along with 90% of my belongings). Within 6 months I was watching my father end his 5 years of suffering in one final epic struggle against the horrific death that comes with cancer. The emotional pain of personal losses kept coming and the physical pain never relented.

      At no point did I become angry with God or beg for mercy. As an atheist I had become comfortable with knowing that talking to God is talking to self and asking God for strength is a preemptive form of affirming and supplying the self of the strength requested. Instead, I did what I had always done (when previous faced with difficulty); I worked hard to get myself back to the best circumstances that I was capable of creating.

      The results? After about a year of struggling through pain, getting on the floor and doing yoga made me stronger and more flexible. My pain is no longer in the 7-8 out of 10 range, it is around zero most days. I found no reference to yoga in the good book and did not hear a voice that called me to do the research that led me to a DIY (ditch the meds) solution. And by the way I did depend on opiates and am free of those as well.

      I also found myself in unfamiliar territory. No jobs available. But I took action and hired on as a business broker and underwent a 10 week training and got out there and marketed myself and built a $25MM+ portfolio.

      Notice I haven't mentioned anything about being cheerful or not. As one can imagine I was no cheerleader when suffering almost nonstop for 6 years of pain. Nor did I blame God. I hit a kicker while pinging my rev limiter in 3 gear (I was going fast in the race). However, I think my actions were more reflective of my attitude than any verbal expression. And I did smile. Only a little at first, but as I made improvements in my own situation, on my own volition, and with no perceivable push from the invisible hand I think my serotonin and dopamine levels were commensurate with the results I achieved through a series of successive actions. Had I laid in bed praying I suspect that I would be miserable and on the verge of suicide, broke, and in terrible pain. But instead I am making an honest living, in love again, and fairly healthy and fit! Thanks Me!

    2. Jason, thank you for this comment. You truly "get" what I was trying to drive at, with this post, and what's more you have lived it. I really appreciate your willingness to share your own story with us.

    3. To "unknown", thanks for sharing this. I like your last two lines (about Christians simply assuming that you're an atheist because you're bitter). That must be incredibly frustrating.

  5. I enjoyed your post. I write in the same vein as you so if you ever want some guest content hit me up.

  6. This is really a nice and informative,
    positive mindset

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