Understanding Belief

© mortortian

Like many other responsible seekers, I’ve read most of the recent atheist authors (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and on back to Bertrand Russell in 1957) who criticize and even denigrate the belief systems of the ordinary Christians. As far as my own theology is concerned, I agree substantially with their conclusions; I call myself a post-Christian and a post-theist.

But why conclude that Christianity is wrong for everybody else? The fact that religious systems include a substantial element of magical thinking and mythology does not disprove their usefulness in a difficult world. Religious belief has been common in all cultures since the beginning of human time because, from an evolutionary point of view, it has demonstrable survival value. At all times in history, human life has been a dangerous and fearful proposition. Religion has often functioned well to abate fear, instill intention, promote courage, and protect from despair. So don’t knock it!

Via commons.wikimedia.org

The basic concepts of transactional analysis are useful in understanding the dynamics of belief. The technique’s founder, Eric Berne, and his followers posit that all persons carry within themselves the emotional states of child, parent, and adult, and switch back and forth between them as circumstances change. The “child” includes an OK mood and a not-OK mood; the “parent” can be nurturing or punishing; the “adult” keeps primarily to a rational, reasoning state of mind.

In a primitive world or society, just as in a disadvantaged and poorly educated condition in our own era, there is much to fear and to cause a person to feel like a “not-OK child.” Even the most privileged among us often feel pretty bad about ourselves or our world.

To correct the fearful or helpless state of mind, a human instinctively looks for a nurturing “parent” (or possibly a competent “adult”). A grownup in a not-OK mindset who does not have a real-life father at hand may look for another “parent” source of reassurance. The conventional Christian God is the paradigmatic father. Like other fathers, He is believed to be nurturing so much of the time that He is endured when He is “punishing,” as “when bad things happen to good people.” He has power when the not-OK child does not.

In terms of correcting the fearful state of mind, it doesn’t matter if the father or parent figure is objectively real or not. It only matters that the suffering person can shift out of the helpless, not-OK mode and carry on. Religious thinking—magical or not—has functioned effectively in this way for millions of individuals throughout human history and continues to do so today. I hope that, despite my own non-believing condition, such magical thinking will come to my own aid if I ever need it. I have some treasured stones and tokens to revert to, just in case! They will help to move me from not-OK to an “adult” mode when that change is needed.

Meanwhile, though, like the educated and privileged Sams, Richards, and Christophers who write these post-scientific books, most of the time I have access to a competent “adult” state of mind and can find “adult” resources among my associates and in my library. (Books by Martin Buber, Erich Fromm, Galen Guengerich, and David Boulton are in my collection, for example.) As a Quaker, I am not tempted to look at others as “not-OK children” or to take on a “punishing parent” attitude toward them.

Above and beyond belief, belonging to a group is also crucial to the well-being of most humans and to their sense of being OK. Who is my tribe? Where do I fit in?

Almost everyone looks for a community to belong to. Some will adhere to a group that hates and hurts other people, and they should be urged to change their ways. My own tribe, the unprogrammed Quakers, lets others go their own ways, respected and unharmed. Operating primarily in an “adult” mode, Quakers even let me follow my own path as a post-Christian and post-theist. I am grateful.


Elizabeth Boardman

Elizabeth Boardman has been an active Quaker for many years and is now a member of Redwood Forest Meeting in Santa Rosa, Calif. Her books on Quaker themes include Where Should I Stand? A Field Guide for Monthly Meeting Clerks and Letters from Lillian: Faith and Practice among Modern Liberal Quakers. Much of her poetry deals with issues of faith.

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