It’s been almost six years since I stopped believing in Christian religious teachings. After all that time, I’d like to tell people that I’m completely recovered from it. There are still some persistent echoes of faith that still catch me from time to time. They are reminders of what I used to believe, vestiges of a thought matrix that has lost its original function. Dealing with them can be a struggle.
Sometimes they manifest in nightmares.
Last week, I had a nightmare that everyone I knew was joining a death cult. No matter what I tried, people were still insisting I join too. Eventually I figured out that there was something they were drinking which forced people to remain after conversion. A bunch of stuff ensued, centering on my struggle against that cult. I woke up as the cultists were trying to forcibly convert me.
It’s obvious I harbor fears regarding religious conversion. There are probably too many causes to list here. I think part of it is attention bias. Knowing how far I could get into religious belief without any specific intent, there’s always the question of whether it could happen again. What other blind spots do I have? Will they injure me like my old faith did? Anxiety also feeds into this, so perhaps I’m more susceptible to it than others.
Sometimes I hear the echoes in misplaced gratitude.
When I was a Christian, I was always thankful for those little things I believed a deity was doing to help me get through my day. From getting something I needed to mistaking things for divine phenomena, I reminded myself that I needed to be thankful to this Thing that never physically existed. This was the product of years and years of reminders, sermons, lectures, punishments, rants, and threats.
It’s no wonder that I still find myself reacting to such conditioning. The other day I found myself feeling grateful for something entirely random. I can’t even remember what it was, save that I went from fear of an unbidden idea to the soothing realization that it was all automated.
That fear is the product of still more conditioning.
My former Christian self would have believed that some entity was trying to communicate with me. It’s supposed to be a spiritual calling. It can’t possibly be the product of people telling me so. No, it has to be an all-powerful entity taking time out of its day to affect one guy on one planet in the entire cosmos.
I get a little angry when this happens. I don’t like being reminded of ludicrous things I used to believe. More than that, I don’t like the reminder that people I trusted lied to me. They might have believed all of it, but they still lied. And the whole thing was just to frighten me with the thought that something unseen was happening.
I find it tough to remain positive when I experience this.
Outside of fodder for good horror fiction, stuff like this reminds me that religious belief is not a function of intelligence or being impressionable. Otherwise intelligent or stubborn people could be conditioned if the people around them work hard enough at it. Some congregations and families try really, really hard.
This fact can get lost at times among people who never had to go that far into belief. It can even apply to people who attend church regularly, or people with no religious belief at all. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the kinds of things others are willing to do in the name of an invisible friend. Nobody in the faith likes to talk about the invisible scars they might inflict on others. Worse, some people won’t even care about opening new wounds.
All of this makes it tough for me to grasp intellectually and let go of emotionally.
So how does one overcome this?
I think my first step was to realize that I didn’t have a god-shaped hole. All of my religious instincts are conditioning. Years of effort were put into it, some of it by people who devoted their lives to such beliefs. There’s no magic, spiritual warfare, or any other fiend waiting to do me ill.
If conditioning can be learned, then it can be unlearned. This is my mantra. It helps me cope when I feel bad religious habits and ideas waking up in my head. And despite all the work I need to do to unlearn my conditioning, I shouldn’t ignore the work I’ve already accomplished.
My first instinct now is to question religious claims. I didn’t do that before. Instead of letting the echoes of faith trouble me, I’m telling them to shut the hell up.