Sunday, July 20, 2014

social network connectivity problems

Recently I've been reminiscing about the individualized experiences that nudged me out of my former faith-beliefs, as opposed to the intellectual or philosophical factors. Although I repeat that I wasn't driven away by other followers' actions toward me, it's also fair to say that I almost completely lacked a comfortable sensation of "belonging". To the extent I did, it was too faint to motivate me to try to squelch my genuine objections. I've read de-conversion stories in which former followers were slow to acknowledge their creeping doubts because of their close interpersonal connections to their religious community. Or they suddenly left because of painful community conflict.

I don't fit those extremes. Generally speaking, I was just someone who didn't manage to connect meaningfully with other followers. I'm not seeking to provoke pity or assign blame. My musings on the causes are probably permeated by hindsight bias. I suspect that, as with a lot of realities, the contributors were varied and linked. Certainly my uncoerced conscious choices were one component. I'm only outlining some emotional/social/psychological mismatches that affected me, whether or not they were inevitable, whether or not I was partially responsible.

Of all these frictions, the top must have been my minimal participation in the wide range of social events. It partly stemmed from my default guarded disposition. I have a nigh-irresistible compulsion to freeze or withdraw in threatening contexts, such as when I'm interacting with someone whom I want to impress. Its intensity is comparable to a biological drive. The second part was my sincere absence of curiosity for the minutiae of others' lives. I cared for their abstract wellbeing, but I couldn't force myself to care about the details. I wished them the best. I was willing to help on request. That didn't mean I thought about them. Unlike the stereotype of churchgoers, I was never tempted to gossip, because it bored me. Casual talk was more like a chore than, well, literal chores—I'd rather be handed a task to facilitate the social event than be in the middle of it.  

I worried about this aversion regularly. I wasn't selfish, but I wasn't friendly either. I claimed to be integral to a community allegedly bound together by a supernatural level of love. So why wasn't I captivated by the community's usual set of tiny triumphs and catastrophes? It seemed to me that the spiritual ideal was to eagerly devote myself to involvement in their lives. So why weren't my impulses actually progressing toward that ideal? I was advised to treat them as well as I would treat Christ. So why didn't I value time with them?

The predicament was exacerbated by divergent interests. Although I was an independent adult, I chose churches based on adherence to my parents' religious tradition, not based on degree of similarity with the attendees. Indeed, this single-minded criterion of "deep" agreement on doctrine brought me to a church in which I was isolated by my differences in every other aspect. My acquaintances from church were happily simple. When I apply that label, I'm not insulting them—they wouldn't consider the label an insult at all.

They worked hard but they weren't rich. Their spending habits were careful. They did crafts and their own repairs. They played softball, basketball, golf. Inside they played tabletop games with cards, dice, boards, dominoes. In accordance with the overall judgment that most national entertainment was clearly soaked in evil, they didn't keep up to date with current TV or film. If they read, they preferred undemanding subjects. They weren't fascinated by most recent electronics. They admired pastimes in lightly-tamed wilderness "created by God for our pleasure": camping, fishing, hiking, hunting. Living simply was in their ethos.

I've exaggerated and generalized a lot. My main point is that in my typical time as an adult follower, I was "odd". I had little in common with my counterparts. Apart from the church's prearrangement, we didn't have separate informal reasons to associate. What would we have done or discussed if we did? In effect, I was like an outsider who was on the inside. I could hardly complain about being excluded from group activities that everyone knew I wouldn't enjoy.

Earlier I commented that I chose churches based on shared doctrine. Despite those efforts, my relative "oddness" as a follower also applied to conversations about Christian teachings. I was known as excessively analytical, unusually insistent about clarifying vague details, purposefully hesitant to make easy assumptions, and strangely concerned with the supporting justifications for ordinary ideas. After I asked a question and received an answer, I had a habit of then asking the second essential question "Why?" I wasn't rebellious or troublesome. I respected my mentors' education and commitment and practical experience. Nevertheless, such respect didn't imply that "Because I said so" was acceptable even from them. I was well aware that the long history of Protestantism was the successive toppling of quite fallible human authorities.

I could cope with someone saying "I don't know" or "It's tradition" as long as they spoke with sympathetic candor. The retort that irked me far more was the gentle insinuation that my inquisitiveness was the problem. For unlike the majority of assertions about vitally important realities, somehow faith-beliefs had the unique privilege of claiming trust without rigor. They were permitted to be ill-defined and entirely dependent on perspective. Some hinted that the supernatural didn't consist of reliable realities which could be represented symbolically. I sometimes heard that daring to think about them too much was a mistake; it would produce nothing more than destructive doubts.

To the contrary, they were to be felt and obeyed. Faith-beliefs were for the "heart" not the "head". They were more like a set of inspirational stories than puzzle pieces to assemble into something coherent. God was a gut feeling, and the supernatural was the special case in which gut feelings were all-sufficient. To become effective followers, personality types like mine needed to learn to disconnect their thoughts from their emotions, and their knowledge from their actions. They were obligated to quarantine sections of themselves in several compartments, so the sections wouldn't battle. And so they wouldn't clash with instinctual followers who didn't have misgivings.

Compartmentalization was the implicit path, if I was to persist in being serious about my faith-beliefs' ideas. And it was useful not only for seriously accepting the ideas but for seriously doing them. It was a valuable weapon against thought crimes. As far I knew, particular thoughts were abominable: pride, hatred, lust, etc. I figured that whenever I sensed those thoughts' low-level precursors, the imperative was to flee, ignore, suppress.

I suppose I grew skilled at it. The downside was that it wasn't good for me. I definitely didn't benefit from an invincible excuse to indulge tendencies toward passivity and harsh self-judgment. Given my individual mild nature, I wasn't at risk of evil acts like selfishness or hostility or promiscuity to start with. Rather than stigmatizing the related urges, I needed to hear that I shouldn't underestimate myself, pretend to never be upset, or try to squash every sexual attraction. I realize the interpretation was self-serving: I used the notion of Christian thought crimes to further ingrain traits which I should've undermined instead.

Eventually, this zealous approach backfired in the area of romance. If the definition of lust was mere mental contemplation of erotic desires outside of the confines of an official church marriage, then the legal reasoning was straightforward: an unmarried follower couldn't think that way about anyone for any reason. In addition, since an official church marriage was the goal of all romantic relationships, then nobody should attempt one unless they were willing for it to lead to marriage in the near future, such as a year later.

By following this reasoning, I self-righteously thought that I was obviously more earnest and God-pleasing than my peers. When they formed relationships that included sex, they were wrong. And if they avoided sexual activity, they were at best forming relationships that were futile; they weren't yet old enough to consider marriage. The superior route was to give up on the whole enterprise until the arrival of maturity and financial independence. I was already avoidant, so I didn't think it was impossible.

In retrospect the outcome was predictable. All my peers who had "foolishly" learned by experience how to start and maintain relationships were the ones who successfully dated and married. But when I abstained and constantly denied and denigrated my feelings of attraction, I failed to develop adequate skills and confidence. I customarily disregarded and devalued the concept of myself as a romantic partner. I had a conditioned reflex to reject viewing anyone else as one, either. After years, I couldn't abruptly flip a switch to reverse it.

With good intentions, I'd adopted a moral attitude that was much more appropriate for the model of marriage as a formal transaction. It wasn't suited for charming someone into a freely defined equal partnership, which had the gradual destination of marriage. Somehow I'd been led to act as if I were in a different society than, well, mine. I'd been instructed to resist my society's pattern but not how to feasibly replace it. Exactly how was an unmarried human expected to never think a lustful thought when they were finding a spouse, anyway?

Worse, the passage of time once again placed me in an "odd" cohort of follower. I was the one who had strangely consented to advice about distancing myself from romance. Yet all along, the better response had been to internalize the one command  "no sex" but otherwise develop like anyone else. The ones who did this were now married. As spouses, especially with children, they were the church's main constituency. Marriage and parenting were the major topic emphases for adults. I was always welcome, but the circumstances of my life were often irrelevant to the lesson.

However, unmarried members were envied for their greater availability. They had more time to spend outside their households. They had the potential to reach out to more of The Lost. And the basic method of evangelism was to be vibrant and encouraging. Wherever they went and whoever they met, God's goodness was meant to shine through followers. Onlookers would then wonder what the followers had, and then wish that they weren't bored outsiders. They'd see the followers doing good and then blame God for it. When the opportunity arose, followers were to offer heartfelt explanations of their own beliefs and autobiography. They were to spread the truths that they had tested for themselves. (To readers disgusted by the sanctimony, I apologize.)

Needless to say, I didn't fill this mold either. I wasn't overflowing with joy...or any other sentiment about my faith-beliefs, really. I didn't literally adore Christ. I couldn't claim with candor that I was seeing the supernatural "at work in my life". I wasn't sure which parts of the Bible were metaphorical or obsolete. I didn't know how a follower could thoroughly confirm that the Holy Ghost was in them and thereby shielding them from divine wrath (we didn't perform or require glossolalia). I was disturbed by the terrible events that God routinely allowed. And even if I had been certain about what to say, my standoffish demeanor wouldn't entice anyone to listen. I'd die of starvation if I worked in sales. Yes, I held some faith-beliefs, but I wasn't passionate about them most of the time. I wasn't interested in pestering someone else to change their mind.

On the other hand, I know that not all religious groups are intent on evangelism. I imagine I would have merged more smoothly into those. It's difficult to picture an alternative universe in which I migrated into a more fitting gathering, perhaps in another location altogether. Would I have stopped attending it so readily? Would I have relished participating in a more "modernized" form that discards most faith-beliefs? Would someone there have noticed my "lapse"? Would I be drastically different, then or now?

I don't know. Maybe there isn't a conclusion to draw. Maybe I wouldn't have built substantive bonds in any case. I'm glad that atheists/humanists are alert to the need for personal networks that can compete with the kind offered by established faith-beliefs. But for me, that happens to be a non-issue. The prospect of no longer qualifying as "odd" is a step up all on its own. There's no contest.

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