How and Why We Believe - Part 1
We humans care a great deal about WHAT we believe but we're often unaware of HOW we believe—the underlying processes and conditions that give rise to our beliefs.
An ex-Catholic, a former-Mormon, and a post-Evangelical walk into a bar…
*not a joke, just 3 friends geeking out about the psychology of belief.*
The following is a transcript of a conversation between Brian Peck, LCSW, Carolyn Golden, Psy.D., and James Connelly, Psy.D. recorded for the Life After God podcast on March 13, 2018. Minor edits were made for ease of reading.
If you prefer to listen to the audio version of this discussion you can find it at the Life After God Podcast
Why We No Longer Believe
Brian: Today I am meeting with two of my most favorite people in the whole world, Carolyn Golden and James Connelly, both of whom are clinical psychologists. James is working on a book about belief drawing from his history in the Mormon church and why we believe what we believe in general. And Carolyn teaches a Psychology of Belief class.
I'm just really glad to be having this conversation with both you today. Today we'll talk about why we believe what we believe and why it's challenging to no longer believe what we used to believe. Let’s start with you James, what is your experience with transitioning from one belief to another?
James: So my transition was was a quit a long time ago, and I have psychology probably to blame. I had a really good Social Psychology professor, and she showed us some of Elizabeth Loftus’ work with children--how we can invent memories, and how they're just like as if it really happened to us and all the ways that we can measure that. She also showed us a James Randi clip on how we can easily be tricked in so many different ways. So that was a major point where I'm like, "wait a minute..." and it really changed from an interest in Mormon Church history and doctrine…I had read a fair amount about that and I was fascinated with WHAT we believe. And then as I got into psychology, that shifted from WHAT we believe to HOW we believe. And it was very very different for me and expanded greatly what I was able to read, what I was able to know, and to realize what I don't know.
The Difference Between WHAT and HOW we Believe
Brian: What was the difference between the WHY and HOW we believe compared to the WHAT we believe. I know those are two distinct ways of approaching belief, I'm just curious if you can talk a little bit about the the distinctions there. What's the difference between those two ways of interacting with belief?
James: I can only talk from where I am now, from my perspective now, and knowing that our brains really like certainty--we do not like ambiguity. So having these rules...especially because they were, in the LDS church, directly inspired from and currently driven by God. It's like, "Oh, yeah, these are the rules for life. This is how I'm supposed to be and I can learn more about that and I can live my life more how I'm supposed to.” So pretty rigid, but also comforting. Whereas once I jumped into HOW we believe, all of the certainty answers left, and it just became, “basically as far as we know to this point, or as far as people who know and have studied this their entire lives and careers know, this is what we think the evidence shows and it's very very different and not as comforting, but really fascinating.”
Brian: Yeah, so there's this “we believe...”
When you move to the HOW.... How unsettling was that for you when it shifted to the HOW you believe?
James: I don't remember it being super unsettling. I remember thinking, “Wow!” Well, anyone who has watched Elizabeth Loftus' work, THAT’S unsettling because of how memories are formed and how they’re overlaid upon previous memories, that they can distort and change to the degree that they do…”That's weird!”
Yeah, that was unsettling, but I didn't immediately lose all faith in religion. So it wasn't just a really hard shift for me, it was more a fascination. I knew that I wanted to be a psychologist at that point and be a therapist and so I still had that purposeful learning. This is going to help me in what I want to do and so it wasn't just for me. It wasn't just like, "Oh no, now what am I going to do?" It's like, "Oh, this is what I'm learning so I can do what I want to do career-wise and assist people."
Brian: Okay...then also kind of applying that to your own individual experience with that new information? “So how can I use this in my clinical practice down the road and then how can I incorporate this new information so that I can be a better human?” ....or incorporate it in some way that's useful for you.
Brian: Carolyn, I want to ask a similar question of you...we want to talk about the class you're teaching and that work….but from a personal level, what was it like to transition from, “I have these beliefs that are true and that makes sense" to then all a sudden, "It doesn't make sense." What did that look like for you?
A Deconversion That Went "SNAP!"
Carolyn: It was kind of funny for me. I was listening to James talk about how it wasn't a hard shift, and I was the other way. Where it wasn't a slow climb and then kind of a "snap." Mine was the other way around. Like “Snap!” and then kind of slow integration.
So I grew up Catholic lite I would say. My mom had converted three different times in different religions, mostly related to the people she was with, and my my dad's family is Irish Catholic for generations so I grew up doing that. I was also a high school debate geek. I don't know what you know about that, but they make you argue both sides of any particular thing, and that definitely influenced my HOW I believe because there's this automatic thing of, “what's the other side of that? What's the what's the negative? What's the affirmative? How does that work?”
And then I went to college...so education really does break people. I took Medieval Humanities and Philosophy 101 in the same semester with really great people. Growing up Catholic, that medieval stuff gets super relevant and basically I had this, "Uh oh!" I very clearly saw the negative all of a sudden. Not bad, but just like this story is this...but it turns out the way the Bible was made, how the College of Cardinals voted on which books to pick, and when the books were written.... I learned all of that stuff in one semester as well as the philosophy stuff like the the problem of Good and Evil. That was all one semester, and I was like, "Boom! Done." And what that meant for my life took a long time to figure out. But by the end of that semester I considered myself agnostic for a very long time, and then had another hard snap into full-blown atheism.
Brian: Do you think that seeing your mom go through those transitions, even though she was going from one religious faith or belief system to another...and I know that debate piece, being able to see both sides of an issue or belief would be super helpful… Do you think it was easier for you to transition because you had a model of that? You had seen other people go through that process?
Carolyn: At that time I hadn't. Her conversions happened before I was born for the most part. She became Catholic the same year I went through my first communion. Because I said something to the Monsignor because there's this thing about how you do communion if you're not Catholic you stay in the pews--and I wasn't super thrilled with that, I didn't get it. Whatever explanation mom had given me, I said to the Monsignor, "She wants to be Catholic but she doesn't know how." and he's like, "We can fix that." And she was like, "I'll look into it" and then she did.
So that freedom piece came in for me when I was going through my confirmation process and was really doubting and I was like, "I don't know if I want to do this." and she said, "Okay. That's fine." And so I was a little afraid of rejection and afraid that it was going to cause a family kerfuffle or whatever and just kind of being given permission to take my own journey was a really big deal and actually led me to completing my confirmation.
An Environment For Changing Your Mind
James: I want to jump somewhere really quick, and part of the reason why is because we want to be congruent, we want to mean what we say and say what we mean.
I said something a while ago about female video gamers, Carolyn said something that cast into doubt what I had said...not only what I said but what I said publicly which is very important. And so, I noticed my mind thinking, “Oh, but, but, but…” And then I noticed that I’m like, “Oh, I want to defend my belief or maybe change my words a little bit so that I don’t sound like I was mistaken. Cause that’s not okay…”
Carolyn: “I’m not a sexist butthead, so what I said was not…”
James: But I noticed how that pull was there for me to do that. But it’s hard to notice stuff like that, especially when there’s emotion involved. Carolyn and I are close friends and so she’s been right and I’ve been mistaken a couple times before so I’m more used to it.
Brian: We won’t count how many times. I’m aware of more than a few.
James: Don’t tell me when they were.
Carolyn: But the challenge of not digging in and not…
Brian: It was good to see it in real time right now…
Carolyn: Right, for sure! And James, to just give yourself that space to go quiet and go, “Huh, that’s interesting.” And then you might swing back around to it. But just giving yourself that space to go quiet, people don’t do that because there’s that emotional driver going, “Uh-uh-uh-uh, it’s okay, I’m not that person.”
Brian: And biases exist and it’s helpful to have someone who cares about you, and who you care about, point them out.
We’re talking about this in terms of leaving religion or your beliefs changing; in the same way I think these processes are applicable to all these really difficult social questions we’re wrestling with...the way we double down on beliefs or the way we want to feel we’re right about something. I think it’s really helpful to find ways to not hold so tightly to our beliefs or defend ourselves so strongly. There are evolutionary reasons why we want to be accepted in the group and we don’t want to be seen as a “bad person” so people can dismiss us or write us off.
These processes are so challenging. How do we navigate them in useful ways?
James: And oftentimes we’re not in the space, or an environment, that facilitates that. Carolyn and I have worked together for many years. I consult her when I get stuck and she thinks it’s humorous when I get stuck. She finds great joy in that and it’s funny.
Carolyn: A little bit cause you’re so flexible...until you’re not.
James: But as we’re consulting on clients it’s very important that if I am stuck in a belief or in something that’s not working, that I have someone else to bounce that off of--someone I can trust who can say, “Have you looked at it this way? Have you seen this? Help me get flexible so I can be effective at my job.”
That’s important. In this context we have a lot of opportunities to do this and we get used to it in this context. I don’t always generalize it to other people in my life but with Carolyn and with you I’m more comfortable doing it.
Brian: Carolyn, I want you to weigh in on this too, this idea James is talking about where we really need to have these challenging conversations and it seems like so often they’re about, “Well, you’re wrong and I’m right.” Or not even, “I’m right” but “Your idea is wrong therefore, I don’t have to consider it at all.”
As we’re talking, the distinction between how belief is formed versus how it is maintained, we’re often saying, “You need to change your belief,” and the other person is in this, “I need to maintain my belief” phase.
The three of us having worked together through the years and trust each other to call us on our BS, to help us see when we are stuck, and to be able to receive that in a way that we can change our behavior...change how we see the world.
How do we facilitate that? How do we form that into a group setting or society at large? I’m curious if you have ideas. What are some of the small steps we can take to change the conversation from being about “right and wrong,” or, “your idea is wrong!” And that might be true...even if it is true, if our goal is to help the person see it differently or respond differently, then getting stuck on the right and wrongness of the thing is not as helpful as, “Can I help you become more flexible?”
HOW Not WHAT You Believe
Carolyn: Sure. I think about this in the context of teaching this Psychology of Belief class. One of the biggest challenges of that class was to get people to focus on the “HOW we believe” not the “WHAT we believe.” And some people got it and they knew right away and they were super clear and it was fine. Other folks, you just had to keep reminding them, “don’t get caught up in the WHAT.” It’s interesting, some of these students I’ve had for a couple of classes in a row, I taught a section of 101, they took the gender class and they take this class. Early on, the 101 level version of this is just exposing them to really radical thoughts. Like, “Color isn’t a thing.”
Brian: Let’s talk about that because I think so often we have a belief and we’re like, “But this is true.” And the distinction between it’s true as a concept or as a construct is different than it’s true as perceiver-independent truth--this is true regardless of whether you have a brain that’s interpreting light wavelengths into specific colors. Help us understand this...
Carolyn: So, color does not exist without eyeballs...
Brian: And a brain…
Carolyn: Right, all the parts have to work together. You have rods and you have cones and cones perceive color. Mantis shrimp have more cones than we do and there’s a woman who has an extra set of cones and so, they can see stuff that we can’t see. But all you’re really doing is perceiving certain wavelengths of light and it’s what your brain and your eyes do in reaction to a thing. Color that’s outside of you, or outside of creatures with eyeballs and brains, is not a thing.
Brian: It’s interesting to make the distinction too, “We don’t see color, we construct color in our brain having seen the different lightwaves.” Even sound...we’re making sound with our voices right now and we’re interpreting words because that’s what humans do. But our ears detect vibrations in the air and then when it perceives those vibrations our brain says, “Oh, that particular vibration is a word that I’ve learned and have some context for...I’ll interpret it this way.” It’s so interesting how we feel like we are living in this reality that’s true. Yet blue is only blue because my brain has a concept of these lightwaves and someone said,“those mean blue.”
It makes sense that we hold tightly to something as fundamental to getting through the day as color, or sound, or any sensation that we have some construct around.
Carolyn: Well, we’re back to this idea of cognitive efficiency. I can’t spend all day really debating whether color is real, but you have to create a space...the classroom creates a space for people to have new ideas. That’s its entire function. And to come across things they might not have done otherwise. For me, one of the perks of the classroom, facts are everywhere, but it’s about watching everybody’s face when it happens, and the people for whom it clicks, and the people for whom it clicks and they pull back, versus the people for whom it clicks and they step forward. Then the people who are just like, “What are you talking about? It’s blue. It’s just BLUE!”
And helping everybody navigate those waters in their own way and understand what that means for themselves. Then we take that forward into this, “how we believe,” in the Psychology of Belief class. I present them with many of these weird things. Do you know anything about the Cargo Cults of Vanuatu?
Brian: Yes, I do but I’m not sure the listeners do. That’s a really great example of attribution as well.
John Frum Cargo Cults
Carolyn: We talk about it in a lot of different ways but it’s basically these people who lived in an island nation in the Pacific. During World War II Americans landed and they brought with them a bunch of consumer goods, and they built a bunch of stuff, and then World War II ended and they went away. Americans use it as a weigh station but while we were there, they had extra food, extra stuff, and work and commerce in a way they didn’t have before. They leave and the people keep trying to recreate this. They built a runway and they have these ceremonies that are reminiscent of military drills there’s a little bit of an: “If you build it they will come,” kind of thing.
Brian: Like the second coming. They even have beliefs around, “there might be a return…”
Carolyn: Right. The John Frum Cargo Cults. One of the points that I make with them, because I introduce this because it’s such a quirky thing, but I’m also really clear that if you’re making fun of these people, you’re completely missing the point. We do this all the time we just don’t notice. Because there are pictures of people with USA painted on their chest to look uniforms and stuff and then I pull up pictures of other people with stuff painted on their chests. Recreating these facsimiles of things in an effort to gain a result. It’s like, no, this is how we handle stuff.
This is such a great little microcosm of it and so let’s poke at it, but if you’re mocking how silly it is, then you don’t understand your own brain at all.
Laughing At Ourselves With Believers
Brian: I would like both of you to weigh in on this as well. So often when we move from belief to non belief we see firsthand how silly our former beliefs are to us now looking at through this lens. I think what you're saying, Carolyn is so important if we are at the state of now we’re capable of mocking or seeing the silliness of former beliefs, there's a really good chance that we aren’t also aware of how silly it is that we buy into other concepts that are not based on an observer-independent kind of reality but are just based on constructs that we have. We can't can't get away from them, and I guess that's the point to, maybe it isn’t a bad thing or an unhelpful thing for people to have religious beliefs if it works for them.
I really care about if its working or not and sometimes it just doesn't work.
But primarily it isn’t because your story doesn't have the right facts behind it. I would like you to weigh in on, what do we do when we move past a belief and how do we avoid falling into this, “well that was silly, and now I’m super enlightened, and smart?” and , “I can see the world clearly now, whereas before I can't believe I was so stupid.”
Carolyn: Hashtag I am very smart. Yeah, I think that's a part of it because it’s that same thing of “laughing with” versus “laughing at.” If you can acknowledge how flipping silly our brains are and just how much we all do this...and this is such a human experience, then there's room for empathy, compassion, and humor all at the same time. And we can mock, but as long as we're clear that we're mocking ourselves.
Brian: I think that's what James was saying earlier about the Santa Claus example. It IS humorous and we can notice our brains do this thing and we want to believe things just because we want to believe them and we liked the story and how it feels and all that stuff. And isn't it kind of interesting that we do this all the time and I still do that. But as soon as we say, “you do that too in this religious context.” I think it's still very hard for that not to be perceived as patting them on the head or being patronizing. So, this “laughing with” versus “laughing at” ...I don't know how to do that well, but I think there's a key here to how we do that. What are your thoughts, James?
James: I think it's protective to look at this and say, “oh yeah, that's a silly belief. They believe that if they did this people would come back and provide more food.” And you know that IS silly, but if we call them silly we don't have to look at how we do the exact same.
So, one of my favorite books, if not my most favorite non-fiction book is, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts and many people who I’ve had read that, they really really enjoy it because they're able to see how other people do these things all the time, and it's so eye-opening. And yeah it is...and WE do that and I do that.
When Losing A Belief Is A Loss
James: It also brought up for me....as far as this sense of loss and what do we do there? I think empathy is the way in. So if we try to attack someone’s beliefs or change their belief by giving them new facts, that's just not going to work. We have to see it from their point of view we have to talk….and not that it's our goal to change people's belief, because it's painful and it can pull the rug out of their world. And if it's working for them, why would I want to do that just because I'm in a place where I don't believe those things. Is it that best? It's a Star Trek question....is it best?
One story to illustrate that. I'm kind of fond of my kids, as you guys may have noticed. I have a male child and a female child. Ronan is my son and Erin is a year and a half younger. When Ronan was nine, it was the Christmas season and I had listened to this beautiful story about Santa Claus on NPR by someone who had written a book about it. And they just went through and talked about the mythology, and how it started way before with the pagans as far as winter solstice. And then how St. Nicholas changed that and how it was adapted by Catholicism and Christianity, It was just a beautiful story. And he’s a pretty bright little kid who questions a lot and so he'd been asking some questions about Santa Claus, and his birthday is just right before Christmas. So just after his birthday I said, “Hey, you're nine, it's time for the nine-year-old Santa Claus story. It was a bedtime story for him and so I went through all of this and spent about a half hour...I thought it would be this beautiful experience for him to realize, “okay, yes, Santa Claus as I thought of him is not exactly that, but it's still beautiful...it's still this beautiful myth.”
And he's listening intently, his eyes are big, and then we finish and he's like, “Dad, I need to talk to Mom.” and so I'm like, “Okay.” and I went and got his mom. She came in and he's like, “Dad told me this, is this true?” and he started to cry and she said, “yes, that's true.” And it was fairly sad for him and then we kind of reinforce the positive pieces, and then he said, “Okay, but let's not tell Erin.” And I said, “Well, how about once she's nine?” “No! let's not tell her.” Because he's empathetic, he didn't want her to ever feel what he felt, he wanted to spare her from that feeling. But then he's pragmatic, and so he said, “Wellll, when she goes off to college...or for sure before she has kids we should probably tell her, otherwise, her kids won't get presents.”
And so he was he's actually thinking that eventually we have to, but I want to spare her from this pain as long as I can.
When Beliefs Hurt People You Love
Brian: It's interesting because I think sometimes there's almost a parallel kind of experience within religion where your experience isn't delightful for you “Santa Claus” isn’t this beautiful thing. You realize, “no, these beliefs about not being good enough or ‘you're wicked’ or how shame is used.” So I think in the same way a person might go through that experience and feel like, “Hey, I don't want my siblings, my nieces and nephews, my family members to have this kind of not-helpful-version of Santa Claus belief.” It's so interesting, how do we share this with friends and family if we feel like this would be good for them to know in the same way that Ronan was like, “before my sister goes off the college or has kids of her own...we don't want her to persist in this belief because maybe it isn't helpful then.”
I think that question of when do we just allow them to have their own beliefs, and everything's fine and realizing that we can't change them by going after the facts of the matter... but I don't know, I think sometimes that creates a lot of tension for those of us...especially when it comes to kids. If you have family members who are teaching their children beliefs that make you cringe because you know….not even that they're not true...but that they really hurts on a psychological level. Like the pain of not being good enough or how shame is used in certain religious contexts. So, how do we have those conversations, or do we have this conversation? What are your thoughts about that Carolyn?
Carolyn: A couple thoughts. Part of it was triggered before the awesome story. Something you said about you don't necessarily want to change people's beliefs, and I'm like, “I really do.” Not the religious beliefs, I don't care about that...one of my prouder moments in teaching that Psych of Belief class was that at the end, one of the one of my Mormon students came up to me, and she'd been pretty quiet throughout class but she said, “It’s interesting, I just wanted you to know I came to this class and I still have my faith.” And I was like, “Great.” and she's like, “but I do think about it differently and I've had so many interesting conversations with my family.” And I think part of what makes that possible....because we're back to this notion of “holding it loosely and not it being rigid”....and she was part of our WE, she was the WE of our classroom. And if you're not part of the WE then there's so much more room for this us-and-them and mocking kind of stuff. This goes back to, “if we're making fun of other people were missing the point.” So the WE...if THEY don't see you as part of the WE and if YOU don't see YOU as part of the WE, you've got a problem.
Brian: Yeah, because then you do get stuck in, “I'm right and they're wrong” or us-versus-them. That's really a great way of explaining that. I'm thinking kind of socially though, groups tend to form because there IS this us-versus-them distinction. And so, you're saying maybe bring some intention to this process of recognizing how a person who might have very different beliefs than you can still be part of this bigger WE and how you can see yourself inside of their beliefs as well? Or just being more aware the process of believing?
Group Formation and Group Polarization
Carolyn: A couple of things. So in that class, the other thing we focus on was group formation and group polarization….and much like beliefs, there are two different things. So, how a group comes together might just be around a shared interest or whatever, but the second you have a group, and particularly the second you have two groups, then you get this really recursive odd loop that makes the groups feel further and further apart and sets up false competition.
Brian: Is that because they're focusing on the differences?
Carolyn: Well, partially it’s because of how brains work again. It's just our default...it's just the thing we do. It's also back to boxes, we're drawing the lines around the boxes, and we're going, “Oh, no, see these are two different things and let's start thinking about all the ways these things are different.” And we forget to notice how they're all similar. We magnify the differences and then they become somewhat irrevocably separate.
So, I think that's a really important thing to be intentional about if you want to be connected to other humans, and if you value empathy, specifically looking at all the ways we are similar and also just being really mindful of all the ways our brains want to make us pretend like we're different.
Brian: I think so often we get stuck in the beliefs themselves and I can't reconcile my way of seeing the world with their way of seeing the world and my belief about X is different than their belief about X. You're saying we should find some way to find our commonalities, but that just feels like you're excusing these very real differences, and I know you're not saying that but I think that might be why our brains do that.
We want to see the differences and that just makes more sense. It’s easier, I think, than to see that even in our differences, some of these brain processes are the same.
The Pain Of Becoming Other
Carolyn: I think one step further, which is one of the most painful parts of deconversion, is suddenly the people you love most in the world treating you as “other”. And they’re doing this to you…it very much feels like a thing they’re doing to you.
If you feel rejected or suddenly the people you feel closest to now have to defend themselves against you, or they build these walls, or there’s a little bit of this, “convert or go away, come back or go away,” kind of feeling. I think that’s where the biggest pain can be, in term of the relationships anyway.
But if you can see this is just what we do, it doesn’t lessen the pain but you can have some empathy for why they’re doing it instead of just,“They’re being mean to me.” They might also be being mean and this is probably why. We’ve learned some ways to work around it, in terms of nations and things like that.
We’re coming back to Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes where he talks about, “These people will never be the same, they have to learn to cooperate as different tribes now.” I think if you know group polarization happens, it gives you opportunities to do group cohesion things.
Brian: I hear this a lot in the work I do around deconversions, “NOW I know the REAL person, they never were my friend, they never did care about me because, you know, if they're going to so quickly write me off when my beliefs changed, then they never really loved me anyhow.”
And what you're saying is, “No, there's this instinctive process that happens when there are differences of beliefs, and in some ways, it will be very difficult for your believing family members to not go through that now.” Hopefully they can go through it in a healthy way where you can maintain the relationship..possibly. But it’s not helpful to just attributing it to, “They never did care about me” or even on their side, “Well, you never were a true believer.” We get that a lot a lot too.
Carolyn: Recently, a family members went through kind of an ugly breakup and went to therapy as part of that. One of the things he said he most got out of it was, when the other person gets ugly in the course of a breakup, he's always had this thought, “Well now they've shown their true colors.” And the therapist really just encouraged him to hold that idea lightly and to go, “Maybe not, maybe that's just the reaction of a person in pain.”
And this group polarization thing is the reaction of a person in pain. Because just as much as you feel like, “Oh, maybe they don't really know me at all if this is all they care about.” They’re also thinking, “But I've known you this way. Why are you different? Different is painful for me.”
It’s really hard for the one deconverer to empathize with the pain of the family, or the friends or the loved ones, or the spouse. But it’s important to understand that for them, to change their their box of you, is very uncomfortable too.
Helping Believers Handle Your Deconversion
Brian: How can we help our believing family members and friends with that process? It’s just so helpful knowing that this is likely what's going on with them and having a concept of, “Oh, we're asking our family and friends to have a different box for us.”
So often I hear this from people who have deconverted, “I feel like I'm the same person, I just don't have these beliefs that no longer work for me. But I’m still caring and compassionate, I value humanity and relationships, I love my kids and all those things.” Meanwhile, when I was a believer, and I know a lot of believers have this box for non-believers--they’re rebellious, and just want to go sin and do all those things, and they are horrible people, and a threat. So, then when you leave, your believing family members are like, “Oh, I have a box for you now. It's the ‘angry atheist’ the ‘I'm actively rejecting God and wanting to live an immoral life’ box.”
You know, in some ways that’s a box we have because inside of a belief system we do have a box for the other. Maybe that’s by default as well. So when you go in that box, your family members are like, “Crap! They’re in this box now. I don't want you to be in that box.”
How do we help them realize that, “No, I don’t need to be in that box...let's build a new way of understanding me now.” It’s definitely hard when there’s rejection.
Carolyn: It depends on what the box is too, because if you're talking about a parent and a child and the parent suddenly thinks their child is definitely going to hell, that's very different. Your first directive as a parent is to keep your kids safe, and now your kid just put themselves in what you perceive as ultimate peril. That's a little bit of a different journey than a parent who doesn't believe in that version of hell. It might be easier to say, “I'm not an angry atheist don't put me in that box” but if they're still in the fear-based box... you gotta navigate that.
There's actually research on this in terms of coming out processes. We teach them differently. There's the phase for the individual and then there's the phase for the family. It's really hard for anybody who is doing that coming out process to allow the family their process and to realize they're not going to operate in tandem. You're going to be ahead.
Brian: Yeah, that piece of being so far ahead. You've already gone through….by the time you share with a family member that you no longer believe, you've already read all the books you may be spent months or years going through that and you you're really really clear. You’ve done the work, you’ve grieved, you’ve been angry...you felt all the feelings around this, and learned all the things that you want to learn about it...
Carolyn: At least explored a little bit about what it means for you. Not everything, but some of it.
Brian: And then you drop it on your family members like, “Okay, so here's where I'm at.” And in some ways, now they're just starting their process of “How do I understand you?”
Carolyn: It’s ultimately its own forcible conversion process. And so having some compassion for that because they didn't have a choice, and we didn't as much as they think we did. But they may or may not have seen it coming. And so all of that stuff impacts how they're going to go through that process and if they can get there, and how they can get there…” And yeah, it's pretty clear with parents, we just want them to accept their kid, love them, do the big thing. But, yeah, part of loving you in their world is probably keeping you from danger. And because they don't know what this is, it certainly is going to feel like danger. So they're going to want to intervene, control, talk you out of it, dismiss it, do something...because it sounds awful.
Brian: So would it be helpful just to say up front, “I'm gonna share information with you about myself and these might be the responses that you'll have” just to acknowledge it's really common to feel these feelings? I know there's no right answer and it depends on the situation, but are there general principles for us individuals who want to be ourselves and be open with our family members...are there ways of having those conversations that are more useful?
Carolyn: It gets super dangerous to try to control it. I think compassion…I think other people who have coming out stories have a great plan for this--connect them with other people. We need a PFLAG equivalent for religious deconversion.
Brian: You know what's really interesting? Someone in the Life After God community just mentioned this recently. We need the space for believing family members who have family members who have left the faith to have support them around that experience. I think we fail to see how difficult it is for them.
Carolyn: And we can be clear that we are not the bad guy and that they might also have legitimate suffering.
Brian: James, I was going to ask you if you want to share. I know Carolyn and myself...neither of us have gone through this process with a believing spouse. So often individuals talk about the suffering around a mixed-faith marriage. “How do I share a close relationship with someone I care deeply about and in the thing that we built our relationship around is no longer that foundation for us?”
How Divergent Beliefs Impact Relationships
Brian: As often happens when friends talk about engaging topics, we had more to say than we could fit into a single episode. You will not want to miss Part Two of our conversation where we discuss how divergent beliefs impact relationships and offer practical things we can do for more meaningful connections.
If this conversation resonated with you, I would love to hear your thoughts.
I help former believers navigate their deconversion with clarity and purpose so they can get on with creating a life of vitality and meaning beyond belief.
About The "Authors":
Brian Peck, LCSW is a clinical social worker who specializes in religious-based trauma in his private practice, Room to Thrive and guides individuals through their deconversions with evidence-based practices online. Brian loves discovering and adopting new and healthier ways to be human on the other side of religious belief.
Carolyn Golden, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist, who, in addition to a clinical practice teaches Psychology at Boise State University. Carolyn's interest in how beliefs are formed led her to develop and teach a new course, The Psychology of Belief.
James Connelly, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist with an infectious curiosity about how our brains work and a fascination with why and how we believe. James is currently writing a book in which he explores the psychology of religious belief through the lens of his LDS background.