How and Why We Believe - Part 2
The following is a transcript of a conversation about the psychology of belief with Brian Peck, LCSW, Carolyn Golden, Psy.D. and James Connelly, Psy.D.
The conversation was recorded on March 13, 2018 and the audio version can be found on the Life After God podcast by clicking here.
Intro: Brian Peck here sitting in for Ryan Bell for part two of a conversation I had with Carolyn Golden and James Connelly about how and why we believe. Together we explore the psychology of belief as it relates to the deconversion process and the strain this often puts on relationships.
Several of you have reached out since the last episode and shared how helpful the conversation was to you personally. Thanks so much for sharing!
When you have the best friends.
Do you know that feeling when you introduce friends to each other and they really hit it off? And you’re like, “I have the best friends.”
Well, it’s true, I really do have amazing friends, and insightful mentors, and a supportive community, and a committed partner, and two boys who daily amaze and inspire me to be the best version of myself. As James mentions in this episode, we are social creatures who are driven to connect with each other. This desire to connect explains in part why it’s so painful to experience people pulling away from us based on different beliefs.
My hope is that by focusing more on How we believe we can unite around this shared human experience of living with a believing brain. Of course, What we believe will continue to be important for us but maybe understanding the How and Why will allow us to relax our grip a little bit on the What.
In today’s conversation, James talks about some of the challenges of going through a deconversion when your partner is still a believer. Mixed-faith relationships are common and can be maintained but they often test the strongest of bonds as a couple renegotiates the essential elements of their relationship.
Let’s pick up the conversation where we left off last episode. A quick note: James references something Carolyn said in the previous episode--where she pointed out the way our brain evolved to focus on differences and why it’s important to look for similarities if we value empathy and want to be connected to other humans. With that, let’s jump back into the conversation.
Mixed-faith relationships are challenging.
Brian: James, neither Carolyn nor myself have gone through this process with a believing spouse. So often, individuals talk about the suffering around mixed-faith relationships or, “how do I share a close relationship with someone that I care so deeply about and the thing that we may have built our relationship around is no longer that foundation.”
What are some takeaways that might be useful for navigating your deconversion with a believing partner?
Disconnection is painful because we humans are driven to connect.
James: I want to give a little bit more context as far as what Carolyn is talking about. She mentioned before if you're someone who wants to make connections with other people and have that connection and we are such social creatures that it's not really a choice of if we want to--it is just biologically we are driven to connect with others of our species and be there with them.
So once we have made those connections, and we see them as starting to separate or start seeing that disconnection, whether we're cognitively aware of it or not--we’re generally not, that is painful. So when our parents, family members, or friends see us disconnecting they are experiencing pain, just like we are experiencing pain. We feel like they're rejecting us or putting up a wall. And so I think acknowledging-- we get so stuck in, “I'm experiencing this.” And then I wanted to be heard. I love to be heard, as those of you who know me know, and that's not the most effective way. It wasn't the most effective way for me and I wouldn't recommend that.
Start from a place of listening to understand.
Brian: Explain more about that. So when you're saying in a relationship where you're disclosing “I no longer believe the same things as you and my beliefs have shifted significantly.” There’s this sense that, “I want you to acknowledge my pain. This is painful for me. I want to be heard.” And then maybe we don’t recognize the other person is also experiencing similar suffering.
Help me understand this wanting to be heard (and validating that it’s useful to the relationship, of course) but then also being willing to hear. Help me understand more about that process.
James: It's okay to be heard, but it's more effective if we listen to understand and then share afterward. And so I think just going into it knowing that even though it doesn't seem like it should be painful, there’s going to be a sense of disconnection. Which, most likely will be painful for this person.
They will experience suffering in some way. I think it's helpful to go into it knowing it's going to happen. Then being able to listen to and hear how that affects them and acknowledging that--really allowing them to know that we're there and we want to hear their experience, their thoughts, and their feelings. And then we can share a little more about what our thoughts and feelings are. But to keep that empathy and that connection there during the process. Otherwise, that disconnection can be traumatic.
It’s important to acknowledge your deconversion will be painful to others.
Brian: So maybe in more concrete terms. I think knowing that you’re about to hurt somebody by just being who you are, and believing what you believe, and doing life the way it works for you. And you know that it may be painful for them based on the particular concepts they hold...that it will be painful for them to hear. You’re suggesting that if we can listen more.
“I’m telling you this thing I no longer believe,” and then all of a sudden, boom, there’s suffering there for them and for you because you don’t want to hurt someone. Also, the fear of rejection is very strong in that moment. So, I’m assuming that, when you talk about listening, you’ve already disclosed you no longer believe. And then from there, now your goal isn’t, “I need to help you understand this well enough that you’ll still accept me” but you’re saying, “I want to listen to your reaction or response to this news. I want to hear what this is like for you.” Is that what you’re saying?
This is what a person in pain acts like.
James: Yeah, and then, I think to accept that you are going to hurt them. Even though it doesn’t seem like it should hurt them, it doesn’t really matter, you still will. And then not getting wrapped up in your own story of, “they’re rejecting me, there’s something wrong with me,” like we talked about before that these are their true colors. It’s like, no, this is what a person in pain acts like. And so if we expect them to have some emotion (which they oftentimes do) and to be able to move through that with them, that will be more helpful than getting defensive and saying “I can do whatever I want to do. I’m my own person and you’re trying to shut me down, tell me what to do, and control me.” That doesn’t work so well.
Brian: As you’re saying that, so often, where we all suffer is around “I don’t want to feel what I’m feeling” and so just as you’re describing this kind of defensive stance of “I can believe whatever I want to believe and furthermore, your beliefs are harming me and you shouldn’t believe that and all of those defensive things, maybe are primarily about not wanting to feel pain ourselves. Not wanting to recognize that some of these relational experiences are really painful and rightfully so, by virtue of caring about each other and beliefs can get in the way of relationships, it is going to be painful.
Just being aware that you will be experiencing pain, noticing the instinct to be defensive, and acknowledging that’s not going to be useful for you. They might be defensive, too. Like Carolyn was saying earlier, when you disclose that your beliefs are different, your loved one may automatically start reinforcing their own beliefs. If that happens, choosing to not go down that path with them.
So often it’s like, “Here, I’ll give you this book of apologetics” or "I’ll give you this book from Dawkins” thinking that somehow it’s going to salvage the relationship. And what you’re saying is, if we can’t be with the pain, and go through it, and acknowledge our shared humanity, then it's going to be difficult to weather this transition.
Would you hurt someone for a hundred dollars?
James: I actually have an odd story that will hopefully relate to this. So, speaking of Joshua Greene, he’s done a lot of research as far as moral psychology. And my memory of it, basically he came up with lots of different questions and asked people how much they would need to be paid to do specific things. The options were,
- I’d do it for free
- I’d do it for a hundred dollars
- I’d do it for a million dollars
- I wouldn’t do it for any amount of money
One of the questions was, “Stick yourself with a clean hypodermic needle.” How much would you do that for?
Another question was, “Stick a child with a clean hypodermic needle.” How much would you do that for?
Carolyn and I were talking about this study and I said, “Oh, that reminds me, I need my bi-weekly shot.” And so I get it ready and Carolyn is watching me get it ready and I said, “You want to give it to me?”
Carolyn: Nope! No, I did not! And it was funny because when you were telling me the thought experiment, I was like, “I don’t know, I might stick a kid for a hundred bucks.” That sounds really awful, but certainly for a million...one hundred percent! I’d be like, “Hey, kid! College fund...hold still!”
But in my mind I was like, there might be something wrong with me, I might do it for a hundred bucks and then I had this moment where I was like, "Nope! Nevermind!"
James: Not for a hundred bucks. We really don’t like to hurt other people, unless we HAVE to. Carolyn then said, "if I HAD to do it for you, like if you were going into anaphylactic shock or something." Then she could do it for me.
Carolyn: Even if you just couldn’t have done it and you needed it. If you had broken your arm or something.
We don't like to hurt people.
James: We don’t like to hurt people. So knowing that we are going to hurt them is helpful because then we are able to work through that suffering and acknowledge that it is there for them and for us.
Carolyn: What did you call it? The “nope-iness?" There was a whole lot of “nope-iness” going on with that.
James: And the “nope-iness” came for me the first time I was supposed to give myself a shot and I thought, “no problem, I’m ready” and I look at that needle...and I look at my leg....and I’m like, “NOPE!”
And I didn’t expect that. I thought I would just be able to do it. Then I had to just breathe and do it! Then it became an interesting experience. I was like, “Yeah, that’s interesting!”
It’s difficult to hurt someone even if the pain is ultimately good for them.
Brian: Both of you describe this very visceral, automatic response of, "No, I don’t do the thing that hurts somebody unless I have enough reason to." and even still, it’s difficult. Even if I know this shot is important to my health and well-being, I still don’t want to do it because there’s still this visceral response.
Bringing this to the experience of sharing with a loved one that you no longer believe. I think some of those experiences are real in a very similar way. We experience it in the same kind of way, and our loved ones experience it in the same kind of way.
It's like the built-in empathetic response we feel when our kid trips and falls--we feel their pain. And if a person no longer believes and that means bad things will happen to them within our religious concept, then it can be really really painful to notice that.
So, we’ve been talking a lot about what we can do to make this process, not necessarily easier...I don’t know the right word. Recognizing that it will be painful but also that it’s important.
So, how can we go through this in a way that is helpful, in a way that’s healthy, in a way that acknowledges our suffering, that acknowledges the suffering of our family members?
When is the best time to tell your family you no longer believe?
Carolyn: I think about the timing thing. I think so many people, because they know it’s going to be painful, or they’re afraid, they don’t tell people until they can’t stand it anymore. And so then when you’re in that desperation place it’s really hard to tolerate other people’s feelings. I think that’s part of a recipe for disaster.
Brian: How can you do it sooner? What you’re saying is so true, we come to this place of, “Okay, I’ve gone through this process and I’ve not wanted to hurt family members for years maybe and finally you’re just like, I just can’t anymore! I don’t want to continue hiding this piece from people who I’m close to.” Or whatever the reason might be and so you’re just like “BLAH! Here, I need to share it!” The other option is that we just take forever and never actually get there because we’re afraid of that. I know people who will disclose early on, I’ve arrived at this point. What are some, maybe more systematic ways or different approaches?
Coming “out” as an atheist may require giving up the myth of control.
Carolyn: So much of it is about giving up the myth of control. Because you want to control their reaction in order to minimize their pain, in order to minimize the chance of rejection. And I think there’s a difference in terms of being graceless, versus giving up control. I think you can be mindful and careful and kind without trying to control how you’re going to feel, how they’re going to feel. So, with that desperation thing I would say, either do it sooner or later. If what you’re feeling is desperate, connect to somebody else. Connect with somebody about your fear first and maybe sit with that for a minute before you just go vomit on your loved ones! Beause then you have to clean up all the vomit.
Brian: I think that’s so true, though. I think that’s where communities like Life After God and some of the work that I’m doing in deconversion coaching is useful. Just having someone to talk to and process through so that when you do have that conversation it’s not so much out of desperation, it’s not so much out of reaction, it’s more thoughtful and you can be with your own process a bit more. You can be with your loved one’s process more because, frankly, there’s just more space for it.
Relationships don’t have to drastically change after your deconversion.
James: One, there’s not going to be a perfect way of doing it. If we go with that story, that’s going to be a problem. But our relationship doesn’t have to drastically change and if we don’t want it to, we can be assertive about that.
So, I was talking with a man a number of years ago who had left his religion and he and his dad had been very very close. He had told his dad that he no longer believed and he noticed that their relationship had shifted over the 3 or 4 weeks since then and he was sad about it. We could have talked about his loss and his sadness and I just said, “Well, what was your relationship with your dad like before?” And he explained how close it was, how good it was. So I said, “Do you still want it to be that way?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, what if you just told your dad, ‘Hey dad, I told you this and I’ve felt like our relationship has been a little distant and I don’t want that. I actually love you and love talking with you and I love our relationship and I want it to be as much the same as it can be.’”
And he said, “I can do that,” and he did and that was all it took. Just that conversation with his dad. But not everyone’s in that position where there already that close and their family is like that but sometimes it is just being assertive and being honest and saying, “I love you, man! I still want to have this relationship with you even though some things have shifted.”
Brian: I can hear people reacting to what you're saying with, “Well, that sounds really simple to do, if you just tell the person you care about them and you want to maintain this relationship, I want it to be the same.”
It’s scary to think about your family rejecting you because of your nonbelief.
James: Or we can just say, “I care about you.” We don’t have to dictate how it’s going to be, “I still love you, I still care about you and I still want to be connected with you.”
Brian: And I’m committed to doing the work to make that happen as well as possible.
James: But saying that to someone who you feel might reject you right then, pretty damn scary!
Brian: Or has rejected you by how they have responded or what they have said. That becomes the perception at least. They no longer think I’m a moral person. And you’re like, “Okay, I know it might be hard for you to be connected to me but I really do value our relationship and I do want to do the work to make us as close as we can. I think that fear of rejection is why we probably don’t say that more often. Because it’s almost inviting ourselves to be rejected again. “I want to have this relationship with you and I’ve already felt like you’ve rejected me. It’s far easier to say, ‘well, I’m just done.’”
James: Well, it’s easier in the short term but you lose a relationship that’s important to you.
There’s value in being present with our suffering and with our family’s suffering.
Brian: Right and that goes back again to being with the suffering that we experience and that they experience. And finding ways to work through that.
Carolyn: We also want to make them responsible; they have one shot to get this right with us. Not always but I think sometimes there’s this thing where if they don’t accept me then I assume they’re rejecting me in a big way or a permanent way. Versus that they might be in shock or they might be sad or they might be scared. And saying, “hey, that didn’t go great,” or if there’s like, actual mistreatment. Understanding that boundaries are a thing that we are also responsible for. Like, “I super love you, I’m super invested in you but what I can’t tolerate is you always talking to me like probably now I eat babies” or whatever the cliché is. You know, now I’m going to do all of the things that you’ve never known me to do. Or, depending on the person, let’s be clear, I was already doing these things and then this happened, or whatever their particular thing is.
But, kind of, being a little more transparent about our boundaries or just asking for what we need. Like, I need to know or I want to believe that our love is more important than our box on the census. And the person there may not be able to give you that in that moment but it doesn’t mean they’ll never be able to give it to you. So then it’s just about how much space and time are you willing to give them? How much advocacy are you willing to do? How much of that stuff? That’s when there’s really not a right answer.
“So, you don’t believe in Jesus?”
James: It also depends on your personality and your relationship with whoever you’re telling. So for me, I didn’t even really go through this process. I have no clear memory of telling my parents. I just talked to them like I always talk to them. I believe this and this and I share stuff that I am learning and reading with people, whether they want me to or not, and so I just shared it with my parents and my mom was like, “So you don’t believe in Jesus?” And I said, “I believe he was probably a person. There’s some evidence that yes, there was a person named Jesus but I don’t believe he was born of a virgin, all of that. No, I don’t, mom.” And her question was, “Are you still a good person?” And because I’m me I said, “I’m not really clear what good means but yes, I want to help people, I care about people, I like people, I don’t want to hurt people. And I really love you.” That worked enough for her.
So, she was okay but now my mom is older and she is slipping into dementia and so now she talks to me about Jesus and I don’t remind her every day that I don’t believe because I don’t like sticking hypodermic needles in kids for no reason. It’s not an issue for me, I just don’t want to hurt her every day because she forgets. And so I don’t have an issue with that even though for me, I want to be very honest with whom I’m close. I don’t have to break her heart again every day.
Don’t impose a belief on someone for no reason.
Brian: That’s so interesting and I don’t think we do this intentionally but so often those of us who have gone through this transition, we feel very much like we should tell people or kind of wear it like a badge or something. Like, I no longer believe, I’m agnostic or I’m an atheist and I think religion is bad and I think religious beliefs are the bane of humanity or whatever. And it feels almost as if that is reactionary on some level as well. It’s more important the “what” again, back to the beginning of our conversation, it’s more important the “what” of belief versus the “how.” And so you’re describing with your mom “I still believe what I believe” but I don’t impose this belief on people for no reason.
Carolyn: So, my great-grandmother had alzheimers and she outlived all but one of her kids. And they told her when my grandma passed and she had a moment of lucidity but you don’t remind her every day “Hey do you remember? Three of your kids have died.” You don’t do that. And so when she talks about them, you don’t like to her but you also don’t have to go, “Hey, remember that super soul-crushing fact?”
Why do we feel compelled to tell people about our nonbelief?
Carolyn: I do wonder, back to this way we feel compelled to tell people. I didn't come from an Evangelical tradition, so there was not this notion of outward-facing religion. There's a lot of virtue signaling and stuff in the group, but not a lot of this, “Go find friends and bring them to church!” That's not a thing. But but I’m still very Evangelical about lots of stuff.
I do like to tell people stuff, this is why we get into storytelling mode. I have stuff I'm super passionate about but I wasn't super passionate about telling people, “I don't believe this.” I would be reserved about that, but I was super passionate about telling people all this stuff that I was learning and then the other stuff sort of happened from there because then they need to know what box to put me in.
They were like, “are you an atheist?” At the time, I wasn't comfortable with that and was like, “I don't know, they're kind of angry.” I still had that thing where you watch some videos of Dawkins and you're just like, “Okay, I don't know that I'm super into THAT thing.”
I like humanists stuff and I would still identify as that but now I'm also pretty comfortable with the “A” word. But I wasn't evangelical about that or about transparency necessarily...I just don't think I have the filter for it...there wasn't a lot of keeping secrets. It was just, “Oh my gosh, did you know this thing?” or “Have you listened to Julia Sweeney, or have you done these things?”
“I’m the most dangerous atheist you know.”
James: When Carolyn was sharing her conversion to Catholicism and when her mom gave her permission to not believe, that took away that rebelliousness piece or that individuation “I want to be my own person.”
So then she felt more free to make a choice than she moved forward. And that's a pretty effective way to do it with kids. Like if you're in a faith, and your kid says he doesn't believe and you say, “you must.” that's not generally going to work with kids or especially adolescents. You have both told me that I'm the most dangerous atheist you know because I don't try to convert anyone. I just talk and that’s scary.
Brian: It really is. You behind the barriers, and it doesn't have to be nefarious or something, like you're trying to do this thing without them knowing. The way you approach others is more like, “I care about you as a human, and these are interesting ideas. Wouldn't it be great if we could talk about these interesting ideas about how our brains work?” It's not even that you have an end goal in mind for them like, “I want to deconvert people” is just that you want to share how fascinating it is to learn about how our brains work.
“You will accept me, or you will reject me!”
Carolyn: And I think we do that force choice idea of, “You will accept me, or you will reject me!” Versus, “Hey, I have some information for you. There might be a process that goes along with that.”
Brian: I like that! Not just accepting versus rejecting. Maybe it's okay if our loved ones are just really unsure about us. And just being honest, maybe it’s okay if we're kinda unsure about them and wonder, “why do you still believe in these things?” It feels uncomfortable, and yet, we can still connect more on this human level.
Any other ideas or insights into a process or something that you did during your own deconversion that you think might be useful for those listening as they are thinking about belief their own beliefs and how that impacts their family members?
“I want to remain connected...but I fear we are screwed”
James: I think you're asking me, which is hard, because I generally do things really poorly or ineffectively and then learn from that slowly. Yeah, so it's an interesting question. I think approaching it with some intent of what you want out of it, but not a rigid intent. So like if the intent is, “I want to remain connected with this person, and I don't know how that's going to look.” that might be helpful. But if we get really specific on how we want it to look and then we might get controlling.
Carolyn: I might poke at that even just a little bit. “I want I want to remain connected” creates this other thing of, “...but I fear we're screwed.” Whereas, if you communicate and you're clear on what you value, what you value in them, and to what extent you're willing to pay to make it work. I think that creates less of this false dichotomy thing where it's like, “I super value you and our relationship, and I want you to understand this about me.”
Do you see what I'm saying with this, “I want to be connected?” It feels like it’s fear-based.
Am I willing to pay the price in order to have this relationship continue?
James: I think I do, actually. And it brings up a different thing I hadn’t thought about until you said, “what am I willing to experience, what am I willing to pay to do that?” So maybe not go with that, “I want to remain connected” so much.
We're down here in St. George, Utah right now, and there are some beautiful areas here and there are some beautiful brand new homes in these areas that are just so peaceful. It's amazing. I would love to have a home down here...and they cost a million plus.
I'm not willing to do what it takes to have one of those houses down here. I wouldn’t be able to be a psychologist and do that very easily. So I'm not willing to pay the price for that even though I would like that. I think approaching life as, “Am I willing to pay the price for what I want?” and consider if it’s that valuable for me. So, “Am I willing to pay the price in order to have this relationship continue?” might be a helpful way to approach it.
Carolyn: So, hiking yesterday, to bring in a personal reference. I experienced some discomfort and there were aches and pains after hiking all day. I am 100% willing to pay that probably times 20 to have the experiences we had.
I'm not personally willing to pay the price of that horrible hike where you have to hold onto the chain, and they show the signs where “people die here!” That's not on my list. I’m not willing to pay for that experience. Other people do, that's cool.
Understanding that difference and allowing for that difference is a really big deal.
Are you willing to walk through this particular hell for this person?
“I'm so invested in this relationship. I'm willing to walk through hell for this person.” We say that kind of stuff all the time. Okay, what about this particular hell, the hell of, “I'm afraid they might reject me. I'm afraid that I'll put all this work in and it might not work out.”
James: I actually want to interrupt you for just for a minute, because you're wrong. I have actually hiked this hike called Angels Landing, and IT IS worth the price of it for me. Therefore, it SHOULD and MUST be for Carolyn and for Brian...unless I'm mistaken. [laughter]
Brian: Yeah, and I think we're so often at that place of our own personal point of reference. We want to impose that on others or assume they value the same things in the same way that we do.
James: And they Should!
Brian: Yes, we feel very “shouldy” about it.
Be intentional about what you want, not what anxiety wants.
Brian: Back to the original point you were making, James. About having this intention about what is that we want in this relationship. I think so often we start out with, “what is our anxiety telling us about what's going to happen” and then we tend to react and respond to this worst-case scenario or this fear. I think that's what Carolyn was pointing out as well. The intention of I'm willing to pay this price... but what are we talking about there? And oftentimes it's about the fear of how bad we think it’s going to be when we do disclose our non-belief.
It's interesting to think about sharing, “I'm clear about what I would like this relationship to be, I’m clear about what I value in this relationship” and then letting it kind of go where it goes. Letting go of that idea that it needs to end up at a certain point. Starting with, “I do value these things independent of what happens in the end, and I'll work towards the things I value” versus “I'm afraid that I'm gonna lose something I really want and therefore, I'm going to go into this defense place of trying to save myself from my own pain and my loved one from their pain.”
It’s interesting how that starting point can really shape the experience.
Be willing to put in the time and effort for the chance that this could be something cool.
Carolyn: Awhile ago you mentioned the experience of being a therapist and how that changes how we think about things. I think about that with this, where, as a therapist, you kind of have an outcome in mind, but we're super clear about the limits of our control because it depends on how people hear what we say, how we hear what they say, whether or not they do the stuff we suggest...all of these things. And we have to get really really loose with that or you burn out fast or you get really negative about people like we’ve seen some professionals do.
You just go, “Yeah, I really value this opportunity but I don't have any idea how it's going to turn out (or you imagine a range of possibilities) and I'm willing to put in the time and the effort for the chance that this could be something cool.”
Brian: I love that, “for the chance that this could be something cool.” Because, so often, I think on the believer’s side of the relationship it's pretty clear they want you to believe and want you to go to heaven...and want you to be part of their community in the same way you always were.
And so if you hold on to that rigidly, there's no, “for the chance to see what this could be” kind of experience. And I think on the non-believers side of that relationship, you can also get very stuck in, “I want you to accept my new way of seeing things, and I want you to be good with it, and I want you to love me, and I don't want to be rejected.”
Holding ideas rigidly limit possibilities.
If we start holding to those ideas rigidly then we're also not allowing, “for the chance that this can be something different than what our believing family members think it should be or what we think it should be.”
Not holding to that tightly.
James: Which is really hard not to do because those are innate human things. These are hard-wired and so, yes, to hold those thoughts lightly… I think even acknowledging that those are hard-wired (most likely) there is going to be that pull and that resistance to that separation from these people...and then to still hold that lightly is a lot to ask...and also very helpful.
Brian: These conversations are so important and so polarizing at times.It’s difficult to look at what's happening underneath the actual words were saying. I think just being aware of some of the processes that we've talked about today is going to be so helpful for individuals listening.
It's been helpful for me already. Talking about these different boxes and the extra stuff we put in there because we have a box now. Even just considering if I want to put things in this box or not...just having some awareness and intention around this process is so useful.
Assimilate, accommodate, or ignore.
James: As far as the box metaphor, oftentimes if we come across information we have a choice. We can put them in boxes that we have or we can create new boxes. As we get older we tend to choose a third option which is, ignore.
There's new information and we just decide not to put it in any boxes because it's irrelevant to us. And so, just to be mindful that we do that and it may not always be the most helpful way to experience life.
Sometimes assimilate, sometimes make accommodations in our beliefs to fit new information when it's helpful, and other times to decide, “that's really not going to impact me in any way, I don't have to pay attention to that.”
Brian: So you see that as functioning in this avoidant way of, “I don't want to experience that” and also in this useful way of, “I don't have to react to respond to every belief that doesn't line up with my worldview.”
“I don't have to react to respond to every belief that doesn't line up with my worldview.”
James: Yeah, but just being able to pay a little bit more attention so that you don't just dismiss everything new or place it in one of the boxes that we already have without actually seeing how it might impact us.
We live inside of constructs...and that’s mostly okay.
Brian: I was thinking about the way we live inside concepts and constructs...the idea that most of the things we think of as real in our day-to-day life are simply constructs that we’ve created that have been useful. We talked earlier about color and sound. Sound is just waves moving and our ears interpreting them as distinct sounds. And colors are just light waves that our brain is interpreting.
If we think about this in a spiritual or religious context or even as a nonbeliever...so often we are experiencing something that exists as a concept, but we're experiencing it as real. We're reacting and responding to it as if it's real and holding tightly to it and insisting that has to be real. Just to recognize that all these boxes we’ve created for various reasons that serve various functions, are constructs. They're useful because without them it's hard for us to communicate, without them is hard for us to be relational, without them it’s hard for us to understand distinctions, and examine things more closely.
Automatic reactions are not helpful when you talk to family about your deconversion.
James: ...and without them, We wouldn't be able to survive. If I didn't put everything in boxes and had to think through everything I did all of the time, I couldn't do anything. So it's really really efficient...that’s how our brain is...it wants to be efficient. And that's great, but we don’t always want to just go that automatic way when we're faced with issues like, “how do I interact with loved ones when I'm making this transition.” That's a really good time to slow down and notice our thoughts, to notice what's going on with us, to notice our boxes, to notice what we will do automatically, and then be able to make conscious choices moving towards what we want.
Brian: Because simply saying, “You have the wrong box!” is so tempting because it's true...that box doesn't fit me, I don't like being in that box, or your religious beliefs are not useful for me.
Just saying, the box is the wrong box misses this whole thing that we all have these constructs that we live inside of.
Simple, Not Easy.
Carolyn: There's a thing that I say a lot at work and take into my life. Which is, “Simple, Not Easy.”
So we say things like, “well, just make a new box” “accommodate the new information” “be kind and compassionate” “be tolerant of other people's process” all those things are super simple but not easy in the moment.
Brian: I think it’s really great to be aware of that as we go through these transitions. To recognize that some of the things we're talking about are simple ideas, but certainly challenging to actually incorporate into our lives.
James: And Brian’s trying to wrap it up, which I think is funny because I’m here and I like to tell stories so, do I have time for one more story?
Brian: Oh, you absolutely do!
James: When I was telling Carolyn that she was wrong earlier on, don’t ever do that unless you’re being sarcastic and even then very carefully because Carolyn can throw stuff. But that’s what everybody does, I mean as soon as we tell somebody they’re wrong they’re going to become defensive.
Carolyn: Strangers on the internet don’t know that I don’t actually throw things!
James: She doesn’t actually throw things, except for soft things.
Don’t get too wrapped up in your stories of what might happen.
James: But speaking about Angel’s Landing, my wife and I, when we were young, we hiked it all the way to the top and that was a really cool experience for her. As she’s gotten older she’s gotten a little more of a fear of heights and she noticed that.
And she hiked it with my kids a few years ago and she wasn’t able to go to the end and they wanted to. Allowing them to do that for her was very very terrifying. But she was able to allow them to do that because they were older teenagers.
Then we came back last year and wanted to hike it to the end as a family and she didn’t know if she could do it so she practiced some mindfulness, she practiced some breathing and just kind of noticing the feelings as they happened instead of buying into them and thinking that because I feel afraid means that it’s extremely dangerous. So, becoming a little more flexible with that danger box and realize it is dangerous and also allowing her moment to moment to make choices if she wanted to continue or not.
She didn’t promise that she was going to go to the end she was just going to go with the experience moment to moment doing it. And she went to the end, which is fairly scary if you have a fear of heights. At Angel’s Landing when we got to the end she said, “I noticed my physiological reactions of fear but it didn’t seem nearly as scary as I had thought it would.” She still had that sense of accomplishment. It had taken her months to prepare for that hike, getting in touch with not getting wrapped up in all of her thoughts and stories about what might happen, or what could happen, and it became worth it to her.
Open up to your experience and have compassion for believers.
Brian: Yeah, I think I think it's a really really powerful example thinking about opening up to our experience as individuals who have transitioned out of religion, you know, open up to our own experience of how scary that is and the fear that surrounds that. And having compassion for our loved ones as well as we expose to them things that are scary for them.
I think what I’m hearing from a lot of this conversation is that we need to do better at providing resources for believing friends and loved ones. Recognizing that it’s a difficult journey for us and, like you mentioned earlier James, wanting them to understand us or hear us. We need to also be aware that they also want to be heard and want their experience to be validated as well.
And maybe they need resources for breathing through a difficult experience that might feel very much like walking up the side of a cliff with a thousand foot drop off holding onto a small chain. Breathing through that, being with that, understanding that we can do difficult things in the service of what matters to us if we can connect with that human relationship that really does matter.
Carolyn: Maybe a resource that’s not you. And that’s hard to find much less hard to trust.
It’s important to find support for believing family members.
Brian: Right, imagine being that loved one and they can go to their church or their religious community, and we know that that becomes this temptation to be like, “well, we need to pray harder for your loved one,” or getting stuck in this “your loved one is wrong and we need to help them see the light.” And then to be a believing family member who would be willing to speak with a secular person about their feelings around that and their process. I think that is really challenging but I certainly agree with you Carolyn that that person likely is not you as the person making that transition. You can facilitate that and be part of that and encourage that, but as far as actually being that person...you know, that’s why our ethics don’t allow us to practice therapy with people we know and family members especially because we bring too much to that relationship for it to be useful.
Thanks again, it’s been so great having this conversation! I really hope that as people listen they will get something from this. Thanks so much, Carolyn, I really appreciate you being here and doing this. And thanks, James for hosting us down here in St George. I look forward to having more of these conversations in the future.
Carolyn: Thank you!
James: Thank you!
Brian: It has been an honor to host this episode of the podcast and to introduce you to two of my dear friends. I really appreciate Carolyn and James sharing their experience and expertise with us.
If you are navigating a deconversion or want to create more meaning and purpose on the other side of faith, I would love to hear from you. Transitions often require us to do our own personal work but you don’t have to do it alone.
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 Contributors:
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.