One of the silliest ideas about Christianity (and many other faiths) is the idea that salvation is dependent upon belief.
“Believe on me, and you will be saved,” Jesus said.
I owned that phrase for years like it was seared upon my soul– Until I started to think critically.
Do we really have any choice in what we believe? I think not. We can affirm different axioms of belief, but to actually believe in the existence or nonexistence of Santa Claus or unicorns (or God) has nothing to do with how much I want to believe those things to be real and everything to do with the almost mathematical result of the data we encounter as seen through our worldview (which is nothing more than experience and genetics, neither of which are chosen).
I remember the Christmas I was 7 I asked Santa for a Doodle Bear. I wanted one sooo badly, but not just any one – a pink one. I was never the kid to snoop around in my parents’ room or in secret corridors of the house to try to discover presents; I loved being surprised. But one afternoon in mid-December, I opened a cabinet near my parents’ bed looking for something I needed, and I saw a Doodle Bear staring at me on the shelf. A purple bear. My heart immediately sank for 3 reasons: (1) I wouldn’t be surprised on Christmas morning, (2) it wasn’t pink, and (3) Santa wasn’t real. I tried and tried and TRIED to justify all the reasons my parents would have Santa’s gift for me 2 weeks before Christmas, but it didn’t make a dent in my immediate loss of faith in him. I was incredibly broken-hearted; the magic of Christmas dissipated along with my childlike faith in a make-believe person.
The same can be said of belief in anything. I cannot choose to ignore evidence to which I am already am exposed. Try as hard as I may, and I’ll never get the gift of the magic of Christmas back – at least not the magic required of a fat man going up and down our non-existent chimney.
I want to believe in magic, but for goodness sakes it’s not a choice. One cannot un-know something.
But here’s a twist to my Santa story: Christmas morning came, and under the tree my doodle bear patiently awaited my holding. But this doodle bear was pink!!! The magic instantly returned, for I realized my parents had the purple one “just in case” because they didn’t have enough faith that Santa Claus could answer my prayers. I mean letter.
This experience reinforced my belief in Santa because the evidence that tipped my scales against him traded sides upon receiving new evidence. The point is this: I still had absolutely no control, either way, upon my belief or disbelief in Santa Claus.
Now, one can purposefully expose themselves to different sides of evidence (like my dad always listening to conservative talk radio continually reinforces his anti-liberal political leanings; or my husband’s listening to atheist podcasts while he was still a Christian because he found their ideas fascinating helped him to eventually realize God didn’t exist), and that evidence, in turn, can help tip the scales. But when it comes to the actual belief itself – no control.
This idea dawned on me a couple months ago after my husband and I left one of his counsins’ wedding receptions. Silver (my husband) has an incredibly fascinating story that I’ll share with you one day, but in short he used to be a part of an extremely fundamentalist and isolationist (almost cult-like) religious group. He left this group to become an Evangelical Christian several years ago, and the ripples that caused in his community continue to this day. Everyone in his family was heartbroken and his close circle of friends evaporated. He honestly had best friends that haven’t spoken to him since his initial change of beliefs. We were friends when he went through this process, and it seemed like a totally understandable, though angering and completely painful, response from his friends within this community.
Years later, this wedding reception was still difficult. His friends and family looked upon us with deep pain and regret and relationship was still obviously very strained. So driving home from this difficult night, Silver started reminiscing about stories with these old friends and I could tell he wished relationship had been maintained in a better way despite his change in belief. It dawned on me like Newton’s apple how absolutely ridiculous this whole thing was, and I started to raise my voice in the bubble of my car against the community we just left in defense of my Silver. “As if you can just treat him like this because the evidence tilted his scales! As if you can blame him for it!!!”
Blame, choice, and belief.
The entire mantra of Christian religion fell in my mind like the cardboard blocks children use to build a wall collapses when they throw a toy at it. Believe and you will go to heaven?! Disbelieve and you will be damned?! What a stupid, STUPID ticket that determines one’s entire eternal destiny. A ticket based not on choice but on a multiplicity of determined factors. A ticket that destroys friends and families, a ticket that ostracizes those we love or don’t know.
Blaming someone for belief (and changing how he/she is treated because of it) is like blaming them for their skin color. And not that humans are above doing that either, but we certainly should be.