Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Will to Believe and the Will to Know

During a recent car trip, my wife and I listened to Seth Andrews interview Dale McGowan about secular parenting on his podcast. At some point the subject of Santa Claus came up and the question was put to McGowan about whether or not chilren should be taught this myth. Some in the secular community advocate very strongly against teaching kids any myth as fact. McGowan, however, recommends it in the case of Santa because it's a myth that kids will eventually find their way out of and can serve as a powerful life lesson.

That wasn't really news to me. What was interesting to me was how McGowan described the process that his son went through in peeling back the myth and finding his way out. He related that at one point during a period of doubt, his son came to him and asked how the reindeer could possibly fly. He had reasoned that they don't have wings and no other deer he had ever seen could fly. McGowan posited that Santa fed the reindeer magic corn. Despite how silly the answer was, it was an explanation that, at the time, satisfied his son's doubts and kept him believing.

McGowan explained that at that time his son's will to believe was greater than his will to know. All he was looking for was something, anything to get rid of the cognitive dissonance he was experiencing and the "magic corn" explanation did it. He did not feel the need to pursue that line of questioning any further. Eventually, however, his son's will to know finally managed to override his will to believe and that is when he was able to accept reality. Suddenly the world made sense to his son again and everything that he had learned about basic physics and how objects behave in our universe fit with the explanation that Santa was really just a myth and that parents were pulling one over on their kids.

That whole conversation struck me because that was precisely my experience with the Christian faith. For so long my will to believe was stronger than my will to know. Consequently, every time I had doubts I could run to a commentary or apologetics book and find some "magic corn" explanation that would allow me to quell the dissonance. I was comfortable and I probably would have remained in this fantasy world indefinitely had it not been for my children and their inquisitiveness along with my desire to give them satisfactory answers and my belief that Christianity should be able to stand up to even the most stringent inquiry.

Once my children became old enough to start asking tough theological questions, my will to know grew strong enough to overcome my will to believe. I wanted to know the truth about reality for their sakes. I had suspected at various points that Christianity might have some holes in it and I owed it to them to conduct some honest inquiry. I'm almost certain that apart from having to see the world through their eyes and look down the path to where their eventual doubts would lead in the face of so much available information, I would've remained faithful to my own religious upbringing.

I suspect many Christian parents know this, have their own doubts and don't want their kids to go through that. They look around and note the trend that young people are leaving churches in droves. They fear that with things like the Internet, a place where religion goes to die, one day their children will be forced to confront information that powerfully contradicts their worldview and they will be susceptible to apostasy and hellfire. To counter this they do things like we used to and try very hard to immunize their chilren against this inevitable onslaught, making them memorize "truths" without allowing them to question them or even providing context. In many cases these "truths" aren't even apprehended, they are merely committed to rote recitation and memory through catechesis. Unsubstantiated propositions are taken for granted as absolutely true in the children's minds.

For many this will probably work. Thanks to things like private religious schools and home schooling, in many cases the kids will swim in the indoctrination for at least fourteen years or more before the other side even has a chance to present its case and even then it's often a straw man. By the time they reach adulthood they will have settled into a comfortable routine and have powerful incentives to set aside any doubts. They will have too much at stake socially and, for those who choose full time ministry, financially.

So why do so many Christian parents work so hard to do this? The answers they give are that the devil is deceitful, your heart is deceitful. If you don't constantly guard against the world, the flesh and the devil; if you don't repeatedly and regularly reinforce the dogma; if you don't daily engage in Bible reading and prayer and meeting with other believers, you might fall victim to those enemies. Really? The Truth is that weak and the world, the flesh and the devil are that powerful?

Maybe, just maybe, the real reason is that without constant reinforcement of the belief and without unceasing exercise of the will to believe, reality catches up. There are plenty of examples to point to in which Christian parents did not take the time to "raise up their children in the nurture and instruction of Christ" (read: thoroughly and completely indoctrinate them) only to watch them depart from the faith shortly after adolescence. Some return for social reasons when they have children of their own. Many do not and that is why there is now a giant gap or "lost generation" that Christian leaders often point to and cry, "Look! This is what happens when you slack off as parents. More doctrine! More apologetics!" while others try to "engage the culture" and be hip, practical and "relevant."

Then there are people like me. People who were raised in Christian homes, went to Christian schools or were home-schooled and thoroughly self-indoctrinated for decades. But somewhere along the line someone gave us the impression that Christianity would be impervious to doubt and honest inquiry, no matter how far it was pressed. The will to know overcame the will to believe so we pressed. The papier-mâché veneer didn't pass muster and the wall quickly came down.

So where are you, believer? Still riding high on the will to believe? Is "magic corn" still doing it for you?

1 comment:

  1. As always, beautifully said. That makes total sense and resonates with my own experience. By all accounts, I should have been in that thing for life--I'm very lucky, and indeed I am well aware that my deconversion had a lot more to do with luck than anything else. You don't get a better "perfect storm" than the lives of some ex-Christians. And yet we walked away. Our will to know got too strong--stronger even than the "wooing" of a deity who passionately loved us and wanted to communicate and be involved in our lives at every level, apparently. Tsk tsk. I've wondered as well just why "the world" was so powerful!

    Thank you for writing this.