Thursday, March 20, 2014

Counting the Sunken Costs

"For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace."  - Luke 14:28-32
But the foundation was good...unlike Christianity
The Lucan Jesus makes a valid point here (although it doesn't really work within his larger point, but that's another story altogether). Before beginning an endeavor it is a good idea to perform an assessment and reasonably estimate whether or not you have the resources and ability to see it through. But what if you've already started building the tower and you realize it's pointless and a foolish waste of time? What if you've already attacked that king and now you realize that not only are you fighting a losing battle, but you're on the wrong side? Do you continue building? Do you keep fighting? Do you count the sunken costs? 

After announcing my departure from Christianity a pastor remarked to me that he wouldn't be so quick to cast off a faith that he had spent over twenty years actively involved in without seriously examining "the most recent scholarship" produced by people within his particular iteration of Christianity. This was part of a pitch to stall and get me to invest incalculable time going through what turned out to be a ton of additional theological and apologetic material, or as he put it “enough reading for a semester at RTS [Reformed Theological Seminary].”

Aside from the fact that this suggestion was incredibly insulting and assumed that I had not to that point already done quite a bit of study on my own, it also highlighted a couple of noteworthy items. The first was that it seemed apparent that while being allowed into his brand of Christianity was quite easy and involved merely asserting belief in certain truth claims, getting out was expected to be a long, arduous process that involved the tedious examination of each of these truth claims along with an exploration of the excuses various believers had used to prop them up over the centuries. As my friend Captain Cassidy so bluntly put it, "I'm guessing Pastor Dude didn't demand you attend seminary and read hundreds of pages of bullshit to join his church, but now that you want to leave, suddenly it's essential?" That certainly appears to have been the case.

The other item of note was the employment of a logical fallacy. His reference to twenty years of active involvement implies that a retrospective cost (i.e. twenty years of adult life) had been incurred and could not be recovered. This is correct. However, at the heart of this argument in favor of spending even more time and effort trying to convince myself of the truth of Christianity is what is known as the "sunk costs fallacy."

The classic example of this phenomenon is that of purchasing a non-refundable ticket for an event like a concert and then becoming ill just beforehand. Often people will still attend the event, even though they know they're not likely to enjoy themselves while they are ill. The reason is that they see it as losing out on the investment they've made. Another good example that I'm personally guilty of is ordering too much food at a restaurant and knowingly eating past the point of comfort just because "I don't want it to go to waste." In both of these situations the sunk costs cannot be recouped and should not be taken into account in the decision-making process. Only future expenditures and potential success should be factored. The money for the ticket is gone, the food I ordered will be wasted and likewise the decades of my life given to Christianity will not be returned. Being miserable at a concert, eating past the point of comfort and reading hundreds of additional pages of theology to try to convince myself to believe things I'm not capable of believing anymore is not going to change those things. In reality it's only going to make things worse.

Additionally, this pastor completely misunderstood what it was like to stop believing. I can't speak for others, but for me there simply came a point as I was working through the claims of various Christianities and forms of theism in general in which I simply no longer was able to make myself believe in any deities of any kind anymore. All it took was accepting that it was possible that what I perceive about reality is the product of natural processes. Once I accepted that it was possible, my mind did the rest. YouTuber Evid3nc3 seems to have had a similar experience.

After reaching that point, everything sort of fell into place and further research into the claims of various Christianities began to seem purely academic to me. It didn't matter where I looked, whether in the realms of philosophy, biblical studies or history. When comparing the Christian positions with naturalistic ones, in nearly every instance the naturalistic explanations seemed to correspond with how I experienced reality. Simply put, those explanations made the most sense. For example, when I read the Bible now, its thoroughly and exclusively human origins seem obvious to me. Stuff just jumps off the page and I slap my forehead like I'm in a V8 commercial and wonder how in the world I ever thought otherwise.

I suspect that quite a few Christians will not allow themselves to ever get close to that point. I think committed Christians and especially those involved in full time paid ministry are highly susceptible to falling victim to the sunk costs fallacy when they are faced with doubts or information that directly contradicts their worldview. They simply have so much invested and perceive that they have so much to lose that they employ natural psychological defense mechanisms like confirmation bias to overcome those things that might, as the aforementioned pastor put it, "niggle at them from time to time." I'm also inclined to believe that this is one of the reasons why when many people who used to know me hear about my departure from the faith, they almost immediately double-down on religion. This behavior is precisely what would be expected due to what is often referred to as the backfire effect. Basically, when people are confronted with evidence that conflicts with their current belief, the common reaction is to intensify their original position rather than re-examine their position in light of this new information. It's just one of the many ways our brains screw with us.


I understand the fear and the desire to avoid potentially-crippling uncertainty. I used to say that it took courage to be a Christian and that may be the case in certain places like predominantly Muslim countries [places where it also takes courage to be an atheist, by the way], but in the southern United States...not so much. Here it takes courage to leave Christianity. And it's not simply because you will be abandoned by your friends, mourned over and pitied by your family and regarded with suspicion by the larger community (and believe me, you will). It's also because you will have to step out into a world that is completely foreign and uncharted. You will have to confront your own ingrained and imagined fears of things like hell and the judgment of God. You will have to figure stuff out for yourself. You will have to think. It's not something that's very appealing to either the lazy or the fearful. Those costs should be counted. What should not be counted, however, is what you've already invested. As one of my favorite new Disney characters sings, "The past is in the past. Let it go."


"It's funny how some distance makes everything seem small and the fears that once controlled me can't get to me at all."

1 comment:

  1. <3 <3 <3 Oh this was beautiful.

    I can't even remember saying that, but Mr. Captain heard it and said "Yeah, that sounds like you."

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