Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, Part VII. For context, start at the introduction.
In Part I, I mentioned about how I saw a counselor in 2016 and explained to him about the loss of my Christian faith. Removing Christianity seemed to remove my identity. The counselor said that he was excited for me, because I would get a new identity. Indeed, Christianity had a strong grip on my identity. In some sense, the counselor was right: I had a significant shift in the way I saw myself, but he was also wrong: the substance of my identity was mostly unchanged. In this post, I discuss how my new identity is largely the same as my old identity.
Carina Nebula by Harel Boren, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. I now accept the nebulous nature of meaning. This amazing picture reminds me that the nebulous is beautiful.
Christianity had made a near-total claim on my identity. Furthermore, it made a systematic claim on my identity, such that other aspects of my identity were defined in terms of Christianity. To give but one example of many, I was a Christian husband. My marriage was literally defined in Christian terms. It seemed sensible to wonder who I was if the Christian part were subtracted. The nihilist answer is that I was no one, but fortunately that answer doesn’t survive even a modest degree of sober, well-informed scrutiny.
From one identity, mostly back to the same
The actual answer to who I have become is the most boring one: I’m the same person as before, just not a Christian. There are confusing philosophical problems around the continuity of the self but we can side-step those by accepting the nebulous nature of identity. I often take mental refuge in the realization that there is no "true self."
To give a bit more detail on the “new” me: I am still husband to the same woman, I am still father to the same children, I still play the same electric guitars, I still work for the same company, I still have the same last name and the same extended family, I still have the same digital identities on various websites, I am still the same height, my eyes are the same color, my body has aged a bit but that was going to happen anyway, I still have that cluster of small congenital hemangiomas on my right wrist, etc.
The big realization is that the all-encompassing system (Christianity) doesn’t support the ancillary meanings (marriage, family, music, work, etc.) — actually it’s the other way around! Christianity presses meanings into its service, so that Christians see Christianity as total. But hear me, Christian, actually you are a person, with an identity of unbounded richness and complexity! When I took away the Christianity, I only took away a single part. Most of my identity remains unchanged.
Increased tolerance for contradiction
My Christianity was a grand system of meaning that deliberately and consciously forced meanings to be more consistent with each other. I had a low tolerance for contradiction and a low tolerance for what David Chapman calls “nebulousity.” Individual meanings had to be clear, the connections between meanings had to work well and the entire system tried to be consistent. As seen in “Nash and the Strawman,” I did not require absolute consistency, but consistency was definitely strongly favored.
I still value consistency a lot, but removing the grand system has significantly reduced my drive to eliminate inconsistencies. Equally, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the nebulous nature of meanings. People are contradictory and inconsistent. It’s ok for me to be contradictory and inconsistent, too, sometimes. And the nebulous is ok — actually it’s beautiful.
Part of this increased tolerance for fuzz and error is because philosophical and spiritual topics are now a lot less important to me. I don’t have a system as my identity. I don’t go around calling myself a follower of the meaningness.com method of David Chapman, which I summarized in Part VI. (What would that be, a “Chapmanian”?) And that’s because I’m not. I don’t have a system, not even “the system of meaningness.com.” And I don’t need to defend my ideas so ardently any more. I’ve tried to reach the lowest possible potential energy state for my beliefs and now I don’t fear falling further. Prove that I’m wrong and, hopefully, I’ll shrug, laugh and correct myself. Practically, I probably don’t react quite so well, because I’m human. I still repeat my mistake of fusing my identity with my beliefs, but I’m only going to do that in comparatively tiny ways. In the words of The Who, I “won’t get fooled again.”
One could see my newly-failed ardor for "the truth" as evidence of apathy. Maybe it is, but I like to think that it’s a sign that I’m starting to take a meta-systematic approach. Systematic thinking is an enormously useful skill and my attacks on Eternalism shouldn’t be perceived as downplaying the importance of systems. But no one system fits every situation, so I think it’s better to spend energy moving between systems rather than trying to weld all the systems together and smooth over all their differences. The way forward is to use meanings rather than to obsess over them. I ought to refocus on practical problems instead of crashing my head against the dead stone wall called “philosophy.”
The living reverberation of my old Christianity
Defining myself by disagreement with Christianity isn’t actually a goal (in spite of this whole series). My wife is a Christian. I go to church, celebrate Christmas and I join in praying. In a definite cultural sense, I still am Christian. (Imprinted cultural identity is just that strong!) Mostly, I do Christian activities to support my wife and kids. But going to church is also a good way to make friends.
My marriage is very important to me. I love my wife and she’s a Christian, so I walk the line of living in a way that’s respectful to her beliefs. Everyone is on a path of learning and knowledge is so high-dimensional that no one can be in the same state of knowledge as anyone else. Each of us has to learn to cooperate with people who think in different ways and who hold different beliefs. It helps that my no-religion is one that does not seek to proselytize.
After a period of thinking, I realized that life is too short for me to figure out morality again. Furthermore, while there are several different ethical theories and each has slightly different implications and each produces different answers under extraordinary conditions, generally, I find that morality is just one thing. Everyone thinks you shouldn’t murder people or steal their stuff. Kant’s categorical imperative is a re-phrasing of the Golden Rule. So, as a general rule, I stick with the ethical system that I know from Christianity. Certainly, I don’t hold myself to all the rules in the Bible, for example, the rule against idolatry is a little nonsensical for a person who doesn’t believe in God. And I am not hesitant to accept moral developments that are more recent than the 1st century AD, for example, feminism, universal egalitarianism, and the idea of accepting everyone in the world as my “neighbor” in the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37.
Some beliefs are about the practical object world: gravity, keeping a job, cooking breakfast, etc. Other examples of group membership statements could include: believing in God, that gun control is bad, that Muhammad designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor, etc. Group membership beliefs are parts of a person’s identity, but practical beliefs aren’t. In “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari calls socially constructed belief systems “myths” and says that they are required for humans to organize themselves into large groups. My synthesis is that Harari's work implies that we cannot remove all group-membership beliefs. On the other hand, Steven Pinker in “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters” says that we can eliminate the realm of mythology, but I think his definition of mythology is smaller than Harari’s. (Also, Pinker ignores some of his own socially-constructed identity-beliefs.)
I aim to minimize my identity-beliefs, an idea from Paul Graham: “If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.” For example, if I accepted “New Atheism,” (which, in 2022, is already an old idea!), then in many ways I would be trying to replace one tribal identity with another. I may still have some group identity beliefs, but while I may be outwardly “Christian” in many ways, I do not accept the Christian group membership beliefs.
I stopped being a Christian. Not much else about me changed. But the process of leaving Christianity caused significant trauma at the time and the question of what that meant for my identity was pressing. Fortunately, I was able to detangle the rest of myself from the grip of my former systematic Christianity. In Part VIII, I’ll expand on how nihilism appeared in the crater of my exploded Christianity, and I speculate on how I could have avoided the pain that nihilism caused.
In hindsight, I wonder what the counselor could have said that would have been more helpful. Maybe he should have said: “I’m excited for you because you’ll be the same person as before, just not a Christian.” On the other hand, he might have said something like that, and I forgot because it’s a less catchy meme. Sometimes the truth is like that.