Denial is Incredibly Powerful

denial-ain't-just-a-riverOver the last 5 years, I’ve become acutely aware of the power of denial. I saw it in dramatic fashion with my wife as our marriage ended, and I’ve both witnessed and experienced it during my spiritual journey. We have all likely been in denial about something at some point in our lives. It’s human nature to want to deny a harsh truth or a bitter reality. Denial is often a protective mechanism to our psyche.

Fascinating Reddit Thread
A few months ago, I read a thread on Reddit about denial that caused my jaw to drop-open repetitively. I’m relieved I didn’t give myself a case of TMJ. The post on Reddit asked readers, “What’s the most denial you’ve ever seen someone in?

Holy bananas Batman! While I’ve witnessed a fair amount of denial, I was truly surprised by the stories. They included:

  • A mother who insisted that her son’s wife got pregnant before marriage, and this mother also believed that her daughter-in-law was even pregnant at the wedding. Even though they were married in 1973 and their daughter was born in 1978 (5 YEARS LATER), this mother still believed her version of reality and she routinely referred to his son’s wife as a ‘Catholic whore’.
  • A grandmother who is a raging alcoholic, sincerely believes that mixing cranberry juice with vodka magically renders the drink as no longer intoxicating. She also insists that wine isn’t alcoholic since it’s made from grapes. I suspect a few others in the world have embraced that version of reality…
  • A young college student tries to convince her college’s records’ department that she really did take 5 courses that she didn’t. To convince the college, she Photoshops some fake transcripts (with all A’s) for her missing classes. Unfortunately for her, she does a bad job with Photoshop and she also forgets to properly re-calculate her GPA. She told her parents that the college was mistaken and the denial part comes in because her parents didn’t want to believe their daughter would ever lie about such a thing. [Sarcasm: on] I mean, no son or daughter would ever lie to their parents or cause them to waste money. [Sarcasm: off]
  • A similar story has a young girl (with an email name of SweetLittlePrincess316) telling her rich father that the college is refusing to issue receipts for the tuition that daddy’s money paid for. The father gets angry at the college after they inform him that his daughter did not take the courses she claims and that they never received funds for classes she never signed up for. The college Dean agrees to discuss it in person but only if the daughter comes along, and naturally SweetLittlePrincess316 refuses and cites that the college has been abusive to her and that she’s afraid for her safety (even though her father would be there).
  • A girl with a boyfriend keeps asking her guy friends for advice because her boyfriend won’t have sex with her unless he can watch videos of male models working out. She wants to know how to get her boyfriend to stop that. Meanwhile, her boyfriend also insists that he only do her from behind. It’s what you might call a case of “Oh I’m sure he’s not gay… he just has this weird hangup“.
  • Perhaps that saddest tale regards an EMT who was called to an apartment complex where there were complaints of a very foul smell. The EMT was welcomed by a lovely elderly man who seemed quite lucid, but he indicated he didn’t call for any help. The EMT discovered a shriveled up dead woman in the back bedroom, but the man insisted to the EMT’s that they were deluded and that his wife was still alive and well. He even had a conversation with his dead wife while the EMT’s were processing paperwork for the case. Truly a sad story.

Denial can be incredibly powerful, can’t it?denialism-monkeys

But does it play a significant factor in our spiritual journeys?

In early 2014, Bob Seidensticker (who author’s a great blog at Cross Examined), asked me if I had any thoughts regarding why Christianity is such a sticky meme? Or in other words, why is it so hard for a believer to let it go? As a fairly new deconvert, I didn’t have a good answer and the question has stuck with me since.

It lingers because I have so many family and friends that are under the same spell that I was under for so long. It lingers for me because it’s an ongoing battle for truth. A person’s view of the supernatural can affect important life decisions about medical care, birth control, career choices, relationships, financial choices, and end-of-life decisions. Making the choice to embrace evidence-based reality over faith is incredibly hard for a believer. It was for me. But why? Are there common factors that nurture the denial? I have a few thoughts but please share others that come to mind.

It’s Traditional
When you’re raised in a particular tradition of faith, it feels like a betrayal to not continue in it. We know that whatever religion a child is routinely exposed to, the child will typically adhere to that religion rather than pursue a different faith. Family holidays and religious traditions certainly reinforce it all. As a Christian, I remember often hearing the verse in Hebrews of “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb. 10:25). While reading many ex-Christian stories over the last year, I noted that many people shared how that after they stopped attending church services, it became easier to think for themselves. They now had more freedom to consider the nagging questions and doubts. Of course, a counter argument to this would be that Satan wants to entice the believer away from regular church attendance because, damn it, they’ll lose their faith! But how valid is a faith that has to feed on regular indoctrination to remain viable? How valid is a faith that tends to stay within geographical boundaries? How valid is a faith that openly targets young children because they know that few adults embrace the odd message?

Fear: The Threat of Hell
The teaching of hell has a long and storied history. Christianity is certainly not alone in having a doctrine about eternal damnation. And fear is an incredibly powerful motivator, and thus a threat of eternal torment is quite compelling.

Many have written before about the many logical fallacies of the doctrine of hell, so I won’t repeat too many of them here. I recently saw an interesting question though that went something like this. “Which is worse: to have never been born, or to be brought into the world where you ultimately reject the existence of the Christian God and end up in hell for eternity?”

It’s an unusual thing to ponder. On the one hand, if you’re never brought into existence then you aren’t around to experience pain or torment. On the other hand, even a short earthly life filled with some joy is a desirable thing. However, this odd little question shines a light on how outrageously cruel eternal torment for petty crimes is. And it begs some old questions: Why would a loving God choose the most horrific type of pain that the human body can experience (burning flesh) as the embodiment for his chosen form of eternal torment? Why make it last forever? Why would a loving God use a threat (hell) to inspire a relationship with himself? And why would a loving God who is all-knowing create human beings that He knows will reject Him, and let them suffer in a lake of fire, forever and ever?

Comfort: The Thought of Heaven
Another source for denial is the promise of eternal life in a blissful abode. Hey, I get it! Who doesn’t want to believe there’s an eternal paradise waiting? We all do. And when loved ones pass away, it’s truly comforting to believe they are now in a blissful place. Of course, our normal reaction whenever someone passes on is to say, “oh I’m so sorry!”. Imagine if someone instead responded with, “hey that is fantastic news!”, we would look at them with hurt and scorn. But if we’re truly and absolutely certain of heaven, wouldn’t that be an acceptable response?

Our drive for survival (fight or flight) is one of the strongest drives inside of us. It’s natural and normal to cling to life with all of our might. It’s likely that this survival instinct played a role in the imagining of heaven. Each of the man-made world’s religions describe and picture heaven a bit differently, but it’s always a nice place to go. So I certainly understand the comfort that it all brings to mind. Should we therefore ridicule someone who embraces the notion? No, I can’t do that.

The Devil is a Scary Deceiver!
Do you ever feel like you can’t trust your own mind? Do you believe that there are demons or other evil spirits who, invisibly, are actively working to deceive us?

brain-in-fogI recently heard someone make the following statement: “If you refute Christ, then you are a tool of the devil. Christians fear the devil nearly as much as they fear hell. Fallen Christians are seen as contaminants sent by Satan to fool the faithful. Delusions are not amenable to reason or logic and so shunning is the only solution that comes to the Christian mindset.”

I remember feeling that way toward others. Anyone who didn’t believe in God was clearly a pawn of Satan! When my oldest son declared his atheism, I had to wrestle with that notion. But during my journey when I began to admit to myself that the Bible was a deeply flawed collection of man-made writings, the idea of a devil became increasingly silly. There’s quite a history for this character. Wikipedia, while sometimes ridiculed, has a decent article on it. I now cringe when someone demonstrates that they refuse to think with their brain, especially when there is clear and overwhelming evidence on a topic of importance. I remember the popular verse, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Psa 3:5). But let’s put it another way: “Ignore evidence, disregard your brain, and instead trust in an imaginary, unseen force that never audibly communicates with you”.

I enjoy Neil Carter’s blog, Godless in Dixie. He wrote this a few months ago:

When you believe something strongly enough, no amount of contrary evidence will dissuade you from your belief. You will overlook mountains of contrary evidence, and no validation will be too small or too weak for you to bank your entire system upon. That’s just how faith works. Keep in mind I don’t say that as one who has always been an outsider. I say that as one who occupied that mental world for decades but who now sees the whole enterprise in a different light. If you are willing and “your heart is right,” you can be persuaded by arguments so weak that one day you may very well look back and say, “Are you kidding me? Did I really believe that? Tell me I wasn’t this deluded!”

Me? Yes, I really did believe it all for a long time. Of course, I came to reject the notion of the Christian God after my long journey. But it’s understandable how so many strong factors fuel denial against the many significant flaws of Christianity. So in summary, I believe the following are significant sources of denial for those still trapped by Christian dogma:

  • The threat of hell is too intense
  • The promise of eternal life in heaven is too comforting
  • I’m scared that any doubts are from the devil and therefore I can’t trust my own brain
  • Acknowledging I could be wrong is more than I can deal with

For anyone who was brought up in fundamentalism, it’s hard! But I can honestly say I’m happier now and I’m more at peace. And I keep a watchful eye out for my own occurrences of denial.

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20 thoughts on “Denial is Incredibly Powerful

  1. Really great post.
    One verse that I thought of a lot is “the heart is deceitful” or something along those lines. I don’t feel like looking it up right now. But it kept me from trusting my intuition. There is some wisdom in that, but it only goes so far.

    Liked by 3 people

      • You know, funnily this was the verse that actually made me start questioning everything about Christianity – so many denomination saying they’re right! How do I know I’m not the wrong one since the heart is deceitful!

        When I pray and I think God has given me the go ahead for something, is it really God or is my heart lying to me?

        This was important to me back then as I was leading young adults in church. Oh well. I do think it really is true when people say the more you read the bible the more it’ll chase you out of Christianity. There’s a catch though, it only applies if you read it critically.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s an interesting twist. You took a Bible verse, and turned it around against the Bible, or at least against other’s interpretations of the Bible.

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    • Yes, Zoe has it — that’s the verse. I remember pondering that verse often too. Like you said, there’s some truth there but it only goes so far. And of course, early man still didn’t realize that our thoughts and essence are located in the brain, not the heart or gut. They correlated elevation in heart rates and anxiety that is felt in the gut with being where thoughts are located.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this good article. I came out as a non-Christian just under 2 weeks ago, and my thoughts on this are fresh. I think of it more in terms of “indoctrination and reinforcement” rather than “denial,” as you say under “It’s Traditional”. I have a new appreciation for the power that the weekly reinforcement of dogma has in locking people firmly into a false way of perceiving reality. In talking to my friends and family, God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, and all these things are completely real to them. I agree with what Neil wrote, and I am shaking my head often that I never questioned for 40 years whether these were real or not.

    About three years ago we returned to our parent church after being out at a church plant, and by that time my process of questioning was over and I was no longer a Christian. You can imagine that I did not rush to establish strong relationships with other Christian men in the church at that time. And so now, I’ve heard from no less than 3 people, and probably will continue to hear, that they think a major factor in my deconversion was that I wasn’t in relationships that were reinforcing my faith, providing “accountability,” etc. Well… what does that reveal about the nature of faith?

    Liked by 4 people

    • Well said Brent. And yes, what does it reveal about faith?
      Can I ask, was it about 3 years from the time of your deconversion till you came out as a non-Christian? I am curious for those of us in our middle ages what an average or common length of time is between the two.

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      • I wish now I had kept better notes; in particular I wish I’d recorded the date when suddenly in the middle of reading something I looked away from the words and said to myself, “I’m not a Christian any more.” This was the “paradigm shift” moment that Valerie Tarico has written about.

        Anyway: It was at least 3 years, it might have been as long as 4 years. And I wish now that I had come out sooner; there were reasons, but in the end, not good reasons. Most of it was fear, along with some of my natural tendency to avoid conflict in relationships. The only good thing that came from waiting that long is that I was really well prepared when I began talking to people about my new beliefs.

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  3. Great post Logan, thanks.

    Since I lost my faith, I find that at times of emotional stress I long for the ignorant bliss of certainty of faith. Sometimes I do ponder whether faith is a matter of heart and one just has to ignore logic. But then I wonder if belief is despite evidence then how would one ever know which of the competing faiths to follow. When I start thinking like that I realise that the argument that faith should be in spite of reason is just apologetic nonsense.

    What I have noticed is that some folk just refuse to even read things that might challenge their faith. I have pretty much given up posting on Christian sites. When I first found my faith falling away I expected that those sites would be where I could have a good discussion and if I was i error then those good folk inspired by the Spirit of God would with love and care show me where I was mistaken. That turned out to be a gross misunderstanding on my part. But in a way it was helpful as it just confirmed that the Christian folk were if anything more flawed than their secular counterparts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for reading Peter. And I definitely hear you regarding reactions of other Christians. It was quite revealing to serve on various church committees over the years along with Board service. The peek behind the curtain revealed just the usual human decision making, personal wants and politics. There were tempers, hurt feelings, and lots of egos. It showed me that regardless of Christianity, nice people are nice, and assholes are assholes. Religion rarely helps it all.

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      • Yes that is so true. When I still called myself a Christian I concluded after studying much evidence that becoming a Christian did not change a persons underlying personality and temperament.

        There is really only one person who I know who did seem to be dramatically changed as a result of becoming a Christian, but I suspect that is the exception that proves the rule so to speak. In that case the change can be explained from being drawn for the first time in his life into a loving and caring community.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I definitely agree. We can point to some isolated cases of someone that seemed to genuinely change (from our limited exterior perspective). But I found the same to be true in other religions and/or with other self-help (non-religious) programs: a few that made visible changes.

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      • My wife was a church secretary for a couple years. It was eye opening. What made the biggest impression on me was seeing how the church leaders used “spiritual discipline” to *control* the members, rather than to correct. This was actually done to my wife because she had the gall to complain that she was being over-worked and under-paid by the church. They even sat in front of the door so she couldn’t leave the room. I will never forget the look in my wife’s eyes as they sat there and kept clawing at her. But they fucked with the wrong woman. She called another meeting with them later on and let them have it. I’ve never been more proud. Assholes. Sorry, this still gets me worked up, even 8 years later. Thankfully, the wife and I (and our sons) are now happily god-free.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Wow, I am gob smacked! That is crazy! And that would get me worked up too all of those years later!! Congrats to you all for escaping the insanity. And thank you for sharing!

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  4. I always love your post, as usual you’ve brought up some great points. As someone who was disowned by my family for no loner believing in christianity, I understand that in their minds they actually believe I’ve been “tricked” by “the devil” to no longer believe. It’s sad that people allow so much pain and negativity to rule their lives in order to avoid an imaginary hell.

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    • I always find it very sad when I come across stories of people being disowned by families. I am sorry to hear about your pain. Surely this is one of the great evils of religion that people are commanded to put commitment to their faith above their family.

      Yet people insist on seeing their deity as good an loving.

      Liked by 2 people

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