Religious Conviction: Simply a State of Mind
I work in the psychological field, dealing with people with many various kinds of personality disorders. I work a lot with retraining the brain to help people live lives free from disorders (mainly eating), compulsions, guilt, and fear. I love my job. So many things in our individual realities stem from the way our brains were wired from birth to three years old. These patterns form our lives, our beliefs, and our convictions. Try to change? Well, changing your way of believing (and rewiring that brain of yours) is the hardest and most painstaking job in the world. And it only gets harder the older we get.
Most children grow up in family and religious communities whose members share very particular—often one-sided—ideas, outlooks, and attitudes. Let’s take mine for an example. I was born and raised in an LDS family in Kaysville, Utah. Many members of my community had pretty much the same, limited knowledge available to them and had developed certain skills at the expense of other skills. As a child in such a community, I learned the same skills. It’s a fact that children in such communities can only acquire a sense of security and deal with their fears by adopting the thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns that the community members pass along to them. This goes directly to the wiring of our brains. The neuronal connections and circuits activated repeatedly in our brains in this way become more and more rigidly established. The earlier this kind of programming takes place, the more completely it determines children’s lives and the harder it becomes for them to undo later in life.
When beliefs are strong enough, when you truly believe in something, good or bad, the emotions you feel create your reality. When you believe in something, you constantly look for the manifestations of it in your life to help you reaffirm your faith and “testimony” in said belief. For example, if a predominate belief of your family or community was that God punished people who were evil or somehow deserving of punishment, (i.e. the Pride Cycle comes to mind, as well as the most recent declaration of Haiti’s contract with the Devil) then each time you saw misfortune in your life, you’d see it as proof that there is such a God. And with every disaster, each individual horror, and the myriad of troubles in the world–well, it only serve as proof in the existence of such a God. I don’t know about you, but I got a little tired in believing in a God who didn’t seem as compassionate as my own mother. These beliefs grow in your mind, validating each other, until an entire community embraces the idea that the world is becoming more and more evil and that it needs a good cleaning up in the “last days” (i.e. Millennium).
Rightly so, you would internalize this belief as true about yourself as well. If you have misfortune in your life, then obviously it is necessary for you to be “tried” in such a way that you will be “purified” in the “refiner’s fire” and become more Godlike in the process. You would, sadly, become judgmental of yourself and feel a bit inundated with various levels of guilt and shame throughout your life. Religious dogmas have always liked to feed off of guilt and shame. The mind, then, survives and validates by finding confirmations. Each of us sees the world through the lenses of our beliefs. Soon, EVERYTHING you see that confirms certain beliefs, and they work to serve as a “testimony” of that belief system. You begin looking for and finding many, many ways that this belief is true. When you accidentally stumble upon a belief that you can’t make sense of in your current dogma, then you tend to “put it on the shelf” (i.e. patriarchy, polygamy, proposition 8). Your mind simply has to brush it off as unexplainable and you console yourself with the idea that “God moves in mysterious ways.” I reached a point where I could no longer do this.
The danger of building up these very one-sided neuronal connective patterns becomes severe if the strategies for coping with fear are employed by SUBJECTIVE people, dogma, and methods. When this happens, many coping strategies are built up and overused to a point of psychological dependency.
I used to be very psychologically dependent on the dogma of the LDS church to tell me who to be, what to believe, and how to make sense of the world. I broke out of this way of thinking later than I would have liked. It’s been a hard journey out of it. And after two years of rewiring my brain, I still have a way to go.
It’s an interesting thought, given the premise of the church, that most members believe (i.e. with missionaries) that everyone else will have to, at least eventually, subscribe to the same set of “beliefs” that they themselves have so that all can be harmonious in heaven. I find this so troubling. Do we really need that kind of validation? I don’t anymore. I am happy to have my own set of beliefs and to let you have yours. However, there is always a bit of a sting when I say that, because I’ll never fully get that in return, especially with my family. I guess I’ll just have to accept that they will forever see me as being “in the wrong” since I dared to wire my brain differently from them. But I’m as convinced (as they are about theirs) that my beliefs are what work for me. And to that, there really is no solution to seek after, all that is left is to embrace, accept, and love.