Thursday, August 19, 2010

Does Embarrassment Keep Christians Faithful?

A friend of mine has become agnostic/atheist, but can't "come out of the closet" because it will probably destroy his marriage. This makes me very curious. How many people are in this predicament? How many have lost faith but can't talk about it because spouses, children, parents or friends would abandon them?

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, tells of fighting this very problem in his book Godless. He was an evangelical Christian preacher and actually found himself giving sermons about a God he had rejected. Reason won out in the end – Barker became a prominent atheist activist but the price was high. He split from his wife and lost many friends.

One of the amazing parallels between biological evolution and memetic evolution (the way ideas change and mutate as they move across society and down through history) is that we find fully-developed immune systems in both.

We're all familiar with our body's defenses: antibodies, white blood cells, T-cells, and so forth. Our bodies have concentrated a bunch of food that other creatures would like to have, and without an immune system we would quickly perish.

It turns out religion has also evolved immunity memes that protect it from external attacks. Ideas (memes) compete for space in your brain, and once an idea finds a home in your head, it will survive longer if it actively protects itself.

For example, one of the oldest immunity memes is the Intolerance Meme, the idea that your religion is right and all others are wrong, so it is OK for you to persecute those who don't share your beliefs. The Intolerance Meme is well documented in Deuteronomy, which encouraged the Jews to attack and even kill the pagans who believed in other gods. It's a great meme for the survival of a religion, because when you kill someone, you also kill all of the memes in their brain.

Getting back to our original question, there is another meme that forms part of the religion virus' immune system which we can call the Shunning Meme. It tells us that those who stray from the faith must be ostracized and shunned by the faithful. They must become outcasts.

A powerful example of the Shunning Meme is in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. Chava, the daughter of the poor Jewish milkman Tevye, falls in love with a gentile. Tevye and his wife Golda are heartbroken, because they consider Chava to be dead, and the rest of the family are not allowed to speak with Chava ever again.

One of the wonderful things about a marriage or partnership is that melding of two minds into something larger. In a really great relationship, the two partners understand each other deeply, and as they move through life together, they help each other solve problems. When one encounters a problem or an important question, the other can help. He/she can be a good listener, ask questions that help focus the issue, and provide perspective.

But when one partner is deeply religious and the other is losing faith, the Shunning Meme becomes a very high mountain to scale. The person losing faith has to choose between love and personal honesty. Are your family and friends worth the price of admitting you don't believe in God?


  1. Shunning is a very powerful social compliance tool, in general.

    There is absolutely no doubt the religious have honed this nasty skill as a form of code enforcement. But, mainstream secular-leaning society also shuns heavily. In some cases, a single instance of impropriety is cause for social dismissal or relegation into the camp of dunces.


Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.