XFiles Weekend: The social network

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 2: “What difference does it make if God exists?”)

We’re almost done with Chapter 2, and it will be a relief to dispense with the irrational and vacuous emotionalism that Dr. Craig has been offering up in place of substantive reasons for his conclusions. He ends the chapter on a personal note, with the story of his own conversion. Ironically for one of the church’s leading apologists, he himself was not convinced by any evidence. Rather, like most converts, he converted for purely psychosocial reasons that had nothing to do with whether or not God actually exists.

Dr. Craig tells us that he grew up in a family that was not “a churchgoing family, much less a Christian family.” When he hit his teenage years, however, he began to experience a typical adolescent desire to understand the world and to anticipate what his place in this would would be.

I began to ask the big questions of life: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” In the search for answers, I began to attend a large church in our community.

That, of course, was a big mistake. A lot of industrial-sized churches are precisely that: an industry. They take in plates full of money, and in return they generate heads full of self-congratulatory fantasies and a nagging sense of lingering obligation. I was once on a church fund-raising committee, and our fund-raising consultants told us that churches don’t grow by people “walking in off the streets, hearing the truth, and being convicted in their hearts.” That may be how it goes in the Gospel and in theory, but in actual practice only a tiny minority of people convert that way. If all you do is preach the Gospel, your church will stay tiny, too.

No, churches grow when people make the connection with other people, and draw them in with ordinary, everyday social skills. Officially, of course, the Holy Spirit gets all the credit, but practically speaking it’s an ordinary social network. If you want your church to grow, you train your congregation’s people skills, and encourage them to become more warm and outgoing so that others will want to hook into the same network. But Dr. Craig didn’t discover that until later on.

Dr. Craig’s first church experience left him convinced that Christianity was a country club, and that the teenagers in his youth group “claimed to be Christians on Sunday,” but “lived for their real God the rest of the week, which was popularity.” In other words, the social connection was lacking. He wasn’t part of the “popular” clique, therefore he was subtly excluded from the group. He joined the church as a social outsider, and found himself treated like an outsider, and got upset about it. (Reading his account of those experiences, you get the sense he’s still upset about it, and has doubts about whether or not they’re really saved.) With typical teenage perspicacity, he decided that all Christians must be like that.

They claim to be Christians, but I’m leading a better life than they are, I thought. Yet I feel so empty inside. They must be just as empty as I am, but they’re pretending to be something they’re not. They’re all a pack of hypocrites! I began to grow very bitter toward the institutional church and the people in it.

In time this attitude spread toward other people. Nobody is really genuine, I thought. They’re all just a bunch of phonies, holding up a plastic mask to the world, while the real person is cowering down inside, afraid to come out and be real. So my anger and resentment spread toward people in general.

I think perhaps young Bill may have had “issues.” Granted, this kind of attitude is common enough among certain types of teenager that it even has its own nickname these days: kids call it being “emo.” Dr. Craig is trying to create another emotional context here, and he’d like for us to feel like he’s describing the anger and frustration of a typical life without God. All he’s really portraying, though, is the self-absorbed angst of a socially awkward teen.

What he’s really dealing with is not the absence of God, but the lack of a good social support network among his peers. He’s unhappy because he wants something from other people, and he can’t understand why they’re not eager to give him what he craves. That’s not atypical, nor is it even limited to “emo” teens. I think most of us had some anxieties along those lines during adolescence. It’s a natural part of the transition to adulthood. We need some kind of social connection, and until we find it, we feel a certain amount of misery and frustration. And that’s especially true of the romantic connection. But Dr. Craig seems to have overlooked the social nature of his needs and emotions, even when he explicitly enumerates them for us.

I knew deep down inside that I really did want to love and be loved by others. I realized that…I was just as much a phony as they were… So that anger and hatred turned in upon myself for my own hypocrisy and phoniness…

One day when I was feeling particularly crummy, I walked into my high school German class and sat down behind a girl who was one of those types who is always so happy it just makes you sick! So I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned around, and I growled, “Sandy, what are you always so happy about, anyway?”

“Well, Bill,” she said, “it’s because I’m saved!”

I was stunned. I had never heard language like this before.

“You’re what?” I demanded.

“I know Jesus Christ as my personal Savior,” she explained.

“I go to church,” I said lamely.

“That’s not enough, Bill,” she said. “You’ve got to have Him really living in your heart.”

That was the limit! “What would He want to do a thing like that for?” I demanded.

“Because He loves you, Bill.”

That hit me like a ton of bricks.

It’s a sales pitch I’m sure you’ve all heard before, and it’s particularly well-tuned to people who are feeling lonely and isolated. But notice: it’s a personal, social connection. Bill is responding not just to Sandy’s message, but to Sandy herself, because she has the social skills and support that he so desperately lacks. Unlike God, Sandy cares enough to show up in person to tell Bill face-to-face that he is loved. That’s a social connection! And it certainly doesn’t hurt a lonely teenage guy to hear “you are loved” from an attractive, single female.

At this point, Dr. Craig begins running through the standard Christian “testimony” script, about how attracted he was to the Gospel, and how he read through the New Testament, and how he was impressed by Jesus and his teaching, etc. etc. It’s all part of “giving glory to God,” as good Christians are supposed to do. But he doesn’t delve too deeply into why he’s suddenly changed from an emo church kid into someone so fascinated by God. It’s Sandy, and Sandy’s friends—the social network he’s been longing for. Sandy has made it clear that he’s an acceptable candidate for this network, so all of a sudden it’s important to him to see if he’d be willing to join. He’s had access to the Bible before, but now there’s a personal reason to take an interest in what it says.

But again, it’s not God he’s cultivating a relationship with. God isn’t the one showing up in person to spend time “wooing” him into the faith. It’s people, real people—the social network. And they’re really not that different from the group he dismissed as hypocrites. Their facade may be “spirituality” instead of “popularity,” but they’re still being careful to conform to the group norm for how you ought to behave. The difference, though, is that this group is open to receiving young Bill as a member. They’re offering the social connection the other group didn’t, and therefore he feels no rejection or resentment—or even awareness—of their “hypocrisy.” This time, their facade strikes him, not as fakery, but as something profound and attractive.

Meanwhile, Sandy introduced me to other Christian students in the high school. I had never met people like this! Whatever they said about Jesus, what was undeniable was that they were living life on a plane of reality that I didn’t even dream existed, and it imparted a deep meaning and joy to their lives, which I craved.

This short paragraph says a lot more than I think Dr. Craig intended. He almost recognizes that what they have, and what he craves, is a social bond. It’s a bond based on a subjective “reality” that you can’t get by observing the real world that we all experience in common. As he himself says, he never dreamed that this “reality” existed, because he never encountered it in the real world, outside the thoughts and imaginations of his new Christian friends. And in fact, it really doesn’t matter what they say about Jesus, or what the intellectual content of this “reality” is supposed to be. What matters is that they have what he craves—a common social bond. The mask they wear doesn’t matter, as long as they allow him to wear the same mask.

And yet, for all that, it seems to have taken him a while to actually convert—six months in fact. I think he is intelligent enough to realize there were problems with the subjective bliss the Christians were offering him. Sure, it’s great to have a God who loves you enough to become mortal and die for you, but if He loves you that much, and wants to be together with you forever, then why isn’t He is the one showing up in person to say so? And why is the world so different from what it would be like if there were really a wise and benevolent God running it?

In the end, of course, he gave in to the pressure from his newfound peers. I suspect that deep down, at some level, he feels guilty about compromising his intellectual integrity, and that his whole career as an apologist is a lifelong attempt to try and justify Christianity, not to the unsaved, nor even to believers, but first and foremost to himself. He did not conclude that God exists because he found evidence for God, he decided to believe in God for social reasons, to satisfy a social longing, and now he has to justify his decision to put emotional desires ahead of rational thought and verifiable evidence.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just being an armchair psychologist, and speculating aimlessly. But it would explain why, at the very beginning of his book, he spends so much time trying to create a desperate emotional context in which his personal faith might have some kind of imperative. It’s a sad and pathetic effort, since he ends up proving that Christianity blinds you to real-world meaning, value and purpose. But at least now I think we can sort of understand why he tries to make us feel an emotional need to believe.

8 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: The social network”

  1. coconnor1017 Says:

    Craig’s debate with Shelly Kagan exposes this controlling aspect of his personality. It is comical to see Craig assert that without Heaven any action we take in an atheist context has no value to the actor but then get stumped when Kagan says it has value to him. Craig projects his interior life onto a larger universe and exposes his philosophy as a nuanced form of solipsism. He seems like a typical Baby Boomer whose personal enlightenment has universal implications.

  2. coconnor1017 Says:

    And he demands that personal enlightenment operate as an absolute law.

  3. Lee Says:

    I also was reminded of the WLC/Kagan debate. More specifically of that moment in which WLC asserts his view that in light of the eventual heat-death of the universe all our current choices are meaningless and Kagan replies simply that he doesn’t find it meaningless to affect one life, and neither would the life being affected. The eventual heat-death of the universe doesn’t enter into it.

    I was pondering your thoughts above on the power of the social draw to Christianity and how intelligent and thoughtful believers (like WLC) are often attracted to apologetics, perhaps in an attempt to justify their beliefs to themselves. I think I myself was in this boat for several years. I’m thinking now that the best counter to that is to show one a life lived well without the need for those answers. I think Kagan does as decent a job as one could showing that in such a limited context.

  4. J. Ash Bowie Says:

    As a psychologist-in-training, I can say that your “analysis” is pretty reasonable as a starting hypothesis, at least based on what Dr. Craig has written. It is certainly true that social acceptance and competence are core human motivations. Alas, striving for a rational view of the world is not…rationality is something that we have to choose. It can easily get overridden by our more fundamental emotional drives, and this is something that religion has mastered.

    I think that your analysis is bolstered by the hollowness of Dr. Craig’s testimony regarding his interaction with Sandy. It seems very unlikely that this is how it happened…it sounds more like a cheap commercial. It’s impossible to know if Sandy is a real person or how they might have actually interacted all those decades ago. But whatever the truth might be, I think you are spot on that his story illustrates the social underpinnings of religious conversion.

    A question I would pose to Dr. Craig: let’s assume that he grew up in a community that was another religion, say Mormon or Muslim…would he have dived in so deep if the syrupy, beautiful teenagers had offered a fundamentalist version of those faiths? Based on his story, I would have to conclude that he would have indeed and that he would now be an apologist for the Mormon or Muslim religions.

  5. pboyfloyd Says:

    I agree with you and Mr. Bowie that WLC is telling us a story of social networking and, as told, it matters not one whit if the girl existed anywhere outside the story or not.

    Seems to me he’s just covering bases. You, he is saying, may feel that the church group you’re in are a bunch of phonies, but don’t give up, you will eventually fit in.

    Hey, who knows, perhaps Craig is lucky she wasn’t a Hari Krishna, or Alethea forbid, a Scientologist! (Hail Xenu, or whatever they say.)

    Too bad she wasn’t a Pastafarian! May you be touched by HIS Noodly Appendage!

  6. Hunt Says:

    I seriously doubt high school age people convert without parental urging. Even in college those who convert seem to be on their way toward a nervous breakdown. I did know a person in HS who did the Christian Youth conversion. I fucking dropped my jaw. One guy I knew in college converted but only right after changing his name to James Kirk and right before having a psychotic breakdown. He “disappeared” for a while and then reappeared very doped up. No, I am not saying that all young converts are mentally ill, or the reverse. My own brother has schizophrenia and is not religious. Normal young people don’t convert (outside the southern states — this was No. California and Berkeley). In the south, religion is so endemic that all bets are off.

    Mid and late 20’s are a different matter entirely. Young men (and women) will convert if, for instance, they find a woman (man) who is religious and the sex is good enough. Or, they will convert if they have a certain quality of life-angst as Craig describes, but translated into young adulthood. Upon further inspection this is often the recrudescence of prior life programming due to religious upbringing.

    A crude analysis, but you have to admit — kind of accurate?

  7. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I seriously doubt high school age people convert without parental urging. Even in college those who convert seem to be on their way toward a nervous breakdown.

    Oh, I don’t know about that. I converted in high school, and was instrumental in getting my parents “born again”. Then again, they were nominal Christians before, so maybe that’s a mitigating circumstance. But I knew lots of people (in the Midwest) who converted without—or even in spite of—parental influence.

  8. Hunt Says:

    Your is probably a more accurate assessment. I’ve known of instances like what you describe myself. I sometimes overstate things for humorous effect. Sorry about that. There are some people who fit the profiles I offer though, since I derive them from personal observations. I wonder at times what moderately religious parents who spawn exuberantly religious teens think about them. What might be going through their minds? I wonder if there’s ever a moment when they think they may have created monsters.


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