Wretch Like Me

Why many people find it so hard to say “I don’t believe”

I saw this commercial recently and had to shake my head when it was over.  Advertising like this bothers me because the psychology employed is so cynical and transparent.  Personally, I couldn’t really tell the difference in her teeth color before the teeth whitening and after, but it seems like that’s the point.  Some people will see her perfectly normal and nice “before” smile and her look of embarrassment and shame and think to themselves, “My teeth are worse than hers… I must REALLY feel embarrassed!”  And right there, they’ve got you hooked and can sell you their product.  After all, it’s advertising 101: make someone feel like they are broken or damaged in some way (even if they aren’t…well… ESPECIALLY if they aren’t), and then sell them the antidote.

This psychology works particularly well in advertising, but it is used in many other situations as well.  One predominant warning sign of an unhealthy relationship is that the victim is made to feel so worthless that they begin to feel like no one else could ever love them, so they lose control and become dependent.  This kind of presumed dependency is one of the main reasons it is so hard for victims to just pack up and leave such unhealthy relationships.  I also believe it is this mindset that is at the root of the extreme difficulty many feel in admitting to themselves and others that they don’t believe in God.

Think about the quintessential barriers-to-leaving or warning signs of an unhealthy/controlling relationship and consider how many apply:

  • Fear of your partner’s wrath – In a relationship with God, this applies all too well; Fear of hell.  Fear of destructive “acts of God”.  Very predominant especially here in the US south, home to so many “God-fearing” people.
  • Belief that punishment is deserved – In unhealthy personal relationships, often many excuses are made for the controlling partner’s punishing behavior.  Such as: “He only hurts me because he loves me so much”.  Consider how this relates to the idea that even though God casts us to hell, he doesn’t want to do it.  We send ourselves to hell, and we are punished in that way because he loves us…
  • Fear of isolation – This is the main reason I decided to start writing on this topic. For many people, there is much hesitation to end this relationship with God due to the fear that everyone they know will abandon or scorn them.  My hope is that as more and more people feel compelled to express their concerns out loud, the collective “fear of isolation” will be lessened.
  • Hope that things will change – To me, this one applies whenever people say things like “God works in mysterious ways” following a tragic or unfortunate event.  Such as: “Yeah, God seems to be punishing or testing me now for unknown reasons, but God works in mysterious ways.  Surely he’ll change this around and things will be better in the future.”

And, of course, the one I started with:

  • Low self-esteem– Listen closely during sermons or homilies and notice how many times we as humans are deprecated as sinners or wretches.  Once again, the psychological tactic comes into play:  I’m a sinner.  I’m a wretch.  I’m broken.  I’m damaged.  But only through God can I be made righteous.

That being said, I’m not implying that God is an abusive partner.  Obviously that’s not the case.  The point here is that for many, religion has a very strong and controlling hold on their lives that cannot easily be shaken.  It may be a slow process, but for me it started with a mental exercise.

What if there were no God?  What would that mean for me?  How would I behave?  How would I treat others?  How would I understand that world?  What if the religious story on which I was raised, was in fact…. not true?

I concluded that things would be no different.  I had the same positive outlook and treated people in the same manner regardless.  The “no God” world was just as beautiful and inspiring after my realization (if not more!).  Then, after I got over those “barriers-to-leaving” – fear of being banished to hell (hell wasn’t very plausible anyways), fear of isolation (cultivated friendships with open-minded people), etc – I began to get a bit more courage and was finally able to say out loud…

“I don’t believe in God”


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