Why do intelligent people believe in things that don’t sense, like religion? Sometimes it’s easy for me to wonder at that, now that I have some distance from my religious past. But faith is not a matter of intellect. It’s identity. For me, religion was a total identity system. It was how I understood myself and everything; it was a package deal and closed-loop system of thought. It was reality, and anything that didn’t fit into it wasn’t reality because it couldn’t be.
Human animals don’t live out of intellect; we live out of getting our animal needs met: food, shelter (safety), belonging (community). We like to think we are rational, but more often, intellect is a slave employed in service of our more basic drives. Fundamentalism is a total identity system. We defend our identities like we defend our lives: at all costs. A threat to identity is often seen by the human creature as a threat to survive, and this may indeed be the case if you lose your job or family, or don’t understand secular living and have to fend for yourself. You were taught to understand everything through the lens of god and bible. When your identity is wrapped up in your religion, and the religion gets taken away, an identity crisis occurs naturally. This is known as entanglement. The process of disentanglement and building a new life can be slow, painful, and traumatic. This is why we have a model and recovery group for healing religious trauma.
In the fundamentalist system, the religion was reality. If anything didn’t make sense, we found ways to deal with that. Science and reason had to fit within our reality, not the reverse. We were given canned responses (known as apologetics) for dealing with contradictions to our worldview, like scientific findings or moral problems with the bible. Even though the evidence against the faith was sometimes overwhelming, that really didn’t matter. We knew our faith was real because of how it met our needs (even if it did so poorly or abusively), how it made us feel, and the “evidence” of miracles. Thus, any contradictions within the religion were only apparent or a matter of divine mystery. We knew there was an answer for everything even if it was “unknowable” or seemingly irrational. We knew the religion was reality; therefore anything that didn’t fit into reality was by definition either not true or yet-to-be fully comprehended. But the cumulative impact of cracks in our reality system over time, such as evidence to the contrary or psychological distress, can lead to a “crisis of faith,” and the whole thing can come crashing down like a house of cards. It is a total package deal, after all. This may lead to an identity crisis.
In some ways an identity crisis is a gift, for in order to deeply heal trauma, we must transcend the identity. It’s better if we don’t rebuild the identity that was picked apart. We could just as easily rebuild our lives around something else that isn’t truly us, our core essence. In any major trauma, we may take the opportunity given us to build our lives around something more ultimate. The pure self (aliveness, inspiration, source), apart from illusions of identity, is actually immune to trauma because it has nothing to do with it. This ego-identity transcendence, getting over a self-understanding built on separation and disconnection and over-emphasis on the self, is the basis of spirituality. It’s how we reclaim ourselves and understand our role in the cosmos. The trauma of religion can be a gift if it leads us to get over the identity by finding spirituality.