Dr. John Compere is a former Baptist preacher from Mississippi; now a clinical psychologist and author of Towards The Light: A Fifth-Generation Baptist Minister’s Journey from Religion to Reason.
Dr. Compere was ordained at 18. The church, he explains, was not part of life, it was his life – “the air I breathed.” But one day, while he was rehearsing a sermon aloud, saying that all people not believing in Jesus are doomed to eternal punishment, he suddenly was brought up short and said to himself: could this possibly be true?
That was the beginning of doubt. Compere tried mightily, but couldn’t keep his finger in the dike. Finally at age 32 he left the ministry and went back to school in search of a new profession (and life). It should be obvious that such a change is wrenching and requires huge courage. Compere said a lot of ministers find themselves in the same predicament as he did, but can’t get out of it – they don’t really believe, but are stuck. “Publicly phony and privately cynical,” he said.
Turning to the Born Again (BA) phenomenon, Compere explained that it is grounded on John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.“ And this, he asserted, is the most pernicious doctrine in all of religion – in order for you to be forgiven your sins and saved, somebody had to be killed.
But the appeal of immortality, as against personal annihilation, is obvious. Adding to the appeal, BA is sold as a life-changing experience, making one a better person. And people do seem to feel they experience this. Dr. Compere likened this to the placebo effect: if you expect something to happen, you will tend to think it does happen.
He identified 3 other factors: first, how far down you are; BA appeals to people really desperate for a fix in their lives. Second, there is a powerful emotionality component. To illustrate emotive power, he recited the famous poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. And third, it’s very important to people to fit in with a group they belong to. This, he said, is what leads to the “true believer” phenomenon; and he saw this factor as being the true explanation for what some have seen as a “religion gene.”
The above discussion led to the issue of what it really means to say a person “believes” something. What a man says he believes, what he thinks he believes, and what he actually believes may all differ.
Compere noted that Catholics “believe” (or are supposed to believe) that suicides go to Hell; but virtually no Catholic really believes this about a loved one who commits suicide.
In my view, the problem here is that there really isn’t a single “me” in a person’s mind; not a captain at the helm so much as a bunch of first mates fighting over the wheel (as Daniel Dennett argued in Consciousness Explained). This was illustrated by the story of mathematician John Nash, portrayed in A Beautiful Mind. He recovered from a mental illness that entailed paranoid delusions. But he did not stop having the delusions. Rather, he developed the ability to recognize them as delusions, and to ignore them! So a person can believe something with one part of his mind and believe something different with another part. That makes “belief” a very tricky concept.