The Psychology of the Born Again Syndrome

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.


7 Responses to “The Psychology of the Born Again Syndrome”

  1. A K Haart Says:

    It may be a good idea to get rid of the idea of ‘belief’ altogether. I tend to substitute B F Skinner’s idea that we have a repertoire of behaviors and different situations bring out different behaviors.

    These behaviors feel like ‘beliefs’, but a repertoire of behaviors is a better explanation of why we can seem to be inconsistent in our beliefs. A repertoire of behaviors can feel like multiple versions of ‘me’, but is simply me responding differently to different situations.

    FSR COMMENT: Thanks. I agree that a lot of human behavior is molded by the situation. But I take a very dim view of Skinner and all his works. These are very big topics (which I actually address at some length in my book.)

  2. Zach Taylor Says:

    Yet another confirmation of Christianity as a religious cult. If you are considered ‘Christian’ and change your mind at some point, it almost feels like leaving the faith will get you shunned and pushed out of the social groups in which you formerly took part in. Not to mention, it is a cult where many of its leaders don’t even believe the propoganda that they pedal.

    I too had this same problem, but in my case it was due to the Christian home. Once I finally began to doubt and move further from the faith I was told, or more so threatened with “Hell” from my mother. Kind of proved my point, as i laughed and said there is no hell.

    This is a very nice analysis on the human behaviour that comes along with religiosity and in many cases is true for the people who take part in religion.

  3. John B. Mills Says:

    It is interesting that those who leave Christianity spend so much time justifying their decision when they don’t have to. Once you have had a real supernatural experience like a miracle, a prophesy, a word of knowledge or some definite supernatural encounter that has an impact on your reality, then you move from being a believer [just having heard or read about it] to someone who now knows it is real and validates the Bible accounts.

    In most of the cases written by ex-Christians I have yet to see them declare that they did indeed have a supernatural encounter with God or experiences that validated the supernatural world to them. Is that because they have not had such encounters personally or could it be that they did yet discounted the experience in the face of secular opinion?

    I don’t know the answer as the foundation of one’s faith is intensely personal. But my opening point remains that the decision to leave Christianity needs no justification as you either know God is real and exists or you don’t.

    Just so you know my position, I am avidly anti-religion but very pro-God. The truly Born Again Christian has moved through belief into knowing. I just wonder whether the writer of the article every actually got there before backing out?

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    “Supernatural experiences” are not real. They are a product of a fallible human mind. If God appeared in the sky and spoke to me, I would not then believe in God; I would instead go seek medical help.

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  6. Rashad Says:

    (Follow up from the comments here:

    I don’t see how your theory is different than mine. You say: “What a man says he believes, what he thinks he believes, and what he actually believes may all differ.” The only difference is that I add the element of the unconscious. In the case of Dr. Compere, did he mention getting mad at other people committing sin? Because not all Christians are like that — my view only applies to people who do.

    Btw, I was diagnosed with some kind of schizophrenia more than a year ago. From my own experience, having a delusion is much like having another person following you like a shadow. When he shows up, you can’t help but feel his presence, but if you don’t talk to him, he won’t talk to you back. So I can confirm what you or the movie proposed.

  7. Matthew Says:

    Being “Born again” is actually a function of ontology. In our brains, we spontaneously become aware of relationships that we did not realize existed; and simultaneously reclassify stored data from invalid to valid. It happens in a matter of seconds and experienced as an overwhelming feeling of religious epiphany, or “Born again”. No new data is acquired; only new conclusions based on recalculation within the new parameters. I hope this helps.

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