The Psychology of Apologetics: I Love to Tell the Story
“God has a plan for your life!”
Many people have heard this bold declaration from fundamentalist Christian apologists. It is meant, and heard as, an invitation to join the great story of redemption that God is authoring, to be a part of the inevitable sweep of human history and indeed of all Creation. It is an invitation experienced by believers as deeply personal and yet, simultaneously, epic. And judging from the numbers and influence of evangelical Christianity, this claim has a powerful appeal. But I want to look more closely at this appeal, and to try to understand it better from a psychological perspective. As rhetoric, how does this work?
Most people living in Western culture have some familiarity Christian stories. I say “stories” because there are more than one – the individual events and legends in the life of Jesus, the parables he told, and the overarching narrative of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus himself. More importantly, the Christian story seamlessly weaves a believers own, individual story – his or her life – into this grand Christian drama. Stories, in Christianity (as in all religions), are a big deal.
The is a growing convergence of thought that storytelling may be relatively central to the functioning of the human mind itself. We are, after all, enveloped by stories from birth to death. Stories exist in every culture that has ever been recorded. Young children naturally tell stories, and crave to hear them. Moreover, so far as we know, no other animal tells stories. We tell stories about sports teams and figures, about celebrities and politicians, and about each other around the proverbial water cooler every day. We gossip. Television, books, movies, and many internet blogs provide a constant stream of stories into our homes every day. Journalists and psychotherapists know that “everyone has a story to tell” (and they’re right). So, to understand Christian stories in particular, we need to understand stories in general. Why is storytelling so central to human life?
Gossip & Social Cohesion
Stories seem to do a lot of things at once. For one, they may be the way that early tribal societies kept track of complex webs of social networks. Michael Shermer suggested as such in his How We Believe (2000). They allow us to distill important information about those around us into memorable and streamlined forms – essentially, gossip – so that we can recall with efficiency who is trustworthy and who is not, who gets along with who, etc. It has been demonstrated that people can solve logic problems better when presented in story form. Stories, on this view, are a convenient form of information transmission, and serve a cognitive and social control function. Important as this is, though, I think we can identify some other functions, served by storytelling, nearer to the heart of human psychic life.
Sources of Meaning
Others have suggested that stories function to provide the sense that one’s life is meaningful. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel (Parenting from the Inside-Out, The Developing Mind), notes that in telling our own life stories, we are essentially tying together evocative, emotionally-laden autobiographical memories (memories of what you did and felt during important events in your life) into a logical, coherent sequence – a narrative. And this feeling of “coherence”, he suggests, is – empirically – precisely what makes our lives feel meaningful. The story of one’s life is what makes one’s life make sense. To say it another way, we feel that our lives have meaning when we can recall all the important moments (whatever we feel them to be) and show how they work together to form who we are today.
Think, for a moment, about a time when you were young – say, ten years old. You probably recall that memory with a feeling of identity – i.e., “That was me.” But think about your life then. Chances are, there was little about you or your circumstances that is very similar to your life today. Your close relationships were different. You lived somewhere different. Your routine was different. You had different goals perhaps, and different ideals. You thought about different things. Even your body was different. So in what sense, them, does it make sense to call this person “you”?
This concept of self-as-story is part of the answer. We just are, in a psychological sense, our stories. Our stories define, or at least explain, who we are. All the events that have happened to you are, in a way, a part of you. The important ones formed you. Even if we feel we have transcended or overcome some adversity in our past, that very overcoming is itself part of our story (and odds are, a very important part). One’s story, then, constitutes one’s deepest sense of self.
Taken together, this suggests why the Christian story – the journey from sin to redemption, which is adopted in some fashion by every believer – becomes so central to the lives of believers. The core Christian story, first of all, serves as a kind of template on which the individual can project his own experience. It thus serves an organizing function, providing ready interpretations to one’s experiences in the past (e.g., doubt and anxiety, or problems with one’s temper = sin), as well as the present. In providing this structure, the Christian story gives adherents a sense of overall coherence and, thus, meaning. A Christian’s life feels meaningful to her because she has had the right sorts of (very powerful and emotional) experiences, and because it becomes organized in the proper way.
Moreover, since one’s self is, in a sense, defined by one’s story, to criticize the larger Christian story in any way is often perceived as an attack on the very self of the believer. No wonder it is so tenaciously defended!
And please note, fellow de-converts, that we are not exempt from attachment to our own stories. Stories are not the exclusive purview of religion. How many de-conversion stories have you read on the internet? How helpful have they have been to you? Perhaps, even, you have written your own. Your own story from believer to “de-con” is likely an important part of your life (otherwise you would not be reading this): it organizes and helps make sense of your experiences with religion. And how do most de-cons react – and I include myself in this – when someone challenges certain aspects of our story, such as, for example, by claiming we were never “really’ Christians to start with? At such times, our very self-definition is under attack, and our reaction to this is both predictable and understandable.
So, one reason the Christian story is central to believers because it is the basic source of their sense of having a meaningful life.
Stories and Theodicy
Another psychiatrist, Jerome Frank, in his masterful 1991 Persuasion and Healing, delves further into the nature of myth and story. He is writing mainly about psychotherapy, but more broadly about all the methods of “healing” human beings have used throughout the eons: namely, cultic, ritual, and religiomagical healing. Though we today may draw a sharp distinction between (say) shamanism and modern psychological treatments, Frank sees a number of surprising similarities. Interested readers will need look to the book itself for a full presentation of his fascinating argument, as for brevity’s sake I must limit myself to a discussion of those parts of his theory needed for my purposes here.
Frank suggests there are a number of elements that all forms of psychotherapy have in common. Important among them, he suggests, is the provision of “..[a] rationale, conceptual scheme, or myth that provides a plausible explanation for the patient’s symptoms and prescribes a ritual or procedure for resolving them.” (p. 42, emphasis added).
And why is this helpful to suffering, directionless, or otherwise demoralized (Frank’s term) individuals? “Myth”, in this sense, has a number of functions. It combats a sufferer’s feelings of isolation and alienation by forging a bond between him and the group whose belief system he is adopting. It arouses the expectation of help, and hence, hope. And as I have laid out in parts 2 and 3 of this series, myths (like sin and rebellion) can be emotionally arousing – stirring up one’s vulnerabilities – which can provide a powerful motive to seek relief from unpleasant emotions, such as helplessness.
But Frank also notes that myths can enhance a sense of mastery and self-efficacy. He notes:
“Since words are a human being’s chief tool for analyzing and organizing experience, the conceptual schemes of all psychotherapies [and I would add: and religions] increase patient’s sense of security and mastery by giving names to experiences that seem haphazard, confusing, or inexplicable. Once the unconscious or ineffable has been put into words, it loses much of its power to terrify. The capacity to use verbal reasoning to explore potential solutions to problems also increases people’s sense of their options and enhances their sense of control. This effect has been termed the principle of Rumpelstiltskin (Torrey, 1986) after the fairy tale in which the queen broke the wicked dwarf’s power over he by guessing his name.
To be effective, interpretations… need not be correct, only plausible. ” (p. 48) (emphasis added)
This is, I suggest, near to the heart of the lasting appeal of the fundamentalist Christian mythos – it provides a theodicy, an interpretation and explanation of human suffering. No one is more susceptible to apologetic efforts than those who are already struggling with pain, grief, and loss, low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness or directionlessness in life. Apologetics, as I suggested in parts 2 and 3, amplifies and deepens these feelings, convinces people they represent their “real” self.
Indeed Christianity has an extraordinarily keen eye for human frailty, and thus makes it easy for you to feel understood if you are, for whatever reason, already prone to feel bad about yourself. And where there is understanding, there is hope. Just naming one’s pain serves to tame it, and Christian theory provides an easy-to-use backstory that explains where your suffering came from – your alienation from God through sin – and what you can do about it.
And it is worth noting the robust pragmatism with which the human psyche operates. Explanations for suffering do not have to be correct to be helpful. They only have to be plausible, and the domestication of these formerly inexplicable and overwhelming experiences (pain, loss, difficult emotions, etc) does all that is needed to provide relief. And lest we too blithely dismiss this as placebo effect, I offer for the reader’s consideration that the placebo effect is a “real” effect. Relief from suffering is relief from suffering, whatever the source. Thus, in a very real sense, religions often work. Question of truth are decidedly, from this perspective, secondary.
This is worth remembering all this when we get caught up in the endless disputations about Christian metaphysics (i.e., arguing that the Gospel stories are true on their evidence). These efforts are, I suggest, decidedly post hoc for the suffering believer. Some apologists pursue this out of a perhaps admirable desire maintain consistency in the belief system, but for most others, “evidence” for all the supernatural and historical claims is mostly beside the point. The core message and appeal of Christianity is redemption: purpose, guidance, relief from suffering, the benevolent attention of a loving deity – in effect, the fusion of one’s own story of redemption with that of one’s Savior.
The sense of meaning, purpose, direction, sure ground, ethical certainty, and social belonging that the grand Christian story provides cannot be overstated, as we former believers can attest. Christianity tells the story those who are suffering need most to hear: why we struggle, how it was never meant to be this way, and how things can be set aright. The Christian narrative makes life make sense, and the powerful appeal of this function should never, ever be underestimated, especially by atheists and agnostics.
I hope it goes without saying that I believe in my soul that a life without such supernatural explanations can be exquisitely rich in meaning and purpose…. but we should also not forget that this takes some getting used to. No longer participating in the Greatest Story Ever Told, we each must find a new source of meaning, and, often, a different way to understand our own life’s pain and tragedies. And we can – better and with eyes-open, we think – but this takes some work, and it is not without loss. In a way, in leaving this grand drama, our stories and our meanings will both inevitably become smaller and more local.
But, we also think, they are no less life-affirming for being so.