Quaker Universalist Conversations

Understanding Belief

Like many other responsible seekers, I’ve read most of the recent authors—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins, on back to Bertrand Russell in 1957—that criticize and even denigrate the belief systems of the ordinary Christian. As far as my own theology is concerned, I agree substantially with their conclusions. I call myself a post-Christian and a post-theist.

But why conclude that Christianity is wrong for everybody else?

The fact that religious systems include a substantial element of magic thinking and mythology does not disprove their usefulness in a difficult world. Religious belief has been common in all cultures since the beginning of human time because, from an evolutionary point of view, it has demonstrable survival value. At all times of history, human life has been a dangerous and fearful proposition. Religion has often functioned well to abate fear, instill intention, promote courage, and protect from despair. So don’t knock it!

The basic concepts of Transactional Analysis are useful in understanding the dynamics of belief. T.A. founder Eric Berne and his followers posit that every person carries within the emotional states of “Child, Parent and Adult,” and switches back and forth between them as circumstances change. The “Child” includes an OK mood and a Not-OK mood; the “Parent” cam be nurturing or punishing. The “Adult” keeps primarily to a rational, reasoning state of mind.

Games People Play, by Eric Berne In a primitive world or society, just as in a disadvantaged and poorly educated condition in our own era, there is much to fear and cause a person to feel like a “not-OK Child”. Even the most privileged among us often feel pretty bad about ourselves or our world.

To correct the fearful or helpless state of mind, a human instinctively looks for a nurturing “Parent” (or possibly a competent “Adult.”) A grown-up in a not-OK mind set who does not have a real-life father at hand may look for another “Parent” source of reassurance.

The conventional Christian God is the paradigmatic Father. Like other fathers, He is believed to be nurturing so much of the time that He is endured when he is “punishing,” as “when bad things happen to good people”. He has power when the not-OK Child does not.

In terms of correcting the fearful state of mind, it doesn’t matter if the Father or Parent figure is objectively real or not. It only matters that the suffering person can shift out of the helpless, not-OK mode and carry on. Religious thinking, magical or not, has functioned effectively in this way for many millions of individuals throughout human history, and continues to do so today.

I hope that, despite my own non-believing condition, such magic thinking will come to my own aid if I ever need it. I have some treasured stones and tokens to revert to, just in case! They will help to move me from a not-OK to an “adult” mode when that change is needed.

"AND HAVING FUN," Quaker testimonies wall tile image by synx508, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Meanwhile, though, like the educated and privileged Sams, Richards and Christophers who write these post-scientific books, most of the time I have access to a competent “Adult” state of mind and can find “Adult” resources among my associates and in my library.1

As a Quaker, I am not tempted to look at others as “not-OK Children” or to take on a “Punishing Parent” attitude towards them.

Above and beyond belief, belonging to a group is also crucial to the well-being of most humans, to their sense of being OK. Who is my tribe? Where do I fit in? Almost everyone looks for a community to belong to.

Some will adhere to a group that hates and hurts other people, and they should be urged to change their ways. My own tribe, the unprogrammed Quakers, lets others go their own way, respected and unharmed. Operating primarily in an “Adult” mode, Quakers even let me follow my own path as a post-Christian and post-theist. I am grateful.

Notes & Image Source

1 Books in my collection include those by Martin Buber, Erich Fromm, Galen Guengerich and David Boulton.

Image: “AND HAVING FUN,” by synx508 on flickr [Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0 ].


Thank you for your use of one of my favorite books “Games People Play”, to explain the unexplainable. I was taught to use Dr. Berne’s findings to help me when I was selling. I learned that the Child is always the one who makes the buying decision. The job of the Parent is then to help ensure that the purchase is not dangerous to the Child. The job of the Adult is to ensure that the purchase will not damage the reputation of the buyer which is where “facts” are important so that the purchase can be “closed”. Apple Computer, which is selling a product that is not really that much different from others of its kind, was able to reach unimagined success by focusing primarily on the Child in everyone. Steve Jobs dressed as he wished (remember his jeans on stage. The “1984” commercial smashing the “Parent” is still the underlying theme as the company continues to release a new (or vastly improved) toy every year. This understanding of how business “works” has helped me to understand how most of the “successful” (in terms of numbers of members) religions are those which speak to the Child in everyone. The Parent is left to decide: “Is it Safe?” The Adult is left to decide: “is it Reputable?” Helps me to Love my Neighbor, no matter what their Faith “purchase” is by recognizing that I have no right to take their “toy” away from them.
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