Friday, June 27, 2014



Brian D. McLaren has connected with many Christians disenchanted with the rhetoric of fundamentalist leaders. What caught my attention in a recent post was his comment about the “…huge personal cost for religious leaders to change their position…” He was referring to a talk he gave at the White House related to human rights for LGBT persons.

Of course, LGBT issues are front and center nowadays but the concept of costs is important to other religious issues as well. (The forum took place this week.)

Mariam Yehya is a Sudanese Christian woman who refused to renounce her Christian faith. She was imprisoned and sentenced to die after she gave birth. Her child was born. She was released but then arrested at the airport as she attempted to leave with her family. Now she is at the U.S. Embassy. What will happen? Her conversion to Christianity has already been costly. But she would not renounce her beliefs. She was willing to die. See the CNN story:  "I will leave it to God," she said. "I didn't even have a chance to see my family when I got out of prison."

On March 26, 2014, World Vision USA learned the cost of changing their policy to accommodate LGBT employees who are married. Some Christian leaders complained and advocated canceling commitments to support the children and the organization. In a day, more than 2,000 children lost support. World Vision soon reversed their policy and offered an apology. Some leaders offered their approval of the reversal. See Rachel Held Evans for a summary. See my post for a look at the morality issue.

Trapped clergy is the subject of a recent book about clergy who have lost their faith but feel unable to be honest about their beliefs because they would lose their jobs as well as family and friends. I posted a note on this 2013 book earlier this year.

Pastor Rob Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church congregation in 1999. He wrote Love Wins in 2011. Rob had changed his beliefs-- he didn’t see hell in the afterlife. 1,000 people left the church. Rob stepped down – not knowing what was next. You can get details in the New Yorker story.

Ted talks about his crisis and the personal cost. Rev. Ted Haggard paid a huge price for his wrongdoing in 2006. He confessed to a sexually immoral act and a drug purchase. “He got what he deserved,” some would say. He lost his job and was forced out of state. He tells his own story on his new website.

It’s not all about Christianity of course. It’s just that in a fairly open society that’s full of high cost religion -- like the U.S. -- we get news when people share controversial opinions. People react quickly. Emotion-driven righteous indignation floods social media. Things happen. And some people pay big for what they say—unless they are quickly embraced by a new religious tribe.


Titanic experiences. I wrote about this cost phenomenon in a previous context. The principle of sunk costs applies to a lot of problems people face when their beliefs no longer jibe with those who control their lives. Many people make heavy investments in their faith. To give up their church life involves a great personal cost. It’s not just about the money. People risk losing family members and friends—maybe for the rest of their lives. And people risk losing their identity. In a culture of honor, people go down with their ship.

A religious life can be like a Titanic voyage.

Just like in the financial world, people struggling with failing belief systems double down. Struggling Christians invest copious amounts of time, and even money, as if a greater investment would resurrect a dying belief. A new church, a new book, a new conference, a new pastor, a new awakening-- something to redeem the loss. It's hard to move on.

Integrity. I recall a fundamentalist pastor telling me of his dilemma regarding his child’s wedding where there would be dancing and alcohol—two things he had preached against his entire career. “How can I…” Change is difficult for those who value integrity. Some want to practice what they preach. Not all pastors are hypocrites.

Different spaces. I don't think every Christian who rejects changes in laws that discriminate against women, sexual minorities, or health care are mean spirited and hateful. Some are of course. I think others would like to be more welcoming but they can't stretch their beliefs far. In his post, Brian refers to four spaces. They may not be scientific but they seem useful-- at least as hypotheses. Take a look.

Religious people can be in different spaces when it comes to change.

Money. Employers control the lives of most employees and their families. There is a real economic cost involved in expressing a change in beliefs—especially for those earning high salaries at megachurches, at the upper range of a church hierarchy, or as a leader in a religious organization. To be sure, there are psychological costs too but real money can weigh heavily in favor of keeping true beliefs under wraps.

 Money buys silence.

Exodus. For those that set aside their beliefs, a grieving process ensues. Those who move on when they are past middle-age leave a part of themselves behind. It’s not as easy as putting off an old coat and putting on a new one. People look back a lot. Rarely is an exodus without pain. Not all of childhood religion is bad. It costs to move on.

Cutting losses. For some, coming out (from childhood religious beliefs) or moving on is a relief. "Good riddance," some say. I wonder if they will regret the move later. It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Cutting your losses is a way of coping with a bad investment- or- a good investment that went bad.

The truth shall set you free.

I remember a man telling me that he was an ardent believer in creationism until one day it just did not make sense. He literally burned the creationist’s books when he embraced evolution. He was angry. Time and money wasted. It’s not something he talks about anymore. Just not interested. He’s moved one. Burning books is so symbolic-- a lot like burning bridges to the past.

There are lots of stories in the news of Christians leaving church or leaving fundamentalist faiths and joining the progressive movement. To use McLaren’s words, there is a quest for a generous orthodoxy. Fundamentalists will always be around. It's part of human nature. But.

Nudging a religious leader toward peaceful rhetoric space may be possible if costs can be reduced.

What space are you in- about any moral or social issue?

How do you cope with the pressure to keep silent about a change in beliefs?

More Psychology of Religion

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Nothing in this blog should be considered personal advice or a psychological consultation.

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