Say there’s a young child, 4 or 5, who believes in Santa Claus. Her parents cultivate the belief, provide the props and stories, and the kid’s friends support the myth. Then the parents drop the bomb – there’s no Santa! The magical reindeer, Rudolph, the elves, all of it, it’s all a made-up story! The kid might be crushed, but their honest revelation is a vital step toward the child’s separation from her parents and their authority. It’s a step that moves her toward the dismissal of childhood for adulthood, toward autonomy, and toward identity. Personhood. We see this as a natural progression from the fairytales of youth to adulthood and critical thinking.
Now imagine a person who, in adulthood, maintains or even converts to a belief in a mythical, magical force. When he is confronted by other adults who say “it’s all a made-up story,” he rejects their claim and chooses to maintain his belief in the magical entity. He might think, “Everyone else in this club believes it, so why shouldn’t I?”
What’s the difference between these two examples?
Well, Santa doesn’t have a global following of millions of people, many with a LOT of money and political power, not to mention beautiful, expensive buildings.
Santa doesn’t claim to be the creator of the universe and everything in it, or the key to freedom from guilt – that is, redemption from “sin.”
Santa doesn’t have a holy book, and Santa didn’t die a grisly death, only to later rise from the dead.
If these points WERE true of Santa, millions of people around the world would be praying to him rather than Yahweh.
What I want to talk about is autonomy, a word that I use to mean the same thing as individuation—the process of psychological separation. The weaning that is necessary to move from dependence to independence.
Like other animals that are reared—deer, horses, dogs, and so on—when a human reaches a certain age, when she has learned to take care of herself, she is forced by her parents “out of the nest.” Made to live on her own, provide for herself, physically and psychologically. Her parents say “Okay, you’re 18, it’s time for you to face the world on your own. We love you, we have confidence in you. Go out there and do great things!” The parents let go and let their child fly on her own.
For people of any age—child or adult—religion does the opposite. The message of organized religions, especially Christianity, is this: “You are weak. You can’t face the terrors of the world on your own, but I am here to help you do so. You need me and only me.” Think of the “Jesus Loves Me” song that kids sing in Sunday school. “Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.”
What message is this implanting in a young child? It reinforces smallness and weakness—the things that scare little kids the most, of course, and it emphasizes the strength and protection of an imaginary caretaker.
What’s going on here? Essentially, infantilizing of the mind.
Here are two corollaries.
It’s like the 55-year-old who still lives with his parents.
Or like a cast on a broken leg. Eventually the cast needs to come off so that the leg can heal naturally and regain strength through use. But if you keep the leg immobilized forever, it stays weak forever.
This is the primary difference that I see between the religious and the nonreligious. The nonreligious person is declaring, “I am strong, autonomous, and able to live my life without the imaginary support of an imaginary parent” (no surprise that Christians use the phrase “Our Father”). The nonreligious person says “I stand on my own merits. My victories are my own. My weaknesses or mistakes are my own. No one else gets the blame or credit but me. I take complete responsibility for my life.”
On the other hand, the religious person, metaphorically, still lives with his parents. He hasn’t ever moved out to face the risks and challenges and complexity of the world that can bring danger as well as joy. He’s never gotten his own address, his own furniture, phone number, or electric bill. He is still relying on the support of the invisible parent.
Robert Heinlein, the author of many novels including Stranger in a Strange Land, wrote, “Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help.”
Think about homosexuality—some say that it is an “unnatural” state. Men go with women, end of story.
Well, I see the infantilizing effect of religion as unnatural. Baby birds leave the nest. Lion cubs move off and form their own prides. This is the process that we see in the natural world. For human beings—who seem to move farther and farther away from the natural world—we physically separate from our parents but many of us do not emotionally and psychologically separate from a conceptual parent figure. We remain “God’s children” forever.
I feel dismayed when I see opportunities for authentic autonomy being squandered. I see the lack of individuation as a break from the natural development, or evolution, of the human animal. It’s a man-made stumbling block that exists for no purpose other than to stunt our growth.
I think that we are just starting to see the beginnings of individuation at a more global level. More and more people are standing up to say, “I’m okay as I am. I’m not broken or weak or doomed or incomplete without you. I’m completely FINE without you, Mr. God. I don’t need you.”
Leaving childhood, or leaving the belief in Santa or the Tooth Fairy or monsters or angels, might be painful. But every major transition, every paradigm shift, can be, like a birth, painful.
We have to face the fear of individuation and do it anyway. We need to grow up.
It’s time for humans to move out of Mom and Dad’s House of Religion and get a place of our own.
** LISTEN to this audio essay at http://www.lori-stephens.com/AOMultimedia.html