If I were to take all of my friends and divide them into two groups, there are plenty of criteria I could choose, but probably the most relevant slice would be between my friends who believe in God, and my friends who don’t.
Many in the believer group know each other as well. The evangelical Christian community in my city is fairly tight-knit. Every once in a while I’ll meet someone new, I’ll mention offhand something about church, it’ll become the topic of conversation, and suddenly we discover that we share a dozen mutual friends.
My non-believer friends come from all walks of life. My old friends from high school fit in this category; so do many of the friends I’ve met through university or part-time jobs. There’s no tight-knit community here. I wouldn’t describe many of them as rationalists, particularly, but it seems that according to lesswrong doctrine, they are above the sanity waterline while my first friend group is below.
Something about this bothers me. Maybe it’s because I find it so refreshing to be with a group of people who are relentlessly positive about life, who constantly remind one another to be positive, and who offer concrete help rather than judgement. Once, when another of our friends couldn’t pay her rent, my Christian friend and I got up at four, took out five hundred dollars in cash at a convenience store, and biked to her house to leave it anonymously in her mailbox before I left for my six am shift at work. The high lasted all day. I can’t think of any other community where this would happen, where it would even be socially acceptable.
I met people at church who had survived the worst circumstances; they had been abused, they had been addicts, they had been homeless. But aside from the concrete help they’d found at church, they’d found some kind of hope as well. They believed that they could succeed. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life, and I’ve never had reason to doubt that I would succeed, or that people would be there to help me if I ever failed. But for people who’ve only seen evidence that they will fail and be stepped on, the benefits of being told that God loves them unconditionally seem to be non-trivial.
Now to contrast with my non-religious friends; this isn’t universally true, but I’ve seen a trend of general negative-ness. This attitude can be self-directed, i.e. complaining about work or school or relationships without any effort to find solutions. I know some very unhappy people, and it seems insane to me that they just sit back and take it, month after month. The negative attitude can also be directed outwards into biting sarcasm and rude, judgemental comments about others. This often comes from people who seem happy enough with their own lives. Maybe I didn’t notice this as much before I started going to church, where it became obvious in its absence.
I have the same tendencies to criticize and judge as anyone, but at least I notice them and try to keep them in check. I try to ask myself if it really helps to criticize someone. Does whatever I think they’re doing wrong really affect me? Is it my business to correct them? Would they listen to criticism? If I’m a reliable example, most people hate being criticized. It takes a conscious effort to step back and see criticism in a positive light. I try to take this step, and maybe most rationalists-in-the-making do the same, but that’s not the general population, and starting with a criticism tends to close people off and put them on the defensive. The last question I ask myself is, do I want to help them by suggesting a change, or do I only want to vent my own frustration? Venting doesn’t help them, and it doesn’t help me, because for me anyway, focusing on the negative side of an issue tends to flip my entire mindset into the negative. And negative attitudes are contagious. If one person at work is ranting about a bad breakup or a fight with their family, I’ll often catch myself brooding about someone or something I’m annoyed with. If I’m lucky and I’m paying attention, I notice the subliminal messaging before it really gets to be. Sometimes I feel like barking “hey, keep your problems to yourself, I’m trying to be positive here.” But again, if I’m paying attention to my own reactions, I ask myself if it’ll really help to snap at them, and the answer is no, so I’ll try to be an understanding listener.
These are things I do consciously, but since I stopped going to church regularly, I’ve noticed that it’s more of an effort. It feels like I’m holding up a heavy weight alone, going through my day talking to roommates and classmates and co-workers who don’t make any special effort to be positive or non-judgemental or helpful. And as soon as I let down my guard, I slip back into the trap of reacting to criticism defensively instead of constructively, of snapping back on reflex, of making excuses for why I was rude to someone or left my dirty dishes in the sink. I hate the way I act in this default mode, but it’s easy to make excuses for that too. I tell myself that I’m tired, that I’m burnt out, that I can’t be everything to everyone. I tell myself it’s not fair that I try so much harder than everyone else.
At church, there was a marked lack of excuses. The general attitude was that you could be as strong as you needed to be, because it wasn’t your strength, it was God’s strength. The way I see it, it was more the combined strength of a community united by a common ideal. It was like a self-help group, but without the stigma. (Maybe the stigma is imaginary; I just know that I have a negative emotional reaction to self-help books and websites. I know this is probably counterproductive, but I can’t seem to get rid of it.)
I talk to some of my friends, the non-religious ones, and I notice that maybe half the time they’re grumpy or upset or angry or offended, and they don’t stop to think about it, or take the step away that would allow them to question and overcome those feelings. My Christian friends aren’t perfect, and they do occasionally slip into anger and frustration, but they often notice. They often bring it up afterwards, in front of the group, as an example of something they need to work on.
This is why, even though I don’t believe in God and would probably be incapable of it at this point, the last thing I want to do is judge people who believe. A lot of the time, they’ve found something that helps them. This is why I found it instrumentally rational, for six months, to go to youth group once a week and sing songs about Jesus. Happiness is a hard thing to pin down, but I liked myself better during that time. It’s easier to be generous when everyone is being generous around you; it’s easier to be kind and helpful when everyone else is acting that way too. It feels like being held accountable.
I don’t really know what this means. It’s hard to generalize, because I’m talking about people in my age group; most of us are poor and not settled in our lives, without firmly developed social networks. Maybe later on in life, people can make their own tight-knit communities without religion as binding glue; my parents, for example, have an incredibly extensive social group. And I certainly don’t want to imply that all Christian organizations are as open and welcoming as the one I attended. I’m sure than plenty of people have had bad experiences. But what I’ve seen suggests to me that my church (a Pentacostal evangelical Christian group, by the way) served a function in our city that wasn’t being filled by anything else.
It’s limited, of course, by the fact that its founders believe the Bible is literally true, even if they don’t apply that belief thoroughly. (This occasionally involves a tricky kind of doublethink, for example a person who denounces homosexuality when asked directly but who holds nothing against their homosexual friends.) Could the principles of rationality prompt a group of people to form this kind of community? I don’t know. But until then, I’m going to keep hanging out with Christians and sharing their positive thoughts.