Question: Why do so many bright people abandon faith as they get older?
When my son was about twelve we were driving across town when we somehow got in to a conversation about the Bible, and what we mean when we say that the stories in it are “true.” I think it was connected to a question about why dinosaurs aren’t mentioned in the Old Testament. Our discussion led to the following exchange.
Me: Well, do you know the story of the tortoise and the hare?
Me: Is it true?
Ben: No. Animals don’t talk.
Me: So, you don’t think it is true that it is generally smarter to take a slow and steady approach to a problem rather than rushing off in all directions?
Ben: (Wheels turning...)
Me: So, is the story of the tortoise and the hare true?
Ben: (Smiling) Yeeessssss.
This was a very cool moment for me. I had the honor of watching my son make the important shift from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. Of course, this didn’t just happen in that moment. He’d been making this transition for some time as the neocortex of his brain was growing in its ability to handle more complex forms of thinking.
For those of you who’ve never known the “joy” of taking a course in developmental psychology, let’s talk definitions for a moment (as found at www.Answers.com
Concrete thinking refers to “Mental processes characterized by literalness and the tendency to be bound to the most immediate and obvious sense impressions, as well as by a lack of generalization and abstraction.”
Abstract thinking refers to “Thinking characterized by the ability to use concepts and to make and understand generalizations, such as of the properties or pattern shared by a variety of specific items or events.”
Okay, maybe that doesn’t help much. Think of it like this – People who are locked in to concrete thinking believe that something can only be “true” if it is literally true. Concrete thinkers cannot grasp abstract (non literal) concepts and principals. For a concrete thinker, the story of the tortoise and the hare can’t be true since animals can’t talk. This is the normal state of brain functioning for young children. Interestingly, being locked into concrete thinking as an adult is a symptom of certain severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia. If an Emergency Room doc is trying to assess the mental stability of a patient, she might ask, “What does ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’ mean?” A person suffering from schizophrenia will be puzzled by the question, as will a four year old.
The ability to break out of concrete thinking, and begin to think abstractly is one of those key characteristics that separates humans from animals. I understand that higher primates have shown some very limited ability to grasp abstract concepts, but, for the most part, dogs just don’t ever have thoughts like, “I wonder if it would be bad for me to chase that cat.” Moral reasoning is an abstract function. Children don’t behave because they wish to be good (abstract). They behave because they want to get a cookie (concrete).
We all recognize that if a 45 year old will only behave in order to get a cookie, then something has gone terribly wrong. Even if we don’t know brain science, we have come to realize that adults should think more “maturely” about such things.
The ability to move from concrete to abstract thinking opens the universe up to us in astounding ways. And abstract thinking is absolutely necessary for the continued development of virtually every aspect of our culture.
And yet, we strangely resist applying abstract thinking to religion and spirituality.
I was raised in a wonderfully loving religious culture that was, nonetheless, very threatened by the application of abstract thinking to the Bible. Most of my Sunday School teachers would have insisted that Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden MUST be stories about actual people living in an actual place. Some of these teachers, who loved me like crazy, would have been horrified had I suggested that perhaps the story of the Garden was a “myth,” that is, a story that uses symbols to describe abstract Truths that are very hard to put in to words. For most of the church folk I was raised with, to refer to Bible stories as myths was the same as calling them lies. It wouldn’t make any difference that I could affirm the abstract truths in the story:
That God created us out of love.
That God created us to enjoy relationships and work.
That we messed things up because we refuse to accept our limits.
Many Christians would say that accepting these things is not good enough. They would say I must also believe that the garden story is also historically true. (See note 1)
My conversations with hundreds of people over the years have led me to at least two related conclusions. First, my experience of growing up under traditional religious teachings is very similar to the experience of others. Second, for many people, the seeds of discontent with traditional religion are often planted during adolescence, when abstract thinking is emerging and reshaping the world.
I marvel at the various strategies people use to deal with this dilemma, but I believe I’ve observed that religious folks tend to cope in one of two basic ways: They either “split” or they abandon.
When people “split” they divide the world in to two categories. They convince themselves that there’s one sort of thinking that applies to religion and there’s a whole ‘nother sort of thinking that’s good for the rest of the world they live in. So you end up with really bright, educated people who use abstract thinking in many creative ways to serve the world, but who insist that you are not seriously committed to Jesus unless you believe that God actually used two bears to kill 42 children for calling a prophet “baldy” (See 2 Kings 2:23-24). (In another place I refer to this as "functional spirituality.")
Other people just abandon the faith as irrelevant. Most of those folks I encounter who fall in to this category still affirm some sort of spiritual reality, and they value the idea of connecting to “God” in some way. I suspect that one reason Buddhism has gained great traction with this generation is that it generally offers a very practical and spiritual approach to dealing the anxieties of life without insisting that people embrace a ton of theological dogma.
One of the most satisfying aspects of my work as a pastoral counselor is what I refer to as “theological re-education.” Much as I describe in the conversation with my son that opened this essay, I sometimes get to see the lights come on as people take a long discarded Sunday School education and begin to make the rich symbolic and archetypal connections contained in the important stories of the Bible. For instance, they begin to see that turning from the last page of Genesis, in which the ancestors of the Hebrew people of been saved, to the first page of Exodus, in which the source of their salvation becomes their enslavement, is something that is universal to being human.
How sad that these stories become discarded because someone along the way insisted that you can’t possibly be a “true believer” unless you agree that the Red Sea literally parted so the Israelites could walk across on dry land. (For the record, I’m fine with faithing that the event actually happened as described in the Bible, but it wouldn’t bother me in the least if some sort of archeological evidence were to prove that it didn’t.)
If your faith isn’t working, could it be that you’ve never had help in making the shift from concrete to abstract thinking where your faith is concerned? If so, then it could be of great help to you to revisit the biblical stories of your upbringing with an eye towards the symbolic meanings.
Questions for reflection:
What was the message in your childhood, spoken and unspoken, concerning questions about the historical nature of the Bible?
Who, if anyone, has helped you see scripture and theology in their symbolic richness?
Note 1: Although many Christians have gotten comfortable with interpreting the most ancient stories of the Old Testament symbolically, this issue of moving from abstract to concrete thinking continues to be hard shift when applied to the New Testament, espescially to the life of Jesus. Marcus Borg is a respected scholar who insists that Jesus did not have to literally be raised from the dead in order to be the Christ. Interestingly, Borg is good friends with H. Norman Wright, a conservative biblical scholar. The two of them have collaborated on a book in which they each take a look at key elements of the Christian story from their differing points of view. I think what is most notable about their relationship is that there is apparently no need for either to insist that the other is either damned or an idiot.