Paul Wallace: Can You Forget How to Believe in God?


Keith, my brother in law, is a Baptist (like me). Unlike me, however, he has spent a number of years in the Episcopal Church. One of the things he'll tell you is that Baptists know how to teach children and Episcopalians know how to teach teenagers. Baptists tell the story to little ones in a hundred creative and memorable ways but Episcopalians do better when the waters get deeper and the questions grow difficult.

I can't speak for Episcopalians, but I can affirm -- for my case at least -- the Baptist piece. I was raised in that tradition and got a good sense of the story as a child but things got a little vague as I entered the youth group: there was no confirmation process and I never felt like church was a good place to ask my questions.

Be that as it may. The other day I ran into this video. It is excellent. I urge you to take eight minutes to watch it. It shows, through a perfectly transparent experiment, the power of unchallenged ideas and the difficulty of changing the way we think.

In the video Destin Sandin of Smarter Every Day tries to ride a trick bicycle. At first glance it looks normal, but the handlebars are connected to the front tire via a simple gear system in such a way that the bike goes left when the rider turns right, and right when the rider turns left.




He fails spectacularly and repeatedly. His brain is simply not wired to do the job. As a youngster he learned to ride a bike and over a lifetime of riding that skill -- that way of thinking -- became entrenched, hard-wired into his brain. And then a new situation was encountered in which the old skill not only failed to work but actively confounded his efforts.

After months of working on it he learned how to ride the backwards bike. It is not easy to rewire one's brain.

I suspect that, like knowing how to ride a bike, ideas about God often get pretty much fixed at a young age. Kids may innately believe in God (isn't there a study somewhere?), but I'm not talking about belief versus disbelief. I'm talking about what kids -- and the grownups they become -- believe about God.

Like all other concepts,  God-concepts are associated with particular sets of neural pathways in our skulls. Large parts of these concepts and pathways are certainly products of our early experiences and educations and are hardwired as surely as bike-riding knowledge.

Maybe your idea of God's love is deeply influenced by your parents' devotion and constancy. Perhaps your belief in a watchful God is the result of a childhood in which you were granted no privacy. It may be that your concept of God's judgment is wrapped up in the story of Noah's flood, which used to give you nightmares. And maybe the nativity story has prompted you to see God in out-of-the-way people and places. These ideas go in and stay with us. Over time, the pathways are set.

Do those God-concepts and their associated neural pathways last a lifetime? I suspect they do if they're exercised that long. But what I really want to know is:  Do our beliefs last because they're true or because of the way our brains work?

Sorry for the ambivalence, but it's a little bit of both: God exists, whatever that may mean (there's a problem of vocabulary). I don't use the word "God" as a high-level reference or metaphor for certain kinds of neural activity, or for the "really real" brain. I think one of the reasons the God concept has been so successful and has survived so long is because there is something to it. I think God is real.

But concepts -- not reality -- will, in the best of circumstances, change when they are sufficiently challenged.  But changing our idea of God means, among many other things, an actual physical rewiring of the brain , which is fascinating.

It's also difficult to do.

Just ask Destin, who encountered a new situation in which his old ideas simply did not work. In fact, his old ideas aggressively frustrated his success. When a particular God-concept is seriously challenged, we can remake our concept to fit the new reality (alternately, we can resign ourselves to falling over, or to running into walls, or to becoming fundamentalists). It could be the death of a loved one, an addiction, a priest who molests an acolyte, an intellectual challenge that brings down the old God-idea. It could be anything, really.

My Baptist upbringing painted God as a powerful and inscrutable yet ultimately loving white man in the sky. Nobody ever told me this in so many words, of course, but that's pretty much what the all the church language, taken together, pointed to. God was a cosmic omnipotent king who watched over us every day and kept tabs on us and went to great lengths to care for us and keep us all safe and happy.

I don't believe this anymore, and the shift didn't happen overnight. It took Destin months to unlearn his bike-riding knowledge, but it took me years to unlearn my God-concept.

So that's pretty cool, but the final minutes of the video deliver the real punchline: After leaning how to ride the backwards bike, Destin could no longer ride a normalone. In learning a new skill, not only did he create some new circuitry in his brain; simultaneously, the old circuitry eroded, presumably from disuse.

Contrary to the wisdom of the ages, it is possible to forgot how to ride a bike.

He did eventually relearn how to ride a normal bicycle, but it took more time and more spills. And when he rides a normal bike today, it's not easy. He has to thinkabout it. In the video he looks at the camera and says with a smile, "I can't ride a bike like you can anymore."

Once you expand your horizons -- whether bike-oriented or theological -- some things that used to be simple, obvious, and intuitive, become less so.

Which is really interesting to this Baptist.

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