Today's guest post is from Recovering Agnostic. You can find his blog here and you can find him on twitter at @RecAgnostic. He's a smart, fair minded guy - give him a read - you won't be disappointed!
I write a lot about faith and the process of losing it, but I'm also interested in how faith begins, where it comes from, and how it can be affected by external factors. I've been considering how people get drawn into churches not so much because they give intellectual assent to a list of beliefs, but because they're offered support and affirmation at low points in their lives. Looking back on my life, a can definitely see elements of my journey which fit this pattern.
I grew up within the church, holding a sort of nice, British Christian belief by default - nothing to scare the horses, but a sort of non-realist liberalish establishment religion. What brought me to the point of serious commitment to a far more conservative belief (and, looking back, messed up my life in various subtle ways) was a series of personal difficulties and crises.
It all came about while I was at university, where the problems came thick and fast. First was the loneliness and culture shock of university itself. That led me to a couple of church services, but to be honest I didn't have much interest in them. While the familiarity was welcome, they seemed much like the dry, tired religion that had bored me to tears for much of my life. Then I began to have difficulties with my flatmates, and finally a friend died in tragic circumstances. All of that finally drove me to the Christian Union.
In my vulnerable state, the CU seemed to be just what I was looking for. It had a community feel which gave me a sense of belonging, and I got to feel like part of something important. University CUs are incredibly prone to overblown ideas of some big "move of God" just around the corner, and this one was no exception, even if it was quite sane compared to most. But people were all very nice and encouraging, and for a shy, unsettled and (to be honest) rather gauche young student, it was a very appealing prospect.
If I'd been more confident, I'm sure I'd have reacted very differently, and may never have even passed through the door, but I was drawn in easily. I was introduced to the idea of praying and "sharing" in small groups, something that I got used to even though it seemed entirely alien and quite uncomfortable to me, and I heard a lot of inspiring talks about things we should be doing, and things that would (we were promised) happen very soon. I lacked the confidence to question anything, but it was so exciting that I didn't really want to. More than that, I didn't really seem to have anywhere else to go by this point. This was my new home.
So I stuck with it, never seriously imagining any other options. I made friends, got a lot of support and affirmation for saying or doing the right things, spent more and more time with one group or another, and felt the sort of welcome that I imagine must have been extended to the Prodigal Son or the Lost Sheep. I don't want to imply that I simply accepted everything I was told, but while some people's beliefs were clearly too extreme for me to stomach, I fitted easily and enthusiastically into mainstream CU doctrine, and my convert's zeal even went so far as to scorn people with the vague beliefs I'd only just discarded.
Over time, Christianity in general and the CU in particular became pretty much my whole life. The CU more or less constituted my whole circle of friends, but the impact went way beyond a sort of social support group. I took to spending up to an hour at a time in prayer and Bible study (not such a huge sacrifice for a student, I suppose), and attending 8am prayer meetings (much more problematic). I took less and less interest in my studies, mainly because I seriously imagined that I'd go into full-time Christian ministry after graduation. I was Christian first, everything else second.
The pattern continued with my church once I left university. They had a few strange doctrines, and often did fairly ordinary things in odd ways, but they weren't nearly as odd as some churches I tried, and more importantly, they were very relaxed, friendly and welcoming. As before, I felt at home and wanted approval, so my questioning instincts were reined in and I learnt to fit in with the prevailing norms. Again, I never consciously suppressed disagreement, but a lot of questions and differences were smoothed over in a search for affirmation.
A few things contributed to my eventual withdrawal to the fringes of that church and then to a different church altogether. The biggest factor was probably that I had a job, which ensured that I gained a lot in confidence and had a new circle of friends outside the church. Most importantly, it kept me busy during the week, so my previously obsessive involvement with church and CU activities was limited. There were also a couple of times when previous commitments made it impossible to get involved in church activities which might have drawn me back in.
There were points in all this where I considered and revised my beliefs, and in fact one of the things that finally drew me back out of the church was my increasingly liberal position on homosexuality, but the one thing above all else that determined where I ended up was my need for support. I got deeper into the church and CU when my need was great, and only began to emerge as I developed alternative sources of self-esteem and confidence.
I want to be absolutely clear that this doesn't reflect in any way on any of the people in the church, CU or anywhere else. I don't believe there was any deliberate attempt to encourage conformity by preying on insecurities, and certainly not on a wide scale. It's possible that there was subconscious learnt behaviour to behave in a certain way towards vulnerable people because it tended to get results, but I think it was just genuine friendliness and enthusiasm for new members. For all that, though, it frightens me how easy it was to be drawn in just by a few friendly faces.
Whenever I start wondering how people get drawn into seriously weird cults, I think about how fragile my mental state was in hindsight, and how I could have gone along with almost anything if it was pushed in the right way. I was just lucky that I didn't end up falling in with a really strange group.