Over at Answers In Genesis, John C. P. Smith (who?) argues that Christianity must be true because of ‘the testimony of countless Christians to the efficacy and potency of the gospel to radically change people’s lives for the better.’ Supposedly, this change is the result of a radical take-over of the individual by the Holy Spirit. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5.17:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
Even as we speak, Christian Voice’s Stephen Green is proposing, in one of his more spiteful and petty blog posts, that this is only way a young activist can be saved from a selfish, insensitive and deluded – talk about the pot impugning the kettle! – ‘gay lifestyle’, whatever that is. But do such changes really happen and are they ‘for the better’?
Speaking from personal experience and observation, I’d have to say they do. Sometimes they entail an apparent overhaul of the convert’s view of life, mindset and values. It’s as if the possibility of a spiritual aspect to life takes them by surprise and everything in their psychology shifts to accommodate new ideas. For others, the change is superficial and merely accentuates characteristics they already possess.
Having said that, many people have life-changing experiences without a religious catalyst; when they survive a bad accident or a potentially fatal illness, for example, or win lots of money; when they come to a full realisation of who they are or ‘come out’; when they first have sex or a baby; when they lose a loved one or experience an out-of-body experience or start a new job or move to a new area… and on and on.
None of these transformations involves Jesus, his Holy Spirit or ‘the gospel’. Humans are capable of the most drastic and radical of psychological change all on their own. How many times have you heard it said that someone isn’t themselves? Or that no-one knows what’s got into them? Or they’re acting out of character? Some even transform themselves without any external event playing a part. You may have done so yourself.
I would suggest that religious conversion is like that. The change can be real, but it has nothing to do with an external, supernatural agent. The human personality or psyche, whatever you want to call it, is much more fluid and pliable than we care to admit. Your self, values and thought patterns are in fact undergoing constant change, sometimes radically and rapidly so. The consistency you feel you maintain, the unchanging ‘you’, is an illusion. You are regularly updated, like the operating system on your computer. You’re not the same ‘you’ that you were last year and are certainly not the same as a decade ago or when you were a child. What you regard as ‘you’ is constructed from constant change.
The change that comes from religious conversion is no different. More, it doesn’t necessarily change you for the better; it can harden attitudes and make you less sympathetic towards others by transplanting values that are not conducive to empathy and generosity. You become one of ‘us’ and no longer one of ‘them’ as your chosen place of worship and the collective influence of fellow believers make a significant contribution to the process. This is why evangelists and those who are driven to convert others always insist you become part of a church (mosque or synagogue) afterwards – provided, of course, it’s one with the right sort of teaching (theirs). Your new attitudes and values are then reinforced by those who already have them, entrenching them further and convincing you that they, and now you, are ‘right’. This is how the ‘new creation’ you’re becoming is constructed and moulded.
As I’ve argued before, conversion can often reinforce behaviours that have already become habitual for individuals. Every church and Christian movement has adherents who are petty and spiteful, as well as those who are generous and considerate. But what becoming a new creation never entails, is making converts more intelligent, rational or stable. Why not? If it’s a miracle we’re talking about – and undoubtedly we are if God’s spirit suddenly or gradually takes up residence within a person – then surely it would result in a little cognitive rewiring so that the new Christian reaches their full intellectual potential. The fact it doesn’t bring about the ‘renewal of the mind’ (Romans 12.2) in anything like this sort of substantive way is the equivalent of the missing limb that no amount of prayer and laying on of hands can regenerate.
All of which suggests – no, more than suggests; demonstrates – that neither God nor his ‘Holy Spirit’ nor a dead Jewish preacher, nor ‘the gospel’, has anything to do with it. And perhaps that’s because an increase in intelligence, rationality or stability would run counter to the process which depends on blind faith and a submission to the very social forces that reshape the self.