I recently had a conversation with another ex-Christian about emotions, and it got me thinking about what I felt when I was a Christian. Specically, I was curious about whether or not I knew what I was feeling. What sparked the whole thing was a late night TV preacher talking about how much he “loves” homosexuals, but how much he “hates” their sinful lifestyle.
Here’s the question: When a Christian says he loves gays, does he feel anything that you or I would call “love,” or is he really feeling revulsion, fear, and maybe a little bit of self-loathing if he has any gay tendencies himself? For those of us who equate love with things like being kind, giving of ourselves, and protecting someone else’s welfare, it seems like Christians must not feel what we call love. When I was a Christian, I said that I loved everyone, including gays, but in retrospect, I don’t think I felt love. Instead, I think that I was told enough times that as a Christian, I was required to love everyone (including those vile, repulsive gays and their godless lifestyles), and so I subconsciously renamed what I was feeling to “love.”
In speaking to a number of Christians about this subject, I really do believe that they are not speaking the same language as us when they use the word “love.” For many of them, love is a “thing.” If you ask them to define “God,” they will say “God is love.” In a twisted metaphysical way, love is the thing God is made of. Since God is love, anything he does is therefore loving. As an extension, anything a Christian does that emulates God’s actions are also loving. So… if God acts hateful towards gays, commands them to be stoned to death, and calls them abominations, he is acting lovingly and so are any Christians who do the same things. Many Christians are also taught that fear is love. C.S. Lewis explained that Numinous (or “filial fear”) is when we “feel wonder and a certain shrinking” or “a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant of or prostration before [God]”. Our fear is an expression of our deep and transcendent love.
It’s very Orwellian. Just take something negative and name it something positive, and that’s what it becomes. Now that I’ve thought about it for a day or so, I wonder if the same principle applies to things like comfort. When I was a Christian, if you had asked me if I felt comfort thinking about God’s plan for me, I would have said “yes” without any hesitation. Today, I’m not so sure that’s what I was feeling. When something bad happened, I suppose there was a part of my brain that felt soothed by the belief that it was all part of a bigger purpose, but there was also a part of me that wondered if I was being punished for some unrepented sin. Had my sexual thoughts about my classmate caused divine retribution? The thought of god being mad at me was anything but comforting.
This question isn’t just a trivial matter for philosophers. It has real world implications for the study of both religion and non-religion. In many social sciences, data is gathered primarily from self-report questionnaires. If we can imagine a questionairre given to both Christians and atheists asking a question about how much comfort we feel from our beliefs, the answers are only meaningful if the question means the same thing to both groups. If what Christians feel when they think about God is objectively different than what we atheists feel when we think about the godless cosmos, it doesn’t matter a lick if we both call it “comfort.”
What about you, fellow non-believers? When you were Christians, did you feel the same kind of “love” for your neighbors that you do now? When you find comfort in your beliefs today, is it the same feeling as when you felt comfort from Jesus, or do those words mean something different to you now?