The Making and Unmaking of a Zealot, By Dr. Dale O’Neal

This essay was written by Dr. Dale O'Neal, who received a “Preacher of the Year” award from Talbot School of Theology when he studied there. The winner two years earlier was John MacArthur Jr., and the winner the previous year was Josh McDowell. As an ex-christian and psychologist he explains  how Christian zealots are made. This is very insightful! Christian apologists should read this essay to see what has happened to them. I can only hope it will be shared and read widely!
Dale O’Neal
I was almost 30 when I began to suspect the core of my Christian faith–salvation requires a human sacrifice—was an invention of humans, not God.  Like so many Christians, particularly those born into the faith, I had given little thought to the gruesome physical and emotional reality a human sacrifice entailed: raw terror for victim, executioner and observer.  What kind of being would require his children to kill one of their own to secure his favor?  Even more confounding was why so many gods came up with the same reprehensible idea.  It was practiced in almost all ancient societies, even in different hemispheres.
The dawn of doubt began with a soul-rattling dilemma at age 28 which challenged not my Christian identity, but my identity as a human being.  My wife and I were contemplating having a baby.  The possibility occurred to us: what if our child failed to accept the sacrifice of Jesus as his or her own? Haunting us was that familiar verse in the gospel of John: “He who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God’ (John 3:18).  We realized bringing a child into the world would place him or her at risk of eternal punishment.  How could we do that; or for that matter, how could any Christian couple put their child in such jeopardy?  After all, there are countless examples of children of devout Christian parents who don’t become Christians, or worse yet, leave the faith (as was the case in my family).
The parental dilemma became a slippery slope.  First, I became skeptical of the whole idea that human sacrifice was required for salvation and eternal life.  Second, I became increasingly disturbed by two other pillars of my faith, which, along with human sacrifice, I now see as the most hideous ideas ever conceived: eternal punishment and genocide.  All three find a home in Christianity and the last two in Judaism.
Growing up in a devout Christian family, I was taught these practices were justified by the rebellion of humans against God.  I see now in hindsight, my convictions weren’t based on critical thinking, but my identity as a Christian.  However, before getting into that, some historical context will be helpful.
I attended a small Christian college in Santa Barbara (Westmont), after which I went to Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California where I received my Master of Divinity degree and was chosen “Preacher of the Year.”  Also noteworthy is my father was dean of Talbot for many years.  After seminary, I served as an associate minister for about five years and also began graduate school in psychology.  Shortly after leaving the church, I wrote the book “Meet the Man from Nazareth,” which was published in 1972 by Zondervan, the largest Christian publisher at the time.  Since leaving Christianity, the book has plagued me ever since.   I eventually got my doctorate in psychology and became a psychologist in private practice. 
So back to the slippery slope that led me to question the divine origin of my faith.  To begin, I want to comment on how one’s identity reinforces one’s beliefs.  To help with this, I need to put on my psychologist’s hat to explain the interplay between two parts of the brain.  Critical thinking is done by the frontal cortex—the last part of the brain to develop.  One’s identity is bound primarily to the amygdala—one of the first parts of the brain to develop. The job of the amygdala is to insure one’s physical and emotional survival of which one’s identity is a major part. 
When one’s identity is threatened (ego, gender, family, race, caste, religion, political affiliation, etc.), the amygdala signals the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline into the blood stream.   This causes a state of high alert where body and mind are focused on escape by fight or flight.   To aid in this escape, the adrenaline impedes or even blocks access to the frontal cortex; it wants the threatened person to react, not think.  Rarely, however, does the adrenaline block the frontal cortex completely.  The amygdala maintains enough of a connection with the frontal cortex to marshal a host of “answers” which satisfy True Believers, but rarely anyone else.  One “answer” in particular serves as a final barrier protecting one’s identity: the subjective authentication of one’s faith: one knows his/her faith is true because it feels true.  When combined with other “answers,” this “answer” becomes a protective shield no rational argument can penetrate. (More about this shortly)   
Like most Christians, I wasn’t a born-again Christian, I was born Christian.  My “faith” was no leap in the face of doubt because I never doubted.  My faith was an identity I was born with which distinguished me from Jews, Muslims, Hindus and even Roman Catholics.  I was a Christian. 
Faith by birth is the primary path to faith for most “people of faith” because of a powerful psychological force known as imprinting: newborns pattern their behavior and thinking after those around them. Richard Dawkins put it succinctly: “How thoughtful of God to arrange matters so that, wherever you happen to be born, the local religion always turns out to be the true one.”  This is reminiscent of a classic definition of a cult: someone else’s religion.
Although most are imprinted into their faith by birth, some are grafted in by conversion.  Converts, for the most part, report experiencing a divine presence enter them which fills them with new power, clarity and purpose.  In Christianity, this is commonly referred to as being “born again.” Far less frequently are people converted into a faith because they find evidence for its truth compelling. 
The Subjective Authentication of One’s Faith
Importantly, whether the path to faith is by imprinting or grafting, virtually all religions claim a subjective experience which authenticates the truth of their faith.  So, the ultimate assurance of the truth of one’s faith comes from feeling it is true: “I just know in my heart it is true.”  “Critical thinking” then confirms what the heart already knows.  In his classic book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James observed conversion experiences are essentially identical in all religions.  Of course, they all can’t be true.
Christians are told, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).  A thousand times over I have belted out the gospel hymn He Lives: “You ask me how I know He lives; He lives within my heart.”  Popular Christian scholar, William Lane Craig, asserts “the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.”  He goes so far as to claim this experience is so “immediate” and “unmistakable” that it rises to the level of “objective knowledge.”  Craig explains: “I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical [truthful, trustworthy— my ital.] and unmistakable . . . for him who has it; that such a person does not need supplementary arguments of evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such experience . . . is the immediate experiencing of God himself; . . . that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth [my ital.]; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him who attends fully to it.” (Reasonable Faith, pp. 31, 32).
As mentioned above, knowing one’s faith is true because it feels true is the final protective barrier insulating the faithful from challenges to their core identity (in fact, rarely do the faithful admit any doubt whatsoever).  The point is that for the vast majority, faith is far more a matter of identity reinforced by culture, feelings, and specious “answers” (in that order) than a decision arrived at by critical thinking.  This is why intellectual arguments against someone’s religion are rarely productive.   That’s not how people arrived at their faith in the first place.  In the words of Stanford neurobiology professor, Robert Sapolsky, “You can’t reason people out of something they weren’t reasoned into in the first place.” What intellectual argument can compete with “I am a Muslim/Hindu/Jew/Christian,” or, “I just know in my heart it is true”?  I know, because I was a poster child for “I am a Christian and I just know it’s true.” My former certainty is humbling and sobering.  Sadly, I deeply identify with the words of psychologist and former evangelical, Valerie Tarico, “I know how wrong can feel so right.”
Once faith and identity are fused, this fusion is typically reinforced by a social phenomenon known as groupthink.  Groupthink is a toxic byproduct of the desire for people to associate with others who are like themselves: “Birds of a feather, flock together.”  With groupthink, dissent is discouraged in favor of conformity; alternative viewpoints are suppressed and frequently the group isolates itself from outside influences.  Typically, group members are more concerned about group acceptance and cohesion than critical thinking; so, reservations go unexpressed.  The result is unanimous, but often flawed decisions.
Like inbreeding, groupthink thrives in isolation.  In my case, I was the son of a minister in the Grace Brethren Church, an evangelical denomination whose motto is “The Bible, the Whole Bible, and Nothing but the Bible.”  This translated socially into “Christians, Only Christians, and Nothing but Christians.”  “Christian” was simply who you are, which included its core beliefs.  In booming voices, my father and myriad preachers and teachers assured the flock that the God of the Bible was in complete control; they were saved and Jesus soon would return to take them to be with Him forever.  As faithful servants in waiting, our primary task was to warn as many folks as possible of their impending doom if they failed to accept Jesus as their savior before it was too late, meaning before they died (which we cautioned could be sudden), or before Jesus returned (which also could be sudden). 
A critical component of groupthink is creating doubt in one’s rationality, or gaslighting.  Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to make people doubt their intelligence, memory, perception and sanity.  It seeks to undermine trust in one’s own mind and instead rely on the judgement of someone else, usually an authority figure who seeks to control the individual or group.   
The Bible is filled with assaults on reason which is a frequent refuge for preachers and teachers when reason and faith conflict.  The most frequently cited gaslight passage is: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not to your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).  The gaslighting prize, however, goes to Isaiah 55:8, 9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, ‘declares the Lord.’ “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  In the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying: “Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent, and didst reveal them to babes” (Luke 10:21).  The apostle Paul expands on this theme in his first letter to the Corinthians: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’  Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:18-25).  Finally, using the Christian scholar’s last resort, Paul gaslights Roman Christians who would dare question the justice of God: “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?  The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘why did you make me like this,’ will it?” (Romans 9:20).
The objective of Paul’s gaslighting was to generate sufficient mistrust in his readers’ rationality so they would consider a possibility they otherwise would have considered foolish; namely, that Jesus’ death on the cross [a human sacrifice] is essential for their salvation.  Using gaslighting, Paul sought to entice the Corinthians into believing the message of the cross only appears foolish.  In actuality, it is wisdom of God masquerading as foolishness.  So, at least according to Paul, those able to accept this are not fools at all, but the super-wise who possess the very power and wisdom of God.  On the contrary, those shackled by their intelligence, the wisdom of the wise, scholars and philosophers are the real fools since they cannot accept the foolishness of the cross.  These fools who cling to their rationality are doomed to perish.  However, the former fools able to accept the foolishness of the cross will be granted eternal life.  In Paul’s world, foolishness is transformed into a virtue and the call goes out to the Corinthians and all future believers to become “fools for Christ.”  This call was famously reprised by Supreme Court Justice Scalia in a speech at a prayer breakfast for the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi where he exhorted listeners, “We are to be fools for Christ.”
Gaslighting 2.0
If gaslighting 1.0 has been effective, gaslighting 2.0 is soon to follow.   With critical thinking neutered, now a believer is asked to embrace something demonstrably false (e.g. the Bible has no contradictions; the resurrection accounts are consistent;  Jesus was correct when he promised he would return “before this generation passes away”; core components of Christianity were not borrowed from earlier religions) or justify something most would find morally repugnant (e.g. the God-sanctioned genocides of Joshua to take the Promised Land from the Canaanites; the murders of the firstborn of the Egyptians; the demand of a human sacrifice to assuage the anger of the Creator at humans for not exercising perfectly their God-given free will; the consequence of eternal punishment for those who do not accept Jesus as their savior; the preselection by God of those who will and will not believe; slavery; the subjugation of women).
Another striking example of gaslighting 2.0 (discussed earlier) is the attempt to convince Christians their subjective experience of the Holy Spirit is so overwhelming it rises to the level of objective truth: “the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit” (Reasonable Faith, p. 31).  William Craig explains why Christians are immune to evidence against the truth of Christianity: “Because [Christian] belief is formed in response to the self-disclosure of God himself, who needs no external authentication, it is not merely rational for us, but constitutes knowledge.  We can be confident of Christianity’s truth.” (p. 36).   
Gaslighting 3.0
Gaslighting 3.0 is the most disturbing and dangerous stage of all.  This occurs when believers are so certain of their convictions, they condone, justify and may even commit acts of violence in service of them. Here is where the words of Voltaire (1694-1778) and Pascal (1623-1662) are chillingly prescient: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” (Voltaire); “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction” (Often attributed to Pascal).
History is littered not only with the carnage of holy wars with both sides certain God was on its side, but also with the detritus of what FDR called “racial arrogancies.”  This is the seductive and pervasive human tendency—despite overwhelming scientific evidence we are 99.9% genetically identical--to be certain one’s particular race, nation, religion, family, tribe, caste is superior.  The result is group members exalt their own group and diminish, dehumanize, demonize, dominate, even eliminate, birds of another feather.  
Cognitive Bias
Another powerful component of groupthink is cognitive bias.  This mental pattern was first identified by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, which he labeled cognitive dissonance.  Festinger found that when most people are confronted with evidence that contradicts their convictions, instead of modifying their beliefs or holding them less strongly, rather than face the pain of admitting they are wrong, they double down.  And the more they have invested in the false beliefs, the more they will respond to contrary evidence by intensifying their attachment to those untrue notions.
When one’s entire social network doubles down on a threat to their faith, it is a formidable reinforcement of the faith and a major disincentive to doubt and dissent.  This is where the desensitization process kicks in and the faithful begin to tolerate specious explanations, habituate to the demand for a human sacrifice and even eternal punishment doesn’t bother them that much anymore.  In fact, with sufficient double down, poor explanations become excellent and gross immoralities become just and good. What follows are several popular double-downs.
1     1. Selective Attribution: Counting the hits and ignoring the misses.
Answered and unanswered prayer is an excellent example of this.  When one gets what one prayed for it is “God answered my prayer.”  When one doesn’t, one can say “God answered my prayer; and the answer was ‘no’; or “I need to pray harder or more’; or “I didn’t pray according to God’s will.”  Similarly, God gets credit for healing the cancer patient, but not for causing the cancer in the first place.  And when the cancer patient dies, “It was God’s will and God called him home.”  Another common form of selective attribution, related to prayer, is the claim that God spoke a person.  This speaking—rarely claimed to be audible--is generally framed as “God led me” or “I felt the clear leading of the Spirit.”  Then, when God doesn’t provide the funds for the Spirit-inspired vision, “God leads” in a different direction.  Selective attribution is a pervasive biblical theme in the story of the children of Israel: when good things happen, God is praised; when bad things happen, the people are blamed: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (II Chronicles 7:14).
 .       2. Praise believers and demean unbelievers. 
To bolster confidence in the credibility and reasonableness of their beliefs, Christians offer a host of reasons for unbelief to divert attention from the most threatening one: unbelievers don’t find the evidence compelling.  As mentioned above, stubbornness is the most common attack on unbelievers.  To bolster this assertion of the unbeliever’s belligerence, Christians are fond of combining John 7:17 with John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  By spinning this verse to mean God draws everyone to come to Jesus, every unbeliever becomes a rebel against God and every believer an ally.  To one who doesn’t find the evidence for Christianity compelling, William Craig opines “he’s throwing up an intellectual smoke screen to keep from confronting the real issue: his sin before God,” and later “it may only mean that many people are close-minded.” (Reasonable Faith, p. 50).  If devotees of other religions are surprised to hear they have rejected the drawing of the Holy Spirit, they will be apoplectic when they learn they are close-minded, sinful rebels against God.
To add insult to injury, not only is unbelief the result of stubbornness, it is also the result of spiritual weakness: they have been blinded and deceived by the devil: “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (II Corinthians 4:4).  In contrast, believers are viewed as spiritually strong enough to resist the wiles of Satan.
Although rarely mentioned by believers, a final reason for unbelief is God preselects who will and will not believe: “You do not believe, because you are not of my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them; and they shall never perish” (John 10:26-28).  To make matters worse, the apostle Paul says God sends to unbelievers “a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness” (II Thessalonians 2:11, 12).  If someone protests this is not fair, elsewhere Paul retorts: “So then he has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires” (Romans 9:18).  If the questioner persists, Paul scolds: “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God:  The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? (Romans 9:20).  The bottom line is unbelievers are the unlucky “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” and believers are the lucky “vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9: 22, 23).
Learning “Answers”
An essential task for all True Believers is to learn how to counter every objection a non-believer might raise about the faith.  The Bible admonishes: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15).  If you were really serious about your faith—as surely, I was—you go to seminary to master these “answers.”  In fact, to receive one’s degree, students were required to sign a statement of faith.                                       
 MY UNMAKING AS A CHRISTIAN ZEALOT                              
The parental dilemma at age 28 turned into an exhilarating ride to liberation, which William James described as a counter-conversion: the transformative experience of being converted away from something, rather than to something.  First of all, a daughter was born a year later to joyful parents free of stress about her eternal wellbeing.  Second, still curious what compelled humans to practice human sacrifice in the first place, it launched a search that took me back 20,000 years to the Stone Age when Goddess worship reigned supreme.  And what I discovered is for Goddess worshippers—because of their misconception about conception—human sacrifice made perfect sense.  But that’s a story for another time 
For now, suffice it to say, after leaving my tribe some fifty years ago, I have decided to report back to whomever cares to listen. 
Dale W. O’Neal, M.Div., Ph.D.
Twitter @daleoneal19