For herd animals like us

Now when it comes to intellectual doubt, you’re dealing primarily with your meaning module, the part of your brain committee that thinks critically and analytically. But your meaning module’s independent thought processes are constantly being monitored and even censored by your belonging and survival modules. They constantly whisper their respective warnings: “If you think or say that, you won’t fit in the herd and you might even be banished from the herd. If you’re banished from the herd, you’ll be alone and in great danger. You need the herd to survive! Without your secure place in the herd, you might die! Danger! Danger!” In this example, it’s easy to imagine how your belonging and survival modules can try to keep your meaning module in line. But sometimes, the opposite can also happen.

Just as your meaning module might raise intellectual objections (“I can’t honestly accept that the earth was created in six literal days less than 10,000 years ago”, or “I can’t honestly believe the pope – or Bible – is infallible”), your belonging module might raise relational, social, and ethical objections: “I can’t go along with stigmatizing gay people, because that would mean I am betraying my friends Bob, Jill, Grant, and Pat”; or “I know what the Bible says and what the church says, but I can’t go along with treating women as second-class citizens. Doing so makes me feel like I’m harming my mother, my wife, my sisters, my daughters, and my female friends”; or “How could I treat people of other religions as if they are inferior and damned by God? Ahmad, Soraya, and Asha are among the finest people I know. I can’t throw them under the bus.”

That’s your intuitive belonging module at work, and it leaves you feeling torn among competing loyalties, affections, and relationships. In response, you can imagine your meaning module scolding the belonging module, trying to get it back in line: “But this church is doctrinally orthodox and was established on divine authority! These positions have been part of the church tradition for centuries! I can logically defend our policies with chapter and verse! You can’t put mere emotions above truth!” Then you can imagine your belonging module shouting back, “I don’t care about doctrines! I care about how I treat people, and I feel dirty and unethical when I treat people the way our faith community requires!”

When the meaning and belonging modules are out of alignment like this, with one feeling safe and the other feeling insecure, you can be sure that your survival module, the third and senior member of your brain committee, is reflexively emitting stress hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These hormones prepare you to fight, flee, freeze, or appease as instinctive responses to danger. Their whole purpose is to make you uncomfortable with the status quo, which is why, to state the obvious, stress is so stressful.

That’s also why thinking outside the box of doctrinal norms or “feeling outside the box” of social and ethical norms feels so uncomfortable, even unbearable, for herd animals like us. Both thinking and feeling, even though they feel like private or personal experiences, have social consequences.

From “Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It” by Brian McLaren

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