Do You Identify Yourself with Your Spiritual Beliefs?

Do You Identify Yourself with Your Spiritual Beliefs?


Let’s talk about spiritual beliefs: I bring this up because of recent experiences that I have had in my life.

I would love to hear some feedback on this idea. Let me get right to the point with some quick examples:

* Suzy is 30 years old and is recovering from alcoholism. She says “I am a Christian.”

* Tommy is a 16 year old teenager.  He says “I am a Mormon.”

* Frank is 24 years old and says “I am an atheist.”

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These three people are doing something potentially dangerous, in my opinion. They are mistaking their identity with their beliefs.

Suzy says she is a Christian. She is not really a Christian… what she is, in fact, is a human being. She happens to have Christian beliefs. This does not really change her identity deep down, however.

The same can be said of the other two examples. They are confusing who they are with what they believe. They have taken on their beliefs as an identity.

Big mistake. My opinion, of course. Feel free to disagree.

But, allow me to explain.

Think back to when you were really, really young. I’m talking about when you were just one or two years old, and just starting to understand reality….just starting to develop some basic comprehension about the world. You may learn a word or two, or understand that the ball will fall to the floor if you let go of it.

At that point, what were your beliefs? They were a blank slate. (If they were not, then go back further).

This was your true identity. That person who was just starting to learn and to understand the world, that was your true self, your true identity. Later on, as you grew older, you may have had new experiences that became so important to you that you merged them into your identity. We learn to develop beliefs over time. And we see how serious other people are with their beliefs, and we say “Ah. These are my beliefs now, and they are important to me. This is what I believe.” And so we take those beliefs on as a part of who we are. But, choosing to integrate those beliefs into our identity is, I think, a mistake.

I can remember when I was extremely young, and I pictured the edge of the earth, thinking that the earth must be flat. I did not yet understand how gravity worked, and so I believed that the earth was flat, and that a person could come to the edge of the earth and probably fall off if they were not careful. Where would you go? Down, of course! That was what I believed, because I was 3 years old.

Now think about that belief for a moment, of believing that the earth was flat. Did that really change who I was, deep down? Did I identify myself with that belief? Did it dominate who I was as a person? Of course not. That belief was not a fundamental part of who I was. It did not define me. It was just a collection of thoughts that I had adopted as my own, and sort of “wore them over myself” as a person might put on an extra layer of clothes. But underneath, my real identity was still there, untainted by this belief.

So as an adult, why do some people take their beliefs and identify with them? And perhaps even more importantly, why do our beliefs have to be taken all the way to the level of fundamentalism?

It is almost like, if you are not a fundamentalist, then you are not really “hard core” with your belief system. You are somehow “less than,” because you obviously have not thought hard enough about what you believe, or surely you would be at some level of fundamentalism by now. Surely you would be more dedicated to your beliefs.

I find this to be a bit annoying.  I also see it trip people up in recovery.

Fundamentalism occurs when a person says “That’s it. I’m a Christian” (Or an atheist, or a Mormon, or whatever)….and no further evidence, data, or inquiry is needed. The fundamentalist is basically saying “That’s it….I’m done collecting data and observing new things with an objective mind, because I have already decided on my belief system, and I choose to observe reality through this specific “lens.”

Fundamentalism as a stumbling block in recovery

When I was very early in my recovery from addiction, I noticed a couple of people in the 12 step meetings that I was attending. They were hard not to notice. And a few of these people were basically 12 step fundamentalists. They were not interested in hearing about other solutions for recovery, and they referred to the Big Book of AA as “their bible.” They quoted it like scripture and they also became very angry if you tried to criticize or denounce “the program” in any way. They were especially likely to use fear as a tool when it came to their preaching at newcomers, and they were notorious for warning people of impending relapse if they were to turn away from AA.

Now–don’t get me wrong– not all of AA or 12 step recovery is like this. There are many balanced and wonderful people in the meetings who genuinely want to help you, and they do not get preachy or use fear in order to do it. But the aggressive AA fundamentalist is still out there, and they can be particularly obnoxious, and pretty hard to miss.

And wouldn’t you know it?…..I learned this slowly over time in recovery: they eventually relapse.

I was actually afraid in early recovery that maybe the fundamentalist preachers were right, and that I would eventually fail in recovery unless I became “seriously hard core in AA.” Well, after over 9 years of my own successful sobriety, I am no longer afraid of the AA fundamentalist. Every single one of them (that I knew), has since relapsed.

Of course, the same is true with religious fundamentalism as a means of recovery. I can cite at least a few instances where individuals were clinging to a single lens through which to see the world, and refused to “try on another set of glasses,” even for a brief moment. And of course, fundamentalist beliefs blocked them from long term success in recovery. It works for a while, and seems to work well.  But with the extremist, it never seems to last.

When you first stop drinking, that is the time for flexibility and open mindedness. Whatever you have been doing has not been working. Whatever your beliefs are in life, they have not served you well. Recovery almost seems to demand flexible beliefs.  And depending on your amount of growth in recovery, it demands that your beliefs evolve right along with your personal growth and development.

I feel that I am lucky to have avoided fundamentalism. Surely my addiction would have killed me by now if I had not been able to “change lenses” at different points in my journey, and experiment with different sets of beliefs.

Changing beliefs in order to grow

In my opinion, it is disempowering to cling so tightly to your beliefs that they become part of who you are. Many alcoholics have surely died rather than to change their beliefs.

When I first got into recovery from addiction, I was not being served well by my current set of beliefs.  They were not helping me to succeed or move forward in any way.  In fact, I was spiraling out of control and was pretty close to total self destruction through chemical abuse.

In order to find sobriety I had to drop my old belief system.  In order to accept a new path that would lead to a healthier life, I had to change what I believed.

But it went much further than that.  I can look back now and see that, clearly, I had to change those belief systems again in order to continue growing in recovery.  Had I turned to fundamentalism and stayed where I was at in early recovery, I do not think my life would have progressed to this point, nor do I think I would still be sober and thriving today.

I am prepared to keep evolving in recovery.  As they say in AA, “more will be revealed.”  How sad that so many people close their minds off from new ideas, simply because of dogmatic belief.  That goes for people both in and out of the 12 step program.

So what about you? Do you identify as your beliefs?

Beliefs are learned.

Beliefs are baggage.

Do you realize and comprehend that you are still a human being underneath all of that extra baggage, all of those “learned beliefs?”

And do you believe that “changing lenses” can help you through different situations in your life….that you can potentially use different belief systems depending on your circumstances?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I would love to hear your opinion on this topic.

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