The Born-Again Experience: A Secular Account

By Doug Muder, 3 March 2006

Christianity – especially conservative Christianity – can’t be understood without accounting for the born-again experience. The potency of conservative Christianity comes from the life-changing experiences it can induce, not from the reasonability of its theology, the inherent sense of its dogma, or the virtues of its leaders. Someone whose life has been changed for the better will accept whatever worldview promises to maintain and build on that change, and will happily explain away any logical inconsistencies and paper over any institutional flaws.

Liberal religion shoots itself in the foot if it pretends that the born-again experience is just a myth or an illusion. To the people who have experienced it, the born-again experience may be the most important single event in their lives. When you tell them it didn’t happen, you’re just telling them that you have no idea what you’re talking about. If your argument against their religion ignores the experience, it is irrelevent.

Conservative Christian leaders gain credibility because they can explain this powerful experience within a worldview that grants it an appropriate degree of importance. In my opinion they use that credibility in destructive ways, but they’ve earned it. Instead of denying the experience, liberal religion needs a better, cleaner explanation, one not encumbered by the theological and social baggage that comes with conservative Christianity.

Such an explanation needs to start with a description of the problem that the born-again experience solves.

The Ego/Shadow problem

Being human, we all have certain character flaws that are fairly obvious to anyone who really knows us. I have them, you have them – everybody does. Those flaws cause us to screw things up. We miss the opportunities to do the good things we might have done. We do bad things that cause other people distress. When we think about those things, we feel guilty, ashamed, and unworthy.

So mostly we don’t think about them. We certainly don’t talk about them. Instead, we develop an Ego complex: a telling of our story in which we are good people and all the bad things that have happened really weren’t that bad or were somebody else’s fault. The Ego may not be the hero of this story, but it certainly is a sympathetic protagonist.

And it’s fictional. It has to be, because (no matter how honest or well-intentioned we are) life is not a story and a person is not a character. When you think of your life as a story and identify with the main character of that story, you’re creating fiction.

That’s the normal human condition: a surface description of ourselves as good people (the Ego), balanced by an unarticulated, mostly unconscious knowledge that we’re making it all up. Some part of our being (maybe a large part) is left out of this I’m-a-good-person story. In Jungian terms, the Shadow.

Not talking about the Shadow doesn’t make it go away. It continues to be part of us, and to do things that the Ego story has a hard time accounting for. The more we need to portray the Ego as totally good, the less convincing our story becomes. The dissonance created when we tell this less-than-credible story is always at least mildly disturbing, and can be downright debilitating.

Some people have a worse case of Ego/Shadow duality than most, especially if their flaws are more obvious or they have less of what it takes to face those flaws consciously. Addicts, for example, tend to have a really bad case. Alcoholics, compulsive gamblers – they cause a lot of pain to the people close to them, and they have no genuine confidence that they can solve their problems by facing up to them. Maintaining the separation between the Ego and the Shadow can start to feel like a survival issue: “If I really admitted how awful I am, what choice would I have but to die? How could I claim I deserve to live?”

And so, the worse my semi-conscious sense of guilt is, the harder I work on maintaining my Ego.

The insufficiency of will power

The idea that I would have to die if I recognized my true faults is part of the same illusion that formed the Ego to begin with. The Ego, basically, is an explanation of why I deserve to live. But life isn’t something I earn, it’s just something I have. (The Christian notion that life is a gift of God may or may not be true, but it works psychologically.) Deserving and living don’t even play on the same stage. Deserving is a judgment about the past, and living happens in the present. Deserving is about our stories, living about ourselves. No matter what you’ve done up to now, you could simply live in this moment and choose to do the best with it that you can.

But the conscious decision “I’m going to live in the moment and do the best I can” does not by itself heal the Ego/Shadow duality. It’s like deciding “I’m going to lose thirty pounds” or “I’m going to quit gambling.” It sounds great, and you may feel completely sincere when you say it, but who is really making that pledge – the complete human being who is you, or the fictional main character of your Ego story? Is this an expression of your true will, or just dialog?

In most cases it’s dialog. The Ego is pledging to defeat the Shadow once and for all, not to heal rift that created the duality to begin with. In order to work, a decision like this has to come from your whole being; and if your whole being is split, how can the two halves get together to make a decision?

In order to heal the split, you have to step outside your Ego. And since you consciously believe that your Ego is your Self, it seems like you have to look outside yourself for salvation.

The power of love

The easiest way to overcome the Ego/Shadow duality is through healing love. Even if I can’t acknowledge the existence of my Shadow and face my faults directly, I may still be able to face a reflection of those issues in someone else’s eyes. If I can realize that some other person loves me, and if I can accept that they see my flaws, then I can begin to acknowledge my Shadow through them. The healing begins, then, as a process of projection: I accept the possibility that my flaws do not annihilate my worthiness, because I can imagine both of them existing together in the mind of the person who loves me.

In order for this process to work, the lover has to have certain qualities – or at least I have to believe s/he does. (The actual healing, naturally, has to happen inside me, not inside the other person. And so the key facts are in my imagination of the other person, not in the actual person.)

  • Love. The other person has to really love me, and not just be pretending. The love has to be visible, obvious, and tangible, so that I cannot deny it.
  • Insight. The whole point of the Ego story is to fool people (especially myself) into thinking that I’m lovable. If the person who loves me isn’t very insightful, s/he may have been taken in by my story. And makes it more important than ever to keep the story going, so that s/he doesn’t see the Shadow and realize how wrong s/he has been to love me.
  • Worth. The healing won’t work if the other person loves me because we’re both losers. If my lover deserves nothing better than my Shadow, or if loving me is simply part of his/her pathology – then the love is not healing.

Perfect love

Now imagine the perfect healing love. Take Love, Insight, and Worth and extend them to infinity. What do you get?


In the Christian worldview, Jesus is the most worthy being in the Universe: the only begotten Son of God. He doesn’t just have insight, he’s omniscient: He sees and knows and remembers everything about me – even things I don’t recognize or remember myself. And he expressed his love in the most tangible way possible: He chose to suffer and die so that I wouldn’t have to spend eternity in Hell.

If you can imagine those three properties fully, the born-again experience happens. It can happen in an instant, like a thunderclap: Your Ego and Shadow both get projected onto a perfect being who unifies them. By looking at yourself through the eyes of Jesus, you can see yourself as both flawed and worthy. You can acknowledge the guilt of your past without being overwhelmed by it in the present. And you can face the future as a flawed-but-worthy person, taking one step at a time.

Your sins, in other words, are forgiven.

But is it real?

At this point, the Believer and the Unbeliever start an argument. The Unbeliever says: “This can’t work because Jesus isn’t real. I mean, maybe there was a man named Jesus who lived a long time ago, and maybe he even was crucified like the story says. But he didn’t rise from the dead, so he can’t love you because he’s not alive. Moreover, he’s not the only begotten Son of God and isn’t omniscient. So this whole thing can’t work because it’s based on nonsense.”

And the Believer counters: “But it did work. My sins are forgiven and I have a new life. So Jesus must have risen from the dead and be alive today. He must be the omniscient Son of God. It must all be true.”

Both of them miss an important point: The Ego and Shadow are fictional characters. The rift between them exists in the imagination. The healing really happens, but the place where it really happens is in the imagination. The Believer has been healed by imagining a being who has the three qualities of love, insight, and worthiness in infinite quantities. Whether such a being really exists may still be an open question, but the healing would have worked regardless.

Two challenges

And so, I believe I have explained the born-again experience without explaining it away. The Unbeliever is still faced with a challenge: In some situations, believing only what is provable may not be the most effective way to live; you may need to take an imaginative leap in order to be healed. The Believer who has taken such a leap may have made it to a desirable place, and it’s not obvious how you can follow.

But the Believer is also faced with a challenge: The explanation given by some particular sect or minister is not the only one possible, and not the only one that accounts for your experience. Your healing is real, your new life is real, and you are correct to think of the experience as one of the most important things that ever happened to you. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept all the theological and institutional baggage that comes with fundamentalist or pentecostal Christianity.