A lot of my Christian friends have stated that, like me, they have had periods of religious doubt. “Really?” my cynical side has responded (silently, of course). “Are you just saying that to argue that your faith is intellectually defensible, that you have considered both sides and have chosen the faith side as just as reasonable as the secular side?” And I do believe that in many cases that is a major motivation for such comments. Each of us has experienced doubts from time to time about all manner of things and has needed some sort of inquiry or at least reassurance to put certain facts and ideas back into the “belief” column. That, to my mind, is at a very different level from having a genuine crisis of faith.
But I also recognize that in other cases my cynicism has been unfair. I know that many of my friends have had times when they have truly doubted their faith. However, that only raises questions about the nature of their doubt. How did their experience differ from mine, and why was their outcome different from mine? Once I moved to the secular side, I never seriously looked back, I never had a crisis of unbelief, if you will. My Christian friends, on the other hand, have reaffirmed their faith-based world view.
I know this is speculative on my part, but here are some possible differences in the nature of others’ doubts that may account for this difference in outcomes.
First mine was fundamentally an intellectual journey, a massive disconnect between the findings of science and my childhood religion’s insistence on a literal interpretation of scripture. And that was coupled with a recognition that there simply was no objective evidence for God’s existence, that positing a personal God did not serve to explain anything about the world that could not be explained just as well by natural processes. I suspect the doubts that most Christians experience have more of an emotional base than an intellectual one. Their doubts are more likely to extend from the world of personal and interpersonal issues than from the world of ideas. If I am wrong, if an individual’s journey of doubt, like mine, was more of an intellectual one, then what were the ideas in conflict? It is difficult for me to understand intellectually how one could proclaim how real and palpable God is in his or her life and then lose faith, even temporarily, in God’s very existence. How real could God’s presence have been?
Second, individuals don’t abandon a belief in God as a stand-alone proposition. Rather, it generally happens because they have adopted a fundamentally different approach to understanding the world. My conversion to atheism resulted from a massive change in how I viewed the world. It marked the point when I recognized my skeptical nature, when I realized that I needed to figure things out for myself instead of believing simply on the basis of what I was told. My guess is that most individuals who have had religious doubts have not abandoned their reliance on authority for informing a portion at least of their world view. It is hard for me to understand how one could embrace a skeptical, rational approach to knowledge and then return to one based on acceptance of authority.
Finally, my emotional response to recognizing my loss of faith was one of excitement and liberation. The more I explored non-belief, the more comfortable and confident I became in my point of view. I sense that for most Christians the emotional response to a loss of faith is just the reverse—depression and increased self-doubt. The more they think about it, the more muddled things become. And I believe that emotional response is key to understanding the nature and seriousness of doubt.
I could be wrong about all of this. I have seldom had candid discussions with my Christian friends about the details of their periods of doubt, in part because, as I indicated, I have had (unspoken) questions about the depth of those experiences. But I am willing to be educated and would be delighted to learn more about what others’ experiences have been.
© 2014 John M. Phillips