Tuesday, September 2, 2014

THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN DOUBT

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

7 comments:

  1. Johm, I am so impressed with your writings. We neither on cen prove or disprove the existance of a Higher Being. The only thing I can saiy in my defense of my beliefe is my personal experience with God beside me during the good times and the bad times. There was such a glow on my husband's face when he passed away and I felt a comfort that is unexplainable. I just knew it was the presense of my Jesus.

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    1. Wanda, I appreciate your comments and their sincerity. However, the comments really don't address the question of the nature of any doubts you may have had, what led to them, or how they were resolved. So many people have told me that they too have had doubts but that ultimately they rediscovered or renewed their faith. That never happened for me. So I am trying to get my arms around the reasons for the difference in outcomes. My sense is that my doubts were of a more intellectual, fundamental nature. I am still hopeful that someone will step forward and provide better information on their journey away from and return to Christianity.

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  2. I guess my prayers and especially my reading of Scripture each day resolved my doubts that were there foor many years being involved with the SDA's and their beliefs, especially the Sabbath. Our bible studies halped with the doubts. I still have doubts at times but feel that my heart is filled with the Holy Spirit. I guess it is simply an inward feeling I have that God is real. Have no idea if this answered your questions.

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    1. It sounds like your doubts have concerned specific doctrinal beliefs and not fundamental beliefs regarding God's existence or Jesus's divinity. So I don't think they rise to the same level as the kind of doubt that I was trying to get at in my essay.

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    2. You are so right about my doubts coming from specific doctrinal belief's. I have never had any doubt that God exists.

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  3. John, your essay reminds me of my Mother. She was raised Catholic, but abandoned her belief in God in her 30's and 40's as she suffered the tragedies of the death of her children, my two older brothers and one of my younger sisters (each died separately of unrelated causes). She then, in her 60's, returned to church, a non-denominational one, and lived as a Christian for a few years until her own death at the premature age of 65.

    Did my mother become an atheist because she followed the path of skepticism and a search for knowledge in the scientific world? I don't think so. I'm not certain as to why she abandoned her faith for a while, but the small conversations I had with her led me to believe that she was disillusioned with her fate. We often agreed that a God who would take a child while their parents were still alive would be either very cruel or non-existent. While I went with the "non-existent" theory, I think she still stuck to her indoctrinated roots - as clipped as they were, they must not have completely died.

    Our later conversations about religion were certainly more interesting, if not quite puzzling - why did she start going back to church and why is she returning to Christianity were the most prevalent questions in my mind. But what most impressed me was how she was an impressive combatant in her defense of faith. She was calm, logical and quite proficient at modern apologetics. This was nothing new - she was always smart, informed, and well-spoken. Yes, she was called a bitch on more than one occasion, something I'm quite proud of, BTW. But she was religious in the end, and my best guess as to why was because she was taught to use religion as a crutch, and was happy to fill in unanswered questions with the God of the Gaps.

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    1. Thanks for sharing the story about your mother. It sounds like her doubts had their genesis in the emotional turmoil relating to her children's deaths, rather than stemming from an intellectual disconnect between religious doctrine and scientific or other objective evidence. And that seems to be consistent with the experience of other temporary apostates, though her period of doubt seems to have lasted longer than most and been more sincere than many others' who I suspect of making more of their doubts than was actually there.

      It would be interesting to hear from others regarding their own doubts or the doubts of others.

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