When we let the doubts win
Is there a way back?
R. from the United States writes (comment edited for grammar and spelling fixes):
I don’t know what to title this.
Long time reader of your site and a bible believer for 10 years, I’m afraid I am coming to my second and perhaps final crossroad in faith. At age 19, I learned of the likes of Harris, Dawkins and most importantly Hitchens after trying to liberalize my beliefs due to Same sex marriage becoming legal as well as the cultural shift around me turned increasingly anti-Christian. This was my first round with doubt
Sadly, now I am more well verse in arguments against my faith than the bible its actually based on. I have manged to stand strong in Christ through a combination of blind trust that all questions I have seen will be answered satisfyingly as well as take solace in the documented coverts of atheists to Christians because as flawed as it may be, personal experience of the soul will always trump evidence sought by the mind.
Both of these solutions are no longer suitable. Many prominent Christians have very publicly renounced the faith and while their questions have been answered by fellow Christians, none have returned to God’s light. I believe, actually I know there will be more. This has also hit me close to home as many of my friends have walked away. Statistics are showcasing that this is a regional trend in the once Christian west and while many are not becoming atheists, though it is growing, they are without doubt rejecting Christianity.
As for questions being answered, every answered given has been rebutted or simply not convincing enough to bring these folks back so what good is apologetics? I know every man has a different threshold for evidence and that for some, nothing will convince them God exists. The shoe fits all approach rarely ever applies and most certainly doesn’t here, but for those with honest doubts, they deserve solid truth.
I have spent hours of several days on this instead of doing anything else productive I haven’t prayed to God seriously nor read the bible in 4 years, fear that with my doubting mind I will see something that will turn me away as well. Instead I have relied upon other apologists or basic logic when confronted by ‘nones’ but no minds have been changed and I just leave with rage.
The only solution I have found that will convince me, is that I will live the word to the very letter for an entire year and live as if there was no God for another and should I still be of doubt, there is only one true way to know and the thought I would go through with this is terrifying even if I must sin to do it.
I know it is possible to have a robust faith in this day and age for people who have lived longer than I and know far more stronger arguments than I continue to proclaim that Christ is king in not just the US but in secular Europe, atheist China and the fact that many are not becoming atheist but nothing in particular shows that most are wondering, not fallen.
Please help me, I don’t want to go through with my plan but I see no other way
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for the email.
I can empathize with these feelings (When atheism seems easy). I know how doubts can plague the mind, and strip you of joy, and even sleep. Been there, done that. Too many times to count. And these things still hit me from time to time. And I understand the damage it can do to one’s psyche, as well (When atheism seems easy). I know that this is a big thing for you.
But let’s be honest; by what you’ve said here, you’ve brought a lot of this on yourself. You were “trying to liberalize your beliefs” in response to cultural shifts away from Christianity. And you said, “I haven’t prayed to God seriously nor read the bible in 4 years”. So, you’re living as if the doubts are more cogent than your faith (by not engaging with God) to prevent the doubts from finishing off (what’s left of) your faith? Opening the Bible or praying might indeed finish off your faith right now, but not because the Bible, God, and Christianity are that fragile. It’s because you’ve done such a good job training yourself to expect them to be that fragile.
The doubts you present here are relatively easy to dispel at the intellectual level. On same-sex marriage, our justification for our moral beliefs doesn’t diminish just because the culture around us changes its views. God is still the ultimate source of morality, and the Bible is still His word, whatever the culture may say. God knows what’s good and what’s not far better than our supposed 21st century ‘moral betters’. Without God morality just amounts to a personal preference (Can atheism possibly explain morality and reason?).
What about the New Atheists? Well, what are their arguments? Hitchens didn’t really argue much; he mostly just mocked. Harris and Dawkins at least have something; Harris has his ‘moral landscape’ and Dawkins his ‘Who designed the designer?’. But both are tragically flawed arguments.
Harris equates goodness with human flourishing. But he also admits that if it’s possible rapists, liars, and thieves can flourish as much as ‘saints’, so his ‘moral’ landscape would just be a continuum of well-being. He contradicts himself! The good can’t be identical to human flourishing if rapists could possibly flourish as much as humanitarians! And this is supposed to be a replacement for God as a transcendent source of morality? I don’t think so (see Answering the ‘new atheists’).
And what of Dawkins’ ‘Who designed the designer?’? We don’t need to know where the designer came from to know that something is best explained by a designer (The old ‘Who created God?’ canard revisited: Who designed the Designer?). And if God is the designer, there’s no ‘getting behind’ Him with a deeper explanation. He is the ultimate stopping point. He’s a fitting explanatory ultimate because ‘God’ is simply the moniker we give to the ultimate being; that than which nothing greater than or equal to can be conceived (on which see Ontological argument: God is uniquely supreme).
More people de-converting than converting? Even today that depends on where in the world you are. Christianity is flourishing in Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Africa. And still, who cares? It’s not hard to see why Christianity is losing ground in the West; ‘science’ is falsely proffered as a panacea for understanding the world, and Christian morality is being actively undermined. But these factors have no real intellectual teeth to them. Science can’t explain everything, e.g. morality, nature itself, and the philosophy of science. Moral objections to Christianity are very parochial and have no ontological foundation. Just because it feels right doesn’t mean it is; there has to be some reason for why something is right or wrong.
People being unconvinced of apologetics? So what? You yourself said it:
“I know every man has a different threshold for evidence and that for some, nothing will convince them God exists. The shoe fits all approach rarely ever applies and most certainly doesn’t here”. But your problem is “but for those with honest doubts, they deserve solid truth”.
But giving solid truth doesn’t guarantee they will accept solid truth. Even the ones with “honest doubts”. Why? Where solid truth has been given, sincerity is rarely the skeptic’s problem. Rather, the problem is the poor situation they are in for knowing the truth (whatever the cause of it may be). And there’s usually a lot more that needs to go into improving that than simply giving them arguments. Much of it would be putting them in situations where finding God is much easier. But that’s where choice and emotion come into the equation, and usually in ways that make the skeptic/doubter leery of leaving behind their skepticism/doubts. Is it easy for a skeptic to come to a Bible study or church for the first time? No. Is it easy for a doubter to pick up the Bible again and pray after four years? You yourself said it—No.
Which brings us back to you. Where do you go from here? You have to make a choice. And the one you’re contemplating is a bad idea. Living for a year as an atheist!? Do you want to finish your faith off? That’s probably the best way to do it. Opening the Bible and praying can’t hold a candle to the amount of doubt you’d be opening yourself up to if you did that. In fact, I think living like an atheist has been a large part of your problem for the last four years. No serious prayer or Bible reading; that’s certainly not living like a Christian. You’ve been living as a follower of your doubts, as a follower of the culture; not as a follower of Christ.
No, you need to start practicing Christianity again. You need the Bible and prayer. You need Christian fellowship. You can’t expect to get spiritually healthy again if you refuse to engage with God and his people.
But you’re afraid that by praying and reading the Bible again, you’ll come across doubts to finish off what left of your faith. Well, yes, you will face doubts by doing those things. Why? You’ve conditioned yourself to expect it! But how is that a sign that you should give the doubts the credence you’ll inevitably feel they deserve? It’s not. Rather, it’s a sign that they’re the product of your own history and predilections. I’m not saying that means they’re obviously false. I’m saying that the very fact that they’re so predictable means that you have reason to be suspicious of their cogency. In other words, you’ve got good reason to doubt your doubts, since they’re generated not purely by the content of what’s in front of you, but by the fears you’ve cultivated for so long. So, doubt your doubts!
There are some other things you need. You need to restrict what you read and watch. You need to read and watch good Christian apologetics material (a good general book is Christianity for Skeptics). Stop reading and watching the skeptical stuff. You’re not equipped to handle it. Dealing with skeptics requires training, and by your own admission you know skeptical objections better than you know the faith. That’s a bad way to train, especially if you’re doing this by yourself.
Another thing: do everything in your power to ensure you’re not doing this by yourself. Find a Bible-believing church with Christians you can ask these questions of. Build relationships around these questions with people who can handle you asking questions and putting forward objections. Christians should be free to explore their questions in a church setting, and if your church setting isn’t conducive to this, find a better church.
Also, some doubts are more important than others. Learn to do what I call ‘theological triage’. When a doubt comes, analyze what it is, and what follows if it’s true. Say a doubt crops up about a supposed Bible contradiction. What the worst-case scenario? You may have to change your understanding of biblical inspiration. That’s it. That’s a pretty big change, sure, but need that undermine your warrant for believing God is real? For believing that Jesus claimed to be God incarnate? That He is raised from the dead? No, no, and no. But we don’t have to go that far. There’s a much simpler stopping point to most of these sorts of issues when you don’t have an answer: “I don’t know”. “I don’t know” doesn’t mean “I’m likely wrong”; it means “I don’t have an answer”. Your warrant for biblical inspiration should be based something like Jesus’ attitude to the Bible, not your ability to solve every supposed contradiction in the Bible to your own satisfaction. As such, when you don’t have an answer, it’s still perfectly rational to believe in biblical inspiration while waiting for an answer.
It’s the same even with God’s existence. Say you think some objection to a theistic argument has merit. Fine. So, you’re less certain that argument works. That hardly undercuts the reasonableness of belief in God. It may make you less certain, but even that isn’t necessary. Just because one argument for God is weak doesn’t have to mean anything for how certain we are that God is there. It just means that argument may not work for showing that God is there. But even if we become less certain, less certainty is not a lack of reasonableness.
And look after your body. Eat healthily, exercise regularly, and get good sleep. Take time to relax and do things unrelated to all this. Enjoy time with friends and family. And in this, pick the times you look into these questions very carefully. Don’t do apologetics or theology, or even read the Bible and pray, when you’re tired, hungry, thirsty, or sick. Apologetics and theology are mentally taxing activities, and require more energy and effort than you think they do. Respect that.
And, further to looking after your body: your brain is a part of your body. It may be worth even talking to your doctor about these things (I don’t know your situation, so it may not apply to you; this is just for you to consider). I’ve been through these sorts of doubts to the point where they were affecting my mental health. Doctors can provide help that other people can’t.
But let me finish with this—it’s perfectly natural to struggle with doubt. Certainty is a person-relative, situation-dependent will o’ the wisp, and ‘I don’t know’ is often the best answer we can give. But we do have reasonable warrant to believe God is there, and has revealed himself in Jesus (see e.g. Philosophical arguments for God and Agnosticism). Objections can be raised, but there’s no way to make belief in God unreasonable, and the state of the evidence concerning what Jesus claims and what happened to him isn’t changing. It’s early, and given by credible eyewitnesses. So, there are reasons to start trusting again. The experience of those around you should not be enough to distract you from devotion to Christ. He is true regardless of our feelings, and regardless of the stories of those around us. Follow Jesus; it’s rational, and He’s worth it.
Creation Ministries International