Saturday, July 12, 2008

Yielding to doubt

How does one deal with doubt about God’s existence? I recently watched Prince Caspian, the latest instalment of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, and was interested to see that one of the themes of the tale – if we consider the Christian symbolism intertwined in the story – was how the Christian journey is sometimes characterised with doubt. At one point one of the main characters, Peter, wonders in distress: “I wish he’d [Aslan] just given me some sort of proof.”

Doubt seems to be a recurring theme in Christian literature, and it seems that many Christians battle with it. I recently received an email from a Christian struggling with uncertainty, and his anguish was something that I could completely relate to. But what struck me most about his email is that his doubt in God was followed by a form of self-abasement. The question “Does God really exist?” was followed by “What is wrong with me?” The feeling of guilt that accompanies doubt is, I believe, a result of two general Christian beliefs: the first, that doubt is undesirable; the second, that God is perfect, and thus cannot be blamed for an undesirable situation. In other words, doubt is a problem; and if we doubt, we are to blame.

As a doubting Christian, I also believed there was something seriously wrong with me when I tried in vain to get some sense of God. But the one thing that I slowly realised is that the problem didn't lie with me at all, but with Christianity (or with God, if he exists). I couldn't for the life of me understand why a loving God would hide himself from me, and cause me so much anguish through the doubt I was experiencing. One day I came to the conclusion that a hidden God is no different to a God who doesn't exist. If there is no difference, I reasoned, then why waste energy and time – and experience so much anguish – believing in him.

When I finally gave up Christianity, doubt no longer remained an issue. No longer did I have to expend so much mental energy trying to believe in invisible demons, virgin births, parting seas, and people rising from the dead – things that seem so contradictory, incredible, and counter to everyday experience and common sense. I felt a strange sense of relief when I finally changed to a worldview that seemed more consistent with what I plainly observed in the world around me.

I now view doubt
as an opportunity for change, no longer as a threat. Questioning my own beliefs has lead to growth as it has enabled me to discover problems in my thinking. In the words of Dan Barker in Losing Faith in Faith, I conquered doubt by totally yielding to it, and I think – for me at least – I am better for it.

25 comments:

Jewish Atheist said...

Great post! I linked to it and provided a long excerpt here.

walkingawayfromreligion said...

Hey, I was going to say the exact same thing as Jewish atheist! LOL. I think eloquently put into words exactly how many of us feel/think.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

One of the problems with Christian doubt is that many don't admit to them, so when you are doubting you may feel all alone.

I too gave into doubt and found it quite refreshing.

Trey said...

"I now view doubt as an opportunity for change, no longer as a threat."
Very interesting line here. I guess my question is why do you NOW see doubt as an opportunity and you didn't before? It might seem a bit contradictory to say "now that I've dismissed earlier doubts, I can doubt freely" when really you can't doubt freely because you never dealt with your previous doubts...you simply dismissed them for "the world you saw right in front of you."
In fairness to you and to intellectualism or ex-Christianism, wouldn't it seem only right to return and face your previous doubts by, perhaps...dare I say...doubting them?

CyberKitten said...

Doubt is good.

david santos said...

I loved this post and this blog.
Happy week.

Anonymous said...

"The modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it... By revolting against everything he has lost his right to revolt against anything."

- GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Laughing Boy said...

"One day I came to the conclusion that a hidden God is no different to a God who doesn't exist."

This is tangential to the central point of your post, but is that (quoted above) a valid conclusion? Do you think that all hidden things are things that don't—or may as well not—exist? Or is this true only of what you would call God?

"When I finally gave up Christianity, doubt no longer remained an issue."

You say that doubt is not a issue for you yet you abandoned Christianity because, while you held to it, you had doubts. Are you saying that doubt is good, but only an long as you determinedly seek to eradicate it? I'm confused as to whether you are saying (between the lines as well and by you actual words) that doubt is OK or it is something to be avoided.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I would say that a hidden god has the same impact as a god who doesn't exist. I would not say that a hidden god equals a god who doesn't exist, for there certainly could be a really shy god who just likes to create things and then keep to himself.

Laughing Boy said...

"I would say that a hidden god has the same impact as a god who doesn't exist."

OK, then. Is it true that hidden things have no impact, or does this only apply to a hidden God? If a thing makes an impact, has it, ipso facto, become unhidden...and would that therefore prove it's existence?

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

hid·den
–adjective
1. concealed; obscure; covert: hidden meaning; hidden hostility.

Lets get that out of the way first, so we are sure we are talking about the same thing.

I would say that yes, the hidden thing it's self would have no impact, for if it were to have an impact it would become unhidden. For example, even though we can't see wind we can see the effect of the wind so it is not hidden.

The idea of the hidden thing can have great impact, I.e. Big Foot, Extra Terrestrials, etc. Even in those examples the evidence shown for them doesn't necessarily make them real, but it does excite those who believe and perhaps even convince others to believe.

Laughing Boy said...

The wind is not hidden because we can see it's impact. Big Foot is hidden (has no impact) but the "Idea of Big Foot" has impact (is not hidden). If "hidden" means "has no impact" where do we stand on a thing's existence?

Hiding is an action that requires a object. Only things that exist can hide, or even be hidden. If that's true, then Kevin's reasoning - that a hidden God is a non-existing God - is self-defeating. (I guess that Kevin would say it's a problem with his use of language, not his logic.)

The point of all this, I suppose, is that God does not exist because nothing can be undeniably attributed to His direct supernatural action, or at most, He may exist but is irrelevant since He is so well hidden. It is therefore supremely ironic that the most impactful and ubiquitous thing in human history, the "idea of God", has no foundational object.

Of course this assumes that a person is correct in thinking that God is hidden (always and completely hidden, not just hidden now and then) and not simply unable or unwilling to see what others can see.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Why would someone be unable to see the most impactful and ubiquitous thing in human history? Being an ex-Christian I certainly understand the argument that someone would pretend not see, because they don't want to obey God.

Laughing Boy said...

"Why would someone be unable to see the most impactful and ubiquitous thing in human history?"

Is that what I said?

As to why anyone would deny that the idea of God has any foundational object (so to speak), the argument you mention is, in my opinion, as close to the truth as any.

BTW: What do you think is the most impactful event (real or imagined) in human history?

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Laughing Boy - "It is therefore supremely ironic that the most impactful and ubiquitous thing in human history, the "idea of God", has no foundational object."

Laughing Boy - "Of course this assumes that a person is correct in thinking that God is hidden (always and completely hidden, not just hidden now and then) and not simply unable or unwilling to see what others can see. "

After rendering it I came away with the bold bits. Forgive me if I misinterpreted your meaning, but I thought you were saying that God was the most impactful and ubiquitous thing in human history, and that some were perhaps unable or unwilling to see him.

I have no idea what the most impactful event (real or imagined) in human history. I would imagine you could ask that question of a hundred different people and get a hundred different answers.

Laughing Boy said...

Sorry if I was unclear Mike. "God the concept" is what I meant as the impactful/ubiquitous thing. "God the Person" is what (or who) some are unable or unwilling to comprehend. Like Big Foot only bigger :-).

I'd like to see a response to Trey's earlier comment. Why was doubt unacceptable as a Christian, but as an ex-Christian doubt is no longer a threat? Do all your ideas now line up with the world as you see it leaving you doubt-free, or do you have doubts but no longer fear them as you once did? What do you mean when you say you "conquered doubt"? It seems more proper to say that you were conquered *by* doubt; unless "totally yielding" is some new form of conquering of which I was unaware.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Yes, all my ideas now line up with the world as I see it, even more so now that I have rejected Christianity. Doubt was acceptable when I was a Christian, even Christ doubted in the garden before being taken off to be tortured and killed, but to many the discussion of doubt or the admittance of it was taboo. Do I have doubt about my core beliefs now? Not in the same way I did when I was a Christian. I have things I don't know. There are things that are not completely proven to my satisfaction, so I have doubts about them, but I do not doubt the existence of anything real. You see, as a Christian I read scripture and prayed daily, the bulk of my thoughts were directed to God. I surrounded myself with things of God and saw him in everything everywhere, not in a pantheistic or panentheistic way, but in him as lord of all creation.

I did say that I gave into doubt, not that I conquered it.

I don't have to practice anything to affirm my current beliefs, I just believe.

Laughing Boy said...

Mike: My questions were directed specifically at Kevin (though he seldom comments after the original post), but thanks for responding with your thoughts.

***
Theological interlude: I don't think you can draw the conclusion from what's written that Christ was doubting in Gethsemene the night He was arrested. I think He desired another way to accomplish His task other than the way of the Cross.
***

So, post Christianity, it seems you have two epistemological (and Rumsfeldian) buckets:

1) Things you know you know.
2) Things you know you don't know.

How sure are you that everything that you have in the first bucket really belongs there? How sure are you that there isn't another bucket called "Things you don't know you don't know?"

I feel sorry for people are made to feel ashamed for experiencing doubts as a Christian. Many people who aren't allowed to give voice to their doubts ultimately rebel against such a policy by abandoning their beliefs instead of abandoning the policy. (I'm not assuming that was the case with you.)

Doubt is a weakness, but weakness is overcome with resistance, not denial.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

in my opinion doubt is not weakness, doubt is honesty, and from it you will grow stronger in what you hold to be true.

Laughing Boy said...

You are right that doubt presents opportunities for growth. Dealing properly with doubt is beneficial, but the benefit is in the dealing, not the doubting. Maybe I'm drawing too fine a line in order to salvage my point. Who knows?

Thanks for a nice conversation, Mike.

Kevin Parry said...

Thank you to everyone who have commented on this post. I've been following the discussion with great interest.

Laughing boy wrote:
I'd like to see a response to Trey's earlier comment. Why was doubt unacceptable as a Christian, but as an ex-Christian doubt is no longer a threat? Do all your ideas now line up with the world as you see it leaving you doubt-free, or do you have doubts but no longer fear them as you once did

Trey raised an excellent point! Thinking it through more a bit more, It think doubt per se was not, and still is not, the problem. For me, I think the problem was with the Christian idea that the process of doubt should only result in one outcome - stronger faith. The process of doubt always opens up the possibility of adopting different - and sometimes contrary - beliefs, and I think doubt is healthy when the doubter equally examines both sides, with the attitude that she/he is fully prepared to change her/his mind in the end, if need be. However, the Christianity I grew up with taught that, although doubt was undesirable, changing one's mind, or loosing one's faith as a result, was much, much worse. Doubt was tolerated, as long as I only chose Christianity in the end. So it was this restriction on the end result of doubt that was the problem.

So the realization that it is totally okay to change one’s mind is what removed my fear of doubt. I still doubt many things, but I’m not afraid if those doubts result in a paradigm shift, or change in beliefs. I’m still thinking this through in more depth, so I hope I'm making sense here, and I hope this adequately answers your queries.

Laughing boy wrote:
This is tangential to the central point of your post, but is that (quoted above) a valid conclusion? Do you think that all hidden things are things that don't—or may as well not—exist? Or is this true only of what you would call God?

Good question. I'm not saying that God doesn't exist because he is hidden. Rather, I'm saying that I'm living a life as if God doesn't exist, because I have no idea if God is there, but hidden, or not there at all. For me, there is no way to tell the difference. And there are many, many probable things (other gods and beings) that are either possibly hidden or don't exist. If I believe in a hidden God, what’s stopping me from believing in all these other things as well? It seems more practical to me to live a life as if these things don’t exist, until they become ‘un-hidden’, so to speak.

Of course, the premise of what I’ve just said is that God is in fact a hidden being, and I’m sure many might disagree with this.

Thanks again for all your comments. You have all clarified my thinking regarding this post

All the best
Kevin

Dan said...

Kevin, it appears that a common theme of yours is that you can't belive in a God who doesn't reveal himself to you. Well, the scrptures say that one must be called to have belief in God. One must be chosen to have legitimate faith in God. Trying to believe in God on your own is futile.

I came here after reading a post of yours from a year ago. It was about how Christians use the fear of hell to win converts. Now, I'm very sorry that you had to withstand such abuse as a child, but these hell mongers probably believe what they are saying. I'm amazed that such people aren't institutionalized as the result of more insane pleas for "the lost" to accept Christ (I put "" around the lost, because these hell believers are absolutely lost).

I was fortunate to not be brought up to fear some fabled hell. However, I find the scriptures quite valid, only because I have been shown some truths that I can't doubt. To most, this may be confusing. I believe the scriptures, yet I emphatically deny the existence of some eternal hell. I believe the scriptures that are translated correctly and I can see how they spiritually connect. If you want to learn what the bible is really saying, go to bible-truths.com.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

"Trying to believe in God on your own is futile." Sure, if you're a Calvinist. That is not what all Christians believe, nor is it the only message scripture teaches.

Kevin Parry said...

Dan wrote
However, I find the scriptures quite valid, only because I have been shown some truths that I can't doubt.

Hi Dan. Thank you for commenting. I’m glad that you yourself have come to a place where you don’t doubt your belief in the non-existence of hell, but there are many other Christians and theists out there who believe, as earnestly as you do, that hell does exist. I guess the question is: who is right?

There are many beliefs that different Christian denominations share, but there are many that they don’t share. There is much disagreement – and sometimes on vital theological issues – between various Christians. As an atheist, I’m left bewildered by all this apparent confusion, of the many different, contradictory, voices telling me what is true. And all these voices claim that their beliefs are Biblical, that their only source, which can’t be wrong, is Scripture. You can see why many non-believers are left somewhat confused...

DMH said...

Wow. What a great post. Two years ago I went through my deconversion. Your words rang true in me. Doubt really is an opportunity to change and grow. Once I embraced my growing doubt I was able to search for the truth more freely.