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Monday, June 21, 2010

"The Day I Quit Believing in God" by C. Michael Patton

Michael Patton is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and an evangelical Christian minister. He operates Reclaiming the Mind Ministries and a popular blog, Parchment and Pen. He posted an entry on his blog recently entitled: "The Day I Quit Believing in God" . I like to read Patton's posts because he is an unusual evangelical. He is painfully transparent with his own faith struggles and he is honest in acknowledging a number of the problems with evangelical theology. This particular post about the day he stopped believing really resonated with me. It was similar in some ways to my own experience.

He writes:

When I quit believing, I was beginning to sit down on my couch at home. By the time I pulled my legs up beside me, the terrible and foreign realization came to my mind that I didn’t believe. I don’t know why, but as I began to think about God, Christ, prayer, and all those things that form the normal spiritual backdrop to my thoughts, they had been robbed of their primary fuel—belief. I simply did not believe. There was this sudden realization that it was all false. Covering my life like a dark coroners blanket was a new belief: the belief that my whole life I had fooled myself into believing in something that was not true. I did not believe that God was real.

I remember the first time I realized that my faith was slipping away. The thought popped into my head, out of the blue, "how can a person dying 2000 years ago have any relation to me and my sins today?" I pushed the thought out of my mind and went on about my business (I was working on my swamp cooler on top of my home in Arizona). The thought came back though and I realized that I needed to study the matter of the cross and the atonement more. I decided to file this doubt under "unanswered questions," while I continued teaching in the Bible College where I was employed. Occasionally, though, the thought would come back and it was like part of my brain was telling me that "this doesn't make sense" and "it can't be true." I chalked those thoughts up to the devil, thinking that he was trying to cause me to doubt. As I read various theological works on the subject, the doubts got bigger. I began to realize that this was not a matter of doubting some minor doctrine (such as the mode of baptism or type of eschatology) but it was the central doctrine of the Christian faith. That Christ died for my sins is the heart and soul of the gospel message. If that is not true, then nothing else in Christianity is true.

In Patton's case, his faith returned two days after it left. He explains:

I was on the elliptical machine at the gym. I was hoping that some exercise would help. While sweating away, I was reading a book about faith. The book did not really help, it is just part of my memories because of what was about to happen. After 35 minutes of elevated heart rate, suddenly, in a moment of time, it was like I could access the part of my brain again that was responsible for belief. Like a foot is awakened due to renewed blood flow, I felt the same relief in my brain (odd to say, but it felt like the right side) and in my soul. One minute I did not believe, and the next I did. My faculties returned to me and my faith was completely restored as if it never left.

Patton believes that this was some sort of test from the Lord. He says:
Since my “two days as an atheist” experience, I have had a lot of time to contemplate on what happened. I don’t have all the answers, but I am firm in my conviction that God was teaching me something through experience that I already believed in theory: Human effort is not ultimately responsible for faith, God is. In my ministry, I suppose this is important.

He mentions another evangelical leader who told him in private that he had experienced a loss of faith for 3 months. This leader never shared it with anyone publicly.

Well, my loss of faith has lasted for about 14 years now and I don't expect it to return. I felt the same type of mental anquish and emotional turmoil that Patton described for about a year or so. After becoming settled in my conviction that evangelical Christianity is not true, I have never looked back. I can honestly say that I have not had one doubt about my de-conversion. I have never thought, "well maybe Christianity is true after all." Although de-conversion was a painful experience, I can say today that I am glad it happened and I feel very liberated. At this point, I can agree with the words of Jesus: "You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32).


  1. Try getting on an elliptical, Ken. See what happens.

  2. That is interesting psychologically. Maybe the icnreased blood flow to the right side of the brain did reactivate the part of the brain responsible for relgious feelings-as demonstrated by the Persinger experiments, but in addition, he really did not want to lose his faith-he made a living with it and did not want to be a hypocrite and continue teaching when he did not believe. My guess is that when he no longer needs to cling to his already shaky beliefs, he will become atheistic again. Perhaps after he retires or gets another type of job.

  3. Why do so many Christians deal with doubt? Is it because 1) the evidence for evangelical Christianity is very slim, 2) evangelical Christianity contradicts reason, or 3) the doctrines of evangelical Christianity are self-contradictory?

    Or is it because of 1) the devil, 2) sin in the life of the doubter, or 3) God testing you?

    In my particular case, I started out thinking it was one of the last set but eventually came to the conclusion that it was because of the first set.

    It just seems odd to me that so many Christians would struggle with doubt. People don't struggle with whether George Washington was the first president of the US. People don't struggle with other matters, yet a lot of Christians struggle with whether Christianity is really true. Could the reason be because its not true?

    1. People struggle due to the bible saying one thing and then in another chapter saying exactly the opposite. In other words, you can't win no matter what you do. It all comes down to God's Will and people get tired of God's Will being harsh, painful, and the opposite of what they are needing or praying for. People need money yet God says it is the root of all evil, but he says give 10% of what you have....Well isn't that interesting? Seems God wants money, yet he says it's evil. God says Jesus died on the cross to save us all from illness, poverty, and all the bad things that happen in life, but the majority of Christians I know are all suffering in financial status and health....God says he never lies, but like a politician the bible has one verse that says one thing and another verse to counteract that verse. Makes it kind of difficult to understand what a person has to do to get a prayer answered. Why pray at all? According to the bible, everything is determined and predestined by Jesus anyway. he says "Ask and you shall receive" That's not true....The only way that will happen if is it's God's will and God's will happens no matter what....Prayer is useless, it only make the prayer feel better. God is in charge and He will do whatever He wants, regardless of how it makes us feel or how it effects us and all anyone will every say is that God knows best......

  4. Of course, logic and reason will always win. The latter set-God testing you, Devil etc. are simply rationalizations from people who are not completely convinced yet by the rational thinking. Rationalization is one of the post- Freudian mental defense mechanisms. They are ways the mind tricks you so that you eliminate anxiety and feel better.

  5. This weekend I visited my high school religious education teacher. When I asked him whether he was still active in the church, he confessed that he had reached the point where he couldn't say the creed at mass anymore because he didn't believe that any of those things were so. His faith had been shaken by the priest abuse scandals and after listening to one of Ehrman's courses and reading Dawkins, he could no longer believe the stories he had accepted for the better part of eighty years. At an age when many are just waiting around for the end, he had the intellectual integrity to reexamine his whole understanding of life. It was very impressive.

  6. My guess is that when he no longer needs to cling to his already shaky beliefs, he will become atheistic again. Perhaps after he retires or gets another type of job.

    I went through a doubt-rebelief phase. My first round of atheism started when I realized I wasn't sure if I really believed and, therefore, probably shouldn't be going forward with my plans to go to Seminary.

    It ended when I met a girl. So I had some increased blood flow myself, just, y'know, not to the brain...

    Unfortunately my new-found series of rationals only lasted for so long. Eventually I realized I couldn't keep lying to myself and, once again, found myself unable to believe.

    I've run in to quite a few people who have told me stories with similar plots since then. I think it's a cycle of disbelief, followed by fear of the end result, followed by rationalization, followed by inability to continue rationalizing, followed by continued fear.

    But I think those who make it through the second fear stage with the minimum of scarring probably make it long-term.

  7. Currently reading a book that touches significantly on this: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).

    It's a pretty thorough examination of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and post-hoc rationalizations. You might enjoy it.

  8. Geds, What is there to be afraid of? If you have led a good life and there turned out to be a God after all, wouldn't he forgive you anyway?

    If there was a God and a heaven and he turned you down, despite you being a good person, he must be a nasty, vengeful dictator and would you really want to spend eternity with him anyway?

    If a former Christian has realised the Bible is full of contradictions and falsehoods etc. you would also think that the idea of a soul existing separately from the brain and body was ludicrous as well.

  9. Clare,

    Where you said if you're a good person, wouldn't God forgive you anyway? I was taught it's by faith alone, works don't accomplish anything. So you could be a mass-murderer or whatever your whole life, then pray the sinner's prayer sincerely at the end and all would be well.

    Or if you're a Calvinist, you believe you're chosen and that's all there is to it. I don't think you can get unchosen, so it's not about works either. I may be over-generalizing or a little dramatic, but I think these are the basic ideas.

    Also I think of all this in terms of whether you're happy in Christianity or not-that that is one factor. It only brought me confusion. Plus I'm not a big "group" type person, so I didn't have the very strong social connection that others have. I concentrated on the sermon-that was the big deal to me-what is the preacher saying? So my dis-satisfaction plus other things led to my departure. But, sorry to ramble on-I also had a "moment" like Ken and Michael, where I suddenly, for the first time, had a clear thought-"what if it's all made up and there really IS no god?"

  10. Geds, What is there to be afraid of? If you have led a good life and there turned out to be a God after all, wouldn't he forgive you anyway?

    You've obviously never been an evangelical, have you?

    In that world it has basically nothing to do with living a good life. It has to do with behaving the right way, believing the right things, and not sinning according to whatever the sin du jour is.

    Also, it's not like throwing out an old shirt. When you leave the church you also lose friends and, possibly, family members. A lot of the fear comes from the sudden realization that you may well be on your own.

    And the more dedicated you are, the worse it is. It's like a bad break up, quitting a job, and moving away all rolled up in to one. With the added fun of having to contemplate eternal damnation.

  11. It is like a divorce when you say good-bye to your belief's that you held dear. There is a grieving process that we go through. When Michael writes about depression I relate because when I no longer believed I felt depressed until I realized that what I was going through was like experiencing the death of a love one. Now I am free from all the worry of confessing sin and can live a free life that is doing the best I can for all man kind and not worrying about trying to save anyone. I am a better person because I want to help others because it is what I want to do not what I have to do. FREE AT LAST!

  12. What I found striking in this account--and in others as well, and in my own personal experience--is the assumption that the alternative to belief (in God, in Christianity) is nihilism--a world where all is permitted and nothing signifies.

    Maybe the atheist equivalent of apologetics (has it a name I don't know?) should address this I think not uncommon assumption, and (a) set out the case against theistic ethics (Euthyphro, Old Testament horrors), (b) set out the case for a creditable and respectable non-theistic ethics (e.g. Pullian's intuitionism, Luke's desirism), and (c) set out the case for a non-transcendent but more than satisfactory meaning of life not endorsed by God.

  13. James:

    There's a problem with your central assumption that there is such a thing as "atheistic apologetics." There really isn't. Further, I would argue that there shouldn't be.

    Atheism simply says, "I don't believe in god." Or, more accurately, "I don't see enough evidence to show the existence of a god." This doesn't create anything closely representing a moral or ethical framework, nor should it.

    The problem is that there is a conceptual framework that theism creates a god-driven ethical framework, ergo any non-god-driven world must lack ethics. Or, alternately, lack of belief itself must create its own framework. Many do try to argue the latter, basically by pointing out the most bloodthirsty of passages from the holy books and saying, "See, god's not so great. But we don't let such silly, sectarian disputes get in the way."

    While the first part of that statement is valid, the second...not so much. People are people. People will fight for whatever reason they choose, regardless of whether a god is involved or not. I would argue (and, I'd say, with plenty of evidence) that the vast majority of "religious" conflicts throughout history just had religion as a thin sheen painted over far more secular purposes. Ergo the non-religious are not safe from conflict. They just won't be able to use the same sets of justifications.

    Upon leaving the faith it's up to the new non-believer to come up with a new ethical framework. Ken has his, which he's talked about plenty. I've taken a combination of Utilitarianism and Martin Buber's conception of the I and Thou, as well as the great Arizona sage Roger Clyne.

    The thing is, though, that while Jeremy Bentham was basically an atheist, Martin Buber was a not-exactly-practicing Jew, and Roger Clyne is...well, I don't know what he is and don't care, their religious views really don't matter to me. What matters is that they have things to say about how we should treat each other with which I happen to agree. And if any of them have said things I don't agree with I'll take the good and ignore the bad.

    It's my life, after all. And in the final equation my philosophy is built around what matters to me. No one has an exclusive stranglehold on truth and no one is perfect. So no single philosophical framework will work for everyone.

    And as for your point (c): atheism really, really doesn't set out a satisfactory meaning of life. If you're going to be an atheist you basically have to buy that we're all here because of a random series of selections driven by environment and pressure. That doesn't create meaning. It says that we need to make the most of what we have and create our own meaning.

    So I go to a lot of Peacemakers shows, hang out with good people, and refuse to drink crappy beer. What else could I ask for?

  14. It certainly isn't true that atheists lack ethics. However, I'm not sure that you can have any kind of transcendent ethical system apart from a deity of some sort. You've got yours and I've got mine and no ones can really be judged to be better (as there can be no transcendent values upon which to base such judgments - only cultural or personal ones). I think this ultimately is what CMP is getting at.

  15. Geds, you are quite right that I was not raised evangelical, thank God! But I did hang around with a Baptist youth group as a teenager.
    I understand the grieving process on leaving the church etc. but people should not fear losing family and friends. The good ones will stand by you and the ones that reject you were never really friends or good people in the first place. I have never lost a friend by telling them I was an atheist.
    I find it incredible that evangelicals really believe that atheists have no ethics or morals. My father was an atheist, but he got the Royal Humane Society medal for risking his own life to save a drowning man. We also personally helped street people etc. by inviting them into the house and giving them a meal and clothing.
    The Golden Rule was first talked about by Confucious - not Jesus. Do to others as you would have them do to you- it's quite simple really.

  16. I understand the grieving process on leaving the church etc. but people should not fear losing family and friends. The good ones will stand by you and the ones that reject you were never really friends or good people in the first place.

    There's a difference between "should not" and "do not."

    Also, it's one thing when the person that you think is most likely to never talk to you again is that asshole you never much liked anyway but had to pretend to because, y'know, body of Christ and all. It's another when it's your mother. Or that woman with whom you (think you) are deeply and madly in love.

    Honestly, and don't take this the wrong way, but having someone who was never in that situation come in and say, "I don't see why you'd worry about it. Just make the logical move," is annoying and offensive. Imagine you've just gone through a terrible break up and someone who has never been in a relationship comes up and says, "Hey, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Why are you crying? Stop it! That's not logical."

    Even if it's not intended it comes off as disdainful and superior at worst, crass and uncaring at best.

  17. Geds, I am sorry you take it that way, and I have no idea why you think I sound uncaring or disdainful -I am of course superior! I was merely pointing out that most decent people will stick by you. I very much doubt your own mother or girlfiend would never speak to you again.

  18. I very much doubt your own mother or girlfiend would never speak to you again.

    You're right about one of those...

    To be fair, it was a terrible relationship, anyway.

  19. I can't name the minute, not the day, maybe not even the month, when I came to believe in Jesus. Up until then, I'd been an atheist, and yet sort of felt like I couldn't believe...until one day I could and did.
    It's personal experiential verification of the biblical doctrine of God's sovereignty. Surely there are things far too deep for us to know!

  20. "Currently reading a book that touches significantly on this: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)."

    I read that book, too. Outstanding.

  21. Rhology, I used to embrace Reformed theology. It's so absurd, though: God commands us to believe, even though we're born with a nature that makes belief impossible. Nevertheless, we will receive terrible divine punishment if we don't do what we're incapable of doing (unless God effectually calls us to faith). It's like commanding a goldfish to fly and punishing it because it doesn't.

    All of the erudite Calvinist theologians in history have been impotent when it comes to removing this gigantic Achilles' heel from their belief system.

  22. SteveJ,

    What is absurd about it? You just *asserted* it.

    And why would I want to remove it from my belief system? It's what the Bible teaches, and the Bible is what God spoke to humanity.

  23. Steve: Just back away slowly. You're entering a world where words don't mean what the rest of the world agrees they mean and assertions count as proof.

    Case in point: I do believe that there was just an admission that the Bible teaches that what the Bible teaches and commands is impossible, but it's still important to believe because the Bible says to do it.

  24. It's what the Bible teaches, and the Bible is what God spoke to humanity.

    The divinity of the bible is an article of faith that is simply not provable. A Christian can no more prove that than a Muslim can prove that the Quran preexisted in heaven before being revealed to the last, greatest prophet. There is no argument that you can provide that is not viciously circular.

  25. Geds,

    what the Bible teaches and commands is impossible

    Matthew 19:26 - In response to the question "Who then can be saved?", Jesus said "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
    And yes, it's best to back away slowly, especially when you've made indefensible assertions.

  26. Then take your own advice. Declaring the Bible as authority because the Bible says so is as indefensible as can be.

  27. As a few of the posts above have indicated, the context in which one's doubts arise has a lot to do with their form, their emotional impact, and the way one internally handles them.

    In my case (a life-long, theologically educated, ministering Evangelical until age 45), I'd always explored the "edges" of Christian theology and probed, but only a bit, at the core. But it was when I spent 4 years part-time studying among a diverse group of conservative to progressive (or Process, often) students and Profs at Claremont that the stage was set for me to exit, more gradually and peacably (internally) than most.

    To the point properly raised by post-ers above, I agree that the awareness of alternatives, especially one(s) that a given person finds reasonable or appealing, can be key. Funny thing is, alternatives abound. (I.e., systems of theology/philosophy that combine various elements of God/Bible/ethics, etc. in many different ways; or pantheism, panentheism, etc.) But most "Bible believers" don't know that, or do but know little about them or how to access and/or understand them. Indeed, some are not very "accessible," including the Process Theology common at Claremont or the deep thought of the likes of Chardin, Barth, etc.

    Back to my case: Being exposed to various alternative views and the loving, open people who held them (many "true" liberals who accepted me fully while still "conservative," e.g.) was instrumental in my ability to pretty unemotionally "walk away" from Evangelical beliefs and ties... and it surely helped that I had gradually (not completely intentionally) loosened most ties to the Evangelical world, other than family members, which were fairly loose already.

    So Clare, you are spot-on re. Michael Patton's (or anyone's) life situation playing in so significantly to his "return of faith." Indeed, it would have been probably too costly to have remained in disbelief.

    Also thanks, a couple of you, for the shout-out re. that book I now intend to read. For what it's worth, I intend to focus my psych/theology background increasingly on things like the psychology/sociology of belief and religious institutions and to the kind of issues we discuss here, and join others in researchin, publishing, etc. on this fascinating and vital area. Rapid changes are afoot, and the culture will need a lot more guidance in this process. (I believe scientific materialists and their "pure" humanist cousins will have some adjusting to do, as well as literalist Christians.)

    Howard Pepper

  28. Rhology, Matthew 19:26 is not part of a theological discourse on irresistible grace. It's about riches and the near-impossibility of a rich man entering the kingdom of God.

  29. SteveJ,

    You missed the disciples' question directly preceding Jesus' answer.

  30. But you missed the point. Jesus wasn't saying that all people have an innate inability to believe until it's divinely removed. He said that rich people have hopeless obstacles in entering the kingdom. He is not teaching Calvinism there.

  31. "Then who can be saved?"
    "With man this is impossible."

    OK, SteveJ.

  32. OK, so here's what he meant, according to you:

    Jesus: "It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

    Disciples: "Who then can be saved?"

    Jesus: "With man this is impossible, because of Total Inability -- the 'T' of the TULIP. All human beings are, by virtue of their adamic nature, unable to repent and believe the gospel. Unless there is an act of Irresistible Grace -- the 'I' of the TULIP -- removing the heart of stone, sovereignly imparting regeneration and effectually calling the person to justifying faith in me."

    Disciples: "Yawn. Thank you, Lord. May we go fishing now?"

  33. Yes, that's what He meant, except for the insulting last line. But see, you're mocking that He packed all that stuff in that one verse, which I never claimed He did. See, the Bible's more than one verse. Notice that?

    1. For every Wonderful saying the bible has, I can give you another scripture saying exactly the opposite, so what is a person supposed to believe except God's will is what will be done regardless of what the verses say that makes us feel all giddy inside?

  34. Disciples: "Yawn. Thank you, Lord. May we go fishing now?"


  35. Patton's experience is an excellent piece of evidence for my ongoing assertion: it's entirely (or almost entirely) neurological.

    Ken, I find this statement interesting: ""how can a person dying 2000 years ago have any relation to me and my sins today?""

    It really had never occurred to you before? It had never crossed your mind?

  36. Cipher,

    Believe it or not, No. I just accepted it because it was in the Bible and I was taught not to question what was in the Bible.

  37. Mind-boggling. Your experience says so much about who they are - and you're one of the few who had the capacity to get out.

  38. @ Cipher - "It really had never occurred to you before? It had never crossed your mind?"

    I took a while to cross my mind, because it was never explained as a whole process. It was given to me in individual pieces: "Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. What a glorious sacrifice! I remember being all impressed by that as a child; I mean, imagine someone being willing to do that! He saved everybody!

    It was only later, when I was putting things together, that the pieces didn't seem to fit. "Wait, what does Jesus dying have to do with my sins? So Jesus had to sacrifice himself to save us from God? But isn't Jesus supposed to be God? How does that work? And what kind of god has to have a sacrifice before he can forgive?" So then I started looking more closely at the Doctrine of the Trinity, and the more I looked at that, the more it seemed like a clumsy, post facto rationalization for why worshipping Jesus didn't violate the First Commandment.

    It was pretty much all downhill from there.

    But no, it's not such a surprise that this doesn't occur to people. If it's given to you in separate pieces, the difficulties aren't there; and if you're not the sort of person who likes to shove ideas against each other and see how they interact, you may never notice them.

    There are people who follow the ideas out, see where the difficulties are, and still keep their faith. I don't know how they manage, but that may be precisely because I couldn't manage it myself.

  39. I understand. I guess I just find the lack of - let's call it "discernment" - astonishing. It's completely foreign to the way I think. As Ken knows, I've spent the large part of my adult life making my way painfully through the various faith traditions, and I've always been the one pointing out contradictions and logical inconsistencies to those who didn't want to see them. I can certainly understand wanting so desperately to believe that one willfully blinds oneself, but I can't understand never stepping back and trying to take in a broader view, if only for a few brief moments - and yet, I guess it happens all the time.

  40. Cipher,

    I was indoctrinated and the teaching was reinforced in a very authoritarian type of church. I might have thought about it at some stage but just figured that the wisdom of God is so higher than man's that I shouldn't expect to understand it.

    1. Really? You think God doesn't want you to understand Him????? Then why was the Bible even written....What type of God wouldn't want you to understand Him...How can you worship something that you don't understand. How can you make sense of a book that says one thing in one of the Chapters, yet the exact opposite in another?

  41. I might have thought about it at some stage but just figured that the wisdom of God is so higher than man's that I shouldn't expect to understand it.

    Yeah, they say that - "God's ways are not ours", and so forth - then use it to rationalize the most appalling behavior on his part. The idea is that God is supposed to be better than we are, not worse - but they never see that.

    This absolutely floors the Buddhists, by the way. I managed a Tibetan monastic center for three years. The elderly lama with whom I lived couldn't get over the concept of eternal damnation. The Tibetans are no slouches when it comes to the concept of hell, believe me - they have multiple hells, and describe them in terms that would make a Christian fundamentalist faint dead away - but the idea of abandoning a sentient being eternally, they find incomprehensible, especially in a being as advanced as God supposedly is. They allow for the existence of the deities of antiquity, but in their cosmology, no one of them is a creator. They see God as the highest of the deities, but he isn't enlightened, and he didn't create the universe(s).

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