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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How Does One Explain a Temporary Loss of Faith in an Evangelical Christian?

I have been thinking some more about the loss of faith (for two days) that Michael Patton described in his post: The Day I Quit Believing in God. I came across another post by Jim Spiegel entitled: To the God Who Might Be There. Spiegel is the author of The Making of An Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief. (I am tempted to ask Spiegel if his unbelief was due to some immorality in his life but I will not go there).

Spiegel writes:

During my first year of graduate school I went through a brief crisis of faith, largely due to the influence of a particular professor who was especially adamant in his religious skepticism. In fact, you might say he was—pardon the oxymoron—a dogmatic skeptic. After a few weeks in his class I found myself struggling with doubts of my own and entertaining the thought that my Christian commitment was based on a lie. What if, after all, God did not exist? I recall one evening as I went to pray sensing the potential absurdity of what I was about to do—quietly thanking and praising a fictitious deity, and making assorted requests to someone who was not there. The usual feeling of God’s presence, an ineffable intuition that was reliable until then, was gone. What to do? I suppose I could have allowed that feeling, or the lack thereof, to dictate a decision not to pray at all (emphasis mine). But as I sat there I tried to make a rational assessment of the situation. If there really is no God, I wondered, then what harm will it do to pray? At worst, I mutter to myself for a few minutes and perhaps benefit from the meditative discipline involved in the process. On the other hand, if God is real, despite my failure to sense his presence, then he will hear my prayers and perhaps respond to my pleas to make his presence known to me again as before. And perhaps he will reward me by giving me more assurance than ever that he is real since my prayers in that state would be an even greater act of faith than my usual prayers prompted by the confidence that he exists. I’m not sure how lucid this reasoning was, but that was my thought process.

So I prayed. I prayed then and several other times during that period to the God who might be there. And as the days went by, my assurance of God’s existence did return—and yes, stronger than ever. Would that confidence have returned eventually had I ceased praying? I don’t know. But I’m glad I did it, since I believe that not only did God hear those prayers but it was also a good exercise in devotional perseverance.
Note that Spiegel says: The usual feeling of God’s presence, an ineffable intuition that was reliable until then, was gone.

I am intrigued by Spiegel's description of his temporary loss of faith as a feeling that God was no longer present. In the comment section, in response to a question, he elaborated on this "feeling":

As for the “awareness of God,” that is difficult to describe, but I would compare it to the feeling you might have when someone else is in the room when you don’t see or hear them (though at the level of the “numinous”). I would also emphasize that the “feeling” has a moral quality to it, as the awareness of God is closely associated with the “sense of ought,” as Kant would say. And it is also deeply connected to my sense of love and being loved. When I was going through that spell of doubt, I felt a sense of abandonment, I suppose. The assurance I had that I was loved absolutely and that, as Julian of Norwich once said, “all is well, and all will be well,” had faded. But after praying several times these things returned as well as the more direct, though very subtle, personal “perception” of God.
This "awareness of God" as the "feeling that someone else is in the room," which Spiegel describes, seems very unreliable to me. We have all felt at times that there was someone else in the room or in the house when there was not. At seances, due to the suggestive environment, people will claim to feel the presence of a dead person. Is this experience veridical? I don't think so. I have been in church services where due to the emotions, the music, the oratory, or some other phenomena, I have felt what I thought at the time was the "presence of God." Was it really the presence of God? I don't think so now. I think this feeling can be explained on a purely psychological basis. People of other religions (which evangelical Christianity would say are false religions) sometimes have mystical experiences in which they are certain they have "felt" the presence of the divine. Are these experiences genuine? I don't think so and most evangelicals would agree.

I find it interesting also that these "lapses of faith" that both Patton and Spiegel describe came as a result of intellectual arguments against Christianity (Spiegel from a "skeptical Professor" and Patton from a "former Christian"). As they tried to combat this with intellectual arguments in favor of Christianity, their faith did not return.

Spiegel writes:
As I recall, it was only my sense of awareness of God that dissipated during that period, rather than my being convinced that the evidences for God were somehow suddenly lacking. And I recall consciously reminding myself of some of those evidences (the existence of the universe, the presence of living things, consciousness, etc.) in order to combat the loss of my immediate awareness of God. But for whatever reason, at that time I was impervious to the import of the evidences.
Patton says:
My thoughts turned toward good theology and apologetics. I turned to the silver bullets that were normally on automatic pilot, but were strangely absent. So I forced it. I thought to myself “If God is not real, why is there something rather than nothing?” It did not work. Then I went into the prophecies of the Old Testament. How could they be there if God was not real? Finally, I went to the resurrection of Christ. How do I reject that without committing a thousand overrides to my intellect? However, none of them were effective in the slightest.
Why would intellectual arguments cause doubt but counter arguments would not resolve it? Here is my opinion. Over a hundred years ago, William James wrote: belief follows psychological and not logical laws (Essays in Psychical Research). Neuroscience is now confirming James contention. Robert Borton, an M.D. and a Neuroscientist, maintains that belief is more like a feeling than it is a rational deduction. In his book, On Being Certain, he writes: Certainty and similar states of knowing what we know arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason (p. xi). In an article in the Scientific American he says: There are two separate aspects of a thought, namely the actual thought, and an independent involuntary assessment of the accuracy of that thought. The former seems to come from the left hemisphere of the brain and the latter from the right hemisphere. Studies by neuroscientists indicate that religious or mystical experiences take place in the right hemisphere (see here). These experiences can be created also by hallucinogenic drugs and organic diseases such as temporal lobe epilepsy (see here and here ).

So, what is my conclusion as it relates to the doubt and loss of faith that evangelical Christians sometimes experience? In my opinion, the left side of the brain is telling the individual that Christianity doesn't make sense, its contradictory, it full of problems, and so on. The right side of the brain usually trumps the left side by the "feeling" that Christianity is true in spite of the problems. For whatever reason, sometimes the right side of the brain fails to give this feeling. It is at those times that the Christian is filled with doubt and uncertainty about the reality of the Christian religion.


  1. I think my right and left brains were always battling back and forth over this. I had a great emotional need for security, definitely wanting to truly believe I was really God's child, he was my Father, he loved me, I was safe in his arms. But I could never achieve that feeling for long.

    One thing that was a factor for me is that whatever I believed or felt, I started to realize it was all about what was going on in my head. Reality kept chugging along whether I felt okay about my faith or not, believed or didn't believe, etc.

    Like, have you seen someone whose ideas you think are totally off, yet they are very sure and live 50 or more years in that state of mind? You'd think if they are incorrect and God really does love them, that he would say "No, you've not got it right! Let me be clear! I love you, and I don't want you to waste your whole life using all your energies in the wrong directions!"

    But he doesn't do that. There's no mercy. THAT tells me something-maybe he's not there and never was. It's all in our heads. He DOESN'T feel sorry that our thinking is screwed up and we're wasting this one life we've got doing dumb things.

    Like if you think Jehovah's Witnesses are totally wrong in their thinking. You watch them going to different houses in the hot sun, all dressed up, people being rude to them sometimes. That sure looks like a lot of wasted effort and time on their part. They could be playing with their children, working, whatever.
    If you cared about them, would you not say "I love you. You have so much to give the world. This is not worthy of your time." ???

    But God lets all the factions go about their busy business without informing them. Why??

  2. As I recall, it was only my sense of awareness of God that dissipated during that period, rather than my being convinced that the evidences for God were somehow suddenly lacking.

    I find this fascinating. One of the problems I have had in relating my story to those who are trying to talk me back in to the flock, as it were, is that they seem to think that this is basically what happened to me. That is how the story started, with a good, old fashioned crisis of faith (and a crisis of sanity...).

    The reason I have two different stories of leaving is because the first time all the feelings did return. During that first time I had allowed myself to start honestly asking the difficult questions and had honestly admitted to myself that there were some that had no good answers that could possibly lead back to the Bible being true and accurate.

    So the second time around I actually used my freedom to explore. And I came to the conclusion that the Christian story was a whole lot of assertion and very little honest truth.

    Against that conclusion there can be no apologetics. It all sounds like sophistry and scare tactics now.

  3. On the other hand, if God is real, despite my failure to sense his presence, then he will hear my prayers and perhaps respond to my pleas to make his presence known to me again as before. And perhaps he will reward me by giving me more assurance than ever that he is real since my prayers in that state would be an even greater act of faith than my usual prayers prompted by the confidence that he exists.

    This reads to me as full of arrogance and self importance. It is as if those of us who fell away, did not try this very same thing, during our falling away time. I know I prayed and prayed and prayed, so does God think Spiegel is more important than me? It seems that way since Spiegel had his prayer "answered".

  4. (formerly "Andre")

    Great post, Ken.
    Irrefutable, but what do we know...

  5. Spiegel's emphasis on prayer backs up a pet theory of mine that prayer is emphasized because you can't spend too much time earnestly talking to God without convincing your mind He's real, barring something like unassailable facts to the contrary.

    It goes something like this:
    1. Only crazy people talk to imaginary beings
    2. I talk to God
    3. I'm not crazy
    4. So God must be real

  6. Thanks again, Ken, for another post on the same theme. Interesting and important stuff. Perhaps even more common and sad, unnecessary than generalized doubt is the inner turmoil of many who ARE convinced about the "God of the Bible" and plan of salvation, but not sure if THEY are saved, or will remain saved. Of course, there IS no basis for assurance, nor real need for it.

    Jon, I like your "pet theory" and pithy way of expressing it!

    Geds, I find your interesting comment related to what I think may be one of the strongest antidotes to dogmatic forms of Christian (or other) belief: realization of how Christianity (or any religion) developed.

    I don't know what kind of study you did during your "freedom to explore" period (and I'd be interested to hear), but for most people, the more one understands how the Hebrew Scriptures were created and eventually canonized, and then the Greek (NT) ones, along a traceable line of religous thought development in that region, the less they appear "revealed" or "inspired." Also the less they are reflective of any particular kind of God who must exist. It gets pretty complex in terms of Jesus' life and his earliest followers, as to sorting fact from fiction (plenty of both in a mix hard for us to relate to, but less unusual to readers or hearers at that time, though even then controversial, debated, etc.)

    My thought is (and I'm seeking input from others on this) that one key strand of education toward more mature, functional religious beliefs is that we somehow come to create a good body of literature, perhaps also films and multi-media, that shows the long-term development of religious, and especially Christian thought, its many bizzare and often dangerous forms (e.g., how probably it was apocalypticism that got Jerusalem and around a million Jews destroyed and could do similarly again), etc.

    This would carefully not be "anti-religious" but contrast more-or-less healthy and unhealthy types, styles, etc. The "father of Amer. psychology," William James, did this kind of thing, quite influentially, with individual religious experience in his famous lectures/book, published 1903 -- positing both unhealthy and healthy forms of faith. This material would hopefully help youth (or even pre-adolescents?) grow up understanding better how the dominating cultural and national epic/myth of Christendom developed AS myth, periodically updated and re-applied to any period, right up to the present day (especially powerful in the South and Midwest).

    Joseph Campbell took us a ways toward "getting" this, and I believe other related approaches can take his accomplishments much further. Burton Mack, in "Who Wrote the New Testament" does an incredible job of tracing this process, focused first on Christian origins and consolidation of the Bible canon, then jumping to current-day America (written mid-nineties, but still about as valid 15 years later... not much has changed, tho I see it accelerating some).

  7. Howard, if you haven't already check out Bart Ehrman's Lost Scriptures and Lost Christianities. I think you would enjoy them. The first is about New Testament scriptures that didn't make the vote and the second about the different sects that all cropped up in early Christianity.

  8. Terrific post.

    As is often the case when I'm reading a good book, I see its core ideas reflected in almost everything. In this case the book is "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)" by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, and the idea I see reflected here is cognitive dissonance.

    Experiment after experiment has confirmed that our brains work very hard to restore cognitive CONSONANCE when dissonant input arises. In other words, we tend very strongly to justify our already-held beliefs. And when those beliefs are largely based on 'feelings,' we can just re-summon the feelings that confirm our beliefs even if - ESPECIALLY if - the evidence runs contrary to those beliefs. It's disallowing this that requires real effort.

    In other words, belief follows psychological and not logical laws.

    I think your analysis is spot on.

  9. Ken, when you were a fundy, before you had your crisis of faith, did you ever have any times when you didn't believe, or when you felt that God was absent?

  10. J.S.,

    I never had times I didn't believe. I had some "dry" days spiritually when I felt that God was not there but I never disbelieved in him at that point.

  11. Thanks Ken. Even though I'm not ready to share my own story, I am very interested in others' experiences.

    Were you raised Christian since birth? Did you ever have any serious questions or doubts about your belief while growing up? Do you remember any times growing up when someone argued strongly that you were mistaken about your belief?

  12. J.S.,

    I was raised in the "Bible belt" where virtually everyone at least gave lip service to believing the Bible. Anyone who differed, such as a Jew, or a Roman Catholic was suspect. An atheist was considered about the lowest form of human being.

    I believed in God from a child but it wasn't until I was 18 that I had the "born-again" experience. There are links to my story in my profile above.

  13. Thanks Ken. That's pretty intense; it seems like fundamentalism was your entire life for more than 30 years. Family, friends, education, and livelihood. I can't even imagine an environment like that; leaving has to feel a bit like escaping North Korea.