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.Note that Spiegel says: The usual feeling of God’s presence, an ineffable intuition that was reliable until then, was gone.
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.
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.
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.