Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Why do bad doubts happen to good people?

I've been thinking lately about deconversion stories. If one hangs around on the Internet long enough, one certainly runs across them. A theme that sometimes crops up is that the person did not want to deconvert. Looking over the deconvert's shoulder at the flimsiness of the arguments that led him away from Christianity, one is permitted to wonder about that, but it is what a deconvert will sometimes say, and presumably he believes it when he says it: "I didn't want to deconvert. I struggled. I asked God to help me keep my faith, to speak to me, to reach out to me. God didn't help, or didn't help enough, and now here I am--I'm not a Christian anymore."

That's rather convenient, because it blames God for the deconversion. It's an insurance policy. You can see the wheels turning: "If I turn out to be wrong, and God exists after all, or Christianity is true after all, I will be able to say to God's face, in the immortal words of Bertrand Russell, 'Not enough evidence, God.'"

So you're covered. You asked God to help you not to deconvert, you tried hard not to, and after that it was up to God to come through. He had his chance.

All snark aside, I have to admit, as a person who tends to feel responsible for others who are struggling with doubts or on the cusp of deconverting, I find this sort of thing bothersome. I feel like tugging on God's sleeve to get his attention: "Uh, Lord, if you could spare a minute, there's someone over here who is doubting your existence or doubting that you sent Jesus to die for us, but it's not too late, because right now he still believes in you and loves you and is crying out to you, so, could you please do something about this? Just send him a sign or nudge him in the right direction or something. I would if I were you. Right about now would be a good time, Lord."

And sometimes, or so it seems to the person going through the crisis, God doesn't. The potential deconvert doesn't feel anything and doesn't even have any moment of great, shining, intellectual enlightenment. The things that bothered him about Christianity continue to bother him. Perhaps he finds answers that should be intellectually satisfying, but he doesn't find them emotionally satisfying, and those two things are very easy to conflate.

Why does God let this happen? It's one thing to acknowledge that God lets people who are indifferent to him go to hell, people who don't care, don't try, don't seek. But we're talking about someone who at least seems to himself to be seeking. This person is, at least to begin with, one of the good guys.

Well, I don't have all the answers. I believe that the evidence shows that God exists and is all-loving and all-just, but the precise how of the divine justice is something I don't claim to be able to follow through its infinite windings.

But I do have a thought to offer, and it is this: All of us who have been Christians for a while have major gaps in our understanding of God. That's inevitable, even for the most advanced saint, since God is beyond our comprehension. But it is especially true, I think, of two classes: First, those who have grown up Christians, and second, recent converts. For differing reasons, members of both of these groups are in danger of having a radically simplistic and insufficient view of the nature and character of God. This may take many forms. Perhaps the person thinks of God as harsh and vindictive, and it just takes a while for that to start to bother him. Or perhaps he demands that God must do things exactly as he would do them. One of the most common over-simplifications that I have run into is a misguided view of heaven. Heaven is seen as a kind of Happy Hunting Ground to which God (more or less arbitrarily) lets some people go while (more or less arbitrarily) blocking other people from going there, plopping them down in hell instead. Heaven is not intimately connected with the presence of God and with our own highest good through union with God. While they may mouth the idea that hell is separation from God, too many Christians don't really believe the corollary that heaven is union with God. Thus they will say things like, "I don't want to be in heaven with a God who would send my best friend to hell." As if they can have any good without God. As if they can casually pick and choose, shrugging off heaven and God while still holding onto truth, beauty, friendship, and human love. Or, "Why would we have a sense of perfect union with God in heaven, when we don't need it, rather than in the trials on earth, when we need it more?" Because "needing it" is entirely beside the point. Heaven is perfect union with God. You can't "be in heaven" without that perfect union with God.

Again and again, the angry things that deconverts say show just how shallow their concepts of God's character, of eternal life, and of Christianity really were and still are, because they never grew past them.

It's all very well to start out with sketchy ideas. But when you become a man, it is time to put away childish things. If you started out thinking that God owes you something, including a special revelation of himself in your time of doubt, you need to get over that. If you started out thinking that you can have any good thing without God, you need to learn what the beatific vision is.

God lets bad doubts happen to good people to give them a chance to move up, to deepen their understanding. C.S. Lewis portrays Tor and Tinidril, the characters in Perelandra who are like Adam and Eve, in much the same way. God allows a representative of Satan to come to their planet and tempt them in order for them to mature. One of the angelic characters says as much. "Today for the first time two creatures of the low worlds, two images of [God] that breathe and breed like the beasts, step up that step at which your parents fell, and sit in the throne of what they were meant to be."

In Perelandra, when the lady is being tempted, Maleldil (God) is silent. Previously she has always sensed him guiding her, but now she does not. If you know the book you may protest that God sends Ransom to (eventually) fight the un-Man after Tinidril has resisted temptation for a long time. That is true. But if I may say so, I never knew a former Christian deconvert yet who had no resources. Those resources may have been web sites, wise friends, or other people to whom he could take his questions. The resources might even have included very good answers, answers that were rejected. These "sendings," however, are rather mundane. We would prefer to have God zap people out of their doubts, not just send along some friend, perhaps some awkward or tactless friend, and then to leave the doubter to accept or reject the response given.

This all may sound rather harsh, but I think it is true nonetheless. God's intolerable love wants to make saints out of us while we would much prefer to be left alone to be happy, ordinary people. Happy, ordinary people are likely to have happy, ordinary ideas about God. Which is all very well and good for starters but isn't where God wants us to be in the long run. Any lover of detective fiction knows that the very fact that doesn't seem to fit in, the fact that gives you the most trouble, is a clue to the whole mystery. So it is in theology, and so it is inevitable that anyone given the opportunity to know God better will start to notice inconvenient facts that do not fit with his preconceived ideas.

So if you are that doubter, consider the possibility that God is deliberately not making this easy for you because there is something he wants you to understand, and you will learn it only by passing through this time without visible sign from him. Then ask what that something might be.

I would be remiss if I did not mention evidence again in closing out this post. I am not recommending fideism or even mysticism. On the contrary, I am always asking the doubter to examine the positive evidence for Christianity and take his stand on it. Indeed, one of the most curious things I find about recent deconverts is how difficult it is to get them to come back to the subject of the evidence for Christianity. A recent deconvert is like a man whose mind is always wandering from the point.

So my point is not to recommend that anyone believe against evidence or without evidence. Rather my point here is just this: If you are watching someone struggling, or you are struggling yourself, with questions and doubts about Christianity, and if you wonder why God lets this go on, take a hard look at the doubter's theological concepts (especially if the doubter is you) and ask where they need to be deepened and how such a deepening might serve to allay the doubts. If Christianity is true, then it is entirely possible that there is a step up that God wants you to take. You cannot stay comfortably where you were before. Whether or not you take that step is a matter of more than passing interest to us all.


Lydia McGrew said...

Some readers have had some difficulty commenting. So I'm publishing their comments for them. Hopefully this is a fluke.

Arthur said:

Excellent points, Lydia. I'm in complete agreement. I do find it interesting that the catalysts for most "deconversions," at least the ones I've seen, are some sort of emotional experience or ungrounded expectation. This is similar to what you refer to as a "comfortable faith" that is rocked a bit and poor theological understanding. Not only does one wonder whether these people actually have the correct concept of God, but whether their faith is genuine to begin with. Most people who leave, and this is assuming that they had in actuality arrived at saving faith, is because at the deepest level, even if they do not confess as much, they actually do want to leave. The specific reason or event serves only as a facade for deeper emotional reasons or expectations. It's simply an occasion.

On one occasion I had someone tell me that their expectations for what God *should have* done was not met, and all their investment into this expectation both financially and emotionally, had been ignored, and their prayers unanswered. No reasoned response that God is not a vending machine, that He has a mind and acts according to His will ever penetrated those expectations and the anger that followed from the unmet expectations.

Lydia McGrew said...

Kristor said:

Exactly correct. Deconverts have not in fact deconverted from Christianity, but from their own misunderstanding of the faith. If you find you can cease to believe in God, then *you have not properly understood what is meant by “God.”*

What’s interesting to me is that deconverts are so attached to their misconceptions about God. It’s not just that they don’t understand corrections to their notions – they generally don’t – but that their minds are simply impermeable on the topic. I see the same thing with atheists who can’t hear me when I say that flying spaghetti monsters or orbiting tea pots are not what theism is about; that their arguments don’t touch theism, properly so called. I correct them on that basic category error, and it goes in one ear and out the other.

Why does this happen? I sometimes think that there is something in the intellect akin to the runner’s high. The feeling of understanding is pleasant, and we glom on to it. The deconvert and atheist have both enjoyed that pleasure in their first acts of understanding of the notion of God, and they are loath to risk losing it in the admission that they have not after all yet properly understood what they are talking about.

Unknown said...

Hi Lydia,

I think you had me at least partly in mind so I have replied. Thanks.


Lydia McGrew said...

I've replied at your blog, Mike.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Having edited a book that contains about three dozen first person deconversion testimonies, and also examined many conversion testimonies in a long piece at the Secular Web, I have found that people convert and deconvert due to a variety of reasons. And of course, more intellectual converts and deconverts tend to compose more intellectual conversion or deconversion narratives.

Also, many biblical scholars started out by holding far more conservative views of biblical authority and theological interpretations in their youth and grew more moderate and liberal on various topics as they continued Their education. And what is true individually also is true concerning the trajectories of many institutions of higher Learning that were founded on the basis of conservative Christian interpretations of biblical authority and theolog. Such institutions grew more inclusive, less exclusive, more moderate and liberal and less oncservative after one hundred to two hundred years of attracting brilliant scholars and students who continued to interact with biblical and theological questions worldwide.


Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists


The Uniqueness of the Christian Experience (free to read on the Secular Web)

Edwardtbabinski said...

Also, The question of why people believe different things should not be limited to the realm of religion/spirituality.

No two people share the same lives and experiences nor read exactly the same books. No two people love exactly the same books or songs or movies for that matter.

And communication itself is imperfect for a variety of reasons. For one thing, we often remember more intensely how we felt after reading a book, or seeing a movie or having a conversation with someone, more than being able to recall all the particulars of what we saw, read, or heard. And those memorable feelings often drive us back toward or away from this or that author or type of song or movie, or even argument.

Communication is also linear, a string of separate words shared between people, but inside each person's mind is a lifetime of three dimensional connections with experiences and readings and feelings. So linear communication is like the mere tip of the iceberg of all that we each would like to be able to share with others. Only if we could connect three dimensional brain-mind consciousness with each other and superimpose whole lifetimes of memories and experiences of two or more people with each other could we truly gain a fuller understanding of why others believe and act the ways they do. A lot more goes into each person's three dimensional brain-mind over time than can be got out again via a mere stream of words in linear fashion.

Add to this the list of known cognitive biases that cognitive scientists have experimentally proven to exist and sway people and groups with as much powerful, if not more, than rational arguments.

Are such communicative difficulties inherent, God designed? Or can they be blamed on sin or a desire to sin? They simply seem to be what they are, rather obvious difficulties inherent in all communication.

Edwardtbabinski said...

There are influences in many directions. Though surely the influence of promises of life without end in a happy place must be a prime attraction for perhaps the greatest number of people. Likewise, once one is attracted to such a belief it would naturally be reinforced by fear of leaving that particular religion making such a promise and having to face fears of hell or simply dying and being no more.

And simply admitting that "psychological factors" can and do play a role in each person's coming to believe (whatever it is that they believe) is in itself an admission leading to doubts as to WHY each of us has come to believe what we believe, and that should lead to adding a larger pinch of agnosticism and/or doubt to one's beliefs no matter what one believes.

Indeed, I don't think one can get round issues of psychological, sociological, familial, national, and other cultural factors when it comes to the origins and/or stability of each individual's religious and philosophical beliefs.

For instance, I was reading two articles on the Christianity Today website about conversion to Christianity (notably Protestant Christianity), and what polls have shown for the past two hundred years. "The average age of conversion is quite young. Postadolescent persons do not seem to find Christianity as attractive as do persons in their teens. Indeed, for every year the non-Christian grows older than 25, the odds increase exponentially against his or her ever becoming a Christian... Second, the reasons people become Christians appear to have at least as much to do with sociological factors as with purely 'religious' factors (for example, conviction of sin)."

"Starbuck listed eight primary motivating factors behind conversion to Christianity:
(1) fears,
(2) other self-regarding motives,
(3) altruistic motives,
(4) following out a moral ideal,
(5) remorse for and conviction of sin,
(6) response to teaching,
(7) example and imitation, and
(8) urging and social pressure.
Recent studies reveal that people still become Christians mainly for these same reasons." http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/januaryweb-only/32.0.html

"84.5 percent of evangelicals accept Christ before the age of 18. However, the statistic only holds true if they were raised in a home where both parents were [Evangelical] Christians with either a high or moderate level of spiritual activity. If, however, they were raised without that benefit, the percentage drops by two-thirds." http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2010/summer/outsidersfindfaith.html

Lydia McGrew said...

Of course there are sociological factors influencing people to accept Christianity. There are also sociological factors influencing ordinary laymen to accept the propositions that the sun is a star and that the universe is vastly large.

In all those cases, further investigation of the specifics also supports the proposition in question.

My point in the main post was not to survey in general the causes for conversion or deconversion.

Rather, I intend to point out that Christianity already has the resources to explain God's permitting doubt and not intervening to overcome doubt by personal revelations or "pushes" upon the person undergoing doubt. I think my explanation is well supported by the very real problems with the concept of God that one finds in many deconverts--problems which unfortunately were not addressed by adequate teaching during the time when they were Christians.

Edwardtbabinski said...

As a Christian I took a proactive stance when it came to seeking answers to my own doubts and questions. I sought out apologetic resources and answers in several Christian bookstores, including the Princeton seminary theological library and the university bookstore at Westminster theological seminary that I visited. But I found such answers to be ad hoc or circular or ethically suspect in my own heart, or intellectually uncertain. Even doubting my doubts left me with less certainty, not more, because my doubts concerning not only atheism but Christianity remained. I know of others whose experienced a similar disenchantment with orthodox Christianity and tried to remain, but could no longer recite the creed with full assent. I also learned of whole institutions of higher education founded by conservative Christians but which moved leftward, toward greater moderation, inclusion, diversity of views, and greater humanism and secularism, as they continued to seek out and attract the brightest professors and students over a period of 150-200 years. Also telling is how societies and nations that allow freedom of religious belief soon become filled with ever widening diversities of religious beliefs, practices and interpretations, as if to say that without coercion religious beliefs, practices and interpretations naturally grow more diverse. Even just within a single major denomination we see an ever widening spectrum of growing divisions between conservatives, moderates and liberals.