Why did I ever (stop) believ(e/ing) in the first place?

Recently I was writing to someone who became an atheist while at our undergrad. They had asked me when I started doubting and why I went to seminary. I wrote an email in response explaining not only when I started doubting, but why I believed in the first place. I’ll reproduce that email in part later on.

Interesting though that a couple days later, perhaps even the next day, I talked with one of the foremost metaphysical philosophers in this country about faith and he, too, raised the question before me of why I started doubting. However, when I mentioned that I felt like for every intellectual argument for God there was a tantamount counter-argument, his insight to share was that there are no knock-down drag-out arguments in many spheres of life. Politics, for example. Thus he finds it strange that people get so worked up about these things in the area of religion. And that got me to ask myself the opposite question: If there aren’t any wholly convincing arguments for naturalism (or a closed universe or what have you), why bother leaving theism?

This doesn’t positively yield a reason to believe but may remove reason for having jumped ship to begin with. I know in “You are who you hang with”… I said I could see myself coming back to the faith. Actually, I think that verdict is out (again). If anything, I feel many more intellectual/emotional/spiritual moves are going to have to happen before I could call myself a Christian again.

The philosopher’s right that intellectual alternatives to faith probably are not necessarily superior: there are good arguments both ways. But what of the tensions I had had: A god that sanctifies me yet I seem to be getting worse? A god that “speaks” to his people but I hear nothing? These tensions are very real and seem easier answered/dealt with by rejecting the premise of god than anything else. But, then again, my assumptions about God’s sanctification, my moral dynamism, God’s communication, and my reception could and probably should be called into question (that is, if I want to make my Christian friends happy).

Again, we’ll see. Too much thinking/writing to do for the end of the year for now.


Excerpts from email to atheist fellow alum:

“I think I should start with why I ever believed (I’m writing for me prob’ly more than you now but I will answer your questions later – skip this if you want!). I believed because as a 10 year old thinking on my own about my grandmother’s death no coping resource was available to me but belief in a god. I had other issues – S.A.D., ridiculous amounts of HW, loneliness -then driving me to seek help beyond myself, beyond what I thought my parents could give. The idea to believe in God came from the church we attended I imagine. That summer I went to a summer camp which reinforced my new belief-choices; it was a positive experience from all I can recall. At that time I felt that I had or was experiencing God. I changed somehow between 10 and 11 and became more intentionally social and friendly; a lot of behavior issues went away.

“My faith interests continued and were nurtured by church through my middle school and high school days. Then my faith got really mixed in with depression, guilt, social anxiety late in high school. My faith didn’t diminish, and probably wasn’t completely the source of my depression, but I really languished as a person.

“Going to [college] I did the orientation program which I felt gave new life to my beliefs, and my self esteem. I “re-dedicated” my life to Jesus and started dealing with my depression more head-on ([the college]’s counseling center was crucial there). Experiences on [my orientation] made me think I was really seeing God at work in my life and the lives of others.

“Believing I was seeing God at work in my life and others’ continued through [college], probably with occasional lapses, certainly with occasional doubts. The real doubts started [later].

“___ died at [camp] in the summer of 2009, when I was working there. It was quite possibly a suicide; at best it was a tragic accident that would not have happened if he had been a little more stable.

“Though only an acquaintance, I had seen that things were not going well for ___. I had heard some stories. And I knew my own history of mental illnesses well enough to see myself in what he has going through that summer. Through the summer I prayed for ___, repeatedly. And with friends. I prayed specifically that God would protect him, and spare him from suffering. Suicide was included in those appeals, if only implicitly because I was afraid to speak the word.

“Well, the end of the summer comes and ___ is dead and I am thinking, “Wow – really pulled through for us there, God. Thanks a lot.” Those events really hurt my faith in God’s goodness, but it eventually rebounded after some time and recommended reading from a prof.

“More or less since that time though I have “felt” God’s presence very little. [Late summer 2012,] I started noticing how “sinful” my life was. I guess I don’t need to use quotes. Whether porn use and masturbation is sinful or not, hatred and lust and anger in my heart are certainly dark things. And all this while the Spirit was supposed to be alive, at work inside me?

“This tension of “sinning but indwelt by God” became compounded by noticing the silence of God in my life. Wasn’t God supposed to communicate with God’s people? And I started discovering suitable intellectual alternatives to theism, in Freudian psychology, in historical-criticism, in Hitchen’s critiques, discoveries only added to by my Duke education. In the end it seemed more sensible to let go of the tensions and accept the alternatives. “Either God does not exist or I don’t have a relationship with him” was one of my last thoughts in the process. Hence my agnosticism.”

4 thoughts on “Why did I ever (stop) believ(e/ing) in the first place?

    1. devilatdivschool Post author

      Thanks for that interview link. In one interview, the questioner asked the questions I have been asking for the past couple years. If I have it right, the interviewee claims his practice of religion is not concerned with the “existence” of God. I feel such a claim may be fruitful to pursue now that I feel pretty satisfied I will not find a convincing argument for, nor probably against, God’s existence. That object may not even be worth questioning, as the interviewee would claim.

      This quote seems at once sensible and problematic.
      “[Given] the propensity of the universe to disclose itself increasingly to scientific understanding, [the argument for God’s existence based on religious experience] seems, among other things, risky.”
      He wants to say God is not even something we rationalize by our experience; what’s more basic (than discovering God to be behind our experiences) is the experience itself. Regardless of God, what the hell is this Religious Experience we have had? This experience of course can have psychological and neuro-physiological aspects but those quantifiable aspects alone don’t completely satisfy our curiosity about the whole thing. As with human love, the mystery remains nebulous even after the scientific components are considered. “Is there something more?” will always be the question.

      Or, will it? Unless he uses “scientific understanding” ironically, he seems to actually fear that ever greater scientific explanations for the present mysteries of human experience will come. Could these eventually shine an inescapable light into the fogs of these mysteries, showing them to fully begin and end with ourselves? I think he fears that is possible. Then he would be out of a job, and billions of people who thought their lives had overarching meaning will find they have none.

  1. Jimmy

    I think he’s actually saying that no matter how far science goes in “explaining” experiences like love and prayer, it won’t ever be able to touch the deepest aspect of those experiences. “The threat to religion is not from the psychological intelligibility of religious experience; it’s from that intelligibility in the service of a reductive account.” The “reductive account” part is key, I think.

    This interview reminded me of a film I used to show to my students at the end of our Old Testament class. It’s about a group of Jews in a concentration camp who decide God has broken his terms of the covenant with the Jewish people. What’s powerful to me is their response at the very end of the film, where prayer and atheism almost seem to come full circle. It’s based on a play by Elie Wiesel.

  2. devilatdivschool Post author

    You might be right that Wettstein is not so concerned about science ever fully “explaining” love or religious experiences; perhaps that’s just my concern. My question would be: can religion indefinitely out-pace science in defining God in ways that cannot be empirically investigated/explained (e.g., a god of the gaps) or will there come a time when religion’s explanatory/apologetic powers for God or the supernatural just run out?

    I will be interested to watch this film sometime. I have seen a scene from an older film in which a rabbi prays, saying “God, we do not want to be your chosen anymore!” (paraphrase). Is that this film, or am I thinking of another?


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