Pascal, friends, I owe you an explanation of my doubts.
As a youth and adolescent, I accepted the Bible and Christ because of the evidence, bolstered by my faith. As a young adult I occasionally experienced longer, stronger periods of doubt, but I found the weight of the evidence was still on the side of Christianity. For years I was content to ignore my doubts, but 1 Peter 3:15 grabbed me and forced me to knock down the barriers I’d erected to protect my faith. I committed to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” That meant no longer ignoring the tough questions. I began engaging these challenges by reading apologetics books, and I committed to seek the Lord’s will through the Bible, prayer, close friends of the faith, and the spirit. I started this journey in order to strengthen my faith. I knew God had called me, and if he was real, the faith he called me to would see me through. If not, well, I wasn’t going to think about that. God had to be true.
The result of my search was the rejection of the claims of Christianity due to the lack of sufficient evidence in face of the arguments against the faith. This was a very painful journey for me that took a long time. My faith in Christ was my identity, and it was very difficult to let go. I went through all the stages of grief, and I do not wish that on another person. I know some of you reading this may be somewhere along that path, and just thinking of what you’re going through makes me very emotional. I am sorry. I truly hope there is some way I can help you.
In the end, I’ve emerged whole and happy, not hopeless. I’m now free, not frantically trying to hold together a chaotic twisting web of implausibilities and cognitive dissonance. But my journey is far from over. I’m still living a double life, smiling in the church pew, unable to be open about my doubts. I’ve never found a group of believers that honestly welcomes this level of skepticism. Pascal may be the only exception I’ve known. And why would they? Or maybe I’ve always been too afraid to ask.
So what happened, exactly? What bit of knowledge tipped the balance of evidence in favor of rejecting versus accepting Christianity? What was so compelling that a once sold-out, born again Christian leading his college ministries with his heart set on missions would lose his faith?
I hesitate. It’s not that I think I’m something special or have some novel idea. To be sure, many of my thoughts are original to me, but I doubt there’s much new under the sun on this topic. However, I’m aware of the possibility that expressing my thoughts here may lead others to doubt their faith. On the one hand, it is not my goal to convince others. There’s a fine line here, but as long as you’re not an extremist (as I view it), I am not interested in trying to persuade you to reconsider your belief. Perhaps the level of certainty with which you hold your belief should be challenged. But for the most part I’m content with agreeing to disagree. On the other hand, I do want people to understand my point of view. As I mentioned in “What’s in a Label? (A Christian/atheist by any other name…)“, I sense quite a bit of misunderstanding (both in the media and my local church), which leads to fear and hatred. Many people in each group (believers and non-believers) get drawn into attacking straw-men arguments, caricatures, that don’t really represent the beliefs that most of those on the other side hold. This leads to more fear and division. I’d like to see us grow past that. Having been a committed Christian, I feel like I understand their point of view. Many (probably most) Christians do not have the same perspective, having never been non-theists for the same reason that I am. If you’re willing to hear what I have to say, I’m willing to press on and lay out what happened in my life to shift the weight of evidence in favor of disbelief.
Before I get started, I want you to know that if any of this causes you to doubt, please seek counsel of others who have gone through your struggles. You are not alone. You need to know that, in my opinion, the world is far from meaningless without Christ. Pascal would probably love to help you stay in the fold if you’re trying to find your way back. If you’re slipping down the web of disbelief and just want to find out how to survive without your identity in Christ, reach out to me, Russell, on here. You can comment anonymously. I want, more than anything, for people to learn to live true to themselves, and to have a safe place where they can talk about their doubts and learn to understand the opposing points of view (with gentleness and respect).
So what turned certain belief into disbelief? As you probably surmise, it was more than one thing. I worked hard to evaluate each Christian claim independently of all the others – letting my other beliefs have as little impact as possible on each conclusion. If you’re a Christian, reading the issues I saw with Christianity and the conclusions I reached may trigger a defensive reaction inside you. That’s your “fight or flight” response kicking in at the notion that your core beliefs are being challenged. Please know I am not attacking you. You might try imagining that I’m talking about another religion rather than your own. I’ve held all this back for so long for the fear of offending, but now is the time for honesty. We have to be real with each other if we’re going to understand one another. You should take comfort that there may be many very intelligent people who have examined each of the issues I’m about to list and come away with different answers. So please don’t feel threatened by my conclusions, but do try to understand.
My quest to resolve my doubts did not end in renewed faith. I apologize that the following list is somewhat overlapping, redundant, and not in any meaningful order. This is the first time I’ve ever tried to write these down. I only numbered them so you could reference one if you have a comment. Here are some of the reasons why I am not a Christian…
- The Bible is neither inerrant nor infallible.
- The Bible does conflict with science (the laws of nature as we now experience them).
- The Bible conflicts with itself, even in context, and cannot be logically true. Here’s a sample of contradictions in the Bible. Some of these are best explained by human imperfection rather than divinity.
- The authors of the Bible were, in many cases, not who we’re told they were and were likely not eye-witnesses of the important events they recorded.
- The Bible’s prophecies either were not prophecies at all or do not beat the odds of chance.
- We have no original copies of the biblical texts but we do have evidence of textual changes and additions over time.
- The process of selecting which books made it into the Bible is highly suspect.
- There is no convincing evidence outside the Bible to support major Christian claims.
- There is insufficient evidence for the resurrection of Christ and many other central Christian tenants.
- The Bible lists many promises that were not fulfilled when they should have been.
- The Bible makes falsifiable claims which have been falsified.
- There is no compelling evidence of the supernatural (i.e. prayers on average, regardless of religious faith, are no more effective than chance, etc.).
- The simpler and more plausible explanations for suspected miracles (our inability to intuitively grasp large numbers, the certainty of rare events, and our tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses, confirmation bias, etc.)
- The description of God in the bible is logically contradictory.
- Much of the Bible is not a great moral guide.
- Many alternate religions exist, which demonstrates sufficient motivation and ability to create a religion.
- The lack of plausibility that, unlike the thousands of other religions that got it wrong, our religion actually does hold the truth
- The role of demographics in faith is staggering (the culture you’re born into is the primary predictor of your religious belief if you have one)
- Pre-Christian stories with similar themes
- Current Messianic claims that are obviously fervent but false. What reason do we have to suppose the same thing could not have spread in ancient times (listen to the worship of Michael at 4:48 in this video and the firm belief in spite of the failed prediction in the last video)?
- The power of indoctrination and the similarities between what we experience being raised in our Christian church and what’s happening to these poor children at 29 seconds into the video (the effect of worship music, claims from authority, a child’s lack of understanding about what to expect of reality, etc.).
- The understanding that the laws of logic do not support the Christian claims (begging the question, circular reasoning, argumentum ad ignorantiam, God of the gaps, contradictions, and other logical fallacies that aren’t necessarily intuitive)
- The false or unnecessary assumptions about the origin of the universe, life, evolution, etc.
- The understanding of science, its processes and limitations, how scientists know what they claim to know, and what degree of certainty we can have in which types of scientific claims (inductive vs deductive; experimentation vs observation vs simulation; successful theories with explanation, prediction and control vs universal, necessary and certain truth; hidden assumptions in science; the null hypothesis; etc.) and that it does not support the Christian claims
- The understanding of philosophy and epistemology (what we mean by certainty and knowledge, what is belief, what are God claims, the difference between nature and something outside of nature, how we know what we know)
- The understanding of theology (different views of God through history, what we can know of God, the meaning and risk of revelation, etc.)
- The cost of God’s plan as described in the Bible given what we can understand about evolution, and the implications it would have on his character and values
- The true meaning of faith and the inappropriate value it holds as a virtue in Christianity
- The inability to know anything at all about the supernatural (fallacy of affirming the consequent, etc.)
- The knowledge that the default position of any claim is disbelief and the burden of proof is on the one making the claim (i.e. Christians claiming that the Bible is a message from the divine creator of the universe, etc.)
- The prevalence and toxicity of false beliefs. Statistically we all have them and there are probably some in this list. Beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. They have an impact on other beliefs as can be seen in the crossword puzzle analogy – CC wrote a great post about this… read Cruciverb.)
- The evidence that the universe was not apparently designed for us
- The reasonable explanation for the evidence of design
- The insurmountable gap between the hypothesis of a being that created nature and describing what that being is like and what it wants from us
- The knowledge that even if all the evidence against the God described in the Bible were surmountable, His character and morality would raise as many problems as his existence.
- The notion that the simplest, most elegant and perfect universe is the one that requires the least amount of maintenance (and the explanation for which requires the fewest assumptions, i.e. Occam’s razor)
- The realization that the same process of reasoning I use to dismiss the faith of the Mormons, Muslims, Vikings, ancient Greeks, etc., could also be used to dismiss my faith were it not for my personal relationship. But that is a similar relationship to what most of these other religious followers claim, and in all of us it is explainable by indoctrination, confirmation bias and other understood but non-intuitive fallacies of the mind.
- The failure of all the apologist arguments I’ve heard (i.e. first cause argument, evidence of design, watchmaker analogy, there’s no hope without Christ, where do you get your morality, you’re saying billions of people are wrong, you can’t reason or use logic without presupposing a God, Pascal’s Wager, the God shaped hole in human hearts, it’s about a personal relationship, the moral law, deep down you believe but you’re rejecting God so you can sin, something awful happened in your life and you’re just blaming God, look at the miracles/sunset, a fool says in his heart there is no God, no amount of evidence will convince you, you’re choosing to turn from God but you just need to trust and have faith, your faith was your parents and never your own, you’re not rejecting Christ just the behavior of Christians, you were never really saved, you’re just angry at God, God is self-evident if you just look around you… men are without excuse, Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword, Satan has your mind, your great learning is driving you mad, you’re focusing on evidence but the point of the gospel is faith, you can’t prove there’s no God, etc.)
- The knowledge that meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) reveals the natural (explained by evolution) but non-intuitive fallacies of the mind, provides a very compelling explanation of our propensity for faith and explains why humans created religions in the past and continue to create them today (i.e. pattern matching, confirmation bias, innumeracy and the failure to understand large numbers/probabilities/coincidence/chance, the fallacy of affirming the consequent, projection, appearance of design, psychosis, delusion, herd instinct, alpha male worship, desire for control, practice of indoctrination, desire for comfort, desire for authority, conspiracy thinking, evolutionary explanation for superstition, etc.)
- My own cognitive dissonance and resulting need to make a decision
- The realization that I value truth more than the tattered remains of the comfortable stories (read or watch Life of Pi)
- The understanding that wanting something to be true doesn’t give us more reason to believe it, but rather, more reason to question it (researcher bias, etc.)
- The observation that the universe looks exactly as we’d expect it to look if there was no God interfering with the laws of nature
In painful contrast to what I was taught in my Christian upbringing, every Christian position I evaluated turned out to be unjustifiable. I am left feeling that the church is far too selective of the Bible and confident in its claims. Each of the points above (which I could spend thousands of words discussing) was a heavy blow against my faith. With each new problem I objectively examined, the evidence (which once was asymptotically high on the side of my Christian faith) was suddenly eating away at my very identity. My doubts really all started with the inconsistencies I noticed when reading scripture. Somewhere in the middle of my research of the inconsistencies, something happened — certainty shifted to plausibility. It was that moment when “this definitely happened” turned into “this probably happened“, or “I’m 90% certain this happened”, that I felt my world begin to crumble. In the end, I found Christianity to be one giant web of rationalizations. By that I mean we take a desired belief which we wish to maintain, and then scramble to find a way to explain the evidence in a way that fits with our belief. This is a fallacious approach to reasoning and is antithetical to science, which starts with the evidence and follows where it leads.
Chronologically, my journey to disbelief went like this. In my late teens I was able to ignore the problems with faith in Christianity. In my early twenties apologetics was able to renew my faith when I doubted. It wasn’t until a little later, once I was aware of formal logic and fallacies, that the doubts began to hit really hard. I didn’t go seeking atheist literature. I learned science because I love it, and that knowledge seemed to pull at my faith. So armed, my next attempt to rationalize my beliefs did not go so well, as you see in the list above. My Christian faith collapsed under the weight of its own inconsistencies. To my great sorrow, I can no longer justify a belief in Christianity.
If you’re struggling with any of the same doubts and the cognitive dissonance is getting too much to bear, let me say this. Every one of the points in the list above, and many that I have not mentioned, is explained perfectly well if we start with the assumption that Christianity is just another one of our pre-scientific attempts to understand our big scary world – and like all the other religions before and since, we didn’t get it quite right. We don’t need an alternative hypothesis in order to justify the rejection of a claim (i.e. Christianity, Islam, etc.), but in this case there does happen to be a suitable alternative for all points above. A modern understanding of science (in the disciplines of astrophysics, cosmology, geology, chemistry, abiogenesis, evolutionary biology, genetics, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, etc.) has convincing explanatory power for each problem I encountered. To accept scientific explanations one has to be willing to substitute the certainty of divine revelation with a probability of truth which, in most cases, can only approach but never reach absolute certainty. But doing so is incredibly liberating. My faith may not have been renewed, but I feel as though my mind has been. It seems much more honest to say “I don’t know” than to claim certainty in something that is by definition unknowable.
Do I know there isn’t a God? No, nor would I ever claim that. I’m actually close to 50/50 on the matter. Do I believe that if there is a God, such a being does not match the description of God we read about in the Bible? Yes. Do I know for certain that some version of the God depicted in the Bible does not exist? No. I just don’t have sufficient evidence to believe it to be the case. If you’re a Christian, what I mean by that is no different than you might mean if you said you don’t have sufficient evidence to justify belief in “Allah”, or “Krishna”, or “Osiris”, etc.
Pascal, you start where I once did, with the assumption that 2 Peter 1:16 is true. I can no longer justify that assumption. I’m so glad that admission doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends and learn from one another. If you’re still interested in details, including the specifics that led me to reject each of the Christian claims I listed, I’m willing to break them down in the future (much shorter, I promise) posts. I’m sure other issues will come to mind as well. Thank you for making it this far down the rabbit hole with me.
Readers, Pascal is interested in learning why so many people, particularly young people, are leaving the faith. While I can speculate, I should really only speak for myself. My experience alone is a very small sample size and likely not representative of the average non-theist. If you’re having a hard time accepting Christianity or another religion, are your reasons similar to those I’ve listed? If not, what’s holding you back?
Gentleness and respect,
P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about my perspective, please consider listening to The Great Courses lecture series by Professor Steven Novella – a clinical neurologist and assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine – called Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills. This course is not religious in nature but it does cover many of the common but less obvious logical fallacies that affect our thinking on a daily basis. These fallacies apply to our religious thinking as well, so I will likely discuss some of them in the future. Also, if you’d like me to provide justification for one of the points above or prioritize it as a future post, just let me know by leaving a comment.