Monday, September 7, 2009

Faith Vs Doubt: The Smackdown :)

This is a follow up of a discussion on faith and doubt that was started at Unreasonable Faith, which is a blog for atheists to state their thoughts. I go over there occasionally and I always enjoy the discussions. If you visit there, be aware that they don't hold back.

I made a statement about the fact that people who believe in God have their doubts. I was making the point that we in the church ought to be more tolerant with people who have legitimate questions. The discussion took off in an interesting direction. Daniel, at Camels with Hammers, offered these thoughts and challenges to me, which I have tried to address here. I include a few quotes from his entry to prompt my stuff. You can read his full statement on his blog (click here).

Daniel, I did the best I could here to answer up. However, I assume the discussion will not end. I appreciate your interest. You are proof that two people can disagree passionately and be respectful at the same time.


“Of course the faithful doubt, Clergy Guy—doubt is a precondition of faith. Were religious believers to be certain and doubtless (even if wrong), then they wouldn’t be exercising a will to believe worth calling faith.”

Okay, no disagreement there.

However, some people actually insist that their issues of faith are really facts. And some insist that if we believe that we should not doubt at all. My thought is that people of faith should get to examine their doubts without being attacked. Your assertion is that one cannot have faith and truly allow oneself the opportunity for doubt. It has to be one or the other.

I disagree. I not only stand up for the right to be ambivalent, I also say it is necessary. Some atheists seem every bit as militant in their positions as the arch conservative evangelical Christians are about theirs. I want to ask people on at both extremes this question: “Surely, you are not claiming that you understand all things, are you? Surely there is room for questions and doubts.”

“The very character trait of faithfulness (seen as a virtue by the faithful and even some non-believers but as a vice by me and many here) is a disposition against ever concluding on the side of doubt, even where there is preponderance of evidence in that direction.”

I submit that thinking persons, theists or atheists reach out with their imagination and thoughtfulness to find more meaning than they can currently see. And that sort of quest brings about a never ending supply of questions and even doubts.

The possibility of God cannot be proven. You say emphatically that there is a preponderance of evidence that God does not exist. But you cannot disprove God existence any more than I can prove him. Actually, in terms of logic, it’s much harder to disprove the existence of something, isn’t it?

I have chosen to proceed in life by accepting the possibility that God is real—like a working hypothesis. You have chosen to proceed with the conclusion (I’d call it an assumption) that God does not exist.

This is where the theist and the atheist differ. The argument can quickly break down to the level of two kids saying “Uh huh” and “Nuh Uh.”

“Doubt for the believer is a way of creating an opening for reaffirmation of faith and the experience of a strong act of faith, just the way that sexual desire sets us up for the satisfaction of orgasm.”

That’s an interesting analogy. I’m not a psychologist, but I think it’s well established that sexuality and religion are closely connected in the human brain. Perhaps you’re correct about the dynamics of doubt and faith. But I realize this is a tangential issue.

“Let me personalize this (and ask your forgiveness for the rudeness of personalizing an abstract debate): Can you, as a member of the Christian clergy, conceive of the possible conditions wherein you would be inclined to leave the faith? Are there possible conclusions that if you were led to them rationally you can acknowledge in advance you would be forced to abandon not only your faith but your life’s work and existential vocation? Do you resolve that you are willing to inquire with open endedness, to immerse yourself in contrary ways of thinking to your faith’s and give them the full chance to prove themselves to you?”

Okay, you wanna hear the personal stuff? I have hit at least two crossroads where I was ready to leave my work, my heritage, and my faith. I came close to ending my life, as well. Both times I came back from the edge to make some major changes in my life as well as in my understanding of God. I decided that many of my beliefs were not true, but some things remained:

1. It is good to love others.
2. I was born to help others.
3. Confused and as frustrated as I can be, there must be a God.

It sounds like you’re asking if I’m willing to spend a huge portion of my energy in disproving what I have chosen to believe in order to prove to myself that atheism is valid. No, I am not.

In the past, I have done intense examination of myself and I have had to make some changes in my beliefs. By now I have come too far in the development of my thoughts and concepts to start with a clean slate. However, I am dedicated in my search for truth, and yes, I am capable of making reversals in my beliefs.

One of the core beliefs I have is that there is a God whose existence that I cannot fully prove. This assumption helps the universe make sense to me.

You said something about my basing my faith on a pre-established commitment to tradition and its beliefs. There is some validity to that, but I have spent years examining those traditions and no, I’m not particularly married to them.

However, I have maintained belief in the existence of God.

“Do you set up tests which your beliefs must pass or you will choose to abandon it?”

I can look at my past to see if my beliefs passed the test of validity. Many of them have not. I was raised to believe in the inerrancy of scripture—this has not proved to be true and it created a crisis within me that caused me to leave the arch conservative denomination I was with.

I have also been hugely disappointed with churches in general. The life of a minister is one where one regularly gets his/her heart broken by the people he dedicates himself to helping.

The study of the history of Christianity is also hugely disillusioning.

Many atheists criticize the Bible and the church in an attempt to discredit the possibility of God. I can find plenty of negative things to say about both scripture and church, but I haven’t disproved the possibility God by doing so.

There is no end to the stupid things said by people who profess to believe in God—it’s not hard to find ways of poking holes in their logic. Perhaps it’s even harder to resist making fun of them. I agree that people can be utterly ridiculous. But their flaws do not disprove the existence of God.

Many of my assumptions about God have not proved to be true: God does not answer all prayer; God does not do miracles of the supernatural kind; God does not protect people from harm; I’m not always certain that God loves me.

Doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.

“You are not leaving open the possibility of abandonment of the position. You may think about the reasons against your position and even indulge your pangs of uncertainty, but you’re not putting those beliefs into reason’s furnaces fully prepared to see them burn rather than survive.”

The existence of God is my framework of understanding. And while I have considered the possibility before that there is no God, and I have been willing to change everything in my life, I am not now at this point in my life.

Does that mean I am not a free thinker? You can conclude what you want about that. I do not feel the need to prove the validity of myself to others.

I read on your blog that you are about to complete your Ph.d in philosophy. My sincere congratulations on your tremendous achievement. I doubt that you are willing to chunk it all and start all over again reexamining your entire system of understanding and convictions.

“Maybe you are (willing to completely reject my faith), maybe that’s why you’re here hanging with the atheists and on your blog expressing your disillusionment with Christianity. Maybe deep down you are a free thinker who would rather be honest than faithful. But it’s one or the other—-honesty or faithfulness, doubt or faith. You can’t have it both ways.”

I am surprised that a man who has dedicated his life to the study of philosophy insists that life is so cut and dried. Be that as it may, I do not agree with the statement that honesty and faithfulness are mutually exclusive.

I have always thought of faith as a way of contextualizing the known and the unknown. I look into the universe, marvel at its size and complexity and I conclude there must be something that created it, which I call God. This is a conclusion that I then use as an assumption which frames how things work in the rest of life.

Why am I hanging with the atheists? I said something about liking a challenging discussion and that I like many of you. I don’t have to agree with you about the possibility/impossibility of God in order to value who you are.

Since you’re challenging me to bare my soul, I’ll go ahead and answer a little more fully. I confess that I am utterly bored with the church. I’m bored with the platitudes and the fear that keeps people cowering within them. I have spent my life working with them and helping them, but I’m not getting enough back from them to sustain me, and I sometimes feel like I’m dying from loneliness.

Yes, I need to make some kind of change, but in order to help me get by I’m reaching out for more than I have.

I figure that belief in God should open up possibilities, not shut them down. The same is true about people. I should open up the avenues of discussion, not shut them down. Reaching out in this way has helped me find some new people, a couple of new friends, and perhaps that’s even saving my life.

I am very sad that I cannot freely make these admissions to my own people, but instead I make them anonymously to people on the internet who come down on the opposite side of the most important issue in my life.

(You can read Daniel's reply here)


  1. I have a question (sorry, I know you've just finished answering a whole lot of them).
    You say that 'there must be a God'. And even as an atheist, I can agree with that kind of thinking in a vague, broadly-defined kind of way. But why the Christian God? Do you consider the Christian belief system to be more accurate than others? From reading your blog, I got the idea that you are a minister mostly in order to help others, and that Christianity specifically has little to do with it, other than providing a useful framework. Do you see it that way, or am I wishfully misinterpreting? A little clarification would help me understand your perspective better. Thanks a lot.

  2. For the purpose of making my point, I did leave it vague. However, I do work within the Christian framework of Christianity. I acknowledge Jesus as divine.

    As to why, the fairest answer is because it's what I know. I have found the teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospel worth wrestling with.

    When I discuss this with my atheist friends, I go light on the Christian faith because there are so many ways to get sidetracked in the discussion as to God's existence.

    But yes, I choose to be a Christian and I choose to wrestle with Christianity's teaching--I often think of the image of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God in order to receive a blessing.

  3. Thanks Clergy Guy, it was a pleasure reading what you had to say and replying. I hope it is worth the long read!

  4. So, you consider Jesus to have been divine. But I take it you are not a Biblical literalist. How do you decide which parts are historical and which parts metaphorical? Which rules are to be followed and which are obsolete? Is it just... a feeling?
    One could just as easily believe in a God without Jesus being divine. What is it about that particular idea that makes you believe in it? Other than the fact that you were probably raised that way, which isn't the greatest excuse.
    Not that you have to excuse anything, really. Generally I try not to care about people's theism unless it leads to actual harm - which it clearly doesn't in your case - but I just can't help myself. The militant atheist within me won't stfu D:

  5. Agh, nothing in that post made any sense. Sorry about that >.<

  6. Lessica, I think I understood what you were asking. I didn’t think you were rambling and if I understand something you said incorrectly, you can correct me. Since this is a holiday, I have some time to give toward these thoughts. So here goes.

    Many atheists and most fundamentalists characterize the Bible as a book full of magic, history, and commands. Fundamentalists claim it’s all completely true, and atheists claim it’s completely bogus. When I say I see the scriptures differently from my fundamentalist friends, atheists challenge me by asking, “so what specifically do you think is not magic and what is? And how do you choose?”

    I can’t describe how I view the Bible in that context.

    The Bible is a collection of books written at different times over a thousands of years. We can’t really put it all together and judge it as a whole without seeing the books separately.

    We have to take each part of the Bible as they are. Some parts are clearly metaphorical images: parts of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation for example. Some parts are poetry—i.e. the book of Psalms. Some are narrative accounts that may or may not be historical—some of them were not meant to really be historical, but rather theological statements—like the accounts of creation in Genesis, or perhaps the book of Acts.

    The gospels have some historical merit, but there are theological emphases that the authors were trying to make more than provide a chronological timeline.

    Then Paul’s writings are mostly letters written to various communities that outline doctrinal belief and offer instructions for moral living.

    How can we tell what’s what in scripture? It’s not really easy at all. It takes time and study and discussion and there’s lots of room for debate. I’ve gone to school for many years to study the scriptures.

    What’s the value of scripture? For me, there are many things. First, it’s a perception of God through the lens of the ancient Jewish culture. Second, the theological statements I mentioned earlier are a part of history, even if they’re not chronological events. Third, those theological statements are significant to me. Fourth, the accounts and the words of Jesus are very important. With much consideration and thought I have things I can use to form my understanding of God.

    All this takes a great deal of responsibility on my part to decide what’s true, what’s good, and what’s moral. It’s not a series of statements that I can accept or reject. I actually have to think about it and claim my own thoughts.

    I am not the only Christian who views scripture this way—many mainstream, more liberal oriented denominations think along these lines.

  7. CG--I think you have already demonstrated on this site beyond any reasonable doubt that you have honestly dissected and questioned your faith. It seems to me that the challenges for you to start from scratch and do it all again, or to defend beliefs you are already openly questioning as a CLERGYMAN, are misdirected potshots. No offense intended toward Daniel, whose honesty and intelligence appear to be beyond reproach. But it would be most interesting to see an atheist start a website where they honestly, ruthlessly question the tenets of their DISBELIEF. Surely they have some doubts about the non-existence of a god in their dark nights of the soul. Why not go public as you have, and fearlessly admit them?

    I find myself relieved to read Lessica's comments. Why do so many debate forums on this subject presuppose that "God" is the God of the Bible, and that by debunking parts of the Bible (not very hard to do) you can burst the whole God bubble? What is logical about assuming that a higher creator is all good, or all-powerful, or all-knowing? For all we know he could just be some flunky for an even higher power, and does nothing but specialize in building universes and abandoning them. I'm not suggesting that is true, but it makes more sense than chaos randomly transforming into design.

    Design can occur randomly, as in the case of the person who recently claimed they found a burrito that appeared to have Jay Leno's image on it. But an entire matrix of incomprehensively complex designs clearly indicates intelligence of some sort. "Unintelligent Design" is an oxymoron, and design is empirically evident in any direction you look.

    That being said, I don't believe in the traditional God, either, but I'm searching for a real one with ruthless and costly honesty. Nor do I believe in the divinity of 2009 Science, which will be the laughingstock of 3009, just as the "science" of 1009 is for us today. Nor am I overawed at cleverly linked intellectualizations, which Freud labelled as defense mechanisms, on any subject, especially this one--not even the intellectualization I just posted here.


  8. CG - Your reply to Lessica regarding the Bible and its contents was excellent! Not too often does one see such a reasoned outline.

  9. Jaguar, you may have already read Daniel's answer to my challenge as to whether or not he would be willing to reevaluate ALL of his philosophical thinking. He responded by saying that yes, indeed he had done just that the year before. Serves me right for asking such a question of a philosophy student.

    I liked your comment about 2009 Science.

    I appreciate your struggle to see what's true. I think we all share that struggle, whether we are atheists, Christian, or slogging through the confusion. Can we find illumination? Is that what Jesus was addressing when he said, "Seek and you shall find?"

    UU4077, I'm glad you liked the outline of the Bible. I forgot to mention the section writtine by the prophets, which focuses less on making predictions and more on confronting the sins of a nation