Over the years I’ve met many people, in ‘real life’ and on the internet, who have changed their beliefs about God. Some have moved from unbelief to belief in Jesus, others have moved from belief to atheism. And I have come across a few who have changed their belief twice – from faith to unbelief and back again, or vice versa.
Few of us are purely emotional or purely logical about these decisions, and for some these choices have involved a time of deep reflection as well as some emotional stress.
I often ponder how and why these changes of belief occur.
The chaos of youth?
It seems that many of our basic attitudes are determined by the time we are in our early twenties. By this age, many people become christians, or environmental or social activists, or communists (if there are any of them left these days), or committed atheists.
Many people stay with these commitments lifelong, but others mellow or change viewpoints altogether. A minister I knew once said that most christians start off narrow, and broaden, and I think this is often true.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall?
When people choose to walk away from the christian belief they were brought up in, it seems that often the stronger or more fundamentalist their christian belief or upbringing was, the stronger will be their reaction against it.
Fundamentalism – its own worst enemy?
More moderate christians, when they see problems in their belief, tend to take it in their stride, work the issue through, and end up slightly more liberal or progressive. But more fundamentalist christians are more likely to find the experience of doubt almost traumatic, and to reject the lot.
In the first chapter of his book Fabricating Jesus, New Testament scholar Craig Evans discusses this very question, and uses as examples four fellow scholars (the most well-known of whom might be Bart Ehrman) who grew up as evangelical christians but later became extremely liberal christians or not believers at all. He suggests, on the basis of comments each have made about their journey out of faith, that all four reacted to a fundamentalism that discouraged questioning and taught that one had to accept the whole package, or reject it.
An offensive suggestion?
Over the years, I have discussed some of these matters with ex-christian friends, and commented that it seems to me that they rejected a very different form of christianity to what I believe. Some have been slightly offended at this, because of they see an implication that their unbelief may not be well-based.
But I mean no offence. It is indeed the case that they have rejected a different form of christianity than I believe. And it is surely true that some may have responded differently if they started from a different point, just as others would not. But I cannot say how it was for any individual.
And I note that it goes both ways – many atheists say something similar to christians, suggesting that it is only their upbringing that led them to faith.
I don’t think their departure from their previous faith is necessarily a bad thing. Probably they needed to get out. Leaving untrue or unhelpful beliefs is good, and can be the first step towards God (statistics show that many people who change their mind about religion once, change it again). Most won’t see it that way, and for most it won’t be that way, but for some it will.
The range of options open to doubters
For a person raised in a ‘fundamentalist’ form of christianity, doubts are most likely to begin with the obviously questionable stories of the Old Testament (Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Babel, Noah, Jonah, etc), or some of the darkest and most difficult teachings (the Old Testament killings, hell, women’s inequality), or a general distaste about the character of God as they have come to see it. What options are open to such a person?
Few of the most questionable aspects of the Bible are fundamental to christianity – e.g. very few of them appear in the creeds. (It is ironical that ‘fundamentalism’, which began with concern of some basic teachings, has come to be so associated with so many peripheral matters.)
So the most obvious option for someone who believes strongly in Jesus is to hold onto Jesus but let go some or all of these peripherals This will mean taking a more nuanced and flexible view of the Bible, or at least the Old Testament.
We could call this moderate christianity, and more and more christians are moving this way.
Deism or agnosticism
Some people find they can no longer believe in any of the Bible, even the parts of the New Testament which scholars say are historical, but they find the world and human experience still point to a creator and/or sustainer. They may choose some form of deism (belief in a God who created the world but doesn’t get involved with human beings) or even agnosticism.
But many ex-christians choose atheism, for various reasons. Some have been emotionally hurt by their christian experience, and want nothing at all to do with christianity again. Some find that once their belief in Bible inerrancy is gone, they have no more reason to believe (for they were never given any other reason). Still others find that once their critical faculties are sharpened and they adopt a more sceptical approach, nothing in christianity stands up strongly enough to scrutiny.
How many consider all the options?
Obviously I cannot know this. But I wonder how many people consider the full range of options when they abandon their christian belief.
Doubt in my life
I did not grow up in a christian home, though I received a modicum of christian training when I was sent to Sunday School. When I first believed the christian message, I had few preconceptions. I was a questioning teen (some would say argumentative! 🙁 ) and so I began immediately to read CS Lewis and other ‘apologetic’ books. My questioning was never criticised.
It wasn’t long before I began to question many aspects of evangelical christian belief – many aspects of the Old Testament (including the commands to kill whole tribes, and the literalness of Noah, Job and Jonah), and the standard evangelical view of Jesus that didn’t seem to take his life and teachings seriously – only his death and resurrection. And so I read a lot over the years.
This openness to other ideas led me into deep waters on occasions, but I never felt I was betraying God or being anything other than honest. And so my beliefs and faith were free to adjust to the new things I was learning, which I found exciting rather than threatening. And I found a strong basis for beliefs that remained much the same at the core but were quite different from where I started in many details.
Questions for doubters of all stripes
Most people who read this are probably well satisfied with their current beliefs. But for any who are open to questioning their current views may I suggest a few thoughts?
To those beginning to doubt christianity, I would suggest considering all the options. Ask yourself questions like: Is this matter I’m doubting fundamental to my belief in Jesus? Are there christians who doubt this? Could I change my view on this matter I’m doubting and still have good reason to believe in Jesus?
To those who have ‘deconverted’ I would ask: Do the reasons why you first doubted christianity justify the view you hold now? Is there any reason to reconsider the extent of your rejection of christian faith? Is there any reason not to? How open are you to seeing christianity in a new and less alien way?
And to convinced christians I would ask: Is all that you are teaching as crucial really fundamental to christian faith? Are you setting people up to disbelieve later because of the viewpoint you teach?
Take home message and question
I think it is sad if some people reject a God who is false and never consider the God I believe is true.
What do you think? What has been your experience?
To think of God as God of everyone, as I do, Christianity is just one of many traditions which I think is too specific to be deemed THE truth. Fable, mythology, metaphor are ways that we can approach the divine realm, but which fall short of bringing us into its fullness. I guess that makes me something of a religious pluralist. At least this is the way I tend to think about the matter, and it has allowed me to recover the baby from the bathwater.
Hi Doug, thanks for the comment. I’m glad to hear the baby’s safe with you! 🙂
Do you think inclusivist christianity allows God to be a God of everyone? Do you think revelation allows a religion to be more specific than “Fable, mythology, metaphor “? They would be ways I think of God.
Or Fundamentalist Christian communists! 😉
I found your post both covering much ground and considerately balanced. Thanks for sharing it.
Why not a simple inclusivism: God purposed to bring about highly intelligent and reasoning creatures capable of developing God-consciousness? Might that not be the core from which the various traditions developed?
Hi Doug, I think we are into some interesting questions here. I think christian inclusivism answers your problem of one religion being too specific, and I think revelation sufficiently (though not fully) answers your problem of how can we possibly comprehend God. So for me, those barriers to christianity are removed, though of course others may remain and one also needs positive reasons to believe.
On the other hand, you suggest some sort of deism answers the inclusive problem also, and also explains why there are many different religions.
I respect that viewpoint. I think the reasons to believe in a God are strong, and I think the reasons to prefer christianity over any other religion are also strong. So I am in agreement with you that a purposeful God who kept himself hidden and wants us to live according to the best ethics which he/she/it knows we will work out is a real possibility. I have long thought that if I wasn’t a christian, that is what I would believe.
I think there are reasons to prefer christianity, and I think following this alternative belief could lead someone to christianity (something like it led CS Lewis that way), and that I guess is where we disagree.
Thanks for your comment.
I don’t think Deism, at least as popularly conceived (distant, uninvolved God ), adequately expresses how I think about the matter.
I did purposely duck a discussion about revelation. Personally, I think that is the poorest method of attempting to arrive at religious truth, even regarding Christianity. I suggest that because there simply is no unambiguous definition of what Christianity is – unless, perhaps, Roman Catholicism is the truth.
Revelation can’t tell us anything unless we first submit to it. If we do it on an individual basis, fine. But if we attempt to impose our supposed revelations onto others, well, I think that is quite problematic.
Forgive my briefness, but I’m short of time this morning. Thanks for the interesting discussion.
Brevity is good and doesn’t need an apology. I wish I could be as concise! Forgive my delay but I’ve been away for a few days.
Surely there is a middle road between personal belief and imposing on others? Something like recommending?
You are surely right that there is “no unambiguous definition of what Christianity is, but I don’t see a major problem with that. I think many things are difficult to define exactly, including consciousness, morality, or one’s political beliefs, but they are too important not to talk about. In those cases, and with christianity, we know enough to say a lot of sensible things nevertheless.
I think revelation is the most important evidence of all, because unless a person comes halfway to meet us, we can only ever know externals about them and not the person themselves. And I think it is the same with God. Of course we need to (1) have good reason to believe the revelation is giving us true information, and (2) have some other source of information such as philosophy or personal experience.
How would your beliefs differ from deism?
I too appreciate the discussion. Thanks.
My ideas about God involve more divine interaction with the Creation than Deism – at least as popularly conceived – allows. Also, I have more of an appreciation for ritual than deists generally seem to have. Finally, I’m not as quick to label other religious ideas as “superstition,” tending to think more in terms of mythology.
As far as the idea of “special revelation” goes, I think it is divisive. It hasn’t the power of uniting believers in God, only dividing.
And divide it has!
Isn’t it enough to discern that there is a divine realm that we can all tap into, no matter how imperfectly in our present state, by just following our minds and hearts?
OK, thanks for that clarification.
Would you say being divisive is an indicator of lack of truth? I would have thought that would be a very difficult proposition to justify.
It isn’t enough for me “to discern that there is a divine realm that we can all tap into”. I think as you describe it, I would need more evidence and I would want more information. Of course it is arguable whether I have either that need or that want, but I believe I have.
I would suggest divisiveness comes from lack of agreement. Special revelation (so-called) doesn’t seem to have done much to unite humanity. On the other hand, those of us who realize we can only reach for the truth and at best grasp wisps of it don’t feel the need or even the reasonableness of being dogmatic.
I guess we have identified an area where we disagree fundamentally. Divisiveness seems to be an important matter for you – if not a criterion of truth then perhaps an indicator of it. As you say: “Special revelation (so-called) doesn’t seem to have done much to unite humanity.”
On the other hand, while I think we should always remain united in our humanity and respect for each other, I think there are matters of truth and principle where disagreeing is the only option. (Just as we are disagreeing here.) So I think God’s revelation will cause different reactions in different people.
Are there any matters important to you where you believe something is true even though it is a divisive issue?
I feel a certain kinship with all the religious and spiritual minded folks. At the same time time I feel that the materialistic and reductionist (atheist) outlook is mostly negative and not especially helpful for humans.
And yes, I respect the logic-minded atheists and those who consider themselves realists and beyond the need for anything more. I don’t at all deny that one can be moral and decent while not having any spiritual inklings at all. I just suspect that is a learned attitude and not one that comes naturally to most of us.
Okay, I think what I just wrote is fairly divisive (and controversial!).
However, I prefer to search out the areas of agreement among those of us feel there is something more to existence and concentrate on that. There are and always have always been more believers than nonbelievers. I know that doesn’t of itself constitute a proof, but surely it is very, very significant. So significant is it, I think the atheists use the diversity of religious opinion as a way of negating its force.
I think that is a wrong approach. But I also think it is a wrong approach for the religious-minded to elevate specifics above the common source of our outlook.
Does that make sense?
It makes sense, I agree with most of it, and I could probably believe it – except I think I’ve found what makes more sense. I too prefer to search out areas of agreement, but I also think truth is very important. In christianity, we would call it “speaking the truth in love”, though I’ve found some who say that don’t sound very loving!
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