Saturday, April 01, 2006
Losing My Faith
As long as I can remember, I have wanted to understand how the world around me works. My faith was an important part of that; it was not just for my comfort or pleasure (although it brought these), but more importantly it enabled me to understand the unseen parts of this world and the next. The Bible revealed much that I could not obtain elsewhere. I believed the Christian message about my sin, God's forgiveness and gaining salvation through Jesus. I read my Bible daily, went to church and fellowship and small-group meetings. I was strongly involved in evangelism and sought to bring my friends and others into a right understanding of God and the world and their need for forgiveness so they could gain salvation too.
There were two significant events and a few lines of thought that lead to a crumbling of this faith. The first event was a discussion over dinner with two people I had met from the International Church of Christ: a sect of Christianity that thinks it is the true church. We were discussing our faiths. Tim, the more experienced of the two, was a strong believer and active in his church and spreading the faith. There was a lot I had in common with him, and to some extent I saw myself in him. But we had some disagreements. He took some passages in the New Testament about making disciples as implying we had to be actively evangelizing every day, otherwise our faith was void. We discussed it in length and I tried to show Tim that his belief was ludicrous. But he was absolutely convinced that his interpretation was correct and that those of us who disagreed were wrong and going to hell. And that is how our discussion ended, with no progress. As I thought back over our discussion I was amazed that someone who seemed so reasonable and strong in faith was so confident in a belief that was so obviously false. The disturbing question it raised for me was this: might I be like Tim, confident in beliefs that if I were more objective I would see were clearly false? I concluded that confidence in a belief is not good evidence that it is true. Rather such confidence, where evidence is weak such as in spiritual things and knowing God's will and as often showed by Christian leaders, is most likely a mask for ignorance.
The second event was actually a semester long course on creation and evolution that I taught to the youth at a Southern Baptist church I attended. I wanted it to be as fair a presentation of all the evidence and views involved, so I did a lot of research into the creation-evolution debate. Whether evolution is true or not, I didn’t know. What surprised me, though, were the arguments used by Christian organizations to counter evolution. Arguments like: the decay of the earth’s magnetic field indicates that the earth can’t be older than 10 thousand years old. This and a number of the other arguments (which I had learned when I was young) had long since been shown to be false, and yet they were still being printed without disclaimers and included in curricula for students. How could Christians, who were claiming to be spreading the truth, be using falsehoods to achieve this goal? Perhaps what was more important than truth of the message, was simply convincing people of the message. This, of course, is not restricted to the creation-evolution debate. There are many beliefs Christians seek to convince others of; but are Christians scrupulous to use only truthful arguments for these? I began to wonder if that were so. As I thought back over various evangelism efforts I was familiar with, I realized indeed making converts was the goal, and the truth of the message or the arguments did not matter. Even the Biblical authors are guilty of this. There are numerous times in the New Testament where anyone who disagrees with and disbelieves the author is labeled an evildoer and described in horrible language (for example Romans 1:18-32). Clearly there are many morally good unbelievers who reject the gospel message (I'm not saying they are perfect), but it is convenient and rhetorically powerful to ignore this fact. This is another example of truth being discarded for the sake of making converts. Should I really have faith in a message that is so casual about truth?
Ask a Christian why he believes, and he will have a reason, especially if he is involved in evangelism. But are these reasons for faith really reasons for the truth of the belief? Of course I can’t evaluate all the reasons here, but the surprising thing is that most of the reasons most people give aren’t actually reasons for the truth of the message. For example, people believe because they were healed from something when they prayed, or because faith gives them great joy and hope and peace, or because they at last feel forgiveness, or because they want to go to heaven in the afterlife, and so forth. But none of these speak to the truth of the belief. One can be miraculously healed without the gospel message being true (see my post: What do miracles prove?), one can gain great joy, hope, peace and forgiveness simply through having a belief, without the belief being true, and one can be confident that one is going to heaven without that being true. What I found as I thought more carefully, listen to sermons, read apologetics books and read the arguments in the Bible, was that despite finding many “reasons” for faith, there are very few reasons or evidence for the truth of the gospel message. But I only want to believe a message if it is true.
My last line of reasoning is probably the most important for me, and one that I have considered on and off for a number of years. Christianity depends on divine authority for its message which it proclaims with with no uncertainty. The natural question this poses is: How can one know if a message is from God? The common answer is: Find it in the Bible. But that just pushes the question back one step: How do we know the Bible is a divine message to us? That’s a hard question, and it compels a similarly difficult question: How did the original writers or prophets know that their message was from God? Say one of the prophets heard a voice; How is he to know if it is from God? Or maybe he saw an angel; Does that mean that what he heard was from God? Who knows what spiritual things exist outside our experience; if one of them appears and claims to be from God, why should we believe it? How can one we sure that it is speaking the truth or that it is trying to deceive the prophet? (The simple tests sometimes proposed assume these creatures are idiots -- one must assume they are at least as smart and knowledgeable as any human and so could easily deceive any human.) In addition, how can anyone who hears the prophet know that he got his message from God? One might say, well if he does signs and wonders then one should believe. But if there are powers out there, then it could be any power doing the signs and wonders. Another answer is: One knows through spiritual insight. That is to say, one feels it is from God so it is from God, or equivalently one feels it is true so it is true. That is a statement of ultimate subjectivity and not surprisingly there is a plethora of contradictory feelings as to what is from God. Luckily the scientific approach has moved us beyond that dead end of pure subjectivity. Another answer is: Listen to what Jesus said. But if Jesus was a human, he would have similar difficulties as we in determining what the divine message was – just like we can’t know for sure, he wouldn’t know for sure. Doing great works and rising from the dead aren’t a demonstration that he was right in his message. So we are stuck, unable to be sure of anything about the spiritual world that lies outside our realm of experience. Nevertheless there are religions that claim to know all about the spiritual world without a shadow of a doubt. It seems clear to me that there is a lot of bluffing and deception going on.
The conclusion that I have drawn is that while Christianity claims to speak the truth with divine inspiration, the evidence for this is completely lacking. None of the reasons or evidences I have seen proposed actually justify it. Moreover, the confidence in which the message is stated actually counts against its likelihood, since the speakers refuse to accept the inherent uncertainty in any such pronouncement. Indeed there is plenty of evidence of Christianity from the begining being more concerned about making and keeping converts than preserving the truth. My goal is to find the truth, and if I am to be honest in that search I have to move on from my faith in infallible claims of divine pronouncements.