My Own Religious Frailty, and Common Ground with Atheists and Agnostics

My Own Religious Frailty, and Common Ground with Atheists and Agnostics March 20, 2012

Guest writer Trent Maida is former film critic and full-on blogger who now does other stuff that you may come across.

If someone asked me to describe my faith, like giving a State of the Union for the soul, I’d say “don’t call it a State of the Union for the soul because that sounds like you’re elevating the government to a god-like position,” and when the person realized that I was making a dumb joke on purpose, I’d finally answer. Sorry, I’m a little wary to get into this post when it’s all about my own religious doubts. But I’m going to share them because I have a feeling that many of these doubts are universal.

My faith at the age of 33 feels more like a relationship and less like being a member of a movement. It’s alive, I hope, and yet fragile. It gets attacked, sometimes by me and my faults, and sometimes by others, either intentionally or by accident. In my younger years, I thought of my faith in terms of brawn, and whenever I sensed atrophy, I’d rush off to read end times theology to make sure that Jesus was only coming back Pre or Mid Tribulation, or I’d brush up on Calvinism and TULIP and find someone who would listen to me shout down the theology of Limited Atonement. This, at the time, made me feel better. I called it righteousness. And then I was forced to look in the mirror around age 25, and didn’t like what I saw. I had become the Pharisee that I believed so many others to be. It was the beginning of confession, of repentance, and I believe, the first time that I really, honestly met Christ, down in the trenches of my own mistakes and my own darkness. But meeting and attempting to walk with Christ since then hasn’t removed my doubts.

Some Reasons Why I Doubt My Faith At Times

I struggle with the fact that Christ promised to return as recorded in the Bible, and 2,000 years later, has not. I struggle with how silly each generation looks when they swear they’re the last one, including many who knew Christ or directly followed him. I’m hoping this has something to do with God’s sense of humor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not waiting for the sky to fall or for those blazing trumpets like I’m supposed to, and I don’t even really think about it, except when I do think about it, and it feels like a leak in the ship. A lot of that history over 2,000 years has been filled with some incredibly dark stuff. Atheists and agnostics call this the problem of evil. Evangelicals often shrug it off, or in a quiet panic learn to interpret every little development on the world stage as a sign of the end, and both of those responses trouble me.

On my good days I can understand and marvel at the idea that God granted freewill to mankind (unless your theology says otherwise) and the consequences of personal choice are often horrendous, but on my bad days I understand why a guy like Bill Maher, in his movie ‘Religulous,’ asked the man playing Jesus at Bibleland theme park “well what is he [God] waiting for!?” Some days, the answer of ”God’s timing is better or at least different than ours” just rings a bit hollow, and I wonder if I’m participating in a vast con, hiding some of the payoff like the ball in a shell game. At times, those “just you wait and see” answers feel like too much sleight of hand.

Another doubt that I have is just the fatigue of the race, if life is…a race. I’ve spent my whole life in this Christian sphere; growing up in a fundamentalist church where they told me I shouldn’t listen to the rock band Rush and had me watch Christian end times horror movies that were probably equivalent to spiritual abuse, went to Christian school and Christian college, church-hopped around Seattle through places that felt either totally dead or fueled by intolerance and ignorance, and also landed in churches where I felt like God was moving through ordinary, humble people, meeting pastors along the way who showed me the heart and mind of a complex, daring God. Still, there’s that fatigue at times, what Don Miller calls the “long middle,” where you no longer see where you began, don’t see the end, and in my case can’t help but think of God as stagnant or safe, instead of wild. At times, I doubt the familiar rhythms of faith, I doubt the presence of God, or I doubt because of my mistakes that I keep making, and wonder in my gut if God’s grace may have missed me, even while my “beliefs” tell me otherwise.

Finally, I find that some other Christians lead me to doubt. I don’t like being evaluated in face to face settings by Christians with all the right answers ready to go. I lose patience when I feel like a person’s holy hobby for the moment. It’s like those books that have a tabbed index so telemarketers can respond correctly depending on the comment. Even now, I know some people reading this are forming a bunch of assumptions about how I need to a) read the Bible more b) let go of fear c) get right with God. I get angry when Christians use death as an excuse to condemn others. I abhor Christian superstition, where everything that happens can be easily explained. I groan when “on fire” Christians can’t stop talking about how cool Jesus is; there is a certain vocabulary that not only turns my stomach, but it causes me to doubt my own faith, because I just don’t feel like bragging about Jesus or God, in the same way that I’m not wanting to brag about my wife and daughter, although I love them dearly as well and think the world of them.

If people are after a Jesus-y trophy, they can have it. I resent it when people ask me in backhanded ways to prove my faith. Whenever there is an expectation to answer in a certain way, I’d rather pass. The Christian competition wears me out. I’m not even saying these People of the Spiritual Olympics are always inauthentic, and I do my best to leave their salvation status between them and God, but it can be hard to believe in Jesus when so many weird people have become weirder and give him credit for it like it’s a good thing. I dislike the simple math of fundamentalism, and even while I know it to be just an interpretation of faith, it makes me second guess myself at times. That’s why faith is as much unlearning as it is learning, and underscores why I struggle to relate to people who use faith as reinforcement.

Common Ground with the “Outcasts”

The skeptic movement can be difficult to navigate (because some are very dogmatic, ironically) but I do resonate in part. I like when Richard Dawkins admits he can’t be sure that God doesn’t exist, and wish, like the new atheists have asked of Christianity, that our faith be more transparent in every season. Doubt doesn’t make us look weak, it makes us look human.

When atheist Daniel Dennett framed Jesus as a sky Santa, I don’t think we Christians got angry because he was blasphemous, we were angry because it hit close to home. Yes we believe (for reasons far greater than one blog post), but let’s at least acknowledge the absurdity or perhaps the unlikeliness of what we believe. Sometimes it’s almost as if we think our position is “Jesus walked down the street to purchase a loaf of bread for mankind” and we fume when people don’t accept that. What we believe, recorded in the New Testament, is possible, divine, but it is not probable. How much more credible would the Christian faith be to laugh when the atheists or agnostics make their jokes, acknowledging yes, “it’s a wild sounding story, I have to give you that.” I like that atheists remind us Christians that some of what we believe sounds crazy, otherwise we tend to get a little too sure of ourselves and groupthink takes over.

What’s the Purpose of Sharing Doubts?

I do think there’s a human tendency to hide our imperfections, and perhaps religion magnifies this. Even if it’s not a part of the theology, people get involved and set up a merit-based system where spiritual performance is close to godliness. Doubt is the party pooper at the Turbo Christian’s root beer keg party. I’m learning to be okay with my doubt, and praying that God continue to teach me what it means that God is strong in our weakness, and to learn this in my life, not just in my head. Some will wonder why. ”You’re sharing doubts and common ground and that’s it?” Yes, that’s it, by design. Christians so often feel the need to put a Hollywood ending on everything spiritual. We have to marinate a bit more in the reality of doubt. And if we can’t recognize the good, or at least the intriguing in those who are unlike us, then we really are just another camp, another team, another clique. I see in Christ a bridge builder, challenging everyone, and welcoming everyone. If following Him means moving beyond Biblical comprehension to engage the world, and this produces a risk to the tranquility of faith based on answers, then that’s a really good thing.


Guest writer Trent Maida is former film critic and full-on blogger who now does other stuff that you may come across.

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  • Erin

    Initial emotional response: “Good God, yes…!” Rational, thoughtful response to come later.

    • ow lafaye

      Rational thought?  Why does no reasonable thought apply to all that he says?

  • Love Ian. Adore him. 

    • Karen, I agree. Ian is not only a great writer but a great guy.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Kurt,
     Does Your faith rely on the words of Paul, well then You could sound or feel like a Pharisee at times, as Paul was a Pharisee with honors.  My advice, is what You expect, reread the Bible, but try to see the story from God’s point of view, not trying to prop up doctrines of men.  If You believe “by faith Abraham obtained the promise”, God’s own telling of how Abraham did that(Genesis 26:5) will set You straight.
     Can You defend and explain Your Christianity, never referring to Romans or Hebrews, or other letters of Paul? The point is if You need Paul to support Your doctrine then all God said through Moses the prophets, and His own word in the flesh(Christ), was insufficient, or the doctrine is in error.
     What is the faith of Jesus? Faith that God will perform His word.

    • ME

      I love this, Theophile. A really great advertisement against christianity.

      • ME

         Whoa, we have two different ME’s on here! (I’m the one from higher up in the comments.)

    • ow lafaye

      God will perform his word?  It has been 2000 years now, just when were you expecting this event?  Most Christians think everything will come to a head in their lifetime and they have been thinking this way, every generation, for 2000 years.  How often do you break out your sign “The End is Near” grow a long grey beard, wear sandals…and stand on the local downtown street corner?

      The broken record of God and Jesus’ promises?  It is a broken record…this is why a lot of you fools run amok.

      • Anonymous

         Hello “ow lafaye”,
         Broken record? Jesus said “The servant is not greater than his master, and if You follow me, They will thrust You out of the churches, persecute You, and kill You, for the word of God, and the testimony You hold”(paraphrase mine). Please read the history of Christianity in Foxes book of Martyrs**, and see what Jesus meant by “the narrow way”, and “Pick up Your cross and follow me”. Crosses are meant to die on, not worship.
         You know, this “happy rapture” after living “abundantly” with the world type, lukewarm Christianity is not exactly the picture the Bible paints. If we read the events of the 5th seal in Revelation, along with Matthew 24, we see the “true believers” will all be rubbed out, that’s why it’s called the great tribulation. Most happy rapture doctrines get this period of time confused with the wrath of God, which comes later.
        BTW, only a long grey beard.

  • I sympathize with these sorrows.

    “That’s why faith is as much unlearning as it is learning”

    Thank you for saying this.  I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way.  I’ve come to a point where I need to forget things moreso than I need to learn things.  It’s a dreadful process and I hate it.  I blame the Evangelical churches for most of that.  It’s far too long of a story to get into why I blame the Evangelical church for this, but I’ll analogize it to giving guns to children.  Guns are a very useful tool when in the right hands.  But, in the wrong hands they can wreak havoc on many innocent people. 

    I’m planning on becoming Orthodox very soon and I’m looking forward to starting a new life as a Christian.

    A good post and thanks for sharing.  Know that you’re not alone and, indeed, have my sympathies.

  • ME

    “When atheist Daniel Dennett framed Jesus as a sky Santa, I don’t think
    we Christians got angry because he was blasphemous, we were angry
    because it hit close to home.”

    I don’t get angry at that stuff, I think it can do good for Christians. Yes, faith is a belief, it’s not certainty and I think it’s better for all of us to acknowledge that. If we aren’t willing to acknowledge that the creator of the universe becoming a man, walking around in this world, and then coming into each of our lives individually is a little bit “out there” or maybe even far-fetched, then I’m not sure we are really being honest about what faith really is. I mean, I literally believe God has answered my prayers. The creator of all, the unmade maker, answered my prayers? How crazy is THAT???

    I’m going to share my unsolicited thoughts here…

    Probability is a part of faith. One of the differences between myself and an atheist is how we assess the probability that Jesus is who he said he was (if you believe he was recorded accurately.) An atheist would say that probability is near zero. I would say it’s somewhere between 3/4 and 1. But, regardless of what the atheist or myself think the probability is, we can still choose what we believe. If I thought the probability was near zero, I could still CHOOSE to believe it’s true. It’s like a person betting on the lottery, they choose to believe or else they would never buy the ticket.

    We probably won’t know 100% in this lifetime what the actuality of Jesus is. The question is, do you want to buy the ticket? After reading the Gospels over and over all my life… my goodness do I desire with everything in my heart to bet on Jesus.

    • ow lafaye

      Betting on the lottery means you do have a chance to win because it is real and tightly managed.  Betting on a myth is a lose-lose situation.

  • Twallek

    Kurt- I love ya man ! You are doing well. Wisdom and  knowledge is a lifetime thing. Be patient. You have made great progress (from my 62 year old perspective)
    Suggestions: Give up the evangelical mindset. ie, biblical literalism, and evangelical eschatology- such nonsense.  Amillenialism was all the rage when Luther was being a problem. Actually, go east, before Rome had all the answers. When your tired of finding the real church and the beginning, simply become a mystic and listen to the voice of Jesus living in your heart. See you in heaven, regardless of what you do !!! Love you bro ! Really !

  • ow lafaye

    Why not rid yourself of all these conundrums?  Just stop believing and start taking personal responsibility for all that you say, think, do and feel.

    These chains are something you put around your neck and there will always be people that in passing by, yank on them gleefully…and rightly so.

  • Ryan Becker

    One thing I have always found interesting about the Lord’s promise to return is how much control He has actually given us in how soon He fulfills that promise. In Acts and at the end of the Gospels, Jesus put the ball in our courts, telling us to spread the Gospel throughout the world, and completing that mission is what is holding us back.

    • Ryan Becker

       Also, Kurt, I appreciate your honesty and courage in this post. We need more of that in the church 🙂

      • ow lafaye

        Sheeple are not known for their honesty and courage…they dump it all on God remember?

    • ow lafaye

      Great rationalization Becker….lets hear what you have to say about all the fossils lying about…what rationalization do you use to explain them away?

  • SAM

    Great blog…I have been there and am in the midst of finding a new church because of these struggles. 

    • ow lafaye

      Try the Church of Universal Humanism…start taking responsibility for your personal thoughts, words and actions.  That invisible, magical zombie-in-the-sky is where you folks dump all your responsibilities folks and you do it without improving yourself one bit.  There is no study that indicates Christians are any better, moral or good than all the other folks and a strong indication that you are slightly owrse because of your hypocrisy, dishonesty, arrogance and ignorance.

  • Mariazoey

    I find Ian less than credible because for all his effort at putting his doubts on parade, he never expresses a willingness to pursue reality if it actually opposes all he’s been taught. his doubts are real, and he is only human for having them, but at this point he’s using them as an evangelistic tool. As The new testament writer expressed it, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” If Ian were to pursue an unpopular reality, rather than continuing to parade and embrace his beliefs in the face of not only evidence, but a general psychological health in the opposite direction, I would have much more respect for him. As it is he hasn’t earned it.
    Furthermore, I find it completely counterintuitive that someone would use their own very legitimate doubts about a system as part of an advertising campaign to draw people into that same system. Only religion is that messed up.

    • It seems to me you’ve started with the assumption that unless Ian’s doubts force him into atheism, or at least agnosticism, they aren’t legitimate. How is your objection any more credible than his struggle?

      • ow lafaye

        His “doubts” are not legitimate no…he trucks them out of the closet that is his mind in an attempt to say “Hey, I’m just like you” and in hopes it will rope in some of the fools that Christianity missed.

        • Actually, unless you know Ian more personally than I suspect you do, you’re spouting baloney on a subject about which you know nothing here.  If you read Ian’s post as I did, carefully listening to what he said, you’ll see that he wasn’t targeting any “fools that Christianity missed” at all.  He was, in fact, speaking to two groups of Christians:  one who is so damn sure of themselves they embarrass the rest of us, and the other who struggles with their own uncertainties and doubts.  To the former, Ian is as critical as you are (and I join him in this).  To the latter, he was extending hope and encouragement.

          And I find it highly ironic that a humanist such as you claim to be, would have the nerve to suggest another person’s doubts are illegitimate.

          • owlafaye

            What you missed Dan is that atheists have no doubts.  Trying to “Buddy Up” to atheists with this kind of pap is ludicrous.

            There isn’t any god but there sure are a lot of fools.

          • Give it a rest, man!  All you’re doing is proving that there are fundamentalists among atheists as well as believers.  To tell a guy his doubts are illegitimate because he doesn’t disbelieve the same way you do…that’s the funniest form of religious bigotry I’ve seen in … oh, at least five minutes …

    • ow lafaye

      Yes, he makes himself seem soft and yielding in an attempt to draw others into his scheme….laughter.

      Dishonesty in the name of God is one of Christianity’s “fun” things.  Christians really believe that a god has given them permission to LIE in the defense of their faith.

      Christianity is a very twisted evil thing.

      • Christians really believe that a god has given them permission to LIE in the defense of their faith.

        Really?  I know a lot of Christians that are pretty deluded…as a follower of Jesus myself I’m convinced that an awful lot that calls itself “Christianity” is severely distorted and yes, even evil.  But I do not know of any Christians, or any sect of Christianity, that says it’s OK to lie for their faith.  To the contrary, historically many Christians have gone to their deaths rather than lie for convenience.  Upon what grounds to you make your accusation?

        • ow lafaye

          Our small town’s pastor is a Fundamentalist “in extremis”  In an honest moment he admitted that God has empowered him to LIE, if necessary in defense of Christianity or in attempting to save your soul.

          However, this arrogant, dishonest attitude is rather rampant in even Mainline Christianity as demonstrated by the countless media attention directed towards it…which you seem to have “overlooked” or “missed”

          Christians are not interested in the TRUTH if it is counter to their beliefs and faith…I guess you have also “overlooked” the media articles regarding the general denial of anything scientific as a prerequisite for someone to be a Christian?  Maybe you missed the abnormal rise in the percentage of conservatives that believe science is “unimportant” and not to be trusted? 

          WAKE UP Dan.

          • Wow @google-f8603a95cdc1ec973ea74c1356fd8391:disqus , you’ve got some serious anti-theist hostility going on here.  But I think you’re painting us with a bit of a broad brush.  Will you honestly consider my responses?  These are intended, not to “lure you in,” but merely to show you we aren’t all quite as scary as you might have thought.

            First of all, that fundamentalist pastor you’ve met is flat-out wrong.  Nothing in the Christian scriptures authorizes him to lie…and frankly, if you were to believe him on the basis of a lie, your “soul” wouldn’t be “saved” by it anyway…believing a lie doesn’t save anyone in our faith either.  As for this “dishonest attitude,” I can tell you without reservation that I have written a great deal as a Christian about dishonesty and un-Christ-likeness that I have seen in the church.  I do not dispute for one moment that it’s there…but it is not “authorized” by God or by our faith.

            As to your question of Christians denying science…many do, but many do not.  I am a Christian, and I grew up in the home of a Christian astronomy professor who taught me the science of astrophysics, taught about the age of the universe as best we can *measure* it (as in, 4-6 billion years old not <10k), and did so from a perspective of Christian faith.  I myself have a degree in biology, believe the evidence for evolution is beyond compelling, and still believe in a God who created amazing, self-replicating, evolving life.

            So when you say Christians require one to check one's brain at the door, you're sadly talking about the wrong Christians.  There are too many such, to be sure, but they aren't Christ's fault.

            One more thing.  I think those science-denying Christians are wrong, but they aren't lying.  To lie is to willingly state something as true when one knows it is not.  The Christian who actually believes in six-day creation of a seven-thousand-year-old universe isn't lying, any more than you are lying when you state that Christianity approves of falsehood.  They, and you, are just misinformed, which is not at all the same thing.  What (I hope) will demonstrate you to be more rational than they, will be if you are able to alter your beliefs on the basis of new data or the correction of old data.

  • Krisw66

    It’s brave to question and too few people do that now a days, which is a shame. No one can possibly know everything about God, what he would say, what he would do, but so many people like to think they do. I’m more impressed by people that regularly question themselves & God and seek answers for themselves, on a REAL level vs. mindless scripture quoting or condemnation of “outsiders” so they can avoid taking a long look into their own souls. Ian & Kurt both seem to be fearless in this way & I admire that. Though I’m not religious, I truly respect Ian’s hard look at belief and faith and the challenges he confronts and what he sees in others of his faith – good and bad. It doesn’t make his case weaker, it makes it stronger. Great post on the complexity of belief & faith.

    • ow lafaye

      There is a little device you can buy on the Internet.  It is a small sealed pill box with a window…in that window is an arrow on an axle and it points to the word “NO”  to the right of it is the word YES.  If there were a God and he wated us to believe, then a simple demonstration of his presence would be the mere moving of this arrow from NO to YES…..nothing big to ask of an all-powerful God.

      Well of the half a million “God Detectors” they have sold so far….NOT ONE PERSON has reported on their website that the arrow was moved by this invisible hand of God.

      One heck of a lot of Christian co-workers, neighbors and friends have secretively broken the seal and moved the arrow however…..shows just how much trust you can give to a Christian friend…ZERO.

  • Hardly Christian

    At what point does one’s doubt take over belief in God? I have many doubts, many Ian mentioned, and a blog’s worth of my own. Couple that with a life time of pursuing God and still never having heard his voice, or felt his presence, or been moved by the spirit…. I for one am having a harder and harder time believing there is a deeply personal God that created humanity that is jealous for me. I feel like if God is real, and wants a relationship with us then it wouldn’t be so one sided, and his presence would be made known by more than stories of a man who lived 2,000 years ago, and text of stories even older than that. 

    I struggle with the fact that morality of the Old Testament and the New Testament don’t seem to line up. I struggle when science and the bible (AKA, the word of the creator of all things) don’t meet eye to eye. Honestly, I hardly feel Christian. And feel like life has more to offer than The Church.

    • ow lafaye

      If the Bible is the word of the creator of all things, why then the Council of Nicea?  Did they know better than God when they cut out so many books of the Bible?  Why did they re-write all the books of the Bible, picking and choosing as they re-interpreted these words?  How can this be the work of a creator?  You folks just don’t make sense…as usual.

      • There are a lot of assertions here without a lot of evidence.  If we believed the Council of Nicea deliberately changed the Scriptures, then things would be different.

        • ow lafaye

          If the Council of Nicea was not called to stablize Christianity through a uniform Bible……just what was Nicea called for then?  WAKE UP

          You said Oller:  “If we believed the Council of Nicea deliberately changed the Scriptures, then things would be different.”

          I guess you believe the Council of Nicea was called to regulate the length of women’s skirts????

          Denial is NOT a river in Egypt folks… 

  • Great post Ian, and thanks to Kurt for sharing it. As a fellow doubter, I think two things keep me in the faith camp whem much else fails me…one, I find it highly unlikely that the first generation of Christians would have willingly gone to horrible deaths in such great numbers for a delusion. That early bunch either knew what they were dying for was real, or they were the most self-destructive liars in history. Second, the angry objections of anti-theists notwithstanding, I see the potential (sometimes even realized) of a better human being among those who actually follow Jesus (NOT to be confused with most Christians) than I do from any other source with the possible exception of some strains of Buddhism. Not that I haven’t known kind, altruistic, and even loving atheists…I have in fact known a very few. But while atheists are fond of pointing out the truly-despicable among people of faith, they fail to see the excessive good also done by people of faith. This good, too, is disproportionately Christian, at least in my observation.

  • Ian

    Thanks for this Ian. Been a christian for not even three years and I’ve been having to face my doubts recently (ironically because I think God has been pushing me too) so this is timely for me. I’ve had all the same doubts as you and that everyone seems to have it all together and know all the answers it makes me feel like an island sometimes and then I realize that I do it to when people that look up to me. And your so right when you say that all were doing is trying to hide our imperfections or that we even have doubts but all it does is enslave us to them and separate us from people. We all have doubts, but no ones willing to be the first one to step up and admit it. Thanks for having the boldness to do it here and pray that I have the same boldness to do it in my church so that we can become more free and grow as a body.

  • DZ

    I loved this post Ian! I’ve been where you are, militant, confused, embarrassed by the stuff that is said and done in “Christianity.” I seek real & authentic relationships with other Christ followers who admit their flaws, and weakness and don’t claim to have all the answers. And I won’t hang with those who thump out Bible verses to condemn others.  Having questions and doubts and struggling with faith is a process of getting to know the real person of Christ through the Gospels, and as a continuing story, and through the holy spirit.