Last time I posted, I talked about how dishonest I think Christians are regarding doubt. I arrived at the conclusion that doubt is only acceptable if:
* The person experiencing the doubt has perfectly pure motivations (ie, isn’t “just wanting to sin”) and is clearly only experiencing doubt as a direct result of incredibly strong religious convictions;
* The doubt revolves around approved topics such as troublesome Bible verses or a specific doctrinal demand rather than the existence of the Christian god in the first place or the correctness of Biblical literalism or other super-important party lines;
* The process is resolved in a fairly short period of time and with very minimal fuss and disruption; and
* The process ends with the doubter coming to the correct conclusions.
If any one of those conditions isn’t met, then the doubter is going to be looked at as sinful or in grave error. If the last condition isn’t met, then it doesn’t matter how well the other ones are–the doubter will be accused of dishonesty, impurity, rebelliousness, or worse, and may end up getting kicked out of his or her group.
Obviously, then, it is of the utmost importance to resolve doubt as quickly as possible.
When Christians begin to seriously doubt, the reactions of the people around them are predictable. Christians take doubt very seriously–because they must. If they do not stamp it out quickly, then one person’s doubt can infect a whole group. So when you see one Christian honestly and openly express feelings of doubt, before long another Christian will wander into the discussion to try to “help.”
One can see why. As Christian author Philip Yancey has written, Christians “tend to be propagandists” whose job it is to sell their product to others and to keep existing customers using the product. If someone expresses doubt, then their doubt will make selling the product far more difficult.
Adding to the problem of doubt, Christians have long idolized feelings of certainty over verification of correctness. Doubt flies in the face of certainty–and so it must be eradicated.
But what Christians tend to offer as “help” isn’t really very helpful. In fact it is the opposite of helpful: emotional manipulation and shaming disguised as genuine helpfulness with a dollop of completely unworkable ideas presented as perfectly reasonable solutions that anybody should be able to follow.
And here we encounter the second great dishonesty in Christianity regarding doubt:
How it is addressed and resolved.
The Definition of Insanity.
1. Christians will advise the doubter to have more faith.
By what mechanism the doubter is meant to gain more faith in something he or she is slowly realizing is untrue is left up to the listener. Christians tend to think of faith and love as feelings they can will into being and force into existence (which is a teaching that their current favorite marriage-advice manual, The Love Dare, makes explicitly clear repeatedly). Doubt is seen as an emotion just like love is, and like all emotions it must be handled according to approved protocols. Christians (in right-wing flavors of the religion especially, but this applies to pretty much all of it to some extent) are expected to be able to deny their emotions completely as well as to summon them out of thin air if necessary.
Of course, if doubters cannot find some way to force themselves to stop caring about the troubling facts that have been uncovered or seen or realized, then the answer here is simple: the doubters must not have had enough faith.
The big problem with faith is that it’s one of those nonsense words that doesn’t connect to the real world. We know what love is–we can see it in action and we can measure its effects on the body. But faith is an adherence to nonsense in the face of absent or contradictory reality-based facts. How exactly does someone acquire more faith when there is already no good reason to believe in nonsense? How exactly can someone un-see or un-realize that which was seen or realized? How exactly can someone feel more certain when that person already knows there’s no real reason to feel certain?
I’ve never seen a good suggestion for how to acquire more faith. Certainly I got deluged with a lot of unhelpful suggestions when I was Christian and I’ve seen plenty of others since, but never a genuinely good one.
2. The doubter will be advised to stay in the religious group and keep going through the motions of belief.
It’s hard to imagine advice more condescending than this: “Do more of the stuff that obviously didn’t work to keep you believing in the first place, and that’ll get you believing again!” And yet this is probably one of the most common suggestions that doubters will hear.
It works about as well as one might expect.
When I deconverted, one of my then-husband’s primary tactics to “save my soul” was to constantly invite me to church or to pray with him under the assumption that if he could get me to feel the emotional high of worship then I’d reconvert again and Everything Would Go Back To The Way It Was. But because my objections to the religion had absolutely nothing to do with my feelings, even if I’d agreed to do these things with Biff I wouldn’t have begun to believe again.
My doubts had flickered to life because I’d noticed that the Bible’s claims weren’t lining up with reality, not because I’d stopped feeling an emotional high in church or because I was peeved about something. But emotional highs are a big part of why people convert to and stay involved with Christianity, especially that flavor of it. Because that emotional high keeps Christians themselves certain of their faith system’s claims, it is offered up as the surefire way to keep others equally certain.
Incidentally, being told to “just pray more” backfired bigtime for me by making me well aware of just how ineffectual and nonsensical the idea of prayer really is. When someone already thinks that prayer is starting to feel like talking to oneself, saying more prayers may simply reinforce that idea. And being told to read the Bible more often may lead the doubter to notice just how much of the Bible is nonsensical, barbaric, cruel, and decidedly non-divine once the blinkers are removed from his or her eyes.
3. They will offer up apologetics arguments, threats, and emotional manipulation in lieu of any real reason to think that the religion’s claims are true.
One sees this tactic more often in the more conservative ends of the religion than the liberal ones, but it can happen anywhere. When a Christian starts to doubt, then apologetics books and videos seem to sprout from nowhere and blatant emotional manipulation begins in earnest to bring that Christian back to his or her senses.
Doubters are told “You should just read this book/watch this video/talk to this pastor or apologetics scam artist,” as if that will answer all those nagging questions. Indeed that is the entire gist of the program that Galen discusses in his posts on the topic of doubt. Since doubts so often spring from a critical analysis of the apologetics themselves, and often leap off into areas that apologetics simply can’t address without resorting to pseudoscience, logical fallacies, and junk history, these suggestions to listen to yet more apologetics arguments do more harm than good. Indeed, one often sees Christians lament that their deconverted spouses and children “already know those arguments” and therefore cannot be swayed by hearing them again–but what else remains in the toolbox once verbal flimflammery is removed?
If you want to see this point in action, William Lane Craig has written a post containing almost all of the dishonest tactics Christians have for dealing with doubt.* First he condemns the Christian feeling doubts for even exposing him/herself to real science, then praises his own brand of apologetics to the skies as if they stand up to the objections the doubter has, then sets out a 4-point strategy for how to deal with the doubt: somehow manage “a recommitment of your heart to Christ,” “quit reading and watching the infidel material you’ve been absorbing,”** double down on the apologetics, and attend apologetics seminars and conferences. (I got this link after writing the first draft of this post, incidentally; yes, how Christians address doubt really is just that scripted.)
If the doubting continues for too long, then the threats get pulled out. The doubter gets threatened with Hell, with ostracism, with the loss of family and friends, and with the loss of livelihood or reputation. This extortion will all be done with a big Jesus Smile, knitted Preacher Eyebrows, and expressions of utmost concern and caaaaaaring for the victim’s “soul” (see, again, WLC’s post).
For many doubters, this game of emotional chicken will work to bring them back into at least nominal compliance. But for many others, the tactic backfires by making them aware–as I became aware long ago–that their religion can’t possibly have any real evidence for itself if these are its standard go-to tactics when dealing with doubters.
Naturally, when the doubter declines to keep doing “the same thing over and over again expecting different results,” that opens the door to being accused of doing all sorts of things wrong.
If all else fails, Christians blame the doubter.
A quote by Dallas Willard, a particularly irresponsible apologist and “Christian philosopher,” sums up the attitude here:
The issue is, what do we want? The Bible says that if you seek God with all your heart, then you will surely find him. Surely find him. It’s the person who wants to know God that God reveals himself to. And if a person doesn’t want to know God–well, God has created the world and the human mind in such a way that he doesn’t have to.
As just about any ex-Christian could tell us, when we say that yes, we did everything correctly–yes, we had pure motivations–yes, we really wanted to “seek God” with all our hearts–yes, we truly did every single thing anybody could ever expect to see a person do to find some good reason to believe–and we still didn’t “find God,” that this god did not actually “reveal himself” to us, show us any good reason to believe, or actually answer our prayers–then we will be accused of doing something terribly wrong.
We will be found at fault. What we did, our accusers cannot say, but obviously we did something wrong because the book they idolize says that anyone who truly “seeks God” will “find God.” If we did not “find God” then obviously we weren’t truly “seeking God”. Obviously we didn’t really “want to know God.”
The system itself cannot be at fault, ever. It is always assumed to be perfect and cannot be wrong. So if doubters fail to make the system work for themselves, then obviously they are the ones who did something wrong. Indeed, not only this Christian blogger but also a number of others (including one earlier link I’ve given here in this blog post) have seized upon Mr. Willard’s quote and are using it to blame Christians who don’t resolve their doubt correctly (and of course to absolve themselves from any feelings of sadness or guilt over doubters’ eventual eternal fate–since doubters who go to Hell are only getting what they have specifically deserved by their recalcitrance and sinfulness–and I’ve heard plenty of “nice” Christians say exactly this, so it’s not just a nasty fundagelical thing).
And if a doubter cannot resolve that doubt and is blameworthy for not “seeking” hard enough or correctly enough, then there’s only one penalty for that sin: Hell.
That’s a ghastly threat to hold over Christians’ heads, isn’t it? If you can’t make your doubt go away somehow, then you will end up being blamed for it all and will go to Hell.
It is the ultimate threat, and it’s Christians’ favorite because it works beautifully to keep people in line. Little wonder so many Christians don’t even try to get close to the chasm that is doubt. But if they don’t, then they will also be blamed for complacently accepting their churches’ and parents’ teachings–they will be thought of as one of Ed Stetzer’s loathed cultural Christians who never really thought about anything they got taught.
Can’t win for losing, really.
And there’s a reason for that.
A method to the madness.
This is the rule: A given system works the way its architects want it to work.
We need to remember that–and to keep asking what reward Christians get by being this dishonest about doubt.
Christian culture teaches adherents exactly how to engage with doubt and with doubters. If their teachings didn’t result in something that feeds and rewards Christians somehow, they wouldn’t be doing it. If Christian leaders really wanted their religion to work in some other way, then they would have set it up to work that other way. If they really wanted their system to change, then they certainly have the power to put that change into motion.
Their leaders long ago set up these rules because in the past, these rules worked to keep doubters in the fold. If doubters can be kept spinning in circles chasing their own tails and knocking themselves out trying to accomplish the impossible, then dissent can sometimes be averted entirely. And if it cannot be averted, then the rest of the tribe can be counted upon to shame and criticize the doubter, which may work to keep the doubter silent about his or her conclusions. Other Christians will see this charade play out and may be kept from even questioning their indoctrination because they sure don’t want to experience what those nasty ickie doubters got as a result of their illicit, unapproved doubting.
But more and more often nowadays, these tactics don’t work to keep doubters busy and terrified. More and more often, the doubt doesn’t resolve in the acceptable way. And sometimes–not often but sometimes at least–the tribe doesn’t cooperate in shaming and blaming their doubting friends and loved ones. The social costs of leaving the fold aren’t nearly as high as they used to be and indeed lessen with every single person who declares disbelief. And ex-Christians are getting more and more brave about challenging Christians’ assumptions that anyone who fails to resolve doubt is simply doing something terribly wrong.
How many of us do Christians need to encounter saying “no, we did everything right and the Bible’s actually wrong about the matter” before they start wondering why so many of us seem so totally convinced that we did nothing wrong? There’s surely only so many times they can just kneejerk respond that we’re simply deluded before even their hardened hearts must stop to wonder. (Not that gaslighting us works. Christians can say that we’re in the wrong as often as they want, but we are under no obligation to take them seriously, which must itself be frustrating to a group that is used to its bizarro interpretations of reality taken seriously even by non-believers.)
It’s ironic in a way that Christians’ dishonesty around doubt is, itself, causing such a big part of their problem with fading dominance and eroded privilege.
They can’t engage with doubt honestly because doing that would open them to discoveries they can’t handle, but engaging with it dishonestly is causing more and more Christians to leave their ranks and turning more and more outsiders off to considering a purchase of these salespeople’s product.
That’s got to just suck for them, doesn’t it?
I can’t say I’m feeling sympathetic.
* Thanks, Galen, for the tip.
** “INFIDEL MATERIAL”? Tell me again why evangelicals hate Sharia law so much, ‘coz right now it’s looking a hell of a lot like “it’s too much competition.”