How Evangelicals Handle Doubt

How Evangelicals Handle Doubt June 17, 2019

I visited another local church yesterday, and as usual it left me with some…thoughts.

Friends on social media seem a bit perturbed that I keep doing this to myself, but I have good reasons for it. My family is one of many torn apart by the culture wars that have been driving wedges between loved ones for decades now, so perhaps you could think of this as opposition research. Had we not been evangelical Christians, I suspect we could have better navigated the choppy waters that my “falling away” created. But in that world, darkness (that’s me, evidently) cannot ultimately have fellowship with the light (that’s everyone else).

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?…Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (2 Cor. 6:14-15)

Note that evangelicals are only thinking the way the Bible tells them to think about relationships with unbelievers like me. Thanks to better instincts, those who love me most still do their best to fight against this kind of exclusive tribalism, but they will never ultimately question whether this kind of talk is loving or kind because that’s the way religious indoctrination works. Without a strong “us vs. them” boundary like this, their culture would erode and eventually disappear.

But back to my main point. I visited another church this past weekend, and I’d like to make an observation about what I heard.

Drowning Out the Doubt

We spent what felt like at least ten minutes singing the same song over and over again. If you’ve been to many evangelical worship services, you know that’s normal in a setting like this. It’s how they get you “in the mood” to receive a word from whoever is going to bring the message for the day.

This particular morning, the song they sang was “Raise a Hallelujah” and it began like this:

I raise a hallelujah, in the presence of my enemies
I raise a hallelujah, louder than the unbelief
I raise a hallelujah, my weapon is a melody
I raise a hallelujah, heaven comes to fight for me

The song repeats itself…a lot…and it speaks metaphorically of weathering a storm. Looking around the room at the relative affluence of this church’s membership, I can only assume their trials don’t involve struggling to have enough food or shelter or basic necessities. Knowing how socially and financially successful most of these people are (I went to school with many of them, but they were smart enough not to choose careers in education), I’m also guessing they don’t deal with very much persecution for being white evangelical Christians in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Whatever the storms they are facing, this song encourages them to respond to doubts and creeping unbelief by singing louder over them.

Sing a little louder (In the presence of my enemies)
Sing a little louder (Louder than the unbelief)
Sing a little louder (My weapon is a melody)
Sing a little louder (Heaven comes to fight for me)

I remember believing something like this when I was still an evangelical myself. I struggled with doubt for many years, and I could never honestly answer my own questions without also questioning the underpinnings of my entire religious tradition as a whole. So I did what they told me to do and I just pushed it all back down and tried to drown it out through activity, through song, and through self-indoctrinating as hard as I could in a desperate hope to hold together the life I had spent years building on top of this house of cards.

But none of that actually deals with the sources of the doubt directly. It essentially ignores them through redirection, and frankly it’s the best defense they’ve got to offer. Some will also do like I did and submerge themselves in the pseudo-intellectual world of Christian apologetics, but if you do that too well, you’ll end up deconstructing your own faith until you realize you’re now “on the outside” as well.

Just Try Harder, Man

In the end it takes an act of will to keep believing in the midst of hard times, and that’s why evangelical Christians see faith as a moral issue, not an intellectual one. From their point of view, anyone who leaves the faith did so because they lacked the intestinal fortitude to keep believing despite their questions and doubts. They will insist it’s fine to wrestle with your questions and concerns…you just aren’t ever allowed to decide the religion itself has anything wrong with it. The problem always has to be you.

Related: “Maybe Belief Is a Matter of Choice for Some

Forgive me if you’ve already heard me say this, but I continue to marvel at the manipulative genius of this belief system:

First, it promises rewards which will not materialize until after you’re dead, then it threatens you with a punishment that is as unspeakably cruel as it is irrational, yet it asks you to believe in the inevitability of it without offering any concrete proof. You will only know the truth of it the moment right after you die, they tell you, at which point it will be too late to change your mind. Before that day comes, you will have to accept the third-hand testimony of people who died so many centuries ago that we can’t even find where they’re buried, much less call them in for questioning.

But it doesn’t stop there. They lure you in with grandiose promises of divine care and provision, offering an intimate personal relationship with the Creator of the universe, a Supreme Being who loves you unconditionally and accepts you exactly as you are. But once you’re in, they inform you that everything about you is wrong and needs to change or else God will remove his blessings, whatever those are actually supposed to be.

Also, you should never expect him to show up in your life in any clearly discernible way (and shame on you for expecting that). If you want to make sure he truly takes care of you, it will require asking him in exactly the right ways under precisely the right conditions or else his promises become null and void.

If you protest this arrangement, they will guilt you for believing the Bible where it unambiguously instructs you to expect things to happen, then they call into question whether it really says he will do what it clearly says he will do. Not only did you read it wrong, they insinuate, but also you’re a selfish, shallow ingrate for coming away with the impression you got from reading whatever it was that Jesus or whoever said would happen.

Then if you ever get fed up and leave, you were never really one of them to begin with (no matter how long nor how sincerely you were among them), and any problems you encountered must be attributed to either your own failures to do it right, or else to other people, because people just do bad things, but God and the Bible cannot be inculpated for any of it. They must remain above reproach at all costs.

As a bonus, this system of beliefs, together with all of its defense mechanisms and social reinforcements keeping it safe from external or internal critique, generates a global industry worth trillions of dollars every year, employing hundreds of thousands of people. No wonder it’s so difficult to budge.

But like I said, the problem must be you, not the system of belief itself. Always.

Can’t Fake It, Can’t Make It

Obviously, I got to the point in my life where singing louder over my doubts no longer did the trick. For people like me, self-honesty demanded we admit when we reached the point where we no longer believed.

This admission is then taken by evangelicals as a sad, cautionary tale about what happens to people who think too much, and ultimately it’s seen as a moral failure on our part. If we were made of sturdier stuff, we’d have been able to keep squashing down our doubts, never directly resolving them but instead learning to live with them like bothersome extended family members who never really go away.

But simply singing louder doesn’t work for everyone. I didn’t tell that to anyone at the church I attended on Sunday because I know that’s something you have to figure out for yourself. This business of trying to make others leave their faith isn’t really my game. I’m just trying to make sense of what happened to me when I stopped believing, and in the process I know a bunch of other people will identify.

The trip out is a lonely one, and it’s scary. You know you will be judged for it, but if you’re like me, you don’t personally feel you have any choice. Hopefully articles like this will assure that you are not at all alone, and that you have good reasons to feel the way you feel about everything. Just singing louder over it doesn’t make it go away, and that’s perfectly alright.

[Image Source: Unsplash]

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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