His Doubt Was Positively Life Changing

His Doubt Was Positively Life Changing April 16, 2018

Editor’s Note: Doubting is different for everyone and this religious historian had his own set of issues. As a teacher, he was naturally curious and eager to keep up with the latest academic information. Meanwhile, he was guiding his students to a career in a field that he himself was questioning more and more. Complicated! Listen as this former seminary professor explains how it unfolded for him. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Brandon Withrow

  1. What caused you to start seriously doubting your faith?

My loss of faith occurred over time. I think it may have started with my need to constantly update my theology to match the world around me. I’m an academic, so I try to think critically about the world and what is true, and that makes it hard to ignore the areas of life where faith may not match the facts. So over time, I left theological ideas behind for those that were more representative of the world (e.g., creationism for evolution). I remember several important points of doubt along the way, though I frequently found theological concepts that allowed me to continue on in faith in some form—that is, until it finally didn’t.

  1. How did you initially react to the doubts?

Doubting for me was prompted by curiosity. When I see something in the world that doesn’t fit my current perspective, I feel the need to figure it out.

Doubt, then, is a necessary step in gaining knowledge, and it is only resolved by going where the evidence takes me. I didn’t experience it as a bad thing, but as a chance to understand my world and myself more honestly.

  1. What caused the doubts to start becoming stronger than your beliefs?

There was a moment when I realized that I was just fixing up my theology so it felt less archaic or less disconnected from reality. I was patching up the obvious holes. I didn’t necessarily accept myself as being a non-believer at that moment, but used it as a marker to ask myself some questions and allow myself time to reach my own definition of who I am.

From what I’ve seen, by the time people decide to change their minds about religion, it is usually less a single moment or idea that caused it. It is more of a build up of doubts and experiences that manifest themselves in the realization of where they were heading the entire time. In fact, in looking back, I learned more about myself and just how complicated (and murky) the intellectual process of leaving a religion can be.

  1. How did the doubts affect your preaching/teaching/other responsibilities?

I was never a pastor, but as a professor teaching in a seminary I compartmentalized my doubts. I respected the community while I was still there by trying to teach within a religious studies framework—meaning that I taught Christian views fairly and accurately like I would any other religion. I’m primarily an historian, so I try to stick to the facts and keep my own opinions out. It is hard to teach in a seminary without advocacy for a theological view, but I gave it my best shot. When I came to the conclusion that I was definitely no longer just a liberal Christian, but a secular humanist, I made plans to exit my position.

  1. What would you like others to know about you and your departure from faith?

In a recent set of interviews I did for The Daily Beast (“Does Faking Religion Lead to Depression?”), I asked this question. One of my interviewees (Kevin) said it best, when he told me:

“Others should know that, at least in my case, dropping out of my religion is not a decision made lightly…it is not the result of some tragedy, nor a momentary lapse of reason,” rather, “one cannot simply believe something one no longer believes.”

No longer believing isn’t an “I’m mad at God” moment; it isn’t that flippant.

For many of us, it comes after long deliberation and personal risk. Personally, it was very rewarding to finally make that step out into the sun and be myself.


Bio: Brandon G. Withrow is a freelance journalist, author of nine books, Clergy Project member and occasional adjunct lecturer in religious studies at a local university. His newest book (co-authored with Menachem Wecker) is Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education. His work has appeared in The Religion News Service, The Guardian, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and The Huffington Post. His blog is thecuriousape.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bwithrow.

>>>>Photo credits:  Question marks — Image by © Gregor Schuster/zefa/Corbis photo credit: <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a> ; “Creation of the Sun and Moon face detail” by Michelangelo – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detail.jpg#/media/


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  • LeekSoup

    I think this is a really good explanation of how the boat of faith sinks after running aground on the rocks of reality. And how getting out of the boat is quite a relief. Thank you for sharing it.

    I especially agree that disbelieving is not flippant or just getting angry at God.

  • Thank you for sharing. It is true that you can’t just believe in something when you no longer believe it.

  • Jim Jones

    Once your brain starts working you can’t stop it.

  • ElizabetB.

    Thanks for more interesting work! The Daily Beast article is fascinating, and great links from that, too. Linda has mentioned maybe a series on fruitful transitions when someone’s understandings have changed, and yours would be a great example of constructive uses of your interests, gifts, and past study.

    Two notions from the linksfollowing — one was for the question to cross my mind as to whether — if our president’s character is what past actions indicate — he would be affected by his feeling he ought to appear religious; but then, reflecting on how he customarily speaks on all sides of a question, I guess it would more likely just add one more area of ambivilence rather than be felt as a major problem.

    The second notion is thanks for my tardy learning where the US motto “In God We Trust” came from — don’t remember ever hearing that before — many thanks for the solid, fruitful tips!!!

    “The phrase ‘in God we trust’ first appeared on U.S. money during the Civil War. The Confederacy had just written its own Constitution, which stated outright that the Confederacy would be a Christian nation — something the U.S. Constitution never said — and Northern Protestant leaders felt the need to lay claim to religious authority, as well, Brekus said. They settled on adding religious language to money, Brekus said, after President Lincoln rebuffed an effort to amend the Constitution to say America is a Christian country.”

    • Thanks. I’m definitely glad I’m still employing my education in some form.

      • ElizabetB.

        Me too!! We all benefit! Thx again!!

  • mason

    “No longer believing isn’t an “I’m mad at God” moment; it isn’t that flippant.
    image: For many of us, it comes after long deliberation and personal risk. Personally, it was very rewarding to finally make that step out into the sun and be myself.” Well said Brandon!

    Realizing we were bamboozled and gaslighted by the Jesus fable has much in common with our Santa Claus experience except the Santa Claus delusion was a better deal and the awakening, recovery, and transition to a rational world view less traumatic and much faster. Very few people ever attempt to go back and try to live under either delusion.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    One of the reasons I enjoy reading the articles on this site is the way it stirs up good memories of leaving my own faith. Don’t get me wrong: those were horrible times in which I was alienated from a sibling in “the church” and I lost my entire social structure. I would never have guessed at the time that the most vivid memory would be the feeling of relief. Whatever mistakes I was making, and whatever disasters came my way, I no longer had to ignore the evidence and make myself believe. Ironically, it was “like waking up from the longest dream…”

    • mason

      … “the most vivid memory would be the feeling of relief.” oh yeah! Freedom, more free time, loosed from that “I must go to church” now burden, … it was like that wonderful feeling I’d get after the last class of the final semester and we ran out of the school entrance now free for the summer!” I still have that feeling.

    • The transitions out are sometimes hard to navigate, especially figuring out how family would react and who you are without a community defining it for you. I can’t imagine going back though. Once that light is on, it doesn’t turn off.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        “The transitions out are sometimes hard to navigate, especially figuring out how family would react and who you are without a community defining it for you.”

        That sentence makes for deceptively easy reading, given how well it summarizes such a confusing and difficult experience. You’ve written three other articles on the subject that I could find, and they were all insightful. I hope you do more.

  • My journey had some similarities to that. I like the comparison I read someone else make online: my shifting thoughts were like the temperature of water getting a little colder, then a little colder, then a little colder…then suddenly there was a phase change into a new form. Big change but it was a long time coming.

    • Definitely like a process that eventually leads to the realization of being in a different state; I prefer warmer and warmer though. 🙂

  • ravitchn

    If you are an honest seeker you would consult one of the fine academic critiques of the New Testament over the last 350 years. No need to go back that far, however, You will find clearly that the New Testament does not tell much about the real Jesus but quite a bit about the attempt of certain groups of Christians to invent a Jesus to their liking and a theology for weak and guilty people with sado-masochistic tendencies. Christianity is a fraud and a delusion. I cannot respect anyone who take a whole lifetime to admit the truth, finally.

    • mason

      I haven’t personally known of anyone who’s taken a whole lifetime though my brother in law who’s a believing Catholic in an assisted living facility in Lakeland Fl with hundreds of elderly residents tells me the believer-non-believer debates are quite robust and people there are saying they’ve finally realized (due to information on the Internet) the supernatural Jesus is a hoax. I was surprised he’d tell me that but he’s a very frank liberal Catholic.

      Some people try to hang on for years to some vestige of their childhood indoctrinated beliefs and keep clinging to what ever debris they find floating amongst their rational thoughts. They finally realized how completely they were bamboozled and gaslighted.