When Christians Express Serious Doubts To Each Other

When Christians Express Serious Doubts To Each Other October 1, 2019

Hi! Last time we met up, I showed you a huge and bizarre Disqus thread. In it, our friend Brad asked Christians what it’d take for them to stop believing in Christianity. I made the point there that Christians become very uncomfortable with this question. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t talk about doubt. Today, let me show you how they talk among themselves about doubt–and why it doesn’t help them at all.

small group discussing not-doubt
(Kate Kalvach.) Nobody here is discussing real doubt. You can tell, cuz they’re relaxed and smiling.

Expressing Doubt.

Last week, I showed you what happened when someone asked Christians what might make them doubt their faith. They had no idea in the world how to respond to that question. They lost their minds. And they answered pretty much every other question in the world except the one Brad posed.

Part of their problem was that it’s not a question they receive very often. In fact, Christians don’t tend to ask each other open-ended questions about what could make them lose doubt. They don’t really discuss doubt at all as a general quality.

Instead, they talk about stuff that’s actually causing them to have serious doubts about Christianity.

Even then, it’s clear that they don’t have the faintest idea how to respond to one of their peers discussing doubt too openly.

Well, I mean yes, they do have a model for such situations. But when they want to engage sincerely, they run into roadblocks.

A Sample of What Happens.

Often, they head for their forums to write something like one person did.

I think I’m losing my faith in God. Need advice,” “Faithful2Faithless” wrote on Christian Forums in October 2013.

He’d faithfully performed his devotions despite being in what Christians call a valley (that just means a rough time). None of it helped, though. His faith still faded. He wrote:

I have prayed and prayed and prayed for either a resolution or peace, sometimes while in tears, yet God ignores me and continues to let me suffer. I’ve literally begged Him to help me yet He ignores me. And I just don’t understand why. . .

So please… Someone PLEASE tell me what I’m to do to not feel this way. Tell me how not to lose my faith completely. I know it’s not right to give God an ultimatum, but I want a resolution tonight. If God, who is supposedly all powerful, truly cares about me, He would take away my suffering. If He would have me go through one more day of this, then He isn’t a God I want to serve, nor is He a God I think I could serve.

Christians write this kind of post only when they’re in serious trouble, faith-wise. On that one site alone we find many hundreds of threads dealing with Christians dealing with a potential loss of faith. I chose this fellow’s story at random, but there were innumerable other options I could have chosen.

And as Christians tend to do, the group rallied around him–with absolutely irrelevant and useless advice.

Defanged Doubt.

As we discussed last time, Christians absolutely do not think ahead of time about what could shake up their faith. Consequently, by the time Christians compose that fateful “I’m having big problems with doubt right now” message, they’ve already been completely poleaxed.

Part of the problem is that this level and kind of doubt isn’t what their worldview models for them.

Instead, the flocks get taught a sort of defanged doubt.

This debased form of doubt is what Christian leaders can actually address.

Such doubt:

  • never lasts too long
  • doesn’t delve into topics that those leaders can’t address
  • can be resolved with tools Christian leaders actually possess
  • and–most of all–always ends with the Christian involved coming away feeling refreshed and rededicated to their faith

When Doubt is Good and Natural and Wholly Acceptable.

When you encounter a Christian leader rabbiting on and on about doubt being okay to feel, this is the kind of doubt they mean. Here’s an example from apologist Josh McDowell, one of the most craven and dishonest of the bunch:

Says Paul Tillich, “Doubt isn’t the enemy of faith. It is an element of faith.” I happen to agree with him.

In fact, that entire page models the kind of doubt I’m talking about. It’s all such a jolly lark to have doubts! Even the strongest Christians will question stuff sometimes! Blah blah blah. Their god can handle that kind of doubt without any problem at all.

However, when the modeled doubt strays into real doubt, that tone changes entirely to one of blame and recrimination.

That’s because apologists have never, in all of their religion’s history since its invention, been able to defeat real doubt.

When Doubt Isn’t Good.

When you hear some Christian leader wagging a finger in caution about letting doubts roam out of bounds, or blaming doubters for feeling doubt, know this: they’re talking about real doubt. They can’t address or resolve that kind of doubt, so they try to frighten the flocks out of entertaining it. In addition, the way they talk about this wild, untameable, unanswerable doubt models a reaction style for the flocks.

This is the kind of doubt we find addressed on Josh McDowell’s son’s apologetics page:

SEAN: What are some poor ways people handle doubt?

JOSH: They become all consumed by it. It can become prideful. The moment you think you know it all, you’re going to stumble. And you may not even know it. Because the moment you think you need to know it all, you’re going to stumble. The moment you think you have it all figured out, God will bring someone smarter into your life to humble you. God has certainly done that in my life.

See how they inject that element of self-doubt into the equation? Of blaming the doubter? The moment a Christian strays outside of the model of doubt the religion’s leaders push, that Christian will face the blame of the tribe.

(Quick Christianese Lesson: prideful = disobedient to King Josh; stumble = start feeling serious doubts; humble you = humiliate you in order to grind you underfoot again; God has certainly done that in my life = I’M SO RELATABLE.)

Focusing on Motivations.

Most of Christian leaders’ attack on real doubt involves casting aspersions upon the doubters’ motivations for feeling or chasing those doubts.

Indeed, I’ve often been accused by TRUE CHRISTIANS™ of having had exactly the motivations King Josh outlines in his interview.

I was prideful, or thought I knew more than learned apologists (ha! Like that’d be hard), or thought I needed to know everything before bending knee to the people speaking for an imaginary wizard.

In the past, this kind of social coercion might have worked grandly to keep doubters quiet. I’m guessing it doesn’t work nearly so well now. They’re trying to redirect the conversation to something they feel is easier for them to win, rather than confronting the doubts themselves. The topic of wild, free-form doubt is one they absolutely cannot win.

The Tools in the Toolbox.

As I show you the conversation as it unfolded on that Christian site, be looking for these methods of addressing defanged doubt.

  • Reframing. Christians utilize reframing constantly. Here, it might look like them recasting a doubt into a personal recrimination, or trying to hand-wave away the topic of the doubt through the use of a bad analogy or metaphor. They try to use from a certain point of view to quiet the doubts.
  • Love BombingThis technique doesn’t just show up in cult recruitment! When Christians realize that someone in their group is feeling serious doubts, they sometimes pull out the stops with outrageous shows of affection and friendship. Sometimes, these efforts pay off: the Christian doesn’t want to risk losing the group’s love, so quiets down.
  • Demands for Increases in Devotional Performances. When all else fails, Christians demand more devotions from doubters. They fling Bible verses at doubters, push apologetics books and videos at doubters to read and watch as a way of allaying those doubts, insist they pray more often and not let up on church attendance, and even suggest church-sponsored retreats or pilgrimages for doubters to take (at their expense, natch). Christian leaders sell these sorts of devotions as a surefire way of addressing doubt, so the flocks can perhaps be forgiven for thinking they work. (They most certainly do not.)

If the doubters don’t want to do a bunch of busywork or they don’t respond in something other than the expected manner, then Christians fall back on accusing the doubters of Jesus-ing incorrectly. Their leaders teach that the scripts dealing with doubt are divinely-inspired (if not commanded), so the scripts are perfect. If doubters fail to resolve the doubt in question, then obviously the doubters allowed the scripts to fail.

The Problem of Doubt.

Meet Faithful2Faithless. His username might be the name of a Christian band. It’s also a Christianese saying that’s popular these days. The idea is that their god is faithful to the faithless.  It means, roughly, keep Jesus-ing as hard as you can, no matter how little faith you have.

He recently wrecked his life over a potential relationship. He’d made some truly disastrous decisions pursuing this one woman for a decade. He made all these sacrifices because he thought his god had told him she was his soulmate. But very quickly, within a year really, the relationship–always sputtering on perhaps-but-not-yet–had finally fizzled out for good. By 2013, he was seeing little chance of attaining his Happily Ever After ending.

Yes, he does sound kinda stalker-y, and yes, he really needed to move on. Yes, it definitely sounds like this relationship existed mostly in his own head.

But.

Let’s look at it from his point of view. He wanted a thing. By wild coincidence, his god also really wanted him to have the thing. Now the thing is further out of his reach than ever.

Now he wonders: Did his god ever really want him to have the thing?

If he accepts that this relationship simply wasn’t ever his god’s will for his life, then he also must accept that he’d gotten himself into his current predicament by himself. He’s experienced what he thought were tons of little miracles along the way to get him to his present spot. If his god hadn’t been on board with his decision to pursue this young woman, well, then those miracles had been simply coincidences. In that case, this relationship reflected only his own personal–and sinful–desires.

Now he simply wants his god to help him somehow–ease his fears and worries, or clarify what he needs to do next.

But his god remains curiously silent…

… as always.

The Problem of Wingnuts.

In essence, Faithful2Faithless seeks to know exactly how he can know where an impulse or desire or instruction comes from: His own head? Demons? Or his god? How can he know that what he thinks is divine instruction actually originates with his god? How can he distinguish between his own desires and that of supernatural agents of whatever kind?

That’s the Problem of Wingnuts:

When someone accepts as true even one untrue belief, more untrue beliefs inevitably follow along behind it. What gets weird can only get weirder, because there’s no tethering-point to reality that can settle the questions that sprout up about the wingnut’s beliefs. When someone challenges the wingnut, there’s no way to demonstrate to the wingnut’s satisfaction that the wingnutty belief is erroneous in any way because the wingnut has given up caring what reality has to say about that belief–and often has even constructed that belief in such a way that it’s impossible to test at all, much less find contradicted by reality.

Unfortunately for Christians, there’s literally no way any of them can answer Faithful2Faithless’ questions in a way that produces predictive, reliable, objectively-testable results.

And that’s a big problem and one they cannot defeat, just like the way-better-known Problems of Evil and Hell. If they could, then there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. Christians would very obviously always make way better decisions than non-Christians could. They’d slide through life on easy mode thanks to their divine master’s input. They’d divorce less often, suffer fewer lifestyle diseases, get in the path of fewer natural disasters, and choose better leaders for their various groups. We’d be able to objectively tell that somehow, they enjoyed supernal wisdom.

But that’s not what we actually perceive in the lives of Christians.

Advice That Doesn’t Match the Problem.

The Christians of Christian Forums offered Faithful2Faithless all the tools at their disposal: offers of friendship and solidarity, written-out prayers, flung-down Bible verses, and exhortations to Jesus harder.

Fellow forum-goer 1watchman (#5 by the forum’s reckoning) quickly and sanctimoniously told him, “One needs A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP in humility.” He followed it up with a very lengthy checklist for stuff the poster needed to do in order to know he was “saved.” That is not actually what Faithful2Faithless had trouble with, however. At no time did he express confusion on that point.

Another forum user, Ellwood3 (#23), assumed that the poster had slacked off on devotions:

I think when we are frustrated with God, focusing on the frustration usually makes prayer and praise less frequent—exactly the opposite of what’s important and needs to be done.

And again, if he’d actually read the original post (OP)  then Ellwood3 would have known that Faithful2Faithless had “prayed and prayed” already.

Only #23 and one other user I saw (parsonsmom, #21) suggested anything tangible to help with anxiety, like exercise, hobbies, and getting enough rest. But since that also doesn’t relate to the stated problem, it probably didn’t help much.

The problem was that Faithful2Faithless felt that his god was ignoring a terrible situation he needed help with. His religion promises that adherents will receive that help.

But what he was getting instead from the tribe was meant for the defanged doubt that Christian leaders had taught them to address instead.

When the Tools Don’t Work.

To put it mildly, what this fellow faced wasn’t a problem that this group could help resolve for him. They weren’t equipped for that. Instead, all they could do was assume that he was Jesus-ing wrong and tackle that. 

And I could have picked just about anybody, really. That one site contained literally dozens of posts containing just the string “losing faith.” Every single one I read went along the same path. Some of these folks are very seriously in need of formal mental-health help. I found even more under the string “lost my faith.” There, Christians tend to flat-out accuse the OPs of having Jesus-ed all wrong or of holding wrongthink motivations.

All of that, too, is par for the course for these Christian groups. When everything else fails, they bring out the threats of Hell–and of earthly retaliation–against these disbelievers.

Asking For the Promised Benefits.

All these Christians keep asking the same thing: How exactly, by what concrete method and means, and after what actions, can I receive the benefits that we all say come to those who believe?

And if Christianity’s claims were true, their peers would have a ready way to answer that question. As Faithful2Faithless sorta-outlines the problem, here are the issues:

  • His religion tells him that his god has a plan for his life.
  • He thought for a long time that the plan involved marrying this one girl he’s been hung up on for years.
  • Over time, he thought his god repeatedly sent him coy little miracles and messages that kinda pointed to this being an accurate perception.
  • However, the relationship only deteriorated further and further.
  • Now, he either wants his god to award him his free girl or clarify the situation in an objective way that can’t be misinterpreted.

If his beliefs were based in reality, none of this would be unreasonable. Creepy, yes, but not unreasonable.

In response, all the tribe can offer is suggestions that categorically don’t help and accusations that backfire. (See endnote for an interesting contrast I saw with gaming.)

And the Benefits Just Don’t Come.

In the end, Faithful2Faithless provided an update (in February 26, 2014, #29, page 2). His god did not come through for him, any more than he comes through for any ex-Christian. He wrote:

And I’m just tired. I’ve been emotionally destroyed. I really do feel that if I were to climb the tallest mountain, God would send a strong wind just to ensure I fell off of it to my death.

Whatever faith I had is gone. And that’s the honest truth.

And even then, the tribe responded in the same exact way that hadn’t helped him before.

He struggled onward a bit longer, showing up one last time in August 2014 to ask how someone can tell the difference “between God’s will and your own selfish desires.” Yes, he’s still completely hung up on that young woman who rejected him.

Apparently he still thinks “there’s still a sliver of chance” that the relationship will flower into being even though by now she refuses even to talk to him.

The Solution He Can’t Accept.

The easiest solution of all–this god doesn’t actually exist, you just used this belief to help you rationalize what kinda sounds like stalking someone, and dude, seriously, you need to move on already–involves ZERO chance of him getting the girl in his head-movie. So it’s the one he simply can’t accept.

The tribe sure can’t help him accept that solution! They also subscribe to the wingnut belief that an omnimax god pushes his followers around to fit into a mysterious plan that can only be somewhat guessed-at. They also believe that Jesus-ing super-hard will help a Christian figure out what that plan is and what their individual part in that plan might be.

So they’re about as useful as a poopy-flavored lollipop. To him, to any other serious doubters, to themselves, to their religion as a whole. Take yer pick.

We never see Faithful2Faithless again after that question.

I’m not surprised. He has some wingnut beliefs that weren’t getting him the answers he wanted to hear or the validation he sought–even from his fellow wingnuts. And so he left.

I hope he figured himself out at some point.

Dishonest Engagement With Doubt is Already Hurting Christianity.

I want to be clear here: the abysmally ineffective, inadequate responses Christians offer ain’t an accident. It’s how the system’s masters designed it to operate. To be more exact, it’s a byproduct of the system’s operation.

The masters of this particular broken system created defanged doubt in order to vilify serious doubt. They hoped that vilifying serious doubt would lead to fewer people questioning the party line. But that’s not what is happening. They’ve lost so much cultural power already that their threats and judgmentalism matter less and less and less.

The people who experience serious doubts can tell that they’re getting responses that don’t help or even match their situations. And those responses’ uselessness, itself, drains their faith pool even more. All these Christian know-nothings accomplish is showing those who have real doubt that they have a damned good reason to have it.

So what I’m outlining here represents good news, in a very real way! Hang in there, friends.

NEXT UP: A dishonest question that Christians vastly prefer to ask instead. See you next time!


Endnotes.

In online games: Compare and contrast what Christians do with the reaction when, say, a player of an online game writes that they’ve quit playingSometimes they get the salty treatment we encounter so often in Christianity. Usually, however, the game’s remaining players offer commiserations and wish the departing player well. Not every player will fit every game. It’s not a moral slam on anybody else when someone quits one. Ultimately, we all want to be playing the game that makes our Happy Pretendy Fun Time Games hearts happy. (Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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