Faith for Skeptics Like Me
I’m a naturally skeptical person. I think it comes from my analytical mind that I just can’t turn off. Ever. Anytime I hear an argument, I can’t help but think about the counter-argument. I never want to believe something because I wish it were true. I’d rather know the truth, even if it’s troubling.
My career has been centered in the political world, and I regularly hear people make categorical statements about the obvious rightness of their positions and the stupidity of their opponents. I try not to be annoying, so my thoughts usually remain in my head, but I can see other points of view – and it’s hard for me to characterize them as stupid or malicious. They may not be persuasive to me, but I can see how people get there.
I like this ability to see all sides, but I suppose it could make it harder to decide on one course and pursue it with vigor. Yet for me, it usually doesn’t. Doubts notwithstanding, I have decided on my course of action, and until I’m presented with more compelling evidence, here I stand.
But doubts remain. Although I have a deep faith in God that pervades my life, I recognize that I could be wrong. My faith resides alongside my doubts, and they’re in a constant conversation. Proverbs 18:17 says, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” That’s how I see the world, too.
I was a Christian until I lost my faith in college and became an atheist, then I slowly regained my faith, inch by inch. But it wasn’t all-or-nothing. It was more like moving a ball down the football field. In general, I’m on the 15-yardline, but some days I’m on the 45-yard line. There are things that bother me about my faith, things that I’d rather not have to affirm.
Like hell. Or prophecies (which don’t always seem prescient). Or how Scripture was assembled. Or inconsistencies in biblical stories. Or God-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. Or lots of other things.
I look for satisfactory explanations, but often I don’t find them. What then? Chuck my faith because it’s got warts? Then what? What’s my alternative to faith in the God of the Bible?
Other religions, for one. And I’m open to those, but so far I haven’t found one that has fewer problems than Christianity. How about a mish-mash of different religions, picking one doctrine here and another there? This seems less convincing to me, because it’s really seating my own judgment at the center of the universe. It’s a me-centered religion, and it assumes too much about my own intellect and judgment.
Or what about just imagining a world without religion, as John Lennon proposed? Then I’m left with an even worse dilemma, namely, how to call evil “evil.” If there’s no God, who’s to say what’s wrong? Me? A majority (which shifts depending upon time and place)? The strong?
For me, this inability to name evil for what it is drives me back to my faith. It’s not that the doubts disappear, but my Christian faith ends up being the least bad alternative.
Some Christians reading this column are suddenly worried about me. You want to send me books (I already read a lot). And pray for me (please do). And debate with me (I’m always open to debate). But it may be that I’m not alone in this faith amidst doubt, and it’s not sinfulness on my part, or a lack of intelligence. Maybe my faith is believing based on the preponderance of the evidence rather than beyond reasonable doubt.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith. For some of us, doubt brackets our faith.
We should, by all means, be clear about what our doubts are and take them seriously. Write them down and read thoughtful books by people who address them. And weigh the alternatives to faith, because none of us gets to live without a faith – the only question is what we’ll have faith in. If you think you have reduced life to a mathematical equation, I think you haven’t thought deeply enough.
In the end, we have to pick our poison. No worldview is perfect, but some are less imperfect than others. Live consistently by the one you find most persuasive.
And don’t elevate tribe above truth. Choose to follow truth wherever it leads, and remain open to the possibility you’re wrong. Open mindedness isn’t inimical to faith or leading a purposeful life of intentional faith. Doubt doesn’t mean we should be wishy washy.
The older I get, the more I value authenticity. I’m less worried about having a perfect answer for myself or others. I can’t convince anyone of anything, but I can seek to persuade. If other don’t find my arguments persuasive, I give them the same respect God affords me – to choose as I see fit.
I also choose to assume the best of others’ motivation. It’s not fair to assume others are rejecting my arguments because they’re afraid of the consequences for their life. While that could be true, it’s not mine to judge. It may be that they’re just not convinced. And since God desires people who worship him in spirit and in truth, what good is gaining a religious adherent who doesn’t really believe?
In the end, I have put all of my chips on the Apostles’ Creed as revealed in the Bible. I hope the dogma lives loudly through all I do. And I hope against all hope that my doubts will be put to rest when I see God face to face, falling before Him in gratitude and worship.