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The Heart

It is the normal state of the human heart to try to build its identity around something besides God.

— Kierkegaard

Serious Portrait

Although evidence and reason are two of the most cited reasons that former believers offer for their loss of faith, I suspect that there is something else going on. In no way do I think that former believers are being dishonest when they point to evidence and reason for their deconversion. To them, it seems that the motivating factor in abandoning their faith was that they were persuaded it wasn't true. And yet, the Bible would challenge that explanation as being entirely comprehensive. There is more to what motivates what we are willing to believe than simply the truth. In fact, the Bible repeatedly describes a lack of belief as a matter of the heart, rather than a matter of the head.   

The Heart of the Matter

But you might ask, “So many former believers point to evidence and arguments as the reasons they left the faith such things must play an important role in deconversions.” Without question, evidence and reasons do play a role in faith exit. But for the most part, the role they play is confirmatory, not persuasive. By that we mean, evidence typically confirms what we’re already predisposed to believe much more than it does persuade us to believe something. This is especially true when the issue at hand has a direct impact on our lives. Our heart is likely to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to what we believe about issues that have a direct impact on our identity, security, desires, and autonomy.[1] That’s because those things passionately matter to us. We all deeply want things we believe about those areas of our lives to be true much more than beliefs we have about things that have little relationship to us.


For example, even though an impartial and objective individual may conclude that I’m making a mistake in taking a new job, if it’s something that I really want and have been working hard to get, I will probably not arrive at the same conclusion. On the contrary, I’ll reassure myself that there are many good reasons why I should take the new job and recount to myself why it’s the perfect fit for me. And that’s because I am thinking not with my head but with my heart. I want the job so I will tend to give greater weight to the evidence that confirms what I want and give less weight to the evidence that doesn’t support what I want. What’s more, I might even be completely unaware that I am doing so. Blinded by my desires I’m unlikely to be able to see that my reasoning is motivated by my desires. Compare that situation to one where I’m called on to form an opinion about who was the greatest Prime Minister in the history of India. Not being Indian, I know next to nothing about the history of the Indian government, nor does the conclusion I come to have any impact on my life whatsoever. Therefore, it doesn’t matter to me what conclusion I arrive at. Because the issue has no existential impact on me one way or the other, the role my heart plays in interpreting the data is minimal. Jesus knew this to be the case.

In the gospel of John, we get a very unflattering picture of what motivates people to avoid God. In the very same passage where Jesus says that “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” he explains why it is that despite such an unbelievably great offer, so few people take him up on it.[2] And it isn’t because we don’t have enough evidence but because in doing so, we’ll be exposed for the sinners we are. Using the language of a courtroom Jesus says:


This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come into the light, lest his works be exposed.[3]


People who know of Jesus reject him because they love their own moral independence more than they love the truth. We don’t want to come to Jesus. And we can get pretty creative to justify our unwillingness. Depending on how much we want to, we can almost always find ways to make contrary data fit what we want to believe. The joke is often told about the man who went to his doctor because he thought he was dead. The doctor offered all of the evidence he could think of to convince the man he wasn’t dead, but it was no use. The man remained convinced he was dead. Exasperated, the doctor came up with a brilliant idea. “Do dead men bleed?” asked the doctor. “Of course not, dead men don’t bleed because their heart is no longer pumping” replied the man. At that moment the doctor plunged a needle into the man’s arm and blood began to stream down. “Now do you still believe that you are dead?” asked the doctor. “Well, I’ll be!”, said the man. “Dead men do bleed after all!” he cried out. You might think this story, though humorous, overstates the case of our ability to avoid conclusions we don’t like in the face of overwhelming evidence. If so, you’d be wrong. 

In an interview with Dr. Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, celebrated anti-theist Richard Dawkins was asked what, if anything, would cause him to change his mind about God’s existence. To which Dawkins responded:


Well, I used to say it would be very simple. It would be the second coming of Jesus or a great, big, deep, booming, bass Paul Robeson voice saying, “I am God, and I created.” But I was persuaded. . .that even if there was this booming voice in the second coming in the clouds of glory, the probable explanation is that it’s a hallucination, or a conjuring trick by David Copperfield, or something. . . A supernatural explanation for anything is incoherent. It doesn’t add up to an explanation for anything.[4]


Boghossian then asked Dawkins “What would convince you?” To which he responded, “Well I’m starting to think nothing would, which, in a way, goes against the grain, because I’ve always paid lip service to the view that a scientist should change his mind when evidence is forthcoming.”[5] You might want to read that again. If you ever wondered how far a person could go in order to rationalize a conclusion they didn’t want to arrive at, you have your answer. Even if Dawkins actually saw the second coming of Jesus with his own two eyes and heard it with his own ears, he would not believe it was really happening. Why not? Because by his own admission, nothing could ever cause him to change his mind about God’s existence. Despite seeing Christ on the clouds in glory and hearing God speak from Heaven, he would rationalize it away as a hallucination before he would consider it good evidence that God existed! Let me ask you, has Richard Dawkins come to his conclusion by way of objective reason or by way of motivated rationalization? I think the answer is clear.

It’s not difficult to see why Dawkins goes to such extremes to explain away the evidence for God’s existence. The existence of God has massive consequences on those areas of our lives that are closest to our hearts: our identity, security, desires, and autonomy. God as the sovereign creator deserves honor and gratitude from humans. They ought to submit to his will and should be held accountable when they do not. But according to the Bible, we’re resistant to do so because of our sinful state. Humanity doesn’t want to seek after nor submit to God. This attitude isn’t simply a slight aversion to God but a wholesale rejection of him. In the book of Romans, Paul presents a damning case against humanity. Not only does he maintain that “no one seeks for God” but that before salvation we were God’s “enemies.”[6] We are not merely ignorant. We were not simply passive noncombatants. We were God’s enemies. This fact alone should give us pause when we’re thinking about how to respond to those wrestling with their faith. Intellectual answers may not be what is needed in some cases because the root problem is not intellectual but willful. The problem is rebellion. Now, I am not saying that all believers who are struggling with maintaining their faith are doing so out of rebellion. There can be many reasons to have good, honest questions about the truth of Christianity. Nor am I suggesting that deconverts are aware that rebellion was their problem. Perhaps the only way to tell the difference is after the fact.[7]


So, does evidence ever change people’s minds? Yes, it does. And when it does it depends on two things. First, as we saw above, when an issue under debate has little existential impact on our lives, we are more likely to arrive at a conclusion that’s closely tied to the evidence. Second, we’re likely to be persuaded by evidence when we want to believe the claim in question. But what evidence doesn’t do is change people’s hearts. And when it comes to God, that’s what matters most. To be sure, a person may be able to amass so much evidence for the existence of God that they force the skeptic into a dilemma: be rational and admit that God exists or deny God’s existence on pain of irrationality. But even if the skeptic is willing to change their mind about God’s existence, merely changing someone’s mind is of little consequence. That’s because God isn’t interested in humans simply acknowledging his existence. He wants them to enter into a rightly ordered relationship with him. But to do that we first have to admit we’re sinners and submit ourselves to his rule, and no amount of evidence will ever force us to do that.

Take Heart

I suspect, that at some level, likely unknown to even the person who has left the faith, there is a desire for autonomy that is at the root of the deconversion. If so, that is a spiritual condition. Only the Lord can change a heart, but we can pray for him to do so. 


[1] Autonomy means moral independence.

[2] Jn 3:16 ESV

[3] Jn 3:19-20 ESV

[4] “What Would Persuade Dawkins to Believe in God?” YouTube. July 16, 2019

[5] “What would persuade Dawkins to believe in God?”

[6] Rom 3:11; 5:10 ESV

[7] Questions and doubts can arise from any number of sources. It’s not only a heart set on autonomy that is the source. It can be anything in our experience that brings to our awareness a conflict between something we believe and a claim of the Bible. It’s not that we have doubts that’s the issue. It’s how we deal with those doubts that is the issue.  

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