Mistakes to Avoid
If you want to avoid losing your faith, avoid these common mistakes that will undermine your commitment to Christ.
It needs to be said once again that the purpose of this series is to help Christians who are struggling to maintain their faith but who want to. Desiring to hold onto one's faith can appear to be less a search for truth and more a desire to confirm what a Christian already believes. The earlier articles in this series address that concern. In those articles, I argued
- that unless God exists, a moral obligation to seek the truth over our psychological well-being doesn't exist so the charge of violating one's epistemic duty to seek the truth already presupposes God's existence.
- that Christians are justified in continuing to believe in God despite contrary evidence for a number of reasons, not the least of which God is a person and not a scientific theory.
If you haven't read those articles, I suggest you do, otherwise, this article will appear to be nothing more than encouraging Christians to practice confirmation bias.
If you want to keep your faith in Jesus, I recommend not doing the following.
.1. Watching Internet Atheists
Do not, until you are ready, watch videos of Internet atheists out of a desire to feel as though you have investigated the other side. Doing so will likely cause you to have more doubts about your faith and move you closer to deconverting. There are two reasons for this. First, it is likely the case you're not yet ready to think critically and engage with the claims made by Internet atheists. Until you have mastered the evidence in favor of Christianity, do not expose yourself to the counterevidence. Doing so is like an untrained boxer fighting a professional boxer. The untrained boxer isn't ready and will get knocked out in the first round. Put in the time to learn the arguments and evidence for a specific issue (i.e. the reliability of the New Testament, the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus) before opening yourself up to the arguments against the issue. Then, if you do, make sure that you seek responses to those arguments from Christian thinkers who specialize in those fields. Second, be aware that if you consume large amounts of atheist apologetics, you will likely lose your faith, not because the case for atheism is so strong, but because you are not directly in control of what you believe. Our beliefs are largely passively formed in us by the evidence we find persuasive. Two factors that are involved in why we find the evidence persuasive are how much we are exposed to it and how effective the person presenting it is. If you are going to engage with arguments against Christianity (and at some point in your journey you should) do not do so alone but with a wise, grounded Christian who can help you think about and process the challenges that you will encounter.
2. Assuming Skeptics Are Neutral
It's common for former believers to say something like the following, "I realized that in listening to debates, the skeptic - whether it be a historian, scientist or philosopher - was simply following the evidence and letting it determine what they believed, whereas the Christian apologist had an agenda; to explain away the evidence in order to maintain their faith." While it's true that Christian apologists aren't unbiased, it's also true that skeptics aren't either. Don't be fooled into thinking that the unbelieving historian, scientist, or philosopher is objectively seeking the truth. If you do think that, then you have already decided that what the Bible says about the unbelieving mind is in error and that is a step toward apostasy. Scripture tells us that unbelievers aren't neutral but hostile enemies of God, who are darkened in their minds due to their hardness of heart, willfully ignorant, and suppressors of the truth because they are unrighteous. That's hardly objective or neutral.
3. Moving too Quickly
The average time it takes a person to lose their faith from their first serious doubt to identifying as a former Christian is about three years. I suspect that anything substantially shorter than that is reflective of a person who is looking for a way out, not a person who is honestly seeking the truth. Don't move too quickly in your faith journey if the trajectory is heading out of the faith. Leaving one's faith is a major life change. Take your time, and investigate your doubts thoroughly before chucking your faith aside. If eternity really is at stake, the last thing you should do is arrive at a hasty conclusion; especially if the catalyst for your crisis of faith is emotional in nature.
4. Not Recognizing the influence of culture on your moral sensibilities.
A major motivator for a faith crisis is that the Bible doesn't line up with our modern moral sensibilities. The Bible is clear, same-sex relationships of a sexual nature are wrong. God gave some pretty harsh laws in the Old Testament. God commanded the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites. Jesus takes Hell for granted and warns about not going there. All of those strike modern readers who have been shaped by modern moral sensibilities as deeply problematic. I'm not saying that I don't wrestle with those passages, I do. But I am well aware that my moral compass is calibrated by the culture we live in. That culture thinks that hurting another person's feelings is a crime worth having one's life ruined over; that any form of pleasure is fine as long as no one else gets hurt; that children who aren't old enough to buy cigarettes, drive a car or leave class and go to the bathroom without permission from their teacher can begin hormone therapy to transition to their preferred gender without their parent's knowledge; that a woman should be able to kill her unborn child for no other reason than she doesn't want to be inconvenienced by the very actions that caused her to become pregnant,, that men who enjoy dressing up in garish women's clothes and makeup should be reading books to young children should be a staple of libraries across the country. Before you pass judgment on the morality of the Bible, pause long enough to discern how much of your problem with the harshness of what you read in it is influenced by our ultra-tolerant, no consequences, pass no judgment culture. Then, take some time and read some good books on what the Bible is as opposed to what you might expect it to be. It is not a social justice manual. It is not a list of timeless moral prescriptions. It is not written to 21st-century Americans. Its commands are not always God's ideals.
5. Assuming "Reason" is a neutral criterion.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that some neutral thing called "Reason" is the ultimate criterion you are using to evaluate the evidence for Christianity. Reason isn’t an ultimate authority somewhere out there that we can acquire true beliefs by if we just think in accordance with it. In fact, reason isn’t really a thing at all. It’s better described as a process, a psychological activity we engage in. It’s the means whereby we’re able to draw conclusions based on prior beliefs. We reason and we engage in reasoning by using our cognitive faculties. We weigh claims, draw inferences, make evaluations and arrive at conclusions. In reality, what individuals who claim that reason is their ultimate criterion of truth have done is to identify a nebulous collection of their own insights, intuitions, feelings, understandings and what they take to be self-evident as reason. They then reject anything that isn’t in line with it as unreasonable. What this means is that they themselves are the ultimate criterion of truth! Reason it turns out, is simply shorthand for “My intellect and its collection of beliefs is the authority and final criterion of truth.”
I want to say as clearly as I possibly can, I agree that reason is a necessary tool in discerning true claims from false ones. In coming to hold rational beliefs reason is an essential tool. It’s a gift from God. In fact, I am reasoning with you right now about reason. Therefore, it would be absurd and self-defeating to claim that reason is unnecessary or impotent in separating the true from the false. True beliefs are what we all desire, and our intellect is significantly involved in that process. But it is not sufficient to be the ultimate criterion we use to determine what is true.
When it comes to how we go about making most decisions we don’t think much about whether we are assuming a standard to determine if a belief or decision is reasonable. Nevertheless, we are. In fact, we can’t help but do so. What needs to be determined is which criterion should be our ultimate criterion. There are two types of criteria, proximate, and ultimate. We make an error in reasoning when we make the proximate criterion the ultimate criterion.
Let me explain.
Since being born we have passively developed a collection of assumptions and common-sense beliefs we take to be true. I have a vast, almost countless number of beliefs I’ve accrued over my lifetime. And so do you. That collection acts as a proximate criterion. It is the internal criterion we use to measure new truth claims against. And when a claim comes along that doesn’t fit well with the set of things I already believe, I think it is likely false or unreasonable to believe. This is especially true if it’s contrary to the really important beliefs that make up the core of what I believe. In other words, the proximate criterion is me! I decide what is true. Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticizing the fact that we initially are the proximate criterion. That’s how I believe God made us. He expects us to make inferences and draw conclusions from the beliefs we take to be true. But he also expects us to recognize that our internal and proximate criterion needs to submit to an ultimate criterion. The question is, what should the ultimate criterion be? I suggest that only the Bible, as the word of God, can fulfill that role.
6. Taking an all-or-nothing approach to Christianity
Many former Christians describe a burdensome religious system they identified with something they call “biblical” Christianity that required them to affirm a host of nonnegotiable teachings in order to be a genuine Christian. There are any number of doctrines that can be elevated to the status of an essential belief in the all-or-nothing approach to faith. For churches that subscribe to such an approach, the set of doctrines that make up the sum total of beliefs one needs to affirm in order to be a Christian is different. But what they all have in common is an all-or-nothing package of beliefs that need to be affirmed in total in order to be a Christian.
Fred Clark, former managing editor at Prism magazine says that although the outside all-or-nothing faith doesn’t seem to make much sense. That’s because the separate components of the package do seem separable. He says that
From the outside, it just seems kind of silly to insist that, for example, belief in the Golden Rule requires and is somehow dependent on the belief that the universe is only 6,000 years old.”3 He goes on to say that from the inside however, things look a lot different: Belief in Jesus, in forgiveness, or in faith, hope and love, really does come to seem contingent and dependent upon all those other beliefs in inerrancy, literalism, creationism, and whichever weird American variant of eschatology your particular sub-group of fundies subscribes to. And that means, for those shaped by fundamentalism, that belief in Jesus, faith, hope and love are all constantly imperiled by even fleeting glimpses of reality. Some such glimpse will eventually penetrate the protective fundie shell — the recognition that maybe all sedimentary rocks didn’t come from Noah’s flood, the realization that the Synoptic Gospels can’t be easily “harmonized,” the attempt to evangelize some Hell-bound Episcopalian that results in them getting the better of the conversation. And when that happens, the whole edifice threatens to topple like some late-in-the-game Jenga tower.
The problem does not end with requiring an all-or-nothing system of faith where every belief depends on every other belief. That would be bad enough. It gets compounded when the package that must be accepted is identified as something called “biblical” Christianity. Such adjectives give the impression that there is one correct way to be a Christian, the biblical way and that all others are substandard. And of course, that one way is identical to the all-or-nothing package of a particular church. In reality, however, what is assumed to be “biblical” Christianity is an admixture of core theological truths and the micro-traditions and particular interpretations of one particular church or denomination. What this all-or-nothing misidentification results in is the demand that to be a Christian one must affirm and adopt an entire set of beliefs and practices without exception, but which contains many traditions and convictions that in reality are not necessary to be a Christian at all.
Identifying “biblical” Christianity with one’s own church or denomination this way is highly problematic. First, it ignores the indisputable fact that throughout history there have been an enormous number of Christian traditions that stand well within orthodoxy, but which look very different from each other in secondary and tertiary beliefs as well as practices. Admittedly, it is true that all of them could be in error in how they interpreted and applied the Bible and that one tradition – the tradition of the pre-deconvert – is the only tradition throughout the history of the church that is the truly biblical version. However, this line of thinking strains credulity to the point of breaking. And yet that is exactly what the all-or-nothing package version of the faith implies if not entails. Burdening individuals with a requirement that in order to be a Christian they must believe all of the various doctrines of one particular church is to place on them a weight too heavy to bear and one that will in all likelihood set them up for a crisis of faith.
The second problem with requiring believers to adopt a large, inflexible, and fragile set of beliefs and practices is that it makes the Christian life tedious, joyless, and tends to make people negative and critical. Deconversion narratives reveal that former believers look back on their time in the church with regret and in some cases shame at how they viewed others. Because their Christian system gave them the impression that they were “biblical” believers because they adhered to the correct form of Christianity, they became self-righteous and critical. At the same time, they buckled under the weight of having to continually find ways to justify beliefs that had become harder and harder to believe given information about the world they began to believe. On top of that, they could no longer maintain the standards of conduct that were expected of them by their Christian community. For many the level of commitment expected by their churches was so high that it strained relationships with family, friends, employment, and even their finances. Like the Pharisees whom Jesus accused of binding heavy burdens on the shoulders of men but who themselves would not lift a finger to help, such churches place equally heavy burdens on Christians and set them up to develop a resentment towards Christianity. Who would want to be part of a group that demanded so much and in return produced beat-down, critical people?
Without a doubt, there are certain beliefs one must hold in order to be born again and to be within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy. You can't give up those without deconverting. However, you can rethink, exchange and abandon some, perhaps even a good number of beliefs from your version of Christianity without having to give up the faith. Christianity is not identical to your version of it, therefore it's not an all-or-nothing proposition.