Sunday, February 20, 2022

Part I: From Christian faith, to doubt, then anti-metanoia

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, part I

A distorted photograph of me. (Image is my own work.)

This is the personal story of how my Christian faith ended. I grew up a Christian. While I was in graduate school, faith gave way to doubt and then to an experience opposite of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus: anti-metanoia, the dissolution of my Christian belief.

The first and larger part is a snapshot written in 2015, a transitional time when I was still a Christian, but weighed down with doubt. I have not corrected details about myself that later became untrue. For example, it says “But lose my faith entirely I did not,” which was true in 2015, but not later. The second part is a more brief addendum written in 2021 with my post-Christian perspective.

This post has explicit discussion of mental health issues and suicidal ideation. If you experiencing mental health problems yourself, please get help. See for some suggestions, or search the web for “mental health help.”

Snapshot from the Christian walk slowed to a crawl, written 2015

Since early 2012, my reading and my learning in church have led me to rethink the reasons that I believe in God and my view of the Bible. Generally, this has been a process of learning new ideas about the world in general (and seeing old ideas in fresh light) that has lowered my estimation of the probability that God exists and undermined my belief that the Bible is inerrant. The new ideas came to me suddenly at particular moments in time, such as when I read "The Black Swan" by N. N. Taleb, but the thorough incorporation of each idea and all its associated implications has been a slow process.

Until these doubts of mine started to set in, I had several reasons for being a Christian. Here are some:
  • Morality
  • The inexplicable rise of the church
  • Creation
  • Miracles
  • The historicity of Jesus in the Gospels
Some of these reasons were undermined by things that I read:
  • I used to think that God's existence leads to an explanation of the history of the church that is better than the explanation that atheism could offer. But reading "The Black Swan" by N. N. Taleb made me think that the church's history needed no further explanation. "The Black Swan" isn't meant to debunk the significance of history of the church specifically -- the book is more about epistemology, statistic and even finance! A "Black Swan" is an improbable event with high impact, like the fall of the USSR, 9/11 or the discovery of penicillin. History comes in jerks and starts with Black Swans of various sizes. While each Black Swan looks improbable by itself, they are actually very common stuff: one in a million chances happen to each of us every day, etc. So I accepted the thesis of the book, but the implications blew a fatal breach in the hull of one of my arguments for Christianity: the church grew boldly and suddenly in the first few centuries but that doesn't imply that Jesus really rose from the dead.
  • Reading Paul Graham's essay "Lies We Tell Kids" ( made me think that religions could be highly adaptive and survivable even if they weren't true (see also "Antifragile" by N. N. Taleb). This relates to a thought I've had for a while: why don't I investigate other religions? I collected arguments against religions in general but then they also work against Christianity. In addition, "The Black Swan" also made me think that Christianity was less unique as a religion.
  • I used to think that pervasive human moral failing substantially supported the Biblical idea of sin. However, reading "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker made me think that psychology presents a sufficiently powerful view of human moral failing (and human love too) that the Biblical idea of sin is not logically necessary. Furthermore, on a more emotional level, I had been carrying around a lot of guilt about some of my more persistent sins. But in the same few years, I improved my self control in some ways and started carrying less guilt around. In itself, that was definitely a good change. But it had a secondary effect too, which, depending how you look at it, was either that I relied on God less or that I was clear minded to see how much my own guilt had been pushing my worldview in some direction.
Other reasons for my believing were undermined without being catalyzed by a specific thing that I read:
  • Quite some time ago, I had accepted that God could have used evolution to create humanity and that evolution need not be a stumbling block to a careful reading of Genesis. The start of Genesis is highly poetic. But the subtly is that God is no longer logically necessary for humanity. But maybe the Big Bang is evidence for God's existence? It could be, at least until the next scientific theory deflates that step in the infinite regress of whys. I still feel like creation is a marginal win for the theist, if we had to call the fight now.
  • I gradually abandoned my belief that miracles today were evidence for God's existence. I had stopped going to a Pentecostal church a long time ago and I started going to Campus Church, an independent church that was started by a bunch of Sydney Anglicans (they must have been pretty aggravated with the denomination!). Campus Church seemed to more or less believe that miracles ceased after apostolic times. The leadership of Campus Church took a strong view on the Bible. My impression was that I should take God at his word (the 66 books of the Protestant Bible) and in short, "only a rebellious generation asks for a sign." (Fortunately, this view of miracles helps to shield oneself from the classic arguments against miracles à la Hume.)
My membership and increased involvement in Campus Church, with its strong evangelical focus on the Bible, made it ok for me to carefully and thoughtfully overturn my belief that miracles were evidence for God (it also helped that I didn't see any going on). But I was left with an even bigger problem: suddenly everything hinged on the dogmatic inerrant truth of the Bible! So I had to take my fine toothed comb to the Bible. That lead me to examine what evangelicalism really was and to look deeply at questions surrounding the content of the Bible. For example, why these 66 books and not the deuterocanonical books too? Why include Esther? What's with the writer of Hebrews referring the Janes and Jambres? What about Jude quoting the Book of Enoch as prophetic?! What do scholars think about the dating and authorship of each book of the Bible? What about the New Testament apocrypha, like the Gospel of Thomas? (And who put in those chapter and verse numbers?) Many of these questions are not that problematic to the Christian, but if the Bible is the be-all-and-end-all, then they've gotta be answered.

One leader at Campus Church described the way to accept the Bible with a circular argument. I distilled that circular argument in the following way:

1) Jesus is divine
implies 2) Jesus' words are reliable
implies 3) all claims in the Bible are true in ways that accord with the literary styles of the Bible
implies 1) and 2).

It wasn't quite that simple, but being told to accept a circular argument didn't work for me at all. After reading the pastor's recommended text on evangelicalism, "'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God" by J. I. Packer, I concluded that Packer's brand of evangelicalism is utterly worthless. 

I had the confluence of intellectual doubts about my arguments for God's existence and problems with my church's fundamental premises about the Bible. The pastor encouraged me to view my beliefs less in terms of a stack of bricks -- one idea built on another, and more like a spider web of strengthening interconnections. He might have a point there, and I've since learned more about this idea and it is helpful to an extent (see my discussion on foxes and hedgehogs below). But the overall picture at this point is nihilistically black. The real chronological order of the development of my doubts is not exactly like what I've described here. There wasn't really a 'rock bottom' point in time when depression suddenly caved on me as I realized that I needed to fail my wife, friends and my past self by rejecting God's existence and putting my Bible on the fiction shelf. But just as the events of my story are spread over months and even years, so the bad feelings were spread over time and mixed in with plenty of nicer experiences in life (like a happy marriage!). But the bad feelings were there and are still partly there. I felt like a hypocrite when I helped in church activities. We all love people who have lost their faith and it's hard for everyone. I never realized how hard it is for the person doing the losing.

But lose my faith entirely I did not. This is the first time I've carefully written all of this down. I feel like now might be the first time that I've really understood some parts of doubts. For a while I was in a gray fog. I was busy with stuff and it was never fun to just spend a day thinking on these depressing things. When would be a good time to strain my relationship with my wife, make all my Christian friends talk behind my back about how Peter's backsliding is such a shame and unravel my whole worldview to the point where everything is in question and no values remain? I justified delaying because it's better to remain a "weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind" than to become a tree planted in the wrong woods, and partially I think I was right to. One problem is that I know that all the psychological biases lead one to keep obsolete but dearly loved ideas around well past their use-by date, systematically rejecting any evidence to the contrary. If I were really lead to the water of rejecting Christianity, then maybe it's just that I couldn't bear to drink?

At the start of 2014, I decided to devote a month to trying to resolving my worldview. In the end, I concluded that I couldn't fix my doubts entirely in that time, but that I would continue trying to be a Christian. I had decided to follow Jesus, so no turning back. I still have unresolved concerns. Before my doubts began, my judgement was that God probably existed. I mixed in a little bit of Pascal's wager and out came a functionally certain Christianity. Now I have trouble shaking the feeling that God probably doesn't exist. But I crawl on. Moses spent 40 years in the desert and Isaiah was forbidden from wearing pants for some length of time that probably felt longer than 40 years.

A precious few ideas are ingredients of potential salve for my burning. They don't form a complete re-construction of a complete and happy world view, at least not yet.
  • Reading "Scripture and the Authority of God" by N.T. Wright was encouraging. I like Wright's view of scripture much better than Packer's. I felt like I could keep being a Christian when I read "Scripture and the Authority of God."
  • I learned about the idea that some people think in "fox" terms, while others think in "hedgehog" terms. (For more detail, see Hedgehog thinkers form world views that attempt to completely explain what the thinker knows. Hedgehog thinkers can act robustly, easily applying their world views to new situations, however their world views are fragile to disturbances. Fox thinkers collect examples en masse but do not necessarily generalize those examples into a world view. Fox thinkers are fragile in their actions (like when faced with new situations) but they are robust in belief. I am definitely a hedgehog thinker facing the fragility of my own beliefs. My wife is more of fox thinker. Maybe I can learn some of her thinking style. Maybe that's why God put her in my life.
  • The lead singer of a metal band I like, Tim Lambesis, hired a hitman to kill his wife. (Probably this is evidence that rock music is of the devil.) He was a Christian who lost his faith. I read a transcript of someone's interview with him just before he was sentenced to 9 years. He discussed how Christians often teach people that morality can only be objective and that it can only come from God and how he lost his morality along with his faith. He said something along the lines that morality doesn't need to be fully objective and doesn't need to come from Christianity. (I might not be getting this exactly right, but it's what I got from it.) It's not exactly an argument in favour of Christianity, it's more like an insurance policy for a Christian's morality: if one loses their faith, then they do not necessarily have to lose their morality.
  • "Antifragile" by N. N. Taleb's presents the idea that definite action should be taken without definite knowledge. Strangely, I've heard that Taleb is an Orthodox Christian. What irony, given that his book kindled my doubts.

Addendum post-Christianity, written 2021

Since 2016, I have no longer been a Bible believing Christian.

Losing my faith meant breaking my identity. I didn't just believe in Christianity, I was a Christian. Take that away and I was in danger of not being. I was depressed and had a degree of suicidal ideation. I saw a counselor for a few sessions and at one point he said that he was excited for me, because I would get a new identity. I was not excited.

Ultimately, his words were in the right direction, but in a form that was not like I expected. I partially credit the writing of David Chapman with saving my life in that crisis through his hypertext book (= website) One of the key ideas of is that meaning is both patterned and nebulous at the same time. Like a cloud, we can definitely claim that a cloud is in the sky, but when we get to the edges, it's hard to say exactly where the cloud begins and ends. So it is with meanings: they are patterned, definite and real but also nebulous, with fuzzy edges and strange exceptions. 

Christianity, as I practiced it, is a beautiful and rigid pattern and it conveniently denies a lot of nebulousness. I was tempted in my moment of crisis to choose a new identity of the same form. Like, say, Communism, or Islam: two other belief systems with perfect and rigid patterning. But my narrow understanding of "identity" was really what was at fault. My new identity is one that tolerates (and maybe one day will embrace) nebulousness. Now I have been too hard on Christianity, Communism and Islam. Many practitioners of these religions may be great at balancing the patterned with the nebulous in many ways. Chapman talks about adult development in terms of numbered stages. Many different belief systems can exist at all different levels of personal development. But for me, Christianity couldn't survive the personal-development-level-change.

Some version of "I" made it through. I regained my sanity and I try to gently walk a new line without treading on my Christian wife and the nascent Christianity of my kids. I continue the discussion of my new identify in Part VII.

Parts II through VI give you some insight into what I was thinking and reading during this transitional time. Then I fast forward to 2022 and Parts VII through X present hindsight reflections of my loss-of-faith journey, plus some details about my current perspectives.

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