I’ve long held a fascination with doubt and unbelief. As a child, I wondered why some people believed in God and some didn’t. It was unsettling to me that it was possible to “read” existence in such radically different ways and with, at least so I thought at the time, with such dire consequences for getting one’s reading wrong.
Like many who grow up thinking, implicitly or explicitly, that life is a contest to see who dies with the most right ideas in their head, I was drawn to apologetics, to rational arguments about God and religion and who’s right and who’s wrong. I studied philosophy of religion in university and exerted tremendous energies trying to find the one rational system that could encompass all the others (and, if I’m honest, to justify my own religious convictions). In graduate school, I wrote a master’s thesis on the “New Atheism,” interpreting it as an incoherent howl of moral rage against the God they claimed not to believe in—a theodicy, of sorts. Here, too, underneath my stated task was a thoroughly apologetic goal: I wanted to prove to myself and others that belief was rational, and unbelief was not (or at least not as rational). I suspect that long time readers of this blog (which is, incredibly, thirteen years old today!) will recognize that this thread has run through much of my writing over the years.
As it happens, unbelief was on the menu last Sunday during worship. For the last three years or so, I have set aside the Sundays between Epiphany and Lent to address faith questions of the congregation. I usually get a fairly wide range from the practical to the hermeneutical to the existential. Last Sunday’s question might have encompassed all three: “Is it un-Christian to doubt one’s faith?” I remember when I first saw that question thinking, “Well that should be right in my wheelhouse! God knows I’ve spent enough words on issues of doubt and faith over the years!” But in the process of writing the sermon, I discovered something. I’m not really as interested in apologetics as I once was. I wasn’t super keen to “make the case” for faith, at least not as a dry, rational exercise of lining up arguments and mowing down objections as I once might have been.
Perhaps it’s simply that I’ve grown up a bit (wouldn’t that be something?). There is something blessedly naïve, even charming, about the idea that matters of faith and doubt can be reduced to mere rational arguments, and that the doubter is simply waiting for an eager beaver with an armload of books and essays and proofs and to come and save the day. Arguments might help a bit here or there, but nobody embraces their view of the world for purely rational reasons. We are irrational and emotional creatures to the core. Our faiths and our doubts go far deeper than what can be proved or disproved. This is true of all times and places, certainly, but it is certainly true in the present cultural moment where nothing is settled, where everything is up for grabs, where nothing is given and everything must be taken.
Timothy Larsen addresses this in a recent review of Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. The story of the rise of unbelief is often told as the inevitable triumph of reason over faith and superstition. But this doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story, according to Larsen (and Ryrie). The roots of unbelief can also be traced through the emotional lenses of anger and anxiety—anger at frequent abuses of ecclesial authority, anxiety at some presentations of church teaching (i.e., predestination, eternal damnation, etc.). These inexorably led to a thoroughly moral critique of belief. Reason is playing a role in all of this, but it certainly isn’t steering the ship. Emotion is doing most of the heavy lifting.
What I found most fascinating about Larsen’s review is his diagnostic of the sociological phenomenon of the “nones”—those who check off “none” when asked to describe their religious affiliation. It’s not so much that people are consciously rejecting faith, he says, but that it was never passed down, at least not in any kind of compelling form. This failure may even have been for good, or at least understandable reasons. Christianity’s history of coercive forms of evangelism or catechesis makes churches and parents reluctant to truly commend the faith. The rise of overall living conditions and leisure culture and the welfare state mean that people no longer feel a need for church in the ways that people once did. And gradually, faith becomes peripheral, ornamental, nostalgic, perhaps, but nothing terribly vital, coherent, or compelling.
According to Larsen, the story of the rise of unbelief is, broadly speaking, not so much about any kind of explicit disavowal of faith as of its gradual drifting away:
Repeat the cycle just once, and you have a generation that hasn’t necessarily rejected religion—but, in all likelihood, hasn’t been initiated into it. When the English soccer star David Beckham’s daughter was born, a journalist asked if he planned to have her christened. He replied, “I definitely want Brooklyn christened, but I don’t know into what religion yet.” This is not a culture of having rejected religion—whether intellectually or emotionally. Many of the “nones” don’t know how to pray for the same reason they don’t know how to read Roman numerals: No one taught them when they were young, and so they now assume it must not be worth learning. Maybe Jill doesn’t believe in God because her grandparents let her parents stay out late on Saturday night and then sleep in on Sunday morning. Anger and anxiety play their roles, but so does apathy.
This fits with what I see and hear out there in the post-Christian wasteland. It fits with the palpable anxiety I encounter in pretty much every church circle I’m a part of about the dearth of young people in the church. It fits with the parents who grieve that their adult children have little to do with God or the church, who sometimes feel like failures for not being able to pass along a robust faith, who wonder what this says about their own faith. It fits with what I hear in conversations with many Gen-Xers and younger, who often embrace a smattering of causes and exotic beliefs about the world, who claim to believe in something or to be “spiritual” but have no coherent moral or metaphysical architecture in place to support and give shape or substance to things.
I guess the moral of the story is that apathy and inattention can be powerfully destructive responses to the world. A generation or two of this, as Larsen says, and you arrive at a point where an influential person can utter a sentence like, “I definitely want my child christened, but I don’t know into what religion yet” and nobody really bats an eye or ponders the head-spinning cultural and religious confusion such a statement evinces.
And, perhaps more importantly, the moral of the story is that Christians need to be able to understand, articulate, and practice faith as an all-encompassing way of being in the world that actually addresses our deepest emotional needs of belonging, meaning, forgiveness, moral vision, redemption, and more. This is not necessarily the time for better arguments for faith, although these can undoubtedly do some good. But human beings are far more than argument processors—we are emotional, social, meaning-makers to the core.
So, for those of us who care about matters of faith, those of us who worry at all that is being lost as faith drifts away, those of us who grieve the isolation, anxiety, and triviality that our cultural moment seems to be breeding, this is more likely a time for an appeal to the gut than to the brain, to emotions rather than to reason alone. It’s a time for demonstrating and speaking about the ways in which faith matters in the world and in our own lives. If, that is, it still does.