Many Christians say that the worst thing you can do when encountering difficulties is to stop attending church and cut yourself off from the community. And there is probably some sense to it: you don’t want to give up at the first hurdle.
But this philosophy kept me bogged in damaging doubts for years. My whole foundation had crumbled, and nothing made sense any more. I was still attending, but my doubts were so strong that no message in the church had the power to move me. Any weak arguments would remind me of the problems I saw and drive me further away.
Eventually it became clear to me that hanging on was useless as it couldn’t return me to faith. A sense of community was no substitute for truth, and I needed to leave to be true to myself.
My story of grappling with toxic doubt feels like a long past part of my life. I write this to share my experiences, not to look for sympathy or to be told how I should have dealt with those doubts. Unquestionably, some of the problems I faced were due to the sub-optimal choices I made, though they were hard choices faced with a mind clouded by uncertainty and doubt.
I also write to counter the common narrative of believers falling away because they just wanted to sin, or because they didn’t try hard enough to stay. I was forced into making hard decisions because I encountered reality and found it was different from what I always believed. And even then, it took a long time to really acknowledge that.
A loss of foundation
There are plenty of things that I am not certain about, and if they don’t affect everyday life they don’t bother me. However, there are some core beliefs on which everything else is built, and once I started to acknowledge doubts in those core beliefs nothing in my life was secure.
For me, key beliefs included the existence of God, the Bible as God’s word, the correctness of Christadelphian interpretation of that Bible, and an earth specially (and recently) created to fulfill God’s purpose. Those key beliefs formed the lens through which I saw, understood, and reacted to the world around me. They also formed a basis for family relationships, many friendships, and the closest community I had.
Over time, I could see cracks opening in all those foundational beliefs. Once I started to ask questions (in particular “How would I know God actually existed?”), I found that I couldn’t find answers. At times I found myself questioning everything I had ever believed in. But I was also quite capable of doubting whether I should really trust my doubts. And where was I to go then? I had nothing to replace those foundations with, so I stayed in limbo, locked in uncertainty and unable to move.
Much of the time I tried to stay in denial - just not to ask those questions, or not to consider the consequences. Sometimes it worked, but the questions could not be suppressed for ever, and over the years they kept popping up. And suppressing the questions also meant avoiding sources that might have given me helpful answers.
Beliefs have practical implications, and so the doubts didn’t just affect church attendance. They affected the workplace, and they affected my personal life too.
Since my doubts were mostly religious, it seems obvious that the doubts would affect church. But in some ways it was easy to put on a front at church: my religious persona was well-known, and fit in comfortably with the crowd. I had something of a reputation as a devil’s advocate, and so was able to raise and discuss real doubts without anyone suspecting. My difficulty came when people expected answers I didn’t have, or confidently presented answers that I knew were somewhere between “highly unlikely” and “complete nonsense”.
Church brought me into contact with many confident believers, so I wondered if I had somehow missed the key that everyone else had (just another instance of “doubting my doubts”). But I also wondered whether there were others like me, outwardly good Christadelphians putting on a brave face to suppress doubts. Who could I trust?
I was mostly fine with Biblical interpretation and the intellectual side of the religion. I still enjoyed Bible study and arguing my point, though practical application was a bit harder. I liked being respected as a thought leader, even though I knew some of my doubts should disqualify me from that role. And if I held the mental reservation “That is, if the Bible is true”, well, no-one else need know that.
The emotional side was more difficult. People would speak with absolute confidence about the reality of God and their relationship with God. What was that confidence based on? I didn’t understand, and was afraid to ask (I don’t know whether I was more afraid of people looking down on me for not knowing, or of getting answers that didn’t apply to me).
There were also hot button topics where I was supposed to have an answer, and didn’t. Creation and evolution was the most prominent. Some believed young earth creationism was the only way to be true to scripture (which had been my position). Others provided long lists of reasons why we had to accept evolution, showing how it was really compatible with correct scriptural interpretation (I wasn’t convinced). It felt like there was a battle brewing, I wasn’t sure where I stood, and I didn’t want to be forced to take sides.
I tried to avoid the probing questions from fellow believers. I even ruled myself out from giving any lectures so I didn’t have to speak about creation and evolution. But, like it or not, it was abundantly clear that if I seriously investigated evolution and came to the wrong conclusion it would have big ramifications. And if it were true it would remove one of the key intellectual reasons why I still needed a god.
In the family
A shared religion was part of the glue that held family together, and so this area is similar to the previous one. But in the family harder and clearer lines were drawn between right and wrong interpretation, and the stakes felt higher if I said the wrong thing.
In the church, even personal discussions happened in a formal setting. With family it was much more pervasive: even the simplest discussion could have religious connotations.
It wasn’t just the Bible, it was the culture wars: marriage, homosexuality, the dangers of humanism, the evil of the world, etc. I could never be completely off-guard, as a casual word might give the game away. And when that casual word was spotted, how could I explain? I thought the dangerous world outside they were talking about didn’t exist - but could I even have a sensible conversation about it without a shared foundation?
At its core, work remained a haven of sanity. I’ve been in the same workplace for years, and while quite a few knew I was Christian it wasn’t a big deal. But the doubts had an effect: While I was accomplished at putting different parts of my life in different boxes, they couldn’t be completely separate.
Here was the problem: Often I knew what I should believe, but I was no longer sure whether I actually believed it. And so I tried to avoid any discussion of my religious beliefs: How could I discuss them if I didn’t know what they were?
The common question “What did you do on the weekend?” was meant to be a great outreach opportunity, but I came to dread it. I went from saying I had been to church, to saying in an embarassed way I had done a couple of things including church, to talking about a church activity or a church camp as “time spent with friends”. Technically true, but not really honest. Particularly since I had often enjoyed some parts of the church activity in spite of the doubts.
Beliefs have practical implications. Take for example the contentious subject of homosexuality. I knew that as a good Christian my answer should be “it’s an abomination”. But I also knew that I had no grounds for saying that without a few specially emphasised verses in the Bible, and I wasn’t sure I believed the Bible any more. And if it came up in casual discussion I could be pretty sure many of my co-workers would disagree with that official position. So mostly I tried to stay quiet and listen to those around me. That didn’t do anything to resolve my uncertainty, but it did show how strange some religious ideas sound when compared with the ordinary world.
In other parts of my life, I was able to put on a persona. But at home I was able to be “myself”. In principle, this sounds great, but in practice I was confused enough that I could no longer decide what was the real “me”. Though at least I could still beat myself up over the different images I was projecting in different parts of my life.
I was confused. I was angry. I felt trapped, and I didn’t know where to turn next. Anything was fair game for being doubted one minute and assumed as true the next minute. So much of my life was bound up in my beliefs. What else could I do?
Uncertainty is very wearing, and life could be grim, particularly on cold winter nights facing difficult dilemmas. I’m sure I felt very sorry for myself, and felt it unfair that reality was forcing me to make choices I didn’t want to make.
Sometimes the internet provided a helpful (if anonymous) outlet for frustration and anger. But it also served me many reminders that the simple world I had grown up with and believed in didn’t really exist.
This quote from my personal notes may give a flavour of the struggles. At this point, I had already decided I was very likely to quit, but still wasn’t sure what would come next:
I fear leaving, but at the same time I also fear these sessions, the sessions of pitiless introspection digging deeper and deeper till I throw up my hands and say “I don’t know what I am, what I am doing, or what I should do. I don’t know what is right or wrong. All I can see is doubt and confusion, not absolute truth on any side”.
Planning for the future
One final area of uncertainty was planning for the future. Religion was a big part of my life: it drove much of the weekly schedule and provided many opportunities to meet with friends and family. But I always had it in the back of my mind that this might not be true in six months or a year. Would I be thrown out of the church? Would I walk out of it voluntarily? Would I even be on speaking terms with family and friends this time next year?
At times, I entertained crazy contingency plans. Running away, for example: Moving to a different city in a different country and starting again. Suicide, too. The plans never truly felt real, but nor could I truly focus on living life with so many possibilities hanging over my head.
Can Christadelphians accept doubt?
In principle, yes, Christadelphians should be able to accept doubts. But being a small, fairly exclusive group that is known to hold “The Truth” probably makes it harder. And if everyone else around you appears to be confident of what they believe and why, how can you fit in?
As Rob Hyndman says:
Unfortunately the Christadelphian world is a difficult place in which to have doubts. You are supposed to be certain of what you believe, and if you are not, you are supposed to just pretend!
In fairness, my ecclesia had more openness to questions and unorthodox ideas than most (and I took advantage of it). But I think I sensed that there would be a definite limit to how far the doubts could extend while still being acceptable. A doubt about a point of interpretation is one thing. But what about doubts about important “first principles”? Or even whether God exists and the Bible is his message to the world? What common ground remains for addressing doubts?
For a long time, I could stay a Christadelphian on my own terms behind my own facade. And if I had raised certain questions, I’m sure there would have been people who had answers for them. I’ve come to realise that no matter what reason I give, someone, somewhere will say “I survived that, so it’s not a good reason for leaving faith”.
I’m happy to acknowledge that believers around the world have overcome all manner of doubts. That doesn’t mean I’m obligated to accept their patent recipe for disposing of doubt. And if I wasn’t happy with the answers, what then?
I’m sure there would have been people willing to play “Mr Fixit”. People who saw the doubt as a problem and wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible. I would have been told to have more faith, read the Bible more, and pray to God to overcome my doubts (believe it or not, but I’d already thought of these things, tried them, and given them up once it was clear they couldn’t fix the problem). Apologetics felt the same: sometimes it was more about trying to dismiss doubt in any way possible, with maintaining the faith more of a priority than upholding reality.
Going it alone
For a long time, I’m sure that I was just in denial. There was a way of resolving all my doubts out there somewhere, and after that everything would go back to normal. I didn’t want anything to change, and acknowledging to anyone else that I was having problems would surely have changed things.
There were times when I really wanted to confide in someone, and there are a few people I considered talking to. But it never happened. Probably there was a blend of pride (“I’m too strong a Christian to have problems”), fear (“What if it gets out?”), and doubt (“What if I don’t get helpful answers?”).
But the reality is that I mixed with people from across the Christadelphian spectrum in Melbourne, and I knew how some problems had been dealt with. It was abundantly clear that asking the wrong questions and giving the wrong answers could lead to me being labelled “divisive” and made unwelcome at many ecclesias and possibly in my family. As a doubter I was already somewhat fragile - why would I choose to seek out conflict?
I didn’t need to ask if people had solutions to my problems, because in talks and private conversations I heard the solutions people proposed to some of my doubts (or the ways they just dismissed them as lack of faith). I read the apologetics books referenced, and found their answers unconvincing. I was able to form my own judgements, and those judgements weren’t always flattering.
If people had known my doubts I’m sure they would have been more compassionate, and perhaps they would have given different answers. But if they did it would have made a mockery of the firm stands on principle I heard. How does it make sense to say “Holding these particular beliefs is fundamental, and we will declare it so from the platform - but we’ll quietly waive them for you if needed to keep you in the faith”? And I doubt I would have been happy agreeing to hold a private version of the faith which I was unable to teach or even discuss with other believers.
I had heard troubling stories of people getting angry or upset when their simple answers failed to remove doubts (for example, take this post from a friend of mine). Of accusations being leveled and unpleasant motives being attributed, of witch hunts, and of wounded doubters left to crawl away without closure. After all, once you assume the belief is correct, the only thing remaining to find fault with is the poor doubter stuck in the middle. I wanted things to be done on my terms, and at my pace, and so I kept to myself.
Doubt is not the enemy
Unlike many Christians, I don’t think doubt in itself is unhealthy. It reflects the fact that is difficult to be completely certain about anything. In my experience, complete certainty often goes with over-confidence and a simplistic worldview. All we can do is try to find the explanations that fit best, whether or not those explanations include “Christianity”.
Rob Hyndman again:
Faith is the bridge spanning the gap between evidence and belief. Doubt is a healthy acknowledgement of the uncertainty in almost anything we believe. I have always had doubts, but I also had faith. I became an unbeliever when the chasm between the evidence and belief became too wide for the bridge of faith to span.
My problem was not that I had doubts, but that my doubts and fears paralysed me so much that I couldn’t resolve them.
In an ideal world, I would have realised that my model of the world was faulty and incomplete, spent time discovering a more accurate model, and then acted on it. Unfortunately, this would have so many consequences that I tried to avoid doing it, and so remained stuck in doubt. Even doubting the existence of God wasn’t enough to trigger an honest reappraisal.
There were some questions that I wouldn’t let myself ask. There were some books that I wouldn’t let myself read. There were some inconvenient facts that I locked away in a “to be answered later” compartment of my mind, because I had no way of dealing with them.
For example, last weekend I returned to Cape Otway, which has a good display on the nearby “polar dinosaurs” from 110 million years ago, when Australia was much further south. A few years ago, this display had left me conflicted: I was starting to acknowledge that the earth might really be old, and that the dinosaurs might really have existed and evolved. But I was unable to acknowledge to others that I might be interested, or to take notes so I could explore it further. Now, I find the display fascinating for the glimpse it gives us into a different world, and for the human ingenuity shown exploring this long past time.
A crisis resolved
Over the years, it had become increasingly difficult to justify pretending to hold a belief now just in case I would really hold it in a few years. None of the steps I was taking looked like bringing me back to belief, and I wanted people to know the real me. It was upsetting being known as a fine, upstanding Christadelphian when I knew I was nothing of the kind.
So I finally committed to spending six months reading a variety of works from both sides of the debate, with no filters and no question too dangerous to be considered. And the rest is history.
Are you certain now?
It’s a fair question. Reconstructing a world-view takes time. I don’t guarantee I’m right about everything, and I don’t have a deeply inspiring new life purpose. I’m sure my views in quite a few areas have changed since I quit last year, and that they will continue to change. But for me it was an important test getting through another cold Melbourne winter without the old doubts resurfacing.
What I do feel confident of is having firm foundations again: foundations on which the world makes sense. Many atheists talk about having a “personal relationship with reality”, and that is where I feel I am at. I aim to follow the evidence where it leads, and I am no longer honour-bound to figure out some way to make the world I see match the religious text I’m supposed to be upholding. This isn’t just a matter of being able to win an intellectual argument with myself: life is a lot happier without the tension, the doubt, and the confusion.
If anyone reading this is facing severe doubts, or feeling their world is falling apart, I sympathise deeply: It’s a horrible feeling. I am no more able to “fix it” than Christians are: Doubts take time to work through. But I’d like to say that my story and the many others I’ve read show there is hope of it getting better (though I don’t think I believed that when trapped in doubt myself).