After three years in seminary, in 1986, I had temporarily moved from faith in God to agnosticism. At the time, I thought that decision was purely intellectual, based on the reasonable challenges to traditional Christian faith I had found in my readings in seminary. When I later returned to orthodox Christian faith I reflected further on my temporary loss of faith and realized that it was not due to pure reasoning inside “the view from nowhere,” but that I was rationalizing some emotional struggles I was having at the time. There is no need to spill personal details other than to say that often, when a male seminary student loses his faith, the first question someone should ask is, “Who is she?”
First of all, let me make clear that this is not an argument against unbelief and for Christian faith. It only reflects some observations I have made over the years in response to my own personal struggles as well as knowing a number of people who have lost their Christian faith.
Whether the emotional struggle be a relationship gone sour between a man and woman, a loved one dying of cancer or in a horrific car accident, or emotional struggles stemming from a bad childhood, it is easy to idolize these contingent circumstances into a god that takes away any room for the “very God of very God.” Some believe they have the right not to suffer, that if God exists, He has given us a raw deal, that the God of Christianity is, as Bertrand Russell put it, “a fiend.” That reaction may be understandable in someone who has lost a loved one to a slow, painful death from cancer or is dealing with a history of childhood sexual abuse. We all know that suffering a romantic disappointment can be so painful that it trumps all reason and leads one to question the order of the world, including questioning God. As a temporary reaction to pain and suffering, doubting one’s faith is something human beings–and, I think, God–understands. It is an honest reaction to circumstances that seem overwhelming in one’s life.
Some people, however, in the aforementioned circumstances lose their Christian faith entirely. Others give up their faith due to pride, an arrogance that refuses to bow down to any transcendent being. Such individuals may not become atheists but may prefer a more immanent deity such as the universe, that is not threatening to their egos. That also can be an honest, albeit wicked, reason for throwing away one’s Christian faith.
What is not honest is rejecting faith for reasons that are fundamentally emotional and then rationalizing in such a way to claim that reason is what resulted in the loss of faith. This is the case, I would guess, in the vast majority of cases in which human beings have forsaken their Christian faith. It is a form of self-deception, of lying to oneself, and the person who does this is morally culpable for such self-deception.
Now an opponent could argue that the argument can be turned on its head and applied to Christian believers–that they accept faith out of emotional reasons. That probably is true–human beings are not Vulcans from Star Trek, and emotions are part of the way humans interpret the values and dangers of things and events in the world. It would be dishonest for a Christian who believes out of primarily emotional reasons to falsely claim that intellectual reasons are why he believes. I can only speak for myself and my own experience with people, but this seems much rarer than the nonbeliever’s rationalization of a decision that is fundamentally emotional.
I agree with Augustine that the primal sin is pride, and I have found most intellectuals that have lost their Christian faith to be filled with the pride that Satan had when he told God, in Milton’s story, Non serviam–“I will not serve. Intellectuals are especially prone to fall into this trap, and often the arrogance masks a deep emotional pain that led to the loss of faith in the first place. The vehemence and defensiveness of some nonbelievers who were formerly Christians reveals a bitterness toward their former faith and often toward God–and it also masks insecurity. The nonbeliever is forced to ask himself, if he is honest, “What if I am wrong?” Being wrong would bring back the God whom the unbeliever either considers to be an evil fiend or a judge setting limits on his behavior–or someone to serve, which the unbeliever will not do.
Christian believers should avoid pride as well–knowing my own history, when I see someone who has lost his faith, I pray for the person, but I also say, “But for the grace of God were I.” Human beings are fallen, and although as a Thomist I believe that human reason was not destroyed by human sin, it can be easily distorted and misused. It can be use to cover up what is really going on inside oneself. It can be used to rationalize one’s way out of the limits of Christian morality, out of the specific claims of Christianity, and out of belief in the Trinitarian God. I made that mistake once, and all Christians should be willing to realize with me that “But for the grace of God were I.”