How do you keep believing?
August 21, 2011 7:51 AM   Subscribe

I think I am going through a philosophical-religious identity crisis. I've lived over 30 years trying to believe what I was taught to believe, but it is becoming harder as I get older and the "evidence" seems to get lesser and lesser. What do you do when you are consumed with doubt about that which has been your core for all of your life?

This is a question that is difficult to articulate, but I will try:
I grew up in a traditional Christian home (for the sake of brevity, I will not define "traditional.") My mother and my grandmother, two powerful forces in my life, believed in God with every fiber of their being. So did I. So do I--I think. However, over the years, I have struggled in this faith. So many times I thought I "got" it. I figured at some point we all go through phases of doubt, but that in the end, you come back to the middle. As I get older though and my prayers don't seem to be answered and it seems no matter what I do to change my situation, things remain stagnant, I have reached a point that I feel I'm at a crisis level. I oftentimes burst out in tears when I think about the possibilties that either 1) God is not "on my side," or 2) there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless. Mostly, number 1 hurts more since I can't seem to come to grips wtih number 2. But it hurts--A LOT. And I don't know how to fix this.

So what have you done in your life when you've come to a religious crossroads? How did you reconcile your reality with this belief you've had--that you'd like to maintain--your whole life? I know some people get brave enough to jump ship and become atheists or agnositcs or existentioalists or whatever. I don't know if I can do that. I'm wondering what I can do to keep beliieving when I don't see a lot happening!

P.S. I realize this might be an unanswerable question, I just didn't know where else to ask it. The commenters on this site are among the smartest I've seen, so I thought I'd just throw it out there. Thanks in advance.

P.P.S. "Counseling" sounds good, been there done that. My experience in that arena is when I start to mention religious-y things, I get looked at like I'm an alien or something. And I thought about talking to someone from a church or something, but I tend to shut down when people start talking to me in parables and not real talk if you know what I mean. So counseling is something I just don't think is in the cards right now.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (63 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless.

This is an enormous fallacy. Having been raised religiously, I understand where the feeling comes from. The truth is, however, that you have already impacted many many people in a positive way, making life better for them.

Others will undoubtedly say this more eloquently than me, but if you can make life better for your fellow humans, and live in such a way that you leave the world better than you found it, then your life is anything but pointless.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:02 AM on August 21, 2011 [15 favorites]

Think for yourself, not what you think others think you should think. Clearly no one here or in any single venue will be giving you "The Answer". So ask your own questions, and work on your own answers.

Now just because you have doubt does not mean you must excommunicate yourself from a community. Some atheists become vocal and reject everything, but I have a deep suspicion there are many 'closet agnostics' that live good xian lives, go to church, enjoy the music (by that I mean all the parts that they personally appreciate).

The world is hard, it's a complex system that no one fully understands, sometimes there are glimmers and sometimes it's so horrifying one can't imagine how it continues, but baring that giant asteroid it seems to continue to be always incredible and mundane. Hang in there.
posted by sammyo at 8:08 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Many of us have come to grips with this sort of thing at different times in our lives. This is a tough transition, no matter where you end, and it's important for you to reach out and try to find some people who can support you and listen, non-judgementally, while you process some of this stuff. Maybe that's a counselor or maybe that's a trusted friend or family member, I don't know—but I think it would be good for you to try to find someone who is willing to listen without necessarily injecting their own beliefs into the mix. Right now, it's important for you to work through what it is you need to resolve without anyone forcing you into this ideology or that one. So please, try to get some help in this way.

So what have you done in your life when you've come to a religious crossroads? How did you reconcile your reality with this belief you've had--that you'd like to maintain--your whole life? I know some people get brave enough to jump ship and become atheists or agnositcs or existentioalists or whatever. I don't know if I can do that. I'm wondering what I can do to keep beliieving when I don't see a lot happening!

The thing is, it's really tough to try and force yourself to believe something if you don't. I'm not saying you should or shouldn't believe in anything, only that you should listen to yourself if you are telling yourself you can no longer believe. It is incredibly self-destructive to force yourself into going through the motions of belief when you no longer believe. You are not doing anyone a favor, least of all yourself. Listen to whatever it is that your heart is telling you. Maybe that is that you need to reformulate your religious beliefs to find a compromise you can live with, maybe it is that yes, you need to become a non-believer, or maybe it is something else entirely—but listen to yourself and be patient with yourself while you work through it. Do some writing exercises to work out some of the ideas you're contending with, or do some meditation to sit with these ideas for a bit, or go for a walk and ponder, or talk them out to your dog, or whatever it is that allows you to find the time to listen to yourself wholly and openly. But don't reject your true thoughts—don't force yourself to keep believing—just because you are afraid of the consequences.

I oftentimes burst out in tears when I think about the possibilties that either 1) God is not "on my side," or 2) there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless.

I would ask you that, rather than fixating on these ideas, ask yourself, why are you focusing on these ideas in particular? Look into the reasons behind why these things are coming up for you and causing you such pain. I will add that, these ideas suggest to me something more like depression than any rational analysis of one's own faith.
posted by dubitable at 8:08 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

You keep the parts about how to live life and how to treat other people, and jettison the parts that don't make sense to you.

The idea that life is pointless without a particular divinity is obviously false, since people believe in lots of different divinities, and many in no divinity, and their lives are no less meaningful than anyone else's. The point of living comes from knowing that you make a positive difference in the world.

Lots and lots and lots of people go through this and come out feeling just fine on the other side. It's really fine.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:09 AM on August 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

This happened to me when I was 12. I found my religion easy to let go of the more I read books like "Who Wrote the Bible?"

I also kept a lot of the religious traditions I grew up with, even 20 years later.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:10 AM on August 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

A spiritual director at a church would probably be able to help you with this. Get some recommendations for a good one who won't speak to you in platitudes.

In some ways, I really understand where you're coming from. For me, it was enough to commit to fighting for my faith always, even though it's often an uphilll battle.
posted by pised at 8:10 AM on August 21, 2011

It sounds like you want to hold on to a belief more because you find it comforting (or the alternative disquieting) than that you really think it's true.

There is no easy way to do this so long as you remain a person who cannot simply ignore doubts, or stop yourself questioning, or force yourself to not think about the things causing those doubts and questions.

Just because you have been taught something doesn't mean it is necessarily true. This applies to something you're taught in a science class every bit as much as it applies to a religious belief you were taught at your mother's knee. What makes a belief into a fact - or at least a reasonable belief - is strong, demonstrable and repeatable evidence.

You ask how I reconciled my own doubts with my formerly strong (and desired) belief.

I didn't. I tried, but I simply could not deal with the massive cognitive dissonance involved in doing so. I am a person who not only wants to know what is real and what is not, but also someone who loves truth for its own sake. For me, trying to cling on to a belief - no matter how fondly held - in the teeth of strong evidence against it, is a form of dishonesty. It's a form of disrespect to truth and an admission of personal intellectual cowardice. I can't live that way and I wouldn't want to.

Are you sure you do want to do that? Because unless you can find some good evidence and/or rational arguments to strongly shore up your beliefs the only way you can do it is to delude yourself, to some degree or another. To stop thinking about reality, and how it makes you uncomfortable. Some people can do this. They can distract themselves with fervour, zealotry or ritual. Others can lose themselves in the ever-circling labyrinths of theology. Others still take the apophatic route in order to avoid having to define their belief in any graspable way, thereby rendering it immune from attack. There are other ways, but I can think of none that I would not describe as forms of self-delusion.

Ask yourself what is so very bad about embracing the reality you perceive. It certainly shouldn't be this...

there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless.

...because that is a false conclusion from the premise. Why do you imagine a deity gives your life a point? And what is that point, anyway? We give our lives meaning ourselves. It is better and more honourable to do that than to imagine a dubious "point" that is effectively imposed on us by the phantoms of wishful thinking.

Be brave, and good luck.
posted by Decani at 8:14 AM on August 21, 2011 [21 favorites]

2) there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless.

I have no idea if there is a God. I would define myself as a fuzzy agnostic; I just plain don't like the idea that we are basically all here because of an endless series of random accidents. It's a lonely concept for me, and so I choose to believe it is at least possible that a very fuzzy God, I dunno, turned up the temperature that started the big bang, or shoved the occasional sea creature towards shore to encourage land-based evolution or whatever. (I do like a good narrative arc.)

But even if this is not true (and I will totally grant that is almost positively is not, and is an adult fairy tale I tell myself for comfort in a cold, cold universe) neither my life nor yours is predicated on the existence of God to have purpose and meaning. You may wish to come back and articulate why you hold that belief, because many other people of faith do not share that view. Is this an ideology specific to the faith in which you were raised?
posted by DarlingBri at 8:14 AM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

You grew up with a certain set of beliefs and values by 'default' (via your mother and grandmother). For most of your growing years, you did not sit down and think about your beliefs, your values or principles, you accepted what was. Now it seems you have reached a point where where there is an inner questioning of these hitherto accepted systems. Perhaps it is nothing more than a maturing of your self hood and taking the time, a retreat perhaps, to let go of the daily things and to think, really think deeply and philosophically about life, your own opinions and your values, may be of great value, both for the near term and for your life ahead. You may find yourself coming back to these beliefs or you may discover you have moved away from them, or a middle point in between. But then you will know what you believe and the why you believe so behind them.
posted by infini at 8:18 AM on August 21, 2011

I find CS Lewis to be enormously aware of the issues you're talking about here. Try The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce; they're both short. MeMail if you want more suggestions.

I made the opposite journey from what you're talking about - from unbelief to belief - and the key question for me, in the face of unresolvably conflicting evidence, is to focus on what I want to believe and why I want to believe it.
posted by SMPA at 8:29 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

For me, it no longer became the core. I stopped worrying or thinking about it. I stopped getting myself into logical knots.

For want of a better analogy, at the crossroads of belief and non-belief, I sat down, ate a sandwich, read a good book and had a nap. When I'd done those things, the right path for me to follow had become clear.

Cognitive dissonance is hard to live with. Really hard. Hang in, it will get better one way or another.
posted by plonkee at 8:34 AM on August 21, 2011

I've been reading a book called "The Year of Living Biblically" by A.J. Jacobs that has really opened my mind to the possibility of the spiritual, which I didn't think would ever happen. I lost my religion in college and never felt the need to look for it again and while I still don't feel I need it, perhaps this book can help you work through some of the things you're dealing with.
posted by cooker girl at 8:35 AM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

These days I jokingly call myself a militant agnostic ("I don't know, and you don't either."), but I have also struggled with belief in the past. What ultimately comforted me was recognizing that meaning and purpose exist independently of any deity: they are things we create for ourselves, every day. And if there is a deity, I don't think that deity wants our sense of meaning to depend on Him for existence.
posted by nonasuch at 8:37 AM on August 21, 2011

One thing that helped me was taking a comparative religion class, and also taking a Buddhist philosophy class. It might not hurt you to understand what other people believe about a deity and what makes a moral person (and that many many people do believe), rather than focusing on the tenets of the particular faith in which you were raised.

Also, maybe consider talking to a Unitarian minister in your area? The ones I have encountered have been very helpful to people struggling the way you are.
posted by gudrun at 8:39 AM on August 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

2) there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless.

There is absolutely no logical relationship between these two statements. Whether or not there is a God, there has indeed been a point to your life, and there will continue to be a point to your life. Figure out what it is you live for - others, improving the world, loving your friends and family, being there for someone, doing good, advancing knowledge, making art, cleaning things up, adding to the quality of people's lives. If we are all we have, we have the power to make life a wonderful, rewarding, caring, and meaningful experience for ourselves and for generations to come, to make real and material improvements in the world. IF the old "point" of your life, as defined externally and handed down to you, no longer makes sense, you will find new points, not a bit less meaningful. The difficulty of your journey will only increase your wisdom, ethics, and compassion, in the end.
posted by Miko at 8:41 AM on August 21, 2011 [17 favorites]

I wanted to jump in and recommend this book and author. Anne Lamot is also a good author for these kinds of questions.
posted by rumposinc at 8:43 AM on August 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Mostly, number 1 hurts more since I can't seem to come to grips wtih number 2.

For many people, just accepting not believing feels liberating (think "born again" liberating, but backwards!) because there's an enormous peace to be found when you know you don't have feel unloved by God.

I'm wondering what I can do to keep beliieving when I don't see a lot happening!

The basis and principle of faith is that you don't have to see anything happening to believe. So stop looking. Faith is not about that. But it's also true that many people lose their faith when confronted with tragedy, personal or otherwise. So there's that.

So counseling is something I just don't think is in the cards right now.

Not counselling with a psychologist/therapist, no, I agree. But there is spiritual counselling, you might find someone in your church who's able to do that. If not, look elsewhere. You'll find someone if you keep looking. Not all churches train priests for that, but most do. Losing your faith is a bit of a taboo subject, so you'll have to be patient until you find someone who's really willing to talk.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 8:45 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Also, now that I'm at my computer and can type much faster: MetaFilter is maybe not the best place to go for advice on retaining or strengthening your faith. It's a bit like going into a meeting for people who rescue animals and asking for advice on retaining your barbecuing mojo, in the sense that there's no good reason to expect the presence of a lot of experts in barbecuing and there is good reason to suspect the presence of a few virulently anti-meat types. This is why we have churches, which are full of people who are on the side you're striving for, you know?)
posted by SMPA at 8:45 AM on August 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

For me, it has been enormously helpful to understand through study how reasonable, logical and historical Christianity is regardless of my personal feelings at the moment. Despair because of your prayers not being answered is difficult to manage regardless of that, though. I realize this sounds horrible to the self-actualization crowd but you may find yourself extremely helpful to others someday because of what you are going through, and you could try to take comfort in that while you continue to sort things out.
posted by michaelh at 8:52 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been where you are. There was a point where I was completely existentialist coming from being totally religious as a child on my own will. That was key. Nobody told me what I should believe. I thank goodness my family was supportive in just living and not living through a deity. I feel you're experiencing your own soulful journey and that's GREAT. 'Cause for me, I believe everyone holds a different spiritual path to whatever works for THEM. One belief does not fit all. I'm no longer questioning cause I came to the conclusion for MYSELF, that the universe has granted me a lot in life which I'm grateful for. I'm not going to call it the kind of God I'm used to growing up because apparently it doesn't fit the mold... but my spirituality fits FOR ME. I still enjoy my religious teachings as I look at the Bible more for moral guidance rather than serving an unknown entity. You're going through a process that will take you on a better level in understanding who you are. I wish you the best!
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:59 AM on August 21, 2011

2) there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless.

YMMV, but I find that since admitting to myself that I don't believe in any of the stories (god, religion, etc), my life has WAY more meaning. I can now hone my senses on this life, instead on some figment of an afterlife. Not being distracted by god/judgment/heaven/hell/whatever, I can now focus more on appreciating the now and the present, the joys, the beauty, the adventures, and fun of what there is already. Life became infinitely more pointfull.

I wasn't raised Christian (in a practicing and faithful Muslim family and community, though not conservative) and it took me a long time to admit that I never really believed in any of it - even when I would defend the theology in my teens. It was more because that's what you're supposed to do. Maye you don't believe in gods. Maybe you do. Maybe you believe in one that's conceptually different than the idea of god you grew up with. But it's ok to take time time and figure out what you, when you're silent and still with yourself. And it's ok to change your mind, too. Getting rid of the "should believe" stuff is hard and confusing, and you might feel like you're letting people down. Or you might even feel like you're letting yourself (your old self?) down. It's normal. But you have a right to figure out what makes sense for you, and change it as needed.
posted by raztaj at 9:05 AM on August 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've been there, and in the end I left the faith and became an agnostic. It took a couple of years to work through it, though, and it was very difficult. Your path might be different - some have doubts and leave the church, some have doubts and ultimately stay.

What helps:
1. Tell yourself the truth. Be completely honest with yourself about your doubts, your experiences, your fears. You don't have to tell anyone else.

2. Find someone to talk to. I know you have tried without much luck so far, but don't be discouraged. In fact, find a few people to talk to. Keep trying to find a counselor/therapist who can hear what you have to say and support you while you work through this. Taking a class on comparative religion at the local university might help you hook up with a few people who have similar experiences.

3. Keep a journal.

4. Find other points of connection with your family. You can still be close to them even if you don't believe the same way.

5. Know that you're going to be fine. Whatever you chose, in the end you will be a stronger person for having faced your doubts. Be kind and patient with yourself.
posted by bunderful at 9:06 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Intellectually, you might find comfort in reading some of the fideists, who argue (rightly, I think) that reason can never determine whether or not you ought to believe: belief is something you choose to do, and is not a matter of being right or wrong.

More practically, I've believed for quite some time that the ethical message of Christianity is far more important than the theological message. That is, taking the beatitudes as gospel seems far more important than taking (e.g.) John 14:6 as gospel, since doubting (or believing) in the latter makes no difference to anyone but you, whereas being kind, merciful, sincerely loving every other human being, and pursuing righteousness and peace on earth at any cost is what makes all the difference in the world. Seen in this light, Christianity isn't a matter of believing, it's a matter of living it, and is perfectly compatible with even the most militant of agnosticisms.
posted by matlock expressway at 9:10 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lots of good advice here, and obviously lots of us have been through the same thing, and are still functioning.

I don't know what your tradition is like, but in mine (fundie Christian) one liberating decision was letting go of a fear of God's disapproval and/or hell. I decided that if there was a God, he/she knew all about me and was therefore not going to be shocked or disappointed in my questions/decisions. This allowed me the freedom to explore how I felt about, for example, the idea that there was no God.

I won't pooh-pooh the fear of meaninglessness; "we create our our own meaning" honestly never worked for me. It was like saying well, life is brutal and pointless but by pretending it's not, we all feel better. It is not a small thing to go from being part of an epic tale of loss and redemption to being a random collection of molecules in a randomly-generated universe.

Being ok with not having an answer has been the place I've come to rest. Which makes me agnostic, but that seems to work for me. I have been through periods where I considered myself an atheist, and periods where I almost believed again, but living in permanent doubt and uncertainty seems to be my norm. It's not so bad, once you get over worrying what other people think of you. I find peace in going to Unitarian services and in continuing to live by the same code of ethics as when I was a believer, minus the guilt about saving others from hell. It is very freeing to live by your conscience and not by your tradition. I try to err on the side of compassion and honesty whenever possible, to listen, and to hold to the few fragmentary truths I do know. And not to lose my sense of humor.
posted by emjaybee at 9:32 AM on August 21, 2011

I’ve been through something similar. I talked to a priest who gave me this advice: Trust yourself. That attitude is considered selfish (and dangerous) in the Baptist church I grew up in, but it helped me enormously.

I also prayed a lot. I was consoled that, though I genuinely seeked God, there was nothing that was changing my transition into non-belief. I was not running away from God or rebelling (despite what my very Christian friends might have thought). I was realizing that the absolute faith I had in what I had been taught probably just isn’t the whole story.

I also accept that whether I feel that God is there or not really doesn’t seem to reflect whether there is a God- that there is nothing wrong with not knowing.

It’s ok to be confused. It’s ok not to know the answers. It’s also OK to pray even if you’re not sure that God is there. Life is still beautiful and meaningful, even if you’re not sure what exists, if anything, on the supernatural side. You can still love and care for the people around you.

Be patient with yourself. This is not an easy thing. For people like us who have had our brains shaped party by church, it can take a long time to sort through things and come to a place where we feel ok and peaceful without fitting into the box used to put ourselves in. It can be hard and confusing, but you’ll also have moments when it will be freeing and exiting. They will increase in frequency with time, I think.

The family aspect can be complicated too. I found it so so helpful to be able to talk to people who were going through the same things. There are even churches where you can be free to talk about doubt and non-belief (in Canada, the United Church, some anglican churches, Unitarian for sure as per emjaybee’s experience).

C.S. Lewis has pretty much a traditional Christian perspective, and might help if you want to get back your old belief. I, however, would recommend “The Pagan Christ” by Tom Harpur. He writes about the historical development of Christianity and his take on the meaning of the stories and how the tradition can still be relevant to us today. He was an Anglican priest and a journalist and writes with great understanding of and compassion for “traditional” christian mind.
posted by beau jackson at 9:41 AM on August 21, 2011

I've been there too. A couple of courses in world religions left me wondering why I was so sure in this particular god and that's when the doubts started. I really wanted to keep religion, and so my trajectory went through a few different phases. I became Wiccan (believing in ALL gods instead of just one), dabbled in Buddhism (NO gods, and no soul) and finally settled after many years in atheism. There's nothing wrong with exploring new paths - yours might not take you to atheism/agnosticim, you might land instead in Unitarianism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, who knows. Exploration can only contribute to your personal growth - revel in it!

Many people have addressed this, but I want to say my piece too. It was when I came to terms with my lack of belief in God and an afterlife that I finally REALLY felt that my life HAD meaning. There's nothing after this, so I HAVE to make the most of all the time I have. I have to work hard to make a positive impact on the world because that's all the immortality I have a shot at. I feel driven to live my life by the campsite rule (leave the place in better shape than you found it) and I feel very comforted that my actions are my own and I can work to improve my community and my world in ways that my morality, ethical code, and the burden of evidence suggest are proper.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:55 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Despite what I'm sure many folk in here may believe based on my behaviour in threads on Catholicism -- I'm actually not Catholic any more, and haven't been for some time.

When I was questioning things, I did what I usually do when wrestling with something -- I went into information overload mode. I read everything I could get my hands on concerning every religion -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sufiism, Neo-Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, you name it. I was on a search for something that spoke to me the way that Catholicism once did.

And it took years, but ultimately what I realized was that everything did. I found a core philosophy in many religions that I agreed with; through my eyes the world's religions are all variations on a theme. And then I read more about humanism and atheism, and found that core philosophy there as well. That, combined with a specific chapter in C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle from the Narnia books, led me to believe that the different religions are all just different expressions for the same thing. That ultimately was comforting, in a way -- I could then be free to choose whatever specific expression for my faith I felt at any given moment, and didn't have to make it be slot A or slot B if I didn't want to -- and it also was what finally made me start saying I wasn't Christian any more (because if I didn't believe that any one religion outshone any others, I couldn't say I was anything, right?).

As for whether there is a God, I have no real evidence for that, but I accept that -- the only reason I still continue to believe in a Supreme Being is simply because the notion that there isn't just feels wrong to me. And that was ultimately what led me through this - I read a lot, explored things, but ultimately tested them all by the yardstick of whether I felt in my gut that they were right. For me, the non-existance of Deity just felt wrong, and so I think there is a God. I also completely understand that for many, the opposite is true; that makes sense too.

We are all different, and we all perceive things in different ways. But I believe we were all made different for a reason, and that God is reaching out to us all in so many different ways in an effort to help us find the best way to wrap our brains around Him. Ultimately, God wants you to be the being you were made to be, and if that involves not believing in Him, I honestly believe He's cool with that -- so long as your non-belief in Him actually helps you treat yourself AND your fellowman with compassion and dignity and respect. Because that's ultimately the core that I found in all faiths.

What I just said was the result of about ten years' worth of reading and thought, and sometimes that's what it takes. But what helped me through that is bearing in mind that I was created to be something specific and unique, and NOT being that way was running counter to the plan of things. I just had to figure out what I needed to do to BE that, and that became my search.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:55 AM on August 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm an atheist and it is hard to speak to your particular creed without knowing exactly what denomination you belong to, so take this with a grain of salt.

It sounds like your dilemma is that your prayers are going unanswered and you are unable to reconcile God's inaction with belief in a benevolent creator. In some modern Christian thinking, God does not intervene directly in the material world. No one's prayers for anything other than salvation are ever answered. That said, it does not follow that there is no God or that God is "not on your side." Short version, God wants you to be a spiritual being and his intervention would get in the way of that. Below is a longer explanation, but you can skip to the end if you prefer.

In the Gospel, God comes down to Earth in the person of Jesus and says that he wants Man to focus on the spiritual and will hence forth no longer intervene in the material. He does not want Man to be slaves or pets, but to develop into spiritual beings. To underline this point, God lets Jesus, his son/himself, get tortured to death. But, while on Earth, Jesus gives guidance on how Man can live without God's intervention. In doing so, God opened a path to eternal spiritual salvation beyond the temporary material world.

Jesus makes the point that, while your actions in the material world matter, the spiritual world is much more significant. First he says, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the thing's that are God's ." (Matthew 22:21). In most interpretations that means the day-to-day material things are Caesar's and the higher spiritual nature is God's. In the earliest written texts of the Gospels, Jesus is described as angry when he is asked to perform miracles. The point being that, yes God is capable of intervening in the material world, but that it is unnecessary and potentially harmful to Man's development as a spiritual being. When Jesus goes into the desert, Satan tempts him to use his power. Whether he can perform a miracle is inconsequential to the salvation of man.l Later, on the cross, Jesus says, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), which is the beginning of Psalms 22. Psalms 22 is about a person struggling with why God does not intervene in their suffering. Jesus is telling those in witness that just because God is not physically saving his son from crucifixion, that does not mean that God is not there and not at work. After his death, he appears to his disciples and tells them that they witnessed his material death, but here is proof that the spirit lives on.

So, now you are left with a question of faith. There is an internally consistent explanation of why God can exist and love you, but not intervening in your life. But, the existence of God itself is a purely unscientific question; it can not be proved or disproved. While I do not believe, I feel it would be a disservice to try to convince you of my opinion here. It's up to you to decide. Regardless, as others have said up thread, life by its nature is meaningful whether or not you believe in God.
posted by chrisulonic at 10:03 AM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

cf. Dreaming God, Tony Woodlief, Good Letters: The Image Blog, August 17, 2011
We are god-obsessed the way a child snatched from his mother will always have his heart and flesh tuned to her, even after he forgets her face. Cover the earth with orphans and you will find grown men fashioning images of mothers and worshipping strong women and crafting myths about mothers who have left or were taken or whose spirits dwell in the trees.

And at the edges of their tribal fires will stand the anthropologist and the philosopher, reasoning that all this mother-talk is simply proof that men are prone to invent stories about mothers, which is itself proof that no single story about a mother could be true, which is proof that the brain just evolved to work that way.

It’s the only narrative that fits the facts while affirming the skeptic’s presupposition that all this mother business is just leftover hokum from the dark ages.

Except that in a century, when the most famous of the skeptics is long forgotten, broken men will still be telling stories about what we have lost, and what we pray is still out there, coming even now to set all things right.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:09 AM on August 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Decani takes the words right out of my mouth, here:

You ask how I reconciled my own doubts with my formerly strong (and desired) belief.

I didn't. I tried, but I simply could not deal with the massive cognitive dissonance involved in doing so. I am a person who not only wants to know what is real and what is not, but also someone who loves truth for its own sake. For me, trying to cling on to a belief - no matter how fondly held - in the teeth of strong evidence against it, is a form of dishonesty. It's a form of disrespect to truth and an admission of personal intellectual cowardice. I can't live that way and I wouldn't want to.

I could write a novel on this subject right now (I'm still just a puppy in my atheism), but I won't. I'll just say to you, it's okay to doubt it. It really is. It doesn't make you a bad person.

Instead of just stuffing my doubts down and continuing to "have faith", I picked it apart, and it fell like a house of cards (for me).

Don't stress about having doubts. If it's so, so incredibly true, it can withstand the scrutiny.

I wish you the very best.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 10:27 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's what I do. I am agnostic and I don't have a freaking clue what is or isn't out there. I know that I HOPE there is something beyond this reality. I'm pretty flexible on the possibilities there, I just know that I hope there is SOMETHING. If that SOMETHING is "not on my side" then it is not a something I will "worship". I feel like if there is a spiritual realm at all of any kind- (science tells us there are other dimensions, that time doesn't work like we think it does and that it is certain there is more to this reality than that which we understand with our human senses in asmuch as anything is certain... which it isn't)

If there is a spiritual realm at all, clearly it is something humans have been guessing at for some time and does not appear to interact with is a a deliberate way. The existance of suffering in tandem with a spiritual realm is something people have tried to justify since the dawn of religion-- putting forth that suffering happens to bad people, suffering happens as part of a carmic journey to deeper growth, suffering happens to deepen our understanding, suffering happens to make life meaninful---- There are lot's of justifications for suffering and as far as I'm concerned all of them are wrong.

While there could hypothetically be some justification of suffering that is beyond the mechanics of human understanding to comprehend, if you are in a human body functioning in this world with other human beings--- you should not be justifying human suffering.

Whether there is or isn't a god, you damn well should not think human suffering is ok, and so long as you see it's existance, part of your mission here should include alleviating it. If religion brings you away from this mission (those people deserve it, those people are just on a life journey to learn what torture is like etc etc, God wants them to go through that for some reason so it's make them better more compassionate people etc) then your religion is unethical.

It is no longer serving the purpose most religions claim to aspire to which is higher compassion and higher connection with other human beings. If your concept of God is one who encourages and passively observes human suffering for some "greater purpose" then your God is an asshole, you should get a different God, or ditch the concept.

So when I pray I usually state the kind of spiritual being that I WOULD pray to: "If there are any beings, entities, spritualness etc that are in line with the highest forms of compassion and that care about the suffering of those on earth I would like to connect with you"

Think about it another way, would you tell others that they deserve their suffering, that they should not be able to get out because it serves a "higher purpose" that we just can't understand? Probably not, so don't tell yourself that either. And don't pray to a God that says that.

Another perspective if that the universe may in fact be feeling and percieving, and may in fact have some sort of purpose within it, but it may not be so all powering and all knowing as Christians have ascribed. Perhaps the unieverse was a state of fullness, also known as emptines because in absolute fullness there is no difference between nothingness and fullness, but the completeness was lonely and there was no way to experience itself and it shattered in order to witness itself. There are a bazillion theories--- the point is, maybe the universe/creator/spritual forces that be (or don't be) did intentionally become, but without knowing what would happen. Maybe your life is not exactly planned out. And maybe there are spiritual forces who don't in fact want suffering to happen.

Just pointing out that you can still explore the existance of spiritual concepts outside the realm of Christianity (which is a religion made by humans, just to say). 10 years of Catholic school myself, so I sympathize with your predicament.
posted by xarnop at 10:32 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering what I can do to keep beliieving when I don't see a lot happening!

This might be at the heart of your problem.

I think the idea of "seeing things happen" - in a very concrete way, like "hearing God's literal voice" or "praying for mom's arthritis to heal and it disappearing within a week" - really permeates a lot of evangelical-type Christianity these days. I don't know if this is actually what yo're having trouble with, but I'm going to proceed as if it is...

So - if you're going to continue to call yourself a Christian (maybe you don't want to, but it sounds like you want to give it a shot), you need to transform your faith from something anchored in concrete, sense-based things (like hearing or seeing literal signs from God that He cares, etc.) to something anchored in a more expansive, abstract understanding of God's relationship with people.

I'd suggest that you make an appointment or two with leaders or counselors associated with a Christian denomination that emphasizes this kind of view of God. Unitarian Universalists might be too expansive for you, if you're coming from a very traditional background, but they are renowned for their openness to people who haven't quite made up their minds about what they believe and to people who don't believe at all but want to be part of a church anyway. Quakers could work, too - I don't know as much about them. My top recommendation for you, though, is the Episcopal Church (make sure you get one of the ones that isn't trying to secede because they don't want to ordinate women or gay people, though - they're a whole different sort). They emphasize certain types of concrete interaction with God (they take communion all the time, they lay hands on each other and pray for healing, they light ritual candles, they burn insense...) and they have a formal liturgy that provides a helpful template for (among other things) the kinds of things that prayer is for (less for specific, concrete results - though who'd be disappointed if they got those? - and more for general hopes and ideals). They believe in God and they pray for the world and for each other, but they focus on carrying out God's work themselves, not on waiting around for prayers to be answered and such.

Anyway, all this may not actually apply to your situation. But maybe it does. Either way, good luck.
posted by bubukaba at 10:37 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know how you were brought up, but traditional religious beliefs are kind of like Newtonian physics in that they have been superseded by more nuanced ways of thinking and yet are often the simplest and most practical way to organize everyday thinking, once you understand the contexts of their limitations. All ways of organizing reality are tentative and ultimately heuristic and getting too attached to the form truth takes is what is known in Western religion as the sin of idolatry. In that sense, your "crisis" is actually a kind of spiritual growth and is necessary for a deepening of faith.

I don't know if what I tried to say feels at all helpful to you (feel free to MeMail me) since your pain is emotional and I responded with epistemology, so I want to add that, appearances to the contrary, things are OK and can work out for you in the direction you're heading.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:39 AM on August 21, 2011

Here's something else I find a bit more empowering in terms of prayer. Instead of praying for god to change your life--- pray for god to give you the internal resources to change your life. Ask for the strength, will, perseverence, health, ideas, creativity, resourcefullness to fine a way to make your life better. As I'm an agnostic, I find this particularly useful in that I think using your will in this way to contemplate the creation of skills and traits within yourself may in fact positively influence the ability to find those traits and cultivate them within ourselves. What I mean to say is whether there is a "God" who will bestow these traits on you, or whether there is not god and you are in fact cultivating them in yourself with your own will---- there is a lot more possibility to cultivate the seeds of change within yourself through this manner than praying for some god who may or may not exist to suprise you with miracle changes from the outside.
posted by xarnop at 10:41 AM on August 21, 2011

The problem with the packaging of modern Christianity, as I see it, is that they believe in a god who is Santa Claus from the 1930 Coca-Cola adds and tell us he's not smart enough to create lifeforms that adapt to conditions (YMMV). It sound like something out of a cheesy fantasy novel - where you meet God and he's basically you only a little taller, smarter, stronger and just happens to have godlike powers.

This doesn't jibe with a God who is transcendent - all powerful, all knowing, absolutely Good. If you want to believe in that God you kind of have to give up on getting inside its head. You can't. Such a God can only be on your side in as much as it is on everyone's side. He is absolutely not going to prove his existence to you with overwrought card tricks.

Since my early twenties my introspection has led me towards this second God. It's not a warm or fuzzy belief system where I expect a new bicycle if I ask God nicely or that he'll swoop in and save me if I do something dumb or my luck runs out. I don't know what happens after you die. On the other hand, I get a free lifetime in a kind of cool universe so I figure the least I can do is not to behave like a total ass.

On preview, I think EmpressCallipygos and I belong to the same religion.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:46 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a very conservative Christian environment, and still attend a church that is more conservative than what I'd prefer, because my wife is more comfortable there, and I choose not to part ways at the driveway on Sundays. So I continue to know what I think you've experienced about pressure to believe a certain way, and a belief that a lot of the narrative you're being exposed to doesn't make sense.

I don't think I'm an agnostic or atheist, but I have enough friends in that camp and I respect them enough to say that the question of whether God exists is a fair one, but one that must be carefully separated from "Is what these people say about Him true?" I think that's the thing that probably rewards investigation, and may lead you to an answer about God's existence that you're more comfortable with.

My own lifelong angst, recently compounded by an increasing burden I feel to do something about it (at least as it pertains to my own life), could be summarized as this: many Christians obsess over rule-following and judge each other (and the world, which is even stranger) as to how well we're following the rules of this "game" we're playing. These are the types who tend to watch a lot of Fox News and talk a lot about how the world, and large chunks of the church, are all going to Hell in a handbasket. A better interpretation, IMO, is that Jesus came to tell us to stop trying to fix the world and spend our lives helping others and working on ourselves (chrisulonic, are you sure you're an atheist? Because that was a beautiful job of summarizing that idea, man :-) ).

If you can get down that road, the beauty of it to me is that you can stop worrying about trying to guess what everyone thinks of you, and even better, you can stop trying to figure out what everyone else should be doing or what God thinks of it all. The only downside is that a lot of other Christians will think you're a hippy.

In addition to C.S. Lewis, I would recommend the contemporary writer Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What).
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:46 AM on August 21, 2011

I was raised Evangelical, and my faith really mattered to me. I used to think that if I didn't believe in God, then I'd have no purpose, no moral compass, no identity--no reason for living. When I started having more and more serious doubts about, I was terrified and sad.

But then I lost my faith and those bad things didn't happen. My life is different now, but it isn't pointless. If anything, my assumption that this life is all we get makes me feel my life has more purpose, not less.

That's not to say that your path will necessarily veer toward atheism, just that if it does, you'll be ok. And even if you keep your faith through this struggle, I think it's good to keep in mind Anne Lamott's observation that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:56 AM on August 21, 2011

I oftentimes burst out in tears when I think about the possibilties that either 1) God is not "on my side,"

Why is that the issue? Even if God were "on your side," the same problem could just be restated for billions of other people in the world who are living in poverty, whose lives plainly haven't worked out well for them. Whether or not your life out of billions happens to be one that's turned out well doesn't seem to have anything to do with whether God exists. If God exists, then his existence still has to be reconciled with all the misery in the world.

or 2) there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless.

Others have already pointed out the logical flaw here, so I'll point out some other problems. To say your life would be "pointless" implies that you have a specific conception of what would count as a "point." You seem to have defined a "point" very grandiosely, so that something (for instance, your life) has a point only if it can be connected to some larger supernatural being. Why is there only a point if you can make a connection to something so huge and so far from yourself? Why can't you just enjoy life and find a "point" to your own immediate experiences? If you go to a museum and find the art profoundly moving, that experience right then and there has a point, no matter what other distant things might exist somewhere else to which you or the museum might be connected. A purpose can come to a visible endpoint; it doesn't need to go on and on into more and more distant realms in order to be justified.

Live in the world and appreciate the life you can experience, and as far as things you can't know about, just accept that you can't know about them. There's no need to know everything. No one can know everything. No one can even know 1% of everything. Among the things you feel you know ("you" = you or I or anyone), you're guaranteed to be wrong about some of them, and you might not find out in your lifetime which ones you're wrong about. A basic task of being an adult human being is to accept this uncertainty and keep on living despite it. When I was a toddler, I used to say: "I know everything, and you know neverything" (my made-up word for "nothing"). Again, I was a toddler. That's why I had the childish feeling of knowing everything. The more you grow up and experience the world, the more you realize how little you know.

I recommend reading an essay that never mentions religion but is relevant to religion and faith: "The Absurd" by Thomas Nagel (included in his great book Mortal Questions). I got the museum example from his essay, and here are a couple other points:

- Even if your life is connected to a force larger than yourself, that fact wouldn't, in and of itself, make your life meaningful. Nagel says: "If we learned that we were being raised to provide food for other creatures fond of human flesh," there'd be 2 problems: (1) we wouldn't know whether those creatures' lives were meaningful, and (2) even if the creatures’ lives definitely were meaningful, there'd still be no basis for thinking their lives are meaningful to us.

- "If . . . there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either." In other words, if your life were totally insignificant, there'd be no reason for you to worry about anything. The fact that you're feeling all this angst suggest your life is not pointless.
posted by John Cohen at 10:58 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hope this doesn't sound insultingly simplistic, but I mean it with the best intentions: Why not just try to keep an open mind, accept what seems the best current evidence by whatever standards you appreciate, and get on with life?
Sometimes there really aren't answers.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:13 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I woke up crying on my 20th birthday, which was Easter Sunday, struggling with exactly this. What worked for me was continuing to attend church and enjoy the ceremony, companionship and family connections. Over time I have drifted away, but for a long time I continued to participate heavily in churches, including chairing church council and stewardship committees.

You'll probably find that you need to let go of how tightly held your beliefs have been, but that opens up room for mystery and amazement as well! And, you may find there is a great deal of meaning for you remaining in church even if you have questions about your beliefs. This is why there are things like agnostic ordained ministers in some branches of the protestant faith.

tldr: Let go of the need to believe in a certain way for a bit and keep enjoying the connections and ceremony. See where it takes you.
posted by meinvt at 11:20 AM on August 21, 2011

Here's the Big Secret:
Nobody really knows The Answer.
And that's alright. Stop trying to define it and just let it be. I personally find religion too 'small'.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:41 AM on August 21, 2011

I really feel where you're coming from. I went from 20-year fundamentalist christian to now 13-year absolute atheist. And yet I'm much more "spiritual" in my outlook on the world than most of my agnostic friends who grew up unreligious and never had that crisis of faith.

I can't recommend reading Alan Watts enough. Especially The Wisdom of Insecurity and The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Alan Watts' specialty is taking the framework of Western though and Christianity and providing a bridge to a larger way of understanding your place in the universe (in a very practical sense... there is very little woo-woo in these books).

If the universe really is just dumb matter floating and changing on a somewhat arbitrary path -- in some ways, the fact that this conversation is happening at all is even more incredible. Out of chance, the universe has evolved a part (us) that is able to contemplate itself. Alan Watts wrote, "Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence." If we had never come about, the entire universe may have just been a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear it. Some people may find that sad, but I think it's coolest thing ever.
posted by the jam at 11:55 AM on August 21, 2011

Wow, reading this thread makes me really sad. OP, most of the voices in this thread assume that you're aleady launched down the path of atheism. I didn't read your post that way AT ALL.

What I read was that you were struggling with two things:
1. Feeling like God isn't listening/doesn't care
2. Feeling like God isn't responding to prayer

Addressing the second point will also address the first. When you pray, God has three responses: yes, no and not yet. You shouldn't confuse a "not yet" answer with a "no" answer. If God always said yes to every request, then what would be the point of faith? We'd all be like selfish children, cutting in line to use our prayer stick to whack at the God-pinata in the sky so we could get all the sweet, sweet candy for ourselves. That's just not how faith works.

Also, sometimes God says "no" or "not yet" because there is something we need to learn before getting what we want or feel we need. We can't see from God's perspective - he sees the entire arc of human existance and we see only in part - through a glass dimly, as the New Testament states. We don't know WHY God says "no" or "not yet," and we may never fully understand. But certain experiences are difficult because we require those in order to grow and mature in our faith. At least for me, a lot of times that I've asked for something and God has said "no," I would have never been able to have even better experiences that the "no" answer allowed me to have. And I'm not just talking about getting a better parking space or missing an event - in my life, God has put me in geographical, social and relational situations I never would have chose for myself, but now, I see had God's hand over them and my best interest at heart. I would be happy to share more via MeMail about that, with you or others who have felt the same way, and I've got some resources that really helped me in this area too if you would like.

I would second the suggestions for C.S. Lewis and Anne Lamott. In fact, Travelling Mercies by Anne LaMott helped to bring me through a time that was the darkest in my life, and where I questioned my faith more than I have before or since.

I will also say this, OP: when I've hit a crisis point, I've found it helpful to change my perspective. Instead of focusing on the things that I thought I needed and God "ignored," look for the evidences of God's grace in your life. Write them down. Keep going, and add to the list whenever you find something else. Keep it with you and revisit it often. Ask your Christian friends to talk about the evidence in their own lives. Pray that God would show you the evidence of his grace in your life and the lives around you. Pray that God reveal himself to you and help you to trust him.

The Christian life is a marathon, and I believe that God is at the sidelines, reminding you of why you're running and how he has kept you going when you're ready to quit. Don't quit.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:57 AM on August 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Just because god does not answer your prayers does NOT mean there isn't one. It means you need to accept a different (and some would say, more mature) understanding of what the Highest Real Thing is.
posted by blargerz at 12:25 PM on August 21, 2011

I hope it's ok that I answer you since I'm a lifelong atheist.

I guess I can just say this: if you're basing your feelings about god on whether he answers your prayers or is 'on your side' in a team-sports way, there is definitely a problem. God is not on your side, since (assuming he existed), he's on everyone's side. This addresses a larger issue: the idea that 'god' must be 'my god', working for you in the way you need. Why must that idea of god be the true one? I don't think all Christianities think that way, certainly not all 'traditional' ones with roots in antiquity.

Further, the idea that either prayer is magic (ie,you wish therefore you receive) seems spiritually problematic, as does the idea that god is bound to give you what you want/need at the time you want/need it. If that were the case, people wouldn't talk about submitting to god's will, being humble, being willing to sacrifice. Reread the book of Job. Think about it yourself. Think about Jesus-- did he want to die? Did he not pray, wondering why his Father had forsaken him? I thought that was one of the major things that made Jesus strong/saintly/godlike-- this willingness to have faith regardless of god forsaking him. I thought this is a thread that runs strongly through Christianity. The thing that traditionally distinguishes Christianity from say, Judaism, is this idea of self-sacrifice and salvation through faith alone. In say, Judaism, god delivers Israel 'cause Israel is special and there's a covenant that says so; there was never any such covenant between god and Christians. However, Christians are Christians not because they're special (I thought) or likely to get what they want, but because they are ultimately redeemed by a higher love, as mediated through Jesus. Something like that. Regardless, it seems to go against the grain to expect god to 'prove' something to you materially. A priest (and the Church in general) seems to have been instituted (traditionally) to do 'good works' in god's name; logically it follows that god himself wasn't supposed to enact these good works simply through the requests in prayer. If anything, truly 'traditional' Christianity (ie, the first church, which is the Roman Catholic church) involves prayer being passed through the greater 'power' of the priest/bishop/etc. If you need help, ask the Church-- that's what it's there for.

All the greatest faiths involve doubt-- again, see Job, Jesus, etc. Any faith without doubt looks an awful lot like madness (see Joan of Arc). Doubt means you need to give up your ego, your 'needs', your requirements, even your prayers, and open yourself up to the real meaning of the infinite. Who knows what it may want for you? Who knows what your destiny is, how awful and terrible or how wonderful your life may become? God would by definition be manifest in all things, all these possibilities-- pain and suffering as well as joy. If god exists, he is manifest everywhere, in everything: good things and bad things, life and death. If you suffer, the Christian faith traditionally seems to say that God needs you to suffer. Why did Job suffer? It wasn't anything he did. It certainly wasn't "just" in the earthly idea of justice. He was pure, and the lives of the saints show that in Christianity, the pure suffer most. Thus, it follows that to open yourself to the divine is to open yourself to suffering and sacrifice and doubt.

To answer your ultimate question, ie "how" do you keep believing: well, in Christian terms, your belief is your strength. Therefore, it follows that god cannot 'give' you faith by miracle or any other means, but rather you must bring your faith to god. Thus, if you are strong, you believe-- it is an expression of your soul's power. If you are ultimately weak, you can appeal to the Bible or to the Church to help you by studying or explaining the texts, but ultimately it's up to you to muster up the strength of faith. The more you doubt for the wrong reasons (ie, not because you're thinking deeply, but because you're desiring proofs/help/etc), the more it makes sense for god to test you, to divest you of your possessions, to make you suffer. There's a number of examples of this in the Bible, from what I can remember. Lots of examples of faith being tested by greater and greater pain. Faith can only be true faith if it's altruistic and selfless. Otherwise it's cheap, isn't it?

Of course, as an atheist, I say that doubt isn't the end of the world. The Church would actually agree, if it was honest, that spiritual and moral strength has to come from the individual, if god likes to test it so often by withdrawing from the good, allowing the evil to triumph, and by torturing the saints and such. So this is actually in harmony with the atheist idea that we can be good and moral and kind and comfortable in our skins without god to protect us. In the end, human beings can only grant themselves their own prayers, because their will, their power, is then offered up either to god or to other human beings, in order to help them-- this is the definition of 'good works', isn't it. We offer up our power, sacrificially or simply. In this way, it seems to me that the journey of every Christian mirrors the internal journey of Jesus, if they are to be a true Christian. But what do I know, right?
posted by reenka at 12:51 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just as a follow up, I don't know how you are defining pointless and meaning, but I don't think anyone would argue that Margaret Sanger's life was without meaning, for example, or that Richard Feynman's existence was pointless.

I am not saying "these admirable people dispensed with faith and so should you" at all. I am merely saying - as I think a number of people here are - that a life without faith is not a life without meaning, and that you should therefore dispense with that variable in your mental equations. You do not need to believe that faith is the point of life in order to have faith.

If faith is something you would like to maintain, I would like you to be able to maintain it. I suspect that in order to do so, you're going to have to find a different religious dogma that is meaningful for you, but that's more of a shift and a less of a breech.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:56 PM on August 21, 2011

Mod note: folks, please direct your answers toward the OP and don't turn it into a treatise on who you resent and why. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:49 PM on August 21, 2011

I grew up in a very conservative christian home. While I always had ‘questions’, they were dismissed by my family and my pastor as I needed to believe with a ‘child like faith’ and questioning the word of God was not looked upon favorably. When I graduated from high school and went off to college, I began to question my religion in a major way. I totally denounced all religion…not in the in-your-face-atheist way, just more of a if-you-ask-me-I’ll-talk-about-it way. About 6 years after the fact, I went to a Unitarian church and took a class on Sunday mornings called ‘Building your own theology’. That has really helped me come to terms with how I grew up vs. how I am now. I have also ‘came out’ with my family, who surprisingly, has been fine with my (lack of) religious beliefs.

I do have to say, my life has WAY more meaning without the idea of God in it than it did with. Good luck to you.
posted by Amalie-Suzette at 1:53 PM on August 21, 2011

Another product of a traditional Christian upbringing here.

Personally there isn't enough evidence for a god for me to believe. However I accept the possibility that one exists and does not feel the need to change my mind. My brothers and sisters are largely believers, and have taken a number of routes to sustaining that belief.

The eldest draws a lot of support for his convictions through stories of modern miracles, although he would probably be just as convinced without them. Two of my siblings agree with my opinion that these stories are a little far-fetched, and instead look at the flip side of the coin my perspective takes - they don't believe there is sufficient evidence against a god to dispel their belief.

The way I handled the transition is heavily based in the circumstances; my family are Baptists, which in the UK means an emphasis on religion and belief being the ultimate personal choice (it doesn't carry the political overtones I sense from the U.S. use of the term). Therefore while my family and church acquaintances were uncomfortable with my choice, they didn't pressure me to change my mind.

The difficulty I encountered was in how to feel purpose without the incentive of heaven. I went through a fair amount of depression - which I don't believe was a result of my choice, just a coincidence that I was in the teenage angst stage at the time, plus being a bit of a loner. So in answer to part (2), I realised that there does not have to be a god for life to have a point to it. That is the very essence of free will - you get to choose what the point is, and then work for its achievement. Personally, I my point is to leave the world better than I found it.

As for part (1), consider the following:
- If god does exist in the sense you have understood up until now, he is undoubtedly on your side. The answering of prayer or lack thereof has no bearing on this, if you consider that the ultimate proof of his being on your side is entry into heaven, and the only condition is your belief. Consider the story of Job, which is intended to show exactly this point.
- If god does not exist, the good things in your life are not dependent on the existence of god. They are just as good now as they were a year ago, and will continue to be good things next year. Giving to charity is still to your credit, as is supporting and loving your family, doing your job well and being a trustworthy friend.

I still struggle with the concepts of free will, morality and ethics, good and evil, right and wrong, but I'm far more comfortable with the position of being able and willing to question them than having their definitions imparted and doubt being frowned upon if not openly opposed.
posted by fearnothing at 3:04 PM on August 21, 2011

Faith and Doubt are two sides of the same coin. This book might be helpful to you, if you like stuff that's warm and analytical at the same time.
posted by zeek321 at 3:12 PM on August 21, 2011

Last year I attended an interview with Guillermo Del Torro, who has endured some truly horrific events in his life and yet he was a happy, humorous man. He said, "When you accept your life as it is there are no negatives."

My extended family has been with the same church for generations. In High School I faced a crossroads wherein I decided to give the church my best shot rather than leave it, largely to keep peace in the family but also because I didn't know for sure and figured that if those things were true it would be a good idea to find out.

Many years later, after the kids were raised as I had been, I told my wife I didn't want to go to church any more. It took a long time to realize I was actually happier when I didn't go and that I was always looking for excuses to skip church.

That has held up. I have been happier without going to church and I don't miss it. I don't think the intervening years were wasted, though. They were part of my journey, they have made me who I am today. No negatives!
posted by trinity8-director at 5:01 PM on August 21, 2011

I oftentimes burst out in tears when I think about the possibilties that either 1) God is not "on my side," or 2) there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless. Mostly, number 1 hurts more since I can't seem to come to grips wtih number 2. But it hurts--A LOT. And I don't know how to fix this.
I cannot tell you whether or not God exists. That's what faith is all about--believing in something you don't have evidence for.

I was raised a Christian, by parents who still hold the faith. But my personal beliefs fluctuate: some days I believe God loves me and wants me to be happy. Some days, I don't believe in God at all.

But here is what I know: No one knows the truth. No one knows what happens to us after we die, or which gods (if any) exist, or what the meaning of life is. So why worry about it? Focus instead on what can be known, the physical world, the world that stays constant regardless of what we believe.

Whether or not God exists, we should help those who need it, forgive those who wrong us, and take joy in the glory of the world we live in.

And when when we die, we'll find out the rest.
posted by JDHarper at 5:45 PM on August 21, 2011

2) there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless.

Perhaps you could unpack "pointless" a little.

If all it it means is "unplanned by God" then sure, that follows. If it means "no longer worth living", then that doesn't follow at all.

Little Ms. flabdablet (six) has just this week stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy. She asked Ms. flabdablet a straight question: "Is it really the Tooth Fairy who takes my teeth in the night, or is it you or Dad?" and she got (with a certain amount of nostalgia and regret) a straight answer from both of us.

She accepted the truth quite readily, but remained completely unconvinced that the Tooth Fairy aka Dad could possibly have been using anything as prosaic as toothpaste to get those coins so shiny, even in the face of such unanswerable arguments as "well, what else would a Tooth Fairy use?"

Luckily, she was right on the point of losing her sixth tooth and when she did I was able to show her that half an hour of scrubbing with toothpaste and a toothbrush could indeed impart a fairy-gold lustre to an ordinary Australian dollar coin.

She asked me in a fairly accusatorial tone why we'd ever told her the Tooth Fairy story in the first place. I explained that we'd done it for fun - her fun as well as ours - and that the Tooth Fairy was a game that parents had been playing with children for hundreds of years just because the whole Tooth Fairy thing was so much fun. And I told her that the Tooth Fairy would definitely not be the last tall tale she'd heard or would hear from us, but that if she ever asked us whether something really was real or just a tall tale, we'd always tell her the truth. And she just lit up, and there were hugs all round, so I think we've done OK.

The thing about the whole God tall tale (and I'm quite convinced it is a tall tale, just so you know where I'm coming from) is that at some point, somebody became so attached to the pleasure it brings that they couldn't bring themselves to tell the truth about it; perhaps not even to themselves. Because it is fun to believe that Somebody Up There really does have our best interests at heart and really will look out for us when we need looking out for. That's a tremendously comforting belief, and it is hard to let go of.

But the simple fact remains that once you've seen through an illusion, re-embracing it is going to cause you more trouble than not.

You're rather older than six now, and rather more set in your ways, and it's probably going to take you quite some time to tease apart the tall tales from the truths. My best advice to you is that you avoid lumping everything you've always believed together in a bundle and trying to figure out whether to accept or reject the whole thing. The fact is that many of the beliefs and values you have acquired growing up are perfectly serviceable and will remain useful, even though others have now been revealed as illusory - and it is possible to pick those apart and end up both enlightened and content.

Just because God didn't do it doesn't mean it's not real. You can still love. Do that.
posted by flabdablet at 6:25 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

there is no God and thus my whole life has been pointless.

You're looking for something outside of yourself to give you meaning. Start defining your own meaning; and an atheistic universe will seem less bleak. In fact, meaning you create yourself may start to seem more powerful than something handed down from on high.
posted by spaltavian at 7:50 PM on August 21, 2011

God is definitely on your side: He gave you a brain to work with and he expects you to use it. Everyone, at some point, goes through this in one way or another. That very fact convinces me that there is an underlying need to make sense out of our existence in some way that's understandable to us - and I think that need comes from God. We would be fools if we just accepted some happy - or scary - story as the basis of our entire life and we never bothered to question the rigid doctrines that have been driven into us from childhood - that's where organized religion fails God and us both. You have to understand that you're pre-programmed with all sorts of dogma - this is a sin and that's a sin, this is right and that is wrong, there will be Judgement and only those who have "been reborn/asked Jesus into their heart/confessed their sins" will go to Heaven - yadda, yadda - which means that you better not even think about turning away from your church or questioning what they teach, or you'll be sorry.

Baloney. You'll have a harder struggle to get your head above water than those who have never been indoctrinated as you have, but you can do it - and the fact that you're pushing on, trying to think for yourself, is because God is encouraging you to do so.

Try not to knee-jerk the whole affair - the right road is not necessarily total rejection of everything you've been taught, but neither is there anything healthy about the dependency that most organized religion works to instill in its followers. Just explore, think things through, read, read and read some more, and trust God to help you find the answers. I also would recommend C.S. Lewis - IF you begin to doubt the very existence of God - but I'd suggest his book, Mere Christianity, first - that's the one that helped me grasp the idea that there can be God, but he doesn't have to be a Baptist or a Catholic or a Nazarene.

Remember that everyone visits the place where you are at some point during their lifetime, be courageous and open-minded and don't let anyone scare you with a bunch of religious drivel. I wish you the best.
posted by aryma at 10:47 PM on August 21, 2011

Mod note: this thread is not atheists vs. religious people and do not make it one, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:07 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

How did you reconcile your reality with this belief you've had--that you'd like to maintain--your whole life? I know some people get brave enough to jump ship and become atheists or agnositcs or existentioalists or whatever. I don't know if I can do that.

Nthing cognitive dissonance. Looks like you have it. I grew up in what I would describe as similar circumstances, (my Dad was a deacon, my Mom and I both taught Sunday School) but have now not been to church in 15 years. I really believed, wanted to believe and tried my hardest to defend my faith when it was questioned. The problem was, when it came right down to it, I had a lot of doubts, even after studying "apologetics" and reading a lot of Christian philosophy and whatnot.

Eventually, after a lot of halfhearted "research" into other faiths I decided to take some time off thinking about the whole mess and I took a vacation from Jesus and God and the whole afterlife thing and just lived my life for myself for a while. I settled with the idea that I couldn't believe this was all an accident, and there must be something out there, but I just couldn't affiliate myself with Christianity anymore, it was just too - refutable. I also really didn't want to affiliate with anything else. I guess people call this agnostic, but I wasn't even identifying as that.

When it started to come up again for me, I did more reading with an open mind and I'm afraid to say that after a friend lent me the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, I was finally able to lay to rest my particular hang ups that kept me still wanting to believe. If you really are questioning your faith and are simply frightened of what it would be like to not have a religious worldview, why not start reading some material aimed at you, from the other side? I know a lot of people have strong negative feelings about Richard Dawkins but I rather appreciate his perspective, especially knowing he grew up within a religious dogma as well. For the quickest easy access (but perhaps hard hitting) you can watch the video version of the God Delusion.

If you don't think you're ready to watch that (or read the book) then maybe you want to question why that is. Do you not think your faith could withstand watching the whole thing? That might be something to think about.

I promise you it's not so bad over here, not having God be able to read my thoughts and know everything I'm doing and I love not feeling guilty for not living a holy enough life. Life is precious, every moment and I'm now more eager to embrace it fully and enjoy it in all it's glory and wonder. It's ok to not know how we got here - life is still amazing!

tl;dr: I couldn't reconcile, couldn't maintain and jumped ship - come on in, the water's fine.
posted by smartypantz at 12:16 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

it is becoming harder as I get older and the "evidence" seems to get lesser and lesser

God is immaterial. So if you're referring to a lack of material or natural evidence for God's existence, you're doing it wrong. Various philosophers assert that God's existence can be inferred from certain visible, material effects we experience here on Earth. But that's about it. No direct, empirical proof.

Apparently we can all agree on the existence of natural and material reality. (Except teenagers eating mushrooms the first time.) But is there a supernatural, immaterial reality as well? Agnostics say they aren't sure. Atheists are sure there is not. Why do they reach this conclusion? Because they start from the premise that only natural and material evidence can prove what is real and exists. Starting from that premise, how could you not reach the conclusion that the supernatural is uncertain or non-existent?

Don't want to be a doubter? Don't accept their initial premise. You're playing by their rules and you're sad when it breaks your game. Don't do that.
posted by resurrexit at 6:30 AM on August 22, 2011

I personally find no use for the supernatural (I'm happier just thinking that parts of the natural are more complex and/or weirder than I will ever understand) and I've just got around to having a brief look at the Dawkins documentary recommended above.

So far, it's making me sad.

There's the great man with his little face all scrunched up with worry over the evil, anti-reasoning effects of faith, and the light of true conviction shining in his eyes as he tries to put across his opinion that faith lies at the root of every act of unreasonable bastardry ever perpetrated by one human being on another. He goes on and on about religious faith being the elephant in the room when it comes to understanding warfare, but it seems to me that he has completely missed the giant turtle upon which his elephant squarely stands: tribalism. As Gary Brecher has noted, most human beings are not primarily rational, but tribal - my gang yay, your gang boo - and all the rest is cosmetics.

It seems to me that every scary religious hot-head that Dawkins holds up as an example of the corrupting influence of faith is more easily and completely understood as a tribal representative: somebody who feels perfectly clear that there is a massive difference between us and them and that they must be made to go away. And it seems perfectly clear to me that religious faith is nothing more than a cosmetic layer on top of that tribalism.

I think that people who make the oft-derided claim that "atheism is a religious faith just as much as any other" are actually putting the point that atheists are just as much a tribe as those who self-identify primarily as members of any given faith; and I think that the way Dawkins presents in this documentary clearly supports this reformulation. Dawkins self-identifies as a scientist and a defender of Reason, and would I'm sure be happier to live in a world where everybody else did the same. And that is tribalism, plain and simple.

Personally, it seems to me that I would be well-served not to maintain a faith in the supremacy of my own rationality. I'm human, and therefore as tribal by inclination as anybody else. So I'm going to get things wrong, and I'm going to hate and despise certain people just because of certain ways in which they differ from those I consider my people. That's just going to happen. Nothing I can do about it. It's the way people are wired.

What I can and should do something about is the actions I take in response to those feelings. And if I own and acknowledge those feelings, it seems to me that I'll be far better placed to do that than if I were to consider myself as some sort of Bright and therefore free of tribalism by definition.

OP, you're having a crisis of faith, and it seems to me that the main part of what's going to make that hurt is the way it's going to force you to redefine your tribe. You're simply no longer going to be completely comfortable in the company of those who display a faith that seems less precarious than yours, and that can only to leave you a bit lost and adrift until you find a place in your new family. That loss is real, and you need to give yourself time to grieve over it.

The upside is that you are now far more likely to connect with decent, wonderful people whose religious faith is different from the one you've grown up in, far less likely to perceive differences on points of religious doctrine as dealbreakers in forming relationships with those people, and far more likely to become comfortable with the view that the proper place for any kind of faith is inside the privacy of your own skull. There is absolutely no reason why your worldview needs official sanction or approval from anybody. Keep doing what you think is right, and you'll be OK.
posted by flabdablet at 7:39 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Okay, so now I've watched the whole thing, and I have to say that I have not seen such a craptastic piece of self-righteous propaganda for a very long time. For a man dedicated to the cause of reason, he's amazingly free with the use of unsubtle emotional manipulation - from the background music featuring minor chords, dissonance and/or spooky bass lines every time religion gets a camera shot or voiceover mention, to the unforgivably tawdry horizontal scrolling ad hominem attack on Ted Haggard right after Haggard calls Dawkins on his intellectual arrogance (which even the most partisan atheist viewer must surely admit that Dawkins has in that very minute displayed in full measure).

I mean sure, Haggard is a flake and his whole setup stinks of long con, but Dawkins does not do the cause of reason any good at all by getting down there in the muck and going one-on-one with him. Picking fights with a tribal leader only ever serves to polarize, not enlighten.

If Dawkins cared as much about peace as he does about being seen to be in the right by members of his own tribe, he'd be seeking common ground and building bridges. Broadcasting a polemic disguised as a documentary strikes me as totally unlikely to do anybody any lasting good. And he has the cheek to compare Haggard to Goebbels!

Dawkins is sadly in need of good moderators.
posted by flabdablet at 1:34 AM on August 23, 2011

Interestingly, I was just reading along in my New Yorker and came across this great essay/book review by James Wood: Secularism and its Discontents. I really appreciated this essay - it acknowledges some of the problems of athiesm, agnosticism, and secularism while giving a thoughtful and generally positive evaluation of the essays in a new book promoting the construction of meaning in a secular worldview, The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now. It was a very thought-provoking read and the book might be worth checking out.

The paragraph that struck me as most relevant to your concern about whether life has meaning outside of a religious belief system was this:
....Many religionists assume that life without God would be life without meaning. Where secularists cherish autonomy and choice as qualities that make life meaningful, religionists often emphasize self-abnegation and submission to a higher power. This would appear to be a wide gulf. But Kitcher suggests that religionists and secularists actually agree about how to create meaning in a life. Many believers think of their submission to God not as compelled, he points out, but instead as "issuing from the choice of the person who submits." Life develops meaning because someone identifies with God's purpose. This identification must spring from an act of evaluation, a decision that there is value in serving a deity whose purpose is deemed good. Believers, then, make an autonomous choice "to abdicate autonomy in order to serve what the autonomous assessment has already recognized as good." Both athiests and believers are involved in making independent evaluations of what constitutes life-meaning. They draw different conclusions about what that meaning is, but they go about finding it in similar ways."
So perhaps there are roads to developing a sense of meaning other than identifying good purposes as God's purpose; but even if you continue believing in God, you can acknowledge that it was your autonomous choice to do so, and the meaning you feel in making that choice derives in large part from your own power to have chosen it.

I also thought you would find this paragraph interesting to think about:
"Many people...believe that morality is a deliverance of God, and that without God there is no morality - that in a secular world "everything is permitted." You can hear this on Fox News; it is behind the drive to have the Ten Commandments displayed in courtrooms. But philosophers like Kitcher remember what Socrates tells Euthyphro, who supposed that good could be defined by what the gods had willed: if what the gods will is baed on some other criterion of goodness, divine will isn't what makes something good; but if goodness is simply determined by divine will there's no way for us to assess that judgment. In other words, if you believe that God ordains morality - constitutes it through His will - you still have to decide where God gets morality from. If you are inclined to reply, "Well, God is goodness. He invents it," you threaten to turn morality into God's plaything, and you deprive yourself of any capacity to judge that morality."
In other words, is there an independent quality of 'goodness' in the universe which God promotes? Or does' God himself arbitrarily determine what 'good' is - 'good' is whatever God says is good in this book of the Bible or at this time in history? If so, then God could wake up tomorrow and declare murder to be good, or infidelity (in fact, in Biblical literature he has done both), and his believers would then need to upend the moral systems they had been living by in order to stay 'good' in the eyes of God.

Or they'd have to reject this new definition of good that is supposed to be God's, kind of like Huck Finn at his most critical moment. And to reject God's power to redefine good at will is to assert that goodness does not rely on God to exist. That doesn't necessarily have to take God's goodness away if you still want to believe - God can still be a manifestation of this supreme good - but it does reveal that unless you sway your definition of 'good' to match God's at any time no matter what that definition may require, then God was never the definer of goodness in the first place.
posted by Miko at 7:24 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everyone here has something to say and like some (or many), I can only offer up something from my own travels. I liked the poster who said he would take a nap or eat a sandwich. Sometimes the brain gets tied up in knots. Learning to sit quietly and look at your thoughts and judgments passing through your mind helps to see how busy, tiring, despairing, etc they can be. I had all these books...Socrates/Plato/Aristotle, Sartre etc along with Christian apologetics, philosophy of religion, etc. I took them all and put them in a box (w/ a caveat that it could be just for a day, week, or so on). I then practiced sitting. Breathing. Watching my thoughts. Sometimes you can get some clarity, peace, and so forth. I dont want to go on too much as it ***so*** easy to give you my grocery list of what to do and I want to be brief. So. Read it with a grain of salt. If you want to talk more, memail me....
posted by snap_dragon at 2:49 PM on August 26, 2011

I grew up in a church-going, fundamentalist Baptist family, extended social network, and church. Questioning my faith has been one of the most difficult, but also the most rewarding experiences of my life.

"Faith was then a task for a whole lifetime..." --Kierkegaard
posted by goethean at 5:16 PM on September 12, 2011

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