Here’s a caricature of Christian apologists: They are people who put on a front of using slick, pat arguments, ignoring, glossing over or oversimplifying real difficulties with their faith. Deep, deep down they know that what they say is full of holes and they doubt the truth of their religious beliefs, but they suppress and ignore those doubts. That will be true in some cases no doubt, but I really don’t think it’s true in general (and I hope you know that this is coming from somebody who has no trouble expressing frustration with the apologetics community when he thinks it’s justified). But we need to work at keeping it that way. What I’m about to do is part of that effort.
Intellectual honesty means admitting our difficulties and doubts. We recognise that this is true, for example, in the case of scientific research. Suppose that somebody has a scientific theory that is well supported by the data. However, suppose there are a few data points that are real frustrations because they don’t appear to fit the pattern. We haven’t discovered why they don’t fit the pattern. The theory as a whole is too well-supported to be simply tossed aside. There must be some true explanation of why a few data points suggest otherwise, but we don’t know what that explanation is.
Now suppose that this scientist stands up before the public (including potential financial backers of a medicine he has developed based on his theory) and declares: “All of the data supports this theory. All of it. We can explain all the data and there are no difficulties at all. Any concerns that anybody raises about the evidence are just based on ignorance or ill-will towards my theory. Ignore those concerns.”
This man is simply a liar, and none of us have any problem seeing this. What’s more, he doesn’t need to lie. The evidence overwhelmingly supports his theory, a couple of exceptions notwithstanding. In fact, he does not really make his position stronger by lying. He actually makes it more vulnerable. If anybody believes his claims in his confident presentation and then later finds out about the evidence that he was lying about, doubt will be cast on everything this scientist has said. We wouldn’t accept his defence that it is tactically dangerous for his team because it gives his “enemies” (those who support competing theories) grounds on which to attack him. That approach simply lacks intellectual integrity, and may backfire anyway as described above.
We need to appreciate this principle when it comes to apologetics. So here’s a suggestion – actually, a request. I’d like to ask other people who are involved in apologetics in any capacity to tell us what causes their most serious doubt about God. I realise that this doubt does not win the day and there are, on the whole, good reasons to believe. But we have to be honest about the presence of those doubts and what causes them.
While you might worry that admitting your doubts gives away too much information, any intellectually honest atheist who has spent much time thinking about the God question will have at least as much doubt about their view that God isn’t there.
Don’t worry that you might be “giving away” too much. If you think that non-believers really accept that you have no doubts at all, you’re kidding yourself. A lot of them, I am sure, think that really you know the whole thing is nonsense, but you pretend to believe it in order to dull your fear of death. The admission of one real doubt then is hardly going to be a great revelation. You may even demonstrate to people that you have honesty and humility after all, and that you are secure enough in what you know that you can admit what you do not know. What’s more, as a public defender of Christianity, your admission that you have some doubts will be encouraging to other Christians, who will be able to say “I’m not the only one! I don’t just lack faith after all. It’s OK to have doubts.” Lastly, while you might worry that admitting your doubts gives away too much information, any intellectually honest atheist who has spent much time thinking about the God question will have at least as much doubt about their view that God isn’t there. Anyone who can look you in the eye and say that there is absolutely no reason for pause at all, and that every piece of information that we have supports their belief that God does not exist is either a worse liar than our hypothetical scientist or else far, far more deluded than anyone suffering from what Dawkins called “The God Delusion.” C. S. Lewis recalls his own moments of doubt:
Now that I am a Christian, I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.1
So, without further ado, let’s step into the public confessional. I’ll go first, and I invite you to go next. The invitation is also there for brave non-believers to admit their biggest reasons for doubting atheism, too – although this thread is not meant for people to get into protracted debates. Neither do I want people to follow up their admission of doubt with a “but here is why the doubt fails and really I am right…” Just confess. That is the point here. Right. My turn.
The biggest cause of doubt for me is God’s frequent apparent indifference to prayer.
The biggest cause of doubt for me has nothing to do with the existence or extent of suffering, the lack of confirmation of the life of Christ (my reply: “What lack?”) or the problem of “divine hiddenness.” The biggest cause of doubt for me is God’s frequent apparent indifference to prayer. It’s not that I think God is silent or hidden. I think God is at work all around us, and I even daresay that I have experienced what I consider to be divine guidance. But I generally don’t think of these things as God’s answer to prayer (in fact as a rule they tend to come from out of the blue with no prompting from us at all).
It’s not that I’m so sceptical that I think God never answers prayers. I think testimony from trustworthy people justifies belief, and I’ve heard many, many testimonies of events that people interpreted, and I think correctly, as an answer to prayer. But easily the norm, in my experience and that of pretty much everyone I know, as far as I can tell anyway, whether they would acknowledge it or not, is that the outcome of events when we pray for a specific outcome appears to be pretty much the same outcome that I would have expected if nobody had prayed. Nearly always, when a woman you know is terminally ill and people pray for her, she dies. When a man needs a new job and people pray for him, he generally doesn’t get one until such a time as you’d expect a person to get one anyway based on the law of averages. If a child goes missing and people prayer for safe return, the child either shows up dead, tragically, or else the rate of return is pretty much the same as the rate of return for missing children generally.
In any given case is there a possible explanation for why God would make himself appear to be indifferent to the prayers of his people? Of course. But if I knew nothing about the actual world and was asked to describe what the world would be like if God is the kind of thing the Christian faith portrays him to be, this indifference would not be something I would describe.
I pray for a few reasons: Jesus asks us to do it. God is certainly worthy of our adoration. Often we aren’t really asking for God to give us anything anyway. Sometimes the act of prayer itself provides what it promises (e.g. closeness with God). When hope seems lost, there is no better person to turn to. So I’m not giving up prayer. But of all the things that might give me reasons to doubt, this is the one that I find most compelling.
Now it’s your turn. I know I have believers and non-believers alike reading this, and I’d love to hear from you both!
PS: Please only comment if you are actually sharing an example or examples of what actually provides you with grounds for doubt about what you believe, whether you’re a Christian, an atheist, or a proponent of another religion.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1952), 123.