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The Day I Quit Believing in God

Dealing with doubt – Part 6: The Day I Quit Believing

I have not talked about this publicly before. I have not bogged about it. I have not used it as a sermon illustration. And never spoken of it before while I was teaching. It took me long enough to tell my wife about what happened. Like so many other things, it takes some time to process. I am always timid about events such as these. I don’t really know how to take it. So often, the interpretation that you come up with about the meaning of your experiences turns on you and places mud in your face (or here in Oklahoma, red clay).

It was a Wednesday afternoon when it happened. There was no real reason for it that I know of. In fact, this event was about the furthest thing from my psychological barometer. I was about to teach my classes in The Theology Program. The day before, I had responded to someone who had left the faith, attempting to do my best to restore confidence in this lapsing believer. This was certainly not atypical. There were no lingering doubts that had been surfacing. No new arguments that I heard that made me pause. I had every reason to be as confident as ever in my faith in Christ and the Christian worldview. However, this day would be like none other I had ever experienced. It was the day I quit believing.

You must understand. I have never been an “unbeliever” in any sense. There is not a time in my life that I can remember not believing in Christ. Sure, there were those doubts. Doubts about many things. But the serious doubts always ran out of gas very quickly as they were murdered by a few silver bullets that pulled back the curtain of their weaknesses. But this time was different. It was not any simple doubt that I was experiencing, but unbelief.

Like so many other things, I can tell you where I was when it happened. When Angie died, I was driving with the family on 635 in Dallas. When my mother had her stroke, I was sitting on the loveseat eating cereal. When Will busted his head open, I was playing Spiderman upstairs by myself. When I quit believing, I was beginning to sit down on my couch at home. By the time I pulled my legs up beside me, the terrible and foreign realization came to my mind that I didn’t believe. I don’t know why, but as I began to think about God, Christ, prayer, and all those things that form the normal spiritual backdrop to my thoughts, they had been robbed of their primary fuel—belief. I simply did not believe. There was this sudden realization that it was all false. Covering my life like a dark coroners blanket was a new belief: the belief that my whole life I had fooled myself into believing in something that was not true. I did not believe that God was real.

First, there was a sudden sense of betrayal that overwhelmed my thoughts. This betrayal was concerning my former life: my upbringing, my church, my seminary, and all of those people who were my heroes in the faith. They had betrayed me. Well, not them directly, but their foolish commitment to something that was false. They caused me to be emotionally committed to something that was not true in reality.

Second, in panic and terrible fear, I tried to stop the spiritual bleeding. I knew there would be a scar from this injury unlike any I had ever seen and I need to recover as quickly as possible. So I began to think through what I would tell someone who came to me with this testimony of acute apostasy. My thoughts turned toward good theology and apologetics. I turned to the silver bullets that were normally on automatic pilot, but were strangely absent. So I forced it. I thought to myself “If God is not real, why is there something rather than nothing?” It did not work. Then I went into the prophecies of the Old Testament. How could they be there if God was not real? Finally, I went to the resurrection of Christ. How do I reject that without committing a thousand overrides to my intellect? However, none of them were effective in the slightest. Don’t get me wrong. It was not as if rival arguments were persuasive either. It was simply that I could not access rational thought at all. Everything was overwhelmed by this deep feeling that we believe these things only to make us feel better and have purpose. These feelings controlled, influenced, and short-circuited my ability to intellectually engage the issues.

This went on all day.

Emotionally, the former believer was fighting. I cried out to God saying, “Don’t do this to me. You can’t do this to me. I can’t take this type of trial. Whatever you are doing, stop!”

My kids came home from school and I looked at them in despair. I felt like they were rocks. Yes, that is right—rocks. My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another. I wanted to die, but I was way too scared.

What are my wife and kids going to think? What about my ministry? I have to keep this a secret. These were my thoughts all day.

That night, I did not sleep at all. My wife knew there was something wrong, but she did not know how to respond since I was unwilling to express my fall. I went out to my car in the garage and sat by myself on the passenger side. I called out to God again: “No, not me. Not me. I am not going to be one of those who walk away from the faith. Please don’t let me. Do something. This hurts way too bad.” I began to ask for signs. I just wanted the Lord to do something. However, I knew that even if he did, the problem was not down that road. It was something different.

The next day nothing changed. I went to work (what else was I supposed to do?). I avoided everyone. I did not want to look anyone in the eyes, fearing that they would see my unbelief. But who cared, they were rocks as well. This went on the entire day.

There way no one to talk to. Who was I supposed to call? What was I supposed to say? Should I have called a board member and told them I have lost my faith? Should I call my pastor? I was simply too scared about what people would think. The only ones who I thought would understand where those who had walked a similar path away from God and never returned. I know a lot of these people, but that would have been waving the white flag, and I was not ready for that.

Somewhere deep down I believed that the Lord was taking me through this. Emotionally, I needed to hang on to this. There was that small and weakened part of me that that was playing tug-a-war with a giant.

The next morning after another sleepless long night(mare), I was driving to work praying. I said to the Lord, “Lord, if you are trying to teach me that you are the only one who holds the key to faith, I get it! I GET IT! Now stop. Test over. I fail. I cannot believe on my own. Faith is a gift. Please give it back.”

An hour later I was on the elliptical machine at the gym. I was hoping that some exercise would help. While sweating away, I was reading a book about faith. The book did not really help, it is just part of my memories because of what was about to happen. After 35 minutes of elevated heart rate, suddenly, in a moment of time, it was like I could access the part of my brain again that was responsible for belief. Like a foot is awakened due to renewed blood flow, I felt the same relief in my brain (odd to say, but it felt like the right side) and in my soul. One minute I did not believe, and the next I did. My faculties returned to me and my faith was completely restored as if it never left.

Since my “two days as an atheist” experience, I have had a lot of time to contemplate on what happened. I don’t have all the answers, but I am firm in my conviction that God was teaching me something through experience that I already believed in theory: Human effort is not ultimately responsible for faith, God is. In my ministry, I suppose this is important.

As I mentioned before, I had been discussing the reality of the Christian faith with someone who was a former Evangelical. This conversation was particularly frustrating for me as I could not figure out what the problem was. I felt as if I was saying all the right things. The arguments I was giving were extremely persuasive in my opinion. He knew enough. There was no more “silver bullets” for me to give. It exhausted me. There was nothing more I could do and I was mad about it. Through this experience, I think that God was letting me know who was ultimately in charge. He demonstrated to me more vividly than I would have ever desired that there is only so much I can do. It was like he said to me, “Michael, all the theology you teach is good and necessary, but don’t think it is the least bit effective without my presence. Ultimately, this is a spiritual battle. You are in the fight, but I have the weapons.

“It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” (Rom. 9:16)

I think that it is important to mention in closing that I have come to find out that this is more common than you might think. In fact, I talked about this with a prominent Evangelical author and pastor (whose name I will not mention). This guy is the very last person I would have thought would have a story like this to tell. He has never spoken about his experience publicly, but he described the exact same experience, only his lasted for three months! I would not have made it that long.

74 Responses to “The Day I Quit Believing in God”

  1. @Wṃ Tanksley:

    I don’t agree with him; I would say that morality is grounded in the nature of God, and is thus not arbitrary to God (although He could have created in a way to manifest it differently, since His creation is according to His own will).

    Arbitrary means “as the entity wills it”. I don’t know if something can be arbitrary to the entity itself; it would appear that “arbitrary” necessarily implies an observer. God, then, would not be arbitrary to Himself. The arbitrary would have been meant as arbitrary to us.

    And in that wise, God is irreducibly arbitrary.
    This is not only the position of traditional believe in God and the gods, but also the only coherent one. Had He created a universe where dying by fire was ecstatic, we would be holding the witch-burners as selfless saints.

  2. My kids came home from school and I looked at them in despair. I felt like they were rocks. Yes, that is right—rocks. My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another. I wanted to die, but I was way too scared.

    Forgive me if this seems harsh, Michael, but if you really must believe in a sky-daddy spirit in order to keep from seeing your children as rocks, that says more about your narcissism and fundamental disenchantment about life than anything else.

    You don’t need a god to love your children. The universe does not have to care about your family for you to do so.

    There is no union with the divine awaiting you or your loved ones after death. So cherish every moment of life all the more, precisely because no moment will ever come again. Peace.

  3. Which reminds me, Paul Wright: Maximising Liberty.
    I resolved not many years ago to only take seriously the sceptics and atheists who bother to be consistent with their creed. It is why I have little more than Nietzsche, Spinoza, Prof. Peter Singer, and (lately) Prof. Alex Rosenberg on the list of atheists to consider.

  4. I have had a similar experience of belief just suddenly “turning off”, and mine has lasted for 3 years now. It was all the more extraordinary in that I had not really had any doubts about the fundamentals of faith for about 25 years up to that point. As I had gone against family traditions to become a christian in the first place, I couldn’t get angry at anyone but myself for the waste of time and self-foolery of those 25 years. The experience did not negatively effect my relationship with my children, although my wife has found it disturbing to find herself married to someone whose belief is so different from her own. One of the lessons I have learned from the experience is to have a lot more epistemological humility and to recognize the reality that a lot of our thinking is subrational and our rational processes come in after the fact to justify the idea or decision already made. I have been making a study of Stoic philosophy and have found it a good way to make my decisions and life more rational. I am also finding a way back to some sort of god- a Spinozan god, but there is more work to be done in that area.

  5. the lessons I have learned from the experience is to have a lot more epistemological humility and to recognize the reality that a lot of our thinking is subrational and our rational processes come in after the fact to justify the idea or decision already made.

    The problem is not epistemological humility. What we need is ontological humility. Those of us who presume to be wise is like one maggot comparing to another maggot how much smarter I am to the other. It would be foolish to believe that we can ascertain truth solely based on our ability to reason. Life needs to be rational but not rationalism. Christianity is rational. Atheism is irrational.

  6. Chaps,

    I’m feeling bad about turning the comments on our host’s honest and heartfelt post into a theoretical discussion of the Euthyphro. I’ve made a long post of my own here, where I’d be happy to carry on, or to leave things here, as you like.

    Oh and, @Boz: while I am sincere in the sense that Dr Bowers means, I don’t expect a response, so a response would be strong evidence (see also).

  7. My kids came home from school and I looked at them in despair. I felt like they were rocks. Yes, that is right—rocks. My new affair with atheism, carried with it the sudden burden of ultimate meaninglessness. People were no different than the rocks if there is no God. Not one thing has claim to be more value than another. I wanted to die, but I was way too scared.

    Nice post, Michael – interesting on many levels.

    This is a side-note, but isn’t the reasoning above a mistake? Isn’t it obvious that humans have intrinsic value? If so, they they have value even if atheism is true, even if human persons are wholly physical.

    It could be that they’re evolved from worms, doomed to cease existing upon death, that their lives have no ultimate purpose or meaning, not made it God’s image or loved by him, etc. But it could still be that they are real, and objectively more valuable than rocks, and this because of their intellectual and moral abilities and virtues.

    I’m not trying to grease anyone’s slide to atheism. It’s just that I’ve always thought this was a mistake by apologists…

  8. Dale,

    I have never questioned whether atheists can value human life more than rocks (and I am glad that they do). The issue is always justification for such that has some type of transcendent value and reasonings, not simply sociological or even evolutionary norms.

    Either way, my account above and my thoughts that my children were rocks was not something that I reasoned out in my new state of mind, it was something that was just there as a “first-responder” default worldview that seemed inevitable at the time. At least in this post, I was not trying to make the argument that if you are an atheist, you have to believe that all people are of equal worth as rocks (even though I am persuaded that such is true—especially now!).

    Hope that makes sense.

  9. For everyone, but especially Hesiodos,

    I much appreciate your spirit and your points in your post… particularly the importance of humility (or holding things tentatively–the other post-er on the maturity of accepting uncertainty is right). Also, that much (I’d say most) of our thinking is “subrational.” To me, that means “not on the same plane of awareness and mental process as the ‘rational’,” but neither inferior nor superior, as I think you also mean it. Indeed, we “rationalize” things when we seek justification for views, attitudes, etc. already taken.

    At the same time, copious collecting and comparing of “facts,” others’ experiences and thoughts, etc. in a rational way IS a helpful way to reach further truth, more clarity re. what is “real.” But at least until after the event (of a belief change, e.g.), we are poor at understanding our own processes and reasons for belief or action, and often never gain much understanding.

    My own journey into stronger and more specific faith (in conservative Protestant Christianity, “knowing God”) and then out of it was nearly the opposite of Michaels’ (thank you for the honest, daring sharing) and others’ sudden, extreme bouts of either doubt or full disbelief. Both were gradual. I was raised in a Christian family and very regular at an Evangelical church, then went to Christian college, seminary, worked in apologetics, Christian counseling and church ministry. Around 40 I began probing more deeply and attended a psych/theology PhD program at a progressive seminary that also had conservative students, besides myself, MDiv and PhD.

    It seems that exposure and the broad scientific, etc. searching I did right after it helped me ease gradually and naturally away from orthodox views of the Bible, and thus also of the core doctrines of historic Christianity WITHOUT “losing my faith” in some kind of an undefinable Creator. So I identify with and appreciate Hesiodos’ comment about “…

  10. To wrap up what didn’t fit in my last post:

    “…some sort of god…” Most of the posts seem to assume either Christian belief in God or its supposed “opposite,” atheism. I agree with those saying that there are few true atheists, and only 8-10% of Americans self-identify as that.

    However, Hesiodos and I are only a couple of probably many participants here and literally many millions of Americans and others who believe in some kind of God/god or “higher power,” but find the Bible to be a human source about God/god that fails to evidence being a direct “Word” from God. The trend, as far as serious students of not only the content of the Bible, but its history, composition, historical and literary analysis, textual transmission, etc. is clear: the more one studies, the more one tends to perceive that the document is human, perhaps reflecting interaction with the divine, but not uniquely revealed and limited to 66 canonized books (plus Apocrapha for Catholics).

  11. 62. Howard Pepper on 24 Jun 2010 at 3:12 pm #

    To wrap up what didn’t fit in my last post:

    …the more one studies, the more one tends to perceive that the document is human, perhaps reflecting interaction with the divine, but not uniquely revealed and limited to 66 canonized books….

    So, when Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall free you,” did He mean that if you really, really study the Bible (i.e., abide in His word), your deeper study of the Bible would free you from belief in its divine authority and perhaps even belief in the divinity of its Author/Subject?

  12. Michael,

    Sure – I understand that you were just relating an experience, not making an apologetic argument.

    It’s trivially true that an atheist can believe his children to be (objectively) worth much more than rocks.

    What’s hard to see is why the atheist can’t reasonably hold that value to depend on intrinsic features of the children – not on facts about where they came from, or about who values them, etc. (call them relational features) It’s not clear they need to appeal to a transcendent source of value; they may hold that any being with feature X has a unique sort of value (in virtue of which, we can’t treat that being in any old way), and that little Johnny has X, while the rock lacks it.

    I’ll stay tuned – perhaps you’ll have a post some time on this very sort of argument from moral realism to theism. I don’t claim that no such argument can be made – but only that this is not at all obvious: that an atheist who is a moral realist is inconsistent.

  13. I don’t want to put words in Michael’s mouth, but I don’t think he is saying the day to day interaction with your children is the same as you would have with rocks. Rather, when you are dead and no more, the relationship you had with your children is as valuable is the relationship you had with the rocks.

  14. I always knew you had a heart, but I had no idea you were such a good writer. al

  15. Carl D'Agostino July 12, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Unmerited suffering – a biggie

    Hitler forgiven and in “our” heaven I’d rather be sent to the other place.

  16. Ed Applegate May 6, 2012 at 1:25 am

    I thank God for you Michael so often. And once again reasing this blog post i am thankful! You are a gift to us all.

  17. God is imaginary. Celebrating the mystery of life together with others is awesome. Ancient exclusionary religions, like Christianity, that teach belief before reality are poison. Belief religions kill, oppress and languish in the shadowy demonic ideas of the past. As long as you stay in your provincial, tribal religion and lead people astray, cognitive dissonance will you haunt you like a furry. Giving up ignorance and comforting familiar superstitions is scary, but you will gain untold peace, happiness, cognition, love and incredible friends. Don’t go back into the dark comfortable cave. Come into the light and begin the co-creation.

  18. Who is to say why God does what He does; but, I believe that when we go through faith experiences we need to share them with others; thank you.

    I have been struggling with this for months, maybe years now; however, this Easter Sunday…my God light turned off; and it terrifies me. I don’t know if I am in fear because of all I have been taught within the confines of Christianity; and if it true, than I shall perish…and not bound toward heaven. Or if my terror comes from finding that my new beliefs resonate true…and, I need to find a new way to navigate through life. The strangest thing about this all, is that I still believe in God; I just can’t currently (or perhaps never, again) subscribe to the story of Jesus attached to my belief in God.

    Regardless, thank you for sharing…it was very helpful; and keep me in your prayers, results come what may.

  19. andelina chong June 18, 2015 at 3:47 am

    im very happy to hv chanced upon this page. im at the stage of serious doubt now…. thinking of ‘divorcing ‘God as the trial is too long 2 years in jul 2015…. im exhausted . hence i set my deadline to decide nxt mth . but when i share with fellow christians abt that, some scolded me that i shouldnt hv such thoughts… i feel even worse. i feel relieved when u said that God is responsible for faith not human . i dont know wat i will see nxt mth , huge victory or failure….

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