When I was a Freshman at a small Christian college, I took a Philosophy 101 course. I read Camus, and Nietszche, and Aristotle, and Augustine, all under the tutalage of a caring, prodding, sometimes infuriating philosophy professor. Up until that point, faith had always been a given. Certainly, I had occasional uncomfortable questions (is eternal torment really a reasonable response to sin from an all-loving God?) but generally I didn’t let those questions trouble me. My Evangelical surroundings worked hard to reinforce the assurance that my particular early 21st century brand of Evangelicalism was certain and reasonable, and that it was the outsiders who were delusional, or working from incomplete evidence.
My Philosophy class, in conjunction with a horrific trauma when I was nineteen, blew apart my pristine Evangelical world. As I read the atheists and existentialists, I discovered something about myself that absolutely horrified me: I agreed with them. I resonated deeply with their message of a wonderful, meaningless, Godless universe, and that we can only find light and meaning within ourselves. This experience opened a Pandora’s box of doubt.
I wrote an email to my professor asking him how, with all he knows of these various philosophies, he can remain a Christian. He responded by saying that he regularly experiences a crisis of faith – about once a year – and that he sees it as his unwritten job description, as professor of Philosophy, to ignite crises of faith in his students.
It is years later now, and the Pandora’s Box of doubt has never closed. It can’t be closed – not truly, not honestly, and not with any integrity. Ever since that first moment when doubt came flying into my life, like a tormenting spirit, it has never left. I’ve often tried to be an atheist, or at the very least an agnostic, but I’ve also discovered with anguish that my religion cannot be exorcized by the rites and crucifix of Enlightenment or Reason. I live somewhere between belief and unbelief. I find myself in a custody battle between my inner Richard Dawkins and Richard Rohr. It’s a place I didn’t choose, and I often look with envy on those who live blissfully atheistic or untroubled dogmatic lives.
As I’ve battled for years with this internal dissonance, I’ve realized that there is one thing that is too often missing from public discussions about belief, and doubt, and skeptecism, and the rightness or wrongness or religion: it hurts. It hurts like fire. Hell might not be real, but doubt is a hell unto itself.
A friend of mine, on one dark night in college, went on a long walk with me in the mountains. He was processing the same things I was: the collision of his faith with the world. He voiced unanswerable questions: how can he know? Was everything his parents taught him a lie? And how can he know if it is a lie? After some processing, he finally crouched down to the ground, and screamed. It rose up from his gut, his deepest places, and it echoed off the mountains.
I will never forget my friend’s scream, because I’ve felt it. The darkness between faith and unbelief is a horror, a pain, a surgury without anaesthetic, that too many do not fathom. I see the debate between skeptics and religious happen on a clinical level, as if we are dissecting frogs instead of human beings. This is dehumanizing, and this is wrong.
I stop, and think about all the stories of dissonance I’ve heard. The day an ex-boyfriend found himself plummeting into atheism, doubting his Catholicism – he described it as a death. My friend from highschool who, after years of struggle, finally embraced atheism, but the process left him so traumatized, he committed suicide. A young man raised in a Christian family who read Richard Dawkins, and was so devestated that he killed himself. (the Christian who told me his story concluded by saying, “well, his faith probably wasn’t very strong to begin with, and that’s why Dawkins got to him,” and I thought what a souless, self-serving thing that was to say.) I know numerous other people who have walked through the fire of doubt – I’ve spoken with them over the phone, corresponded with them, and shared coffee with them – and all of them have the unhealed burns from this internal hell.
My way of coping is one of radical honesty: I try to embrace the dissonance. I’ve come to believe that, whatever it means to be fully human, this is a central part of it. Somehow, in the dark night that exists between faith and disbelief, and the world of agony that it generates – this is where I find myself, my God, my human nature. It is, perhaps, the truest place I’ve ever been. Most days the dissonance is bearable – I’ve made friends with it – other days it feels like it will devour me. I’m still a Christian, but only with the qualification that my doubt will have a voice, will roam free. At the heart of my faith is an irrational and unavoidable paradox: to tame my doubt is to kill my faith.
As I watch the battle rage between religion and skepticism, I want to see more conversations about the pain of being human; about the heartache we all have for truth, the yearning we share for union with something bigger than ourselves. I want to see atheists and religious alike share stories of the the agony of not knowing – the torture of our very home, culture, and worldview being ripped apart. These are human stories, and the conversations about faith and reason are incomplete without them.