Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Brain Surgery and Bible Studies

One of the many benefits of expressing my doubts about Christianity and God both on this blog and in my personal life has been the normalization of my doubts. It feels now as if my faith crisis is a normal and expected experience for someone who is serious about her religious beliefs and serious about seeking the Truth. I no longer feel like I am an outlier with whom no one can relate.

I have no empirical studies to back up my personal experience, but I've certainly noticed some similarities among individuals like me who seriously wrestle with issues of faith and religion, whether they be Christian or atheist. One similarity is their deep commitment to their religion (whether currently or in the past). Richard Beck writes about this at his blog and defines this attribute as religiosity. Richard Beck, who is an experimental psychologist, described himself as religiously precocious during childhood. I love that description and connect well with it. I, too, was such a child. I took notes on sermons in elementary school and held Bible studies with other children in hopes of saving them. I had definite opinions about which Bible translation I preferred and requested a new NIV as a gift in lieu of a senior class ring. I helped lead our youth group, started a Bible study group at my high school, went on evangelistic campaigns with my youth group in the summers. In college I majored in both psychology and vocational ministry and went on mission trips to Hungary. I married a preacher and was quite happy to fill the role of "preacher's wife." I truly couldn't understand why most people around me weren't so naturally interested in knowing and living out God's Word. It's only now that I realize how unusual I was as a child for my religious zeal. I've noticed that many who have lost their faith started out like me, and perhaps because of this zeal, studied intensely and worked themselves out of the faith they defended so fervently.

The other similarity I've noticed among those who wrestle with doubts about their faith is that they are often analytical types, whose thought pattern can often be described as obsessive. They are problem solvers who tenaciously puzzle over solutions to quandaries they encounter. They can't let it go. There often isn't a lot of choice in the matter. They feel compelled to pursue, to find an answer. This describes me well. I've been amazed at the number of individuals I've encountered online who, if not theologians or philosophers, are engineers or computer programmers or scientists. In the book club I started at church to discuss science and religion, just about everyone is (or was) an engineer or in the computer field (except for a couple of psychologist types). Careers quite befitting detail-oriented, problem solvers.

On the other hand, I have friends and family who truly don't seem to struggle with these faith issues. Even if they try. They either can't get enthused about religion and faith or they just don't feel intensely bothered by the unanswered questions and contradictions that plague my thoughts and prevent me from "trusting in the promises".

What is the point of all this? Maybe there is none. But, I have to wonder, how much sense does it make for one's salvation to depend on whether or not you happen to have the right personality type? So little of our personality is under our control. It's an intricate interplay between environmental factors and genetics. One strong blow to the head can alter our personality permanently. Maybe baptism isn't enough to give one a "new life" leading to salvation. Maybe neurosurgery is also in order.


  1. I too was quite devout as a child. I grew up Southern Baptist and that kind out of devoutness was rewarded and sought after. I guess my personality was wired to be an obedient kid. The questions started in high school, and I've wondered how the flood of questions must coincide with some point of adolescent develomental stage for higher critical thinking, mixed in with a personality type to be extremely analytical. But as long as I kept my brain busy with academics, I was able to successfully coexist with my doubt. I often wonder how much of my faith crisis was attributed to post-partum symptoms, mixed with being in church with cultish theology and pressure to conform.

    I've also pondered the role of personality/brain wiring on the ability to have faith. A few months ago I was particularly obsessed with this idea due to my fustration with Calvinisim - i.e. being convinced that I'm unelect. I've since abandoned most of my fear of Calvinism and think the concept of limited atonement is just ridiculous, because with all we know about neurobiology, the idea of election and lack of free will is worse than the idea of atheistic evolution (i.e. no free will).

  2. Weird.

    While generalizations are dangerous (of course)…I was pretty obsessed with being committed to Christianity. Be at church services, lead groups, help out with VBS, etc., etc., etc. And I, too, obsess over analyzing questions, and looking for answers.

    Your description may not fit every deconvert—it certainly fits me.

    I’ve wondered and discussed what it is about the same question causing me to spend hours researching, causes the person next to me to shrug and move on. Personality? Partly. Upbringing? Definitely. Circumstances in life? Absolutely.

    So why do so many of us approach the issue of theism as “one-size-fits-all”? Why do so many say, “You have to do _______” when we should be tailoring our relationship towards the particular needs of the other person?

  3. Check out this link - kind of relevant: http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2007/07/31/finding-faithlosing-faith-1/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+PatheosJesusCreed+%28Jesus+Creed%29

  4. You have me down in the third paragraph; obsessive problem solver, can't let a problem go, engineer. But the first paragraph is not me, I did not grow up in a Christian setting. Interesting to see how so many variables are at play in what we believe.

    "Maybe baptism isn't enough to give one a "new life" leading to salvation. Maybe neurosurgery is also in order."

    No thanks! Would you go in for it? :^)

  5. Like A Child,
    I'm thankful for your sake that you've been able to leave behind most of your fear of Calvinism. I've watched in sympathy as tormented people struggle with this doctrine. The church of Christ is Arminian, so I have struggled with the concept of free will. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. We have some free will. Some. Beck writes an interesting post about why he rejects both Calvinism and Arminianism and accepts Universalism. Do you think atheistic evolution neccessarily implies lack of free will?

    Well, the shoe certainly fits you, but you're right, my observations certainly don't apply to all or even most deconverts. As a psychologist, I guess I just can't help looking for commonalities and creating personality profiles. Guess that's more professional training than genetics.

    I wish more of us could be less dogmatic about our approach to theism. I suppose there are a variety of reasons for our inability to hold our beliefs more lightly and approach others with humility. Growing up in my faith tradition, there was the ever looming threat of hell to prevent one from deviating from accepted practice. I think interpreting scripture in the ONE correct way (given that scripture was infallible and obvious in meaning *cough*) and then believing the resulting correct doctrines became The Way, The Truth, and The Life. No one comes to the Father but by correct beliefs, as the Bible says*grin*. Therefore, no room was left for dialogue and meeting the "particular needs of the other person." That's my 2 cents.


    I'll pass on the neurosurgery as well! My 6 yr old son believes in a literal heart surgery that will occur in heaven when God opens our hearts and lets the bad angel fly out of it and sends it to Hell while the good angel flies out and that becomes who we are in heaven.

  6. I grew up in a very dogmatic home and church. Whenever someone would ask a serious question regarding the existence or nature of God they were chastised. As a child and young adult I shrugged off my doubts and would more strongly embrace my beliefs (I.e. Church doctrine). I have finally allowed myself to question everything and have about come to the conclusion that ignorance is bliss. Unfortunately, that's one genie you can't put
    Back into the bottle.

  7. NearlyWithoutHope,
    In the end, I hope you find that it's a blessing to have allowed yourself the freedom to question, as unsettling and hopeless as it may feel now. I think it shows strength and integrity on your part.

  8. A survey on this would be outstanding! The obsessive problem solver/researcher description fits me like a glove! I wrote a three part post (LINK) about my tendencies to research by discussing what resulted from a friend proposing a multi-level marketing opportunity to me (short story: I figured out the summation behind the payout and wrote a 20ish page paper about it). I compared that endeavor with what's going on now with faith.

    I was also a very, very strong believer. I have had periods of going to adoration every night for a month, I prayed about marrying my wife, prayed about buying a house, sought to have personal prayer time with scripture every morning, loved praise and worship, etc.

    Here's my bit to add, though: my biggest frustration is that in all my years of friendship no one challenged my methodology or conclusions on much at all with other problem solving endeavors. No one criticized my choice of a mini-van, to marry my wife, the digital camera I chose, etc. Perhaps some personal differences of preference were voiced, by no one has outright said I didn't try hard enough or didn't read enough, for example. In fact, many ask me for advice on making similar decisions, especially with purchases and technology.

    Why in the world, then, when it comes to religion have I felt completely criticized in my thinking processes? I'm just doing what I always do. I loved you line about perhaps not even having control. I just want to know what is, not what I'd prefer, what I'd like, what's convenient, etc. What is. Therefore I attack knowledge to try and figure it out and want to get as close as I can.

    Anyway, just wanted to add that... It frustrates me immensely that no one in my circles has even considered that there might actually be some real problems with the god hypothesis. It's me who's wrong to even question and if I arrive at the unfavored conclusion... it's obviously me who's gone wrong somewhere.

    Oh, and even if I read all the suggested books... then it's a moral agenda or I want to spit in god's face :)

  9. Hendy,
    Your link provided a great "personal testimony" of the deeply religious, analytical type! Yes, the criticizing that goes on about our approach to finding answers is maddening. Apparently, some things are just off limits for analysis.

  10. Yeah, I think I need brain science. Yup, I was religiously precocious. Yes, I have an obsessive, analytic personality. No, I can't just "trust the promises." Damn it.

    But yes, I think the greatest skeptics and atheists are very akin to the greatest faithful. They are of the same cloth.

    I have often remarked that i am a man of great faith and great doubt. And both of these men have to live in my body... Lord help me.