Doubt after atheism
Occasionally I’m asked if I ever have doubts about God’s existence since my conversion to Christianity from lifelong atheism. The answer isn’t a clear yes or a clear no, because I’ve found that there are different types of doubt. In my experience, here’s how it’s broken down:
1. Doubt based on failure of imagination
There is a certain type of surprisingly painful doubt that could be broadly described as “failure of imagination.” I will be honest and say that there have been moments when I’m talking with God in prayer or asking for the intercession of some saint and that old, comfortable atheistic way of thinking flashes back to mind, and I pause and think, “This is ridiculous.” It’s all so difficult to imagine. The God who loves me yet seems so hidden, the saints in heaven, the angels watching over us — what outlandish concepts! Having lived my entire life as an atheist up until relatively recently, it’s very easy to just take the world at face value and imagine that there is nothing else to it other than what we see in the material world.
Sometimes these moments of doubt even stretch out for weeks or months, and it makes for a lonely, dry (and, honestly, kind of boring) spiritual life. It’s no fun. But what it ultimately comes down to is not receiving consolation combined with a failure of imagination: God is allowing me to have a spiritual dry spell in the sense that I don’t “feel” his presence, and I can’t wrap my mind around the idea of an afterlife or conceive of God or think up good answers to every single mystery of the faith. The concepts are so different and huge, they stretch my mind’s ability to grasp them.
Since the normal way I engage with the world is either to directly observe the things around me or at least be able to imagine them (say, with atoms or radio waves or other unseen things), it’s easy to have a poorly-thought-out gut reaction of throwing up my hands and saying, “If I can’t see it or imagine it, it must not be there!” And that’s where this type of doubt comes from.
2. Doubt based on irrational frustration
In some ways my spiritual ineptitude and stubborn refusal to rely on God has benefited me in this area, because there have only been a few times that I’ve experienced this. But when I do, it’s usually an emotional, intense form of doubt.
It comes about when I have asked God for something that I really wanted — maybe I even felt certain that I’d received some message in prayer that he was going to give it to me — and then it doesn’t work out. There’s this feeling of, “I was really, really, really counting on you, God, and you let me down,” which, if I’m particularly upset, can easily verge into, “…so maybe you just don’t exist.” It stems from some mix of resentment, frustration and refusal to trust that God’s plan might be better than mine.
Luckily I’m usually able to recognize this form of doubt and quickly banish it based on how totally irrational it is — after all, it is not a tenet of the faith that praying to God is like giving orders to a waiter in a restaurant who will run off and get you what you asked for. Not getting something you prayed for, even if you really needed or wanted it, is to be expected in the Christian life. The problem is not that God doesn’t exist or isn’t listening, but that none of us knows all the details of his will for the world — but we can take comfort in knowing that God can bring good from any situation. (This book is a great source of inspiration on that subject if anyone else struggles with that.)
3. Doubt based on lack of compelling evidence
This is the one type of doubt that I have not experienced since converting to Christianity. One of the benefits of converting entirely based on study, not having a single “religious experience,” is that my decision to become a Catholic Christian was simply because that’s where the data led me. Though at first it bothered me because it was a very dry kind of faith, it’s ended up benefitting me because my beliefs were founded on nothing other than an observation that this belief system was far more reasonable than any other.
It wasn’t that I found atheism to be entirely unreasonable; it’s that I found Christianity to be more reasonable. Obviously I couldn’t prove in a laboratory that all the Christian claims were true, but I found that it offered enough compelling evidence to back up the claims of its origins, as well as an overall worldview that was a better “box top” to the puzzle of life and the universe than what atheism offered.
Elizabeth Esther recently wrote a brutally honest post about doubt keeping her up at night; I can honestly say that I haven’t experienced this. I think that that’s one of the big upsides of having such a boring conversion: if I’m lying awake at night and experience the first two types of doubt, I can recognize them for what they are — a failure of imagination or an irrational response to not getting my way. Then I recall the reasons I converted in the first place, mentally reviewing the bookshelves full of books that led me to where I am today. I think of how every single time I have asked a tough question and compared the atheist answer to the Catholic answer, I have only grown more confident in my faith. I ask myself: “Do I really think that atheism is more reasonable than Catholic Christianity?” Even when I’m feeling fatigued by spiritual dryness, frustrated by not being able to understand how it all works or even angry at God’s silence, that question always leads me to just smile, roll over and go to sleep.