Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Desert island doubt

One time, at the dinner table, I challenged my Dad to pretend to be an evolutionist, and I would prove him wrong with my solid creationist rhetoric. I think I was eight at the time.

I was always very confident that God exists; not just that, but I was, since my earliest years, absolutely certain of all the most important Christian doctrines, creation, the incarnation, atonement, salvation by grace alone, and so on. I think I prayed the sinner's prayer at age four or five.

One time, when I was about four, before we sang "The B-I-B-L-E", Miss Natalie asked us Sunday school kids, "Who wrote the Bible?" Most of the kids said, "God" or "Jesus". I said, "Holy men who were taught by the Holy Spirit," I'd memorized that line in the children's catechism.

Dad declined my challenge to a duel. He knew that I was sure, at age eight, that I could bring the most ardent evolutionist to his knees with my knowledge of creation science, and he didn't want to indulge my fantasy.


Another time, I had read a book about whales. It said that whales have tiny leg bones, signs that their ancestors were land-dwelling. I told my brother that this was making me reconsider evolution, maybe there's something to it. This was a terrifying thought to me, because if evolution is true then the Bible is false and Christianity is a sham, and I didn't want to know how terrible it would be to be an atheist. The crushing meaninglessness would probably lead me to suicide.

My brother ratted me out to our parents. Dad talked with me about this, and gave me some good reasons to trust the Bible and not worry about tiny leg bones in whales. I felt reassured.

Kids tell ghost stories not because they think the ghost stories are true, but because they know they're not. Whenever I would hear a ghost story, I would feel scared, and then find a way to not be scared, I would find some courage in myself, and then forget about the story because it's not true and I never really thought it was. The point, for me, was in feeling brave.

I think I told my brother about the leg bones in the whales because I was a little scared and I wanted him to be a little scared, too, but neither he nor I wanted to lose our faith, and so I don't think whale leg bones could have led to our apostasy.

I don't think that my dad was trying to indoctrinate me or anything, it's not like he needed to squelch any doubt in the family; he just didn't want me to be too scared.

There are lots of books that purport to provide good reasons to believe in God, but I don't see a lot of nonbelievers reading them and converting to Christianity. It's mostly Christians that read these books and that are persuaded by their arguments.


One day, when I was twelve, I got very worried. I doubted that I could know for sure that God is honest. I believed the Bible to be absolutely, authentically, the word of God, I was certain that God exists. I just wondered how we could know for sure that God loves us and isn't putting on this whole universe as a prank for us.

I was very scared. I slept poorly that night. I was distracted the next day. Through this, I didn't tell anyone about what I was thinking, what was troubling me.

I finally felt relief when two thoughts came to mind for me. One was that people lie when they don't have much power, or are afraid of losing it. Little kids lie all the time. The Lewinsky scandal was going on around then, and I thought of how Bill Clinton was obviously lying about the matter, because he was afraid that he would lose his job, or at least look bad, and he was threatened, so he told a lie, a kind of dumb one. But God, even a malevolent God, wouldn't need to lie.

The other thought I had was that when God speaks, he says how things will be, for sure. He wants light, he says, "Let there be light." I believed, at the time, that the tiniest motions of atoms were governed by God; if God were a liar, the universe would be a mass of conversion, gravity might go up instead of down on alternate Tuesdays or the sun might turn green if God were in a bad mood, or ducks might fly north in the winter.

Most of the time that I hear about people doubting, it's either because they get some new information about God or because something tough is going on for them, personally, and they can't find meaning in that situation. For me, this worry about whether God's a liar doesn't fit in either category, I was just wandering around the house in my socks and it came to me.

I think my doubt was a different sort of doubt, the sort one could have while marooned on a desert island. I could have figured out how to live well enough on the island, going fishing and gathering coconuts, I'd have a nice bamboo hut, and I'd go swimming in the sunny afternoons. And then, one evening, while having a pleasant supper of mangoes and bananas, with no forewarning, I'd think, "Maybe God's a liar", or, "How do I know God's moral intuition is sound? Just because he's big doesn't mean he's right." or, "If all human reasoning is folly before God, how do I know that my belief in God isn't folly itself?"

In books on apologetics, I see a lot of material talking about evidence that God exists or defenses against arguments like the problem of evil or various theological nitpicks like apparent contradictions in the scriptures. I see less material addressing these blunt desert-island doubts.

One time, in college, a friend was worried about how he could know that God is honest, and I told him about my doubting when I was twelve and the two ideas that made me decide I could trust God. That comforted him, he felt better, so much so that he told a lot of people what I'd said.

And now, I think that what I told myself to get over that bit of doubt is a little fishy. Just because God doesn't need to lie to get his way doesn't mean he wouldn't lie just because he felt like it. Also, if God were to tell lies, nature would be no more disordered than he would want it to be. He could make it look as orderly as it is as a ruse. I feel bad about having given a leaky reassurance to my friend.

I doubted a fair amount when I was a teenager, but it was truly a fake doubt. I would set up something to doubt about, and I'd find a good-enough-for-me way to get over the doubt, and that made me feel even more confident in my belief in God. That one desert island doubt, the one about whether God is a liar, it sticks so clearly in my mind because, all the other times, doubt didn't feel nearly as difficult. I know that I avoided many difficult doubts because I truly wanted to believe and I didn't know if I might stumble across a doubt that had no resolution.


  1. i think some of the gnostics said that hashem was a liar.

    the world is much "safer" without supernatural entities...even if religious people are talking to "something" that doesn't mean it's the only "something" in the universe or even a good "something." i posed this question to a few christians: "how do you know that person you are talking to, regardless of how great he makes you feel, and regardless of all the pleasantries he tells you, is not a devil from hell?" i believe that to be a "hard problem" of religious epistemology.


  2. That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. And, when you and Zach presented those sorts of problems to me, I didn't even understand them at first. Once I did, I was confused, and in a delightful way.

  3. Okay, so, how do we know that the "something" we're talking to is not a devil from hell?

    We ask: what are the fruits? That's the Jesus test, whether we believe in Him or not. Narnia fans might call it the Tash/Aslan test.

    No matter what we call the "something" we're praying to, or devoting ourselves to -- Jesus, Allah, Buddha, the Sungod, Self -- if the results of that prayer and devotion are food for the hungry and kindness to children and the stranger within our gates, well, who cares if you "think" you're serving Aslan or Tash?

    And the reverse is also true: no matter who you "think" you're praying to, if the result is homophobia, child molestation coverups, greed, and a disregard for the environment, then I say you're listening to a devil from hell, regardless of whether you "think" you're listening to God or Allah or Santa Claus.

    What are the fruits of your faithfulness? What are the fruits of your doubt? Are you creating in action the kind of world you want to live in?

  4. Just decided to visit your site for the first time. Interesting. My greatest doubt has always been about Jesus - What if He was just a crazy egomaniacal man? The answer I always go back to is the resurrection- He couldn't fake that and I can't believe it's a conspiracy - not something that big and important. It just wouldn't hold together when the orginators of it were scattered so far and wide and persecuted to severely for spreading it. It would've been exposed. So I have to believe that He really rose and that means I have to believe that He really is who He claims to be. Of course, most of the time that's not what keeps me believing. Most of the time what keeps me believing is my utter need for Him and my real awareness of His presence in my life. Most days you'd have an easier time convincing me that Barack Obama doesn't exist because God is more real to me in my everyday life than the President. On some days, though, the doubs still come and so back I go to the resurrection.

  5. Jason, what if the resurrection was a prank to get people to believe that Jesus loved them? What if he was immune to the suffering, and faked it, just to reel us in? I don't mean to be cynical, I just wonder what those questions could mean, and how we could go about knowing that they're not true.

    "Most of the time what keeps me believing is my utter need for Him and my real awareness of His presence in my life." That sounds like believing something because of what you get out of the belief, rather than because you have evidence behind your belief.

  6. Alex, thanks for putting this into words for me- "believing something because of what you get out of the belief, rather than because you have evidence behind your belief."

    I think I'm working through this right now.