Doubting God’s existence is part of being human. While most of us blindly believed what we were taught, there were probably doubts in the backs of our minds when it came to unanswered prayers or disquieting thoughts. Nevertheless, we moved forward despite our feelings.
When we face our doubts and start rationalizing beliefs with truth and facts, we do so cautiously because warnings were built into our scriptural interpretations and dogmas.
In Mark 9:16-29, for example, Jesus rebukes his disciples for their lack of belief and not being able to cast a demon out of a boy. He then chastises the boy’s father for his “help us if you can” statement. And in Matthew 18: 3 we’re taught to have belief like that of little children (who believe just about everything without question).
And then there are the verses that remind us God will only love us if we blindly obey him. John 15:9 says, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love.” Deuteronomy 11 tells us to keep God’s commands or be cursed.
No wonder we feel a cloud hanging over our heads when we start to question what we once believed. And when we suddenly lose our job, our car ends up in the shop, or we dive deeply into depression, we can’t help but ask, “Is God punishing me for doubting him?”
Just as we saw signs that proved our beliefs were true – getting the job we wanted, a loved one who’s cancer went into remission, or a home loan that went through – we will also see signs that reinforce our belief that we’re being disobedient, or being punished by God. That’s how belief works: we interpret experiences that confirm what we already believe.
Michael Shermer says that belief is the natural state of being human. Our brains look for patterns to make sense of our worlds. It’s those patterns, in fact, that help us learn through what is called associative learning. We connect pieces of information by creating stories and fit those patterns into our stories of belief.
In other words, if I believe God is punishing me for questioning his existence, I will automatically attribute anything negative that’s happening in my life as punishment. A repair bill at the time of my doubt is thought of differently than the same repair bill during a spiritual high.
Shermer says that looking for patterns produces two types of errors: 1) we believe a pattern is real when it is not (superstition), or 2) we don’t believe a pattern is true when it is (Denial).
Before Judaism and Christianity, humans’ belief in the divine was much simpler. The idea of a personal god didn’t exist until a little over two thousand years ago. Prior to that time, there were multiple gods with multiple responsibilities. Those gods were in charge of the different aspects of nature, such as weather, harvest, and fertility.
A labyrinth of ideas was created to appease these gods when the weather was especially brutal, the crops were not growing, or women were unable to bear children. The appeasement, whether to sacrifice a virgin in a volcano, or laying out a plate of food, was because of the belief that if believers did “A,” then the gods would do “B.”
Our fears of punishment are usually based on beliefs about a God who is small, insecure, threatened, and punitive. These fears are not rational. If the God we believe in is the God of all truth, then facts, logical thinking, and discovery would be celebrated, not punished. Doubts are not a hindrance to faith, but believing one already has the truth is.
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