The loud silence of disbelief

The loud silence of disbelief

What’s the surest way to shut down conversation in a group of Christians? It’s to say you’re not sure what you believe anymore.

Ask me how I know this.

Several years ago now, I started doubting the fundamentals of the faith. It crept up on me—and scared me—so I kept it hidden away in my psyche, even from myself. I was too scared to examine the thoughts I was having.

At the same time, my husband was stepping up efforts to start a para-church organization, and possibly even a home church. We had a new baby, our first and a rather challenging little guy. I felt overwhelmed by life and parenting; becoming a de facto pastor’s wife on top of everything else was just too much.

I poured it out, finally, to him. I told him I wasn’t sure the idea of God even made sense anymore. I told him I felt like praying was thinking thoughts in my head and imagining someone else could hear them and that it sounded literally crazy.

I didn’t know what to do with the doubting, these questions that I now at last allowed myself to examine: Did God exist? Did prayer make a difference? Was there life after death? I had grown up taking on these articles of faith as a matter of course. I had prayed “the prayer” at four years old, with my father. I had never once, since then until now, had any doubt, ever. I couldn’t fathom not believing—until now, when it all crumbled around me.

To his credit, my husband didn’t abandon me and my doubts. I’d been very much afraid he would be as appalled with me as I was with myself, as I might have been in his shoes if he’d confessed such a thing to me. We had married, after all, with an understanding that we were equally yoked. Now I wasn’t holding up my side.

Instead, he told me that he, too, had been through a reworking of faith and come out the other side. He told me what he now believed, crystallized and made clearer through his process of doubting. I was hopeful, finally, that facing the doubts would make them (maybe) go away, or even transform them into a faith that was truer and purer.

My husband encouraged me to talk with other people, to be honest and work through it all in community. We were in an assortment of Bible studies and fellowship groups at the time, so I worked up my courage and said it out loud: I am doubting.

And that’s when I first knew the silence of a full room. People’s gazes slid onto their laps or the suddenly fascinating carpet. Everyone waited for someone else to do something with the person, me, who’d dared to speak the unspeakable. Finally, someone started a new thread of conversation, and the group moved on with relief.

I understood it. When I was staunch in my belief, I could not understand how people could doubt. Hearing that anyone had left the faith made me feel sick, so I knew exactly what these believing friends of mine were experiencing. The shock. The disapproval. The dismay. And, yes, the fear.

It’s threatening when you’re a believer to hear that someone else does not believe. Particularly when it’s someone who did believe and now is not so sure. What if it happens to you, too? you think. Then you shake it off. No, no, it couldn’t. But you worry, and you avoid the person who would drag you down.

I started blogging about it. I was reading some books about faith, and so I tried to write what I was thinking, the process of wrestling with these big questions. The books I found just annoyed me. They were patronizing, written to people who’d never read the Bible, not those who had it practically memorized, like me. They were full of false logic and pat analogies that didn’t hold up. I grew angrier the more I blogged about it, and it was so frustrating to try to write down all of the facets that were going through my head. I’d write one thing, and one of my friends would read it and assume that was the only thing I was thinking. I guess it’s easier to attack a position when you think it’s simplistic.

I tried to get through to the couple of friends who would still talk to me, at all, about doubt. And: it ended our friendship. I was devastated. I really couldn’t be honest about this with anyone, except my husband. And I began to feel that he, too, was growing tired of swirling round and round the same questions with me.

I realized my honesty about my doubts had had these results: one person who read my blog posts decided to try to reconvert me and gave me books to read (the same trite and revolting sort I’d already tried to stomach). This was at least sweet and a nice attempt, though completely misguided. A couple of people who read my blog posts left encouraging comments; I treasured those. Everyone else I knew ignored it completely, even when we met in person. I knew they’d read what I wrote, but it was a taboo subject, apparently. I wasn’t brave enough anymore to push the issue. After all, I’d lost two dear friendships over it and threatened my marriage.

Someone who was a blithe sort of atheist once asked me how on earth I couldn’t just walk away. Walk away? From my whole life? From my extended family and in-laws? From all my friends? From the music I like? From the way my husband wants us to raise our children? This isn’t a simple matter of philosophy; this is a whole culture. Faith had been my whole life so far.

I was done with honesty.

I slipped the mask back on. I deleted the blog posts. I stopped blogging there altogether, because what was the point? Either no one was listening, or no one wanted to hear.

I started pretending again. Our family found a new church to attend, and I haven’t let anyone there know the truth.

It’s a struggle, every week, every meeting, to keep it back inside. I falter when my son asks me about our faith, wanting to know if God is pretend like the Tooth Fairy, and I don’t know what to tell him except the party line, which I mouth reluctantly as if I’m lying to him. But telling the truth, to anyone, is too much risk, as I’ve learned. I know what happens if I speak honestly, and I don’t want to hear that roomful of silence again.