Atheism: Is it the result of spiritual trauma?

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When you’re a non-believer, people tell you all the time why you believe what you believe.  “You’re just rebelling.”  “You had a lapse of faith.”  “This is just a phase.”  “You’re mad at God about something and you’re just acting out.”  These (often unsolicited) comments, and countless like them, are usually easily dismissed out of hand.  Some people offer these suggestions in good faith, wondering why you left what brings them so much joy, comfort or purpose.  Other people offer their uninvited analysis of your beliefs to be shitty since they still hold the moral high ground as God’s representatives.  Today, though, one of these suggestions on the cause for non-belief got me thinking.  This person, who is very genuine and well-intentioned, suggested that a person will move from belief to atheism because they had been “spiritually damaged”.

Spiritually Damaged I’ve heard this one before, but this time the source seemed to have some pretty decent credibility in the area.  She also wasn’t coming from the angle of judgement or justification like so many others who came before her. It’s pretty likely that she has seen some friends who were once strong in the faith drift into apathy due to a bit of spiritual trauma in their life. I, too, have seen people let personality conflicts, stresses in everyday life, the death of a loved one or other difficulties push their religious habits to the fringe of their routine. The difference between this friend and me is that I don’t see this as a bad thing.

To say that spiritual damage has never pulled someone into apathy, even disbelief, doesn’t appear to be a defensible position. Is this always true, though? The other question that follows is, “Is it the chicken or the egg?” What came first, the individual’s doubt or the trauma? Isn’t it entirely possible that the very mental disposition to give up belief in the supernatural has been lying suppressed, only to gain traction when the shit hits the fan?

“Trauma” Reveals Mistaken Trust Consider it… for years or decades, a religious individual invests in the notion that through their efforts they’re “building up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume”. The faithful also believe in promises in Hebrews 13 and Deuteronomy 31 where God promises that, “I will by no means leave you nor by any means forsake you.” The spiritual man hears this so often that he believes it, he relies on the truth of it. These beliefs are a security blanket, an insurance policy against anguish and morbid fear.

Sadly, as is the case so often in any of our lives, bad times come. In the days and weeks after a trauma, the spiritual person looks for the comfort they’ve been investing in for much of their life, for all of their religious life. What happens when he/she discovers that the well has been dry all along? What happens when they look to God for comfort, not expecting a miracle to remove the trouble, but just looking for a payback on the spiritual investment of decades? Trauma came, the person shaken, looking for a spiritual “hug” of sorts… only to find they’re shivering, alone.

When faith gets shaken and doubts roll in, why is the “trauma” to blame? Isn’t it evident that the tumult was actually just the decoder ring that revealed what the spiritual person might have suspected all along? All of the doubts that had to be suppressed because he/she didn’t want to appear to be spiritually weak… All of the times that the spiritual person tried to convince himself that his faith was unshakable, that it was rooted on a staunch, unwavering foundation… in those weeks after the “trauma” he realizes that it was nothing more than mental gymnastics, cognitive dissonance, an empty investment.

At that point we realize that it’s not fair to say that spiritual damage is what moved the spiritual man to atheism. The trauma was simply the catalyst, the trial that reveals what was present under the surface all along. Faith is often a tenuous thing. It requires constant reinforcement. It must be surrounded by people of similar conviction. It must be fueled by frequent (almost constant) reinforcement refueling via study, worship, fellowship.  One might reason that faith in such a powerful thing as the almighty God of the universe would be unshakable, no matter the trial or adversity. But at the end of the day, it’s so often not the case. Only the most stubborn or determined can maintain their beliefs (or at least continue to profess their belief) when the shit hits the fan. It’s in that moment that they realize that had it been true, had there been a supernatural friend who wouldn’t leave you or forsake you, well… he’d be here now, wouldn’t he? The comfort the spiritual man seeks wouldn’t be forever on the horizon. It would be in his heart, a warm comfort around his shoulders. But instead, another kind of liberation comes from the trauma. Not a liberation from the anguish of the moment, but freedom from the tyranny of false hope, of living up to an imaginary standard (sin) that is the cruelest taskmaster of all (even thinking the wrong thoughts is an offense).

What about scriptural promises that ensure the reader that God will not allow you to be tested “beyond what you can bear”?  What about the example of Job who lost everything only to be rewarded?  Does the argument that God is “refining” someone with incredibly grievous trials hold water?  Is a slide into atheism a failure of such a test?  Did the “trauma” simply expose a weakness in the follower?  My answer to that comes, not as a former believer, but as a parent.  While it’s true that our kids often do have to learn lessons for themselves, would any loving parent allow dreadful calamity to befall our child just to teach them?

There’s a pretty significant difference between allowing our child to fail an assignment because they ignored our reminders to do their homework and not reaching out and stopping them from getting hit by a bus, because, after all, we have reminded them before about looking both ways.  If God is love, as 1 John 5:3 suggests, why would he allow torture, murder, sexual abuse of children, starvation, centuries-long wars, battery, birth defects, cancer, etc.?  Are these “traumas” for our purification?  Is it spiritual damage that weakens us?  Or is it spiritual damage that causes us to pause (reluctantly) and consider, “If I were God, would these things exist?”  As soon as you answer that question honestly, you’re almost assured of being a non-believer.  If you had the ability to stop a child from being molested, would you?  That is the difference between any healthy person and God.

In the end, the “spiritual damage” reveals that the harm that’s been done has been from the “belief” itself all along. Giving up on belief is the natural product of logical reasoning and basic human morality. Faith and reason are incompatible. Spiritual damage, along with the trauma that causes it, can actually tear the band-aid off of a wound that has needed to heal for decades.  It’s a wound that festers due to unfulfilled promises and unsustainable beliefs.  Like someone suffering incredible thirst who gives in and drinks seawater, swallowing these empty assurances robs us of our chances of sustaining a happy, healthy life.  Spiritual damage may actually be the mental and emotional distillation we need to finally put the reins to our life in our own hands.  Embrace the spiritual damage, the trauma… it may very well be a “blessing” in disguise.

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