Since they were discovered alive, television here has been carrying the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped in a mine on a daily basis. Today they interviewed a psychologist who has studied the psychic characteristics of those who survive experiences like this and asked him if people’s faith helped get them through.
“Sometimes,” he said. What he found to be the critical characteristic, though, was not faith but a coherent and strong sense of the structure of reality. It did not need to be faith-based.
The psychologist was then asked what percentage of people lose their faith following a near-death experience or long-term trauma like being trapped underground for months. He said about a third.
Apparently, those who lose their faith in circumstances like this feel that God has betrayed his half of the bargain. God is indeed anthropomorphized into The Lord who asks for loyalty and faithfulness in exchange for his protection. Faith is lost when God fails to provide that protection.
The discussion led me to wonder about the different reasons people abandon the faith in which they have believed. In addition to feeling that God has failed, I think there are two other significant causes.
The first is that the doctrine no longer makes sense. It seems childish or superstitious or simply out of tune with the view of the world revealed by modern science.
The second loss of faith is a result of the actions of those people, especially those who are religious leaders, who make moral demands which they themselves do not honour. The Roman Catholic today is losing millions of members in the developed world as scandals are uncovered. Particularly damaging are the cases of pedophilia which the Church has consistently tried to cover up.
Personally, I was never taught to believe in a God who would take care of me if I would follow him. On the contrary, my up-bringing taught me to expect suffering for following Jesus who was crucified before he rose from the dead. My mother’s death at the age of 48 when she left behind ten children, the youngest of whom was six years old did not present even a glimmer of a crisis to my faith.
Similarly, I have always found it strangely egocentric for people to thank God for saving them from some disaster. There is a church in the village where we lived in Spain built by sailors who promised that if God saved them from a storm that was threatening their boat they would build this monument in thanksgiving. There are those in Haiti today who thank God for saving them. But what kind of sadistic God would it be anyway who tortures many of his creatures but arbitrarily will save some who nonetheless are tortured and threatened first? I was never tempted to give up belief in that God because that is not a God I ever believed in.
Interestingly, I was never tempted to give up belief in God because of the sinfulness of members of the Church either.. I saw a lot of it up close in religious men and women. And though it made me angry and I recognized it as hypocritical, I rather thought the Church was meant to be a place for sinners and getting to be a nun or priest, even a bishop or cardinal, didn’t provide automatic sanctity.
I take this limitation of the Church much more seriously now than I did, and it is one reason why I could never be tempted to return. “By their fruits you will know them” is advice given by Christ to his followers. For myself, I have seen great goodness and mind-boggling self-serving immorality among believers in about the same proportion as I see it among non-believers. It often takes on a different form, but my own experience doesn’t lead me to believe that being a believer actually elevates a person’s moral calibre.
Being what Jung called a thinker rather than a feeler, I suppose it’s not a surprise that for me it was the dogma of Christianity which ultimately I could not accept. I know an amazing number of people who still consider themselves Christians, who are even overtly practicing Catholics, who are unphased by the fact that they simply don’t accept what seem to me to be essential dogmas. Not just rather silly things like the virgin birth but the divinity of Christ, the real Eucharistic presence, or the resurrection. I mean, I don’t believe them either, but I don’t consider myself a believer.