The Other I

August 27, 2010

Why do people lose their faith?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 8:57 pm

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.


  1. A connection between the ‘By their fruits you will know them’ reason and the ‘no longer makes sense’ reason came to mind in relation to Graham Greene.

    I may be misquoting a bit but my recollection is that in a number of his novels and other writings he has emphasized the difference between belief and faith. For example he and/or his characters have often lost their belief, but that hasn’t necessarily meant losing their faith.

    I’m probably being simplistic but what this suggests to me is that a person could genuinely come to think eg that the dogmas ‘no longer make sense’, but still have faith that, for example, he/she may come through this state to a greater understanding of the particular mystery, supported by the reassurance that others (specifically fellow Catholics) have also found themselves struggling with this bit of dogma at times.

    Having never been a Catholic I could be seeing something which isn’t there but it has often seemed to me that this dimension of ‘faith’ (as opposed to ‘mere belief’) has both a cosmic, God-related, perspective and an institutional perspective – both of which were crucial components.

    So the ‘faith’ wasn’t just in the superlatives of God – ie that God’s infinite mercy, wisdom, patience, power etc would in the end help the doubting believer through his/her struggle – but it was also in the enormity of the Catholic Church itself – that it too would eventually see the individual through the struggle. Part of the ‘faith’ was to see that the global Catholic Christian fellowship was a hugely greater whole which the doubter should throughout all the doubt still see himself/herself a part of and a member of.

    But now, because of the enormity and specific nature of the abuse and the cover-up (and in particular because it affected children), that institutional aspect of ‘faith’ must have weakened considerably. I could imagine, prior to the scandal, a Catholic sincerely accepting that ‘faith’ would pull him/her through his/her ‘disbelief’. Whereas now it must be much more difficult to maintain that ‘faith’ – and much more rational to see the dogma that faith and belief are chalk and cheese as just another part of the con which it is in the interest of a corrupt institution to maintain?

    Thanks, Chris.


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — August 28, 2010 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

    • Chris – Thank you. You have reminded me of a distinction I was only recently introduced to but that seems to me to have tremendous ramifications – a profound difference between faith and belief. From what I have been able to gather – and I need to read more – the distinction goes as far back as early Christianity when “faith” referred not to doctrine but to a trust in what is, in the world as God created it, and our place in it. It did not mean believing in *any* of the dogmas whose acceptance is now packaged as the core of faith.

      Dogma really came into its own with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity when it was hijacked for purposes of political control. More than a millenium later, Luther again argued for the earlier understanding of faith. When he said we were “justified by faith,” he did not mean we are justified by our cognitive acceptance of “facts” that the Church argued we had to believe in order to be acceptable in the eyes of God. But the Roman Catholic Church continues to demand what is an essentially cognitive acceptance of unprovable facts as evidence of faith.

      But it is not. It is evidence of belief. As you suggest, it may be in the interests of a corrupt institution to demand belief rather than faith in order to maintain its own power.

      From what I can tell, so far, the difference between faith and belief does not necessarily involve clinging to the community or the institution with the hope that eventually somebody will figure things out better than I do. It is possible to abandon belief altogether and still have faith that life – for all its travails and mystery and black holes – is worth living. That being, that the universe, that my life and the lives of all living things – the whole astonishing amazing terrifying process – is worth it. One might even reduce it to saying “Love is enough,” though that might be doing violence to what you meant in one of your blog comments some months ago.

      What do you think? Seriously. I’d be extremely interested in your take on this. I certainly know a lot of disaffected Catholics who would buy it. Including myself, insofar as it involves no more than an act of “faith” that life in its own right is worth living. I do not, as I have said before, believe there is some great divine plan out there which I am supposed to figure out and implement. That idea, for me, degrades, rather than enhances, the value of life.

      Thank you again.


      Comment by theotheri — August 29, 2010 @ 3:24 pm | Reply

  2. I also have been surprised to find people turning away from their religion as a result of finding corruption in the church or having personal circumstances go awry. If I were still a member of the church, I don’t think the pedophilia of the clergy or the starvation of innocent children would destroy my belief (I don’t like the use of the word “faith”; it’s used nowadays in such a way as to make it sound like something more than it is, something almost unassailable and of its nature sacred, not that different from “collateral damage”). But I do confess to feeling more and more a sense of revulsion toward organized religion. Recently, I heard someone saying how nurses in critical care units see people losing their faith all the time. But it’s not the dying who do the losing, it’s their relatives. I like that story. It seems to sum things up.


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    Comment by Roosevelt — August 16, 2013 @ 11:15 pm | Reply

  8. The virgin birth isn’t that hard to believe. If God can say: “Let there be an elephant” and it is so, he can plant a sperm inside a teenager and have the result be a human body for himself to inhabit. You can send a virgin teen to a sperm bank and get similar, albeit non-divine results. And since that girl isn’t having sex, she’s still technically a virgin.


    Comment by IvanRider — August 10, 2014 @ 2:06 am | Reply

    • Yes, of course, an all-powerful God can certainly arrange a virgin birth. But for me, the question isn’t what God can do, but what God does do. On a similar note, I have heard people say that if God wants, he can reverse global warming “with a snap of his fingers,” so we don’t have to worry about it. That may be so, but the evidence is that reversing the consequences of our actions is not what God does. Even the innocent are not saved from the consequences of our actions, even when they are well-intentioned.


      Comment by theotheri — August 10, 2014 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

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