This is part of my series on doubt. You can see the whole series here.
Most doubt is healthy. The author who doubts his abilities works harder. The athlete who doubts his natural gifts will train with intensity to compete. Likewise, doubt can be good for our faith. The Christian who doubts their understanding of God will walk with humility and grace. Doubt can be a purifying force, challenging us and keeping us honest.
But not always. Sometimes doubt hurts.
Doubt can tower over us, an imposing darkness that makes us afraid to move. Failure and rejection can feed Doubt until it grows into a monster. This is the doubt we see in the person who's afraid to risk falling in love again, or the one time champion who won't wear the uniform anymore. This is the doubt that sits between a husband and wife who are afraid to be the first to say, "I'm sorry."
So it is with God. Some of us have had doubt so powerful that God seems like a childish fairy tale. Talking to God seems as ridiculous as sitting on Santa's lap as an adult. Even if God was once near, doubt can make God seem more than just far away. Doubt can make God imaginary.
Some insights from science are helpful. For example, we know humans have a natural predisposition to believe in the supernatural. We also know God can be good for your brain. Contrary to much of the prevailing dogma, there are ways to read the Bible that doesn't put it at odds with science. But those insights aren't enough to bring God back into your life–they're just a lamp to hold back the darkness of doubt.
I've talked with thousands of people who have trouble believing in God. I've also had the good fortune of hearing stories from people who've found a way back to God after losing their faith. When I look at these stories through science, a three step path to walking with God through doubt emerges.
Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who studies the brains of religious people. In his work, he scans people's brains as they pray and meditate. These scans tell us remarkable things about what happens in our brains when we pray. They also shed light on doubt.
If you ask a believer to focus on God in prayer, the part of their brain responsible for attention and concentration becomes very active. If you ask an atheist to do the same, the characteristic patterns of prayer don't appear because there's nothing for the atheist to focus on. Science tells us that the way humans understand God is more a feeling and experience than an idea or set of beliefs. For atheists, the pattern of connections across the brain that create this experience aren't there. There is no God in their brains. It turns out that some belief in God is vital for people to experience and know God. In some measurable way, you have to leap before you look.
That seems foolish to many people, and I'm one of them. The Bible constantly extolls the virtues of faith and belief in things unseen. I think that reflects an intuitive understanding of what we've learned about the neurology of belief in modern times. Many of best things about Christianity only happen after you know God, but God can't be proven. That's why faith is extolled as such a virtue.
There's a mental hack for people who want to believe, but can't take God on faith: pretend.
I'm serious. Anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann has found in her years of researching believers that there is a serious play aspect to modern faith. The idea that there's a personal God who cares for us is at odds with the modern view of reality. Modern believers get around that with elaborate play rituals that help them experience God...
...and after the experience, the opposition seems much less relevant.
Few things are as neurologically beneficial as prayer and meditation. Studies have shown that daily prayer improves focus, concentration, and memory. Prayer can also reduce stress, control anger, and promote empathy. One of the easiest forms of meditation is cataphatic prayer, or talking to God.
Of course, talking to God can be difficult for the doubting. It can seem silly and childish. If that's your experience, I suggest just pretending that God is real. Imagine God through mental imagery, and then pray to this imaginary God. It will seem silly at first, but it becomes natural with repetition. People consistently report feeling closer to God after as little as two weeks of prayer–even if they don't believe in God at all at the outset.
The most important thing is to focus on is God's love as you pray. Prayer is most powerful in the context of a loving God and expansive ideas. So, reflect on God's great love. Pray for your family, your community, and all of humanity. The more you pray for others, the more your brain will open to God. Over time, this will not only help God seem real, but will also help you view the world in a more loving way.
Your prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain responsible for analytical reasoning and decision making. The prefrontal cortex has the soul of an accountant. Our feelings come from deeper, older parts of the brain. Compassion and empathy are associated with the anterior cingulate cortex, while fear and anger are associated with the amygdala and other structures in the limbic system.
When you think of your mom, different parts of your brain light up. If you've got a good relationship, some of that activity is probably in your anterior cingulate cortex–it makes you feel warm and fuzzy. If there's some trauma in your life that's related to your mom–if she was abusive, or passed away in a way that traumatized you–then your amygdala probably became active when you think of her. Your experiences have conditioned your brain to respond to different ideas and memories with appropriate feelings. Your response to those feelings can recondition your brain to respond differently.
Here's why: your brain is an energy hog. It doesn't move, but it consumes about a fifth of your body's energy. Our brains carefully regulate how much energy is used at any one time. Now, think back to the prefrontal cortex, that accountant in our brains. There's not enough energy to ramp up your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala at the same time. This is one reason we think of rational people as cold, and why people aren't reasonable when they're angry. You can't be analytical and angry at the same time. Your brain doesn't have the resources to pull it off.
Let's say you are married, but having marriage problems. One natural impulse is to analyze the situation and come up with a solution. That's admirable, but it can cause harm to your relationship. At their best, marriages are about shared feelings and experiences. All that rational analysis will reduce the emotional energy associated with your brain's image of "spouse" over time.
Of course, it's important to identify problems in a marriage to address them. But, it's also vital to do those things that made you feel in love in the first place: holding hands, taking walks, and candlelight conversations. A marriage is not an idea or set of beliefs. A marriage is two people putting ideas and beliefs into action in a relationship. Our brains approach God in a similar manner.
People wresting with doubt tend to use analytical thinking. But if belief in God matters to you, it's better to put your faith into practice with a supportive faith community. Prayer is the first step, but it's often not enough. Human beliefs are driven by social identity as much as anything else. God will be more real to someone who spends time with people who believe God is real.
Likewise, God is found in the work of faith: feeding the hungry, serving the poor, visiting the sick, and other acts of ministry. I feel closest to God when I sit with someone through hurt or grief, or when I encourage someone who is having a tough time. I know God's love the most when I share it with others.
We so often think of God as some distant, cosmic entity. But I think the whole point of Christianity is that God was revealed in a weak, broken man. God showed himself to the outcasts, and the losers. God chose the company of the people that leaders rejected. More than anything else, I find God with me when I address suffering of those on the outskirts of society.
Most of this series has focused on pushing aside the objections skeptics have against belief in God. It has to be done–some space is needed to encounter God. I've also tried to offer basic platforms and rational justifications for faith. Many people try to return to God, but they can't get past the self-consciousness and skepticism. I know that first hand. I was an atheist for two years, and I know what it's like to be unable to believe.
But in the end, God can't be found through rational justifications or evidence. In the same way reading about biochemistry can't tell you what it's like to be in love, words aren't that helpful when it comes to knowing God. The key to walking with God through doubt is three steps:
- Pretend that God is real.
- Pray to God daily.
- Practice your faith in a spiritual community.
I've learned that God is found when we put words into action. God is waiting for us on the other side of consistent practices, and in our darkest places. I had to shatter before I could see God, but in that broken place He found me.
It was worth it.
May your brokenness reveal God to you, and may you and God make something beautiful from it.