Shaky: When Doubt Comes From A Lack of Foundational Knowledge

Some people stop believing in Christianity because they just don’t know enough to do any differently. Their beliefs are not based on knowledge to begin with.

In America, around 85 percent of people say they believe in God. Because around three-fourths of Americans identify with a Christian denomination, most of these would say they are Christian. However, around half of Americans (53 percent) see God as a “cosmic force.” God clearly reveals himself in Scripture as a person, so people who describe him primarily as a force have either embraced a non-Christian theology or are uninformed. Christians are not immune to ignorance. According to a Pew Research Center study, atheists as a group knew the most and Christians as a group knew the least on a basic test of religious knowledge.

Being uninformed can itself be a source of doubt. English author Os Guinness says that when people embrace a wrong view of God, they end up blaming God for their own faulty picture of reality. “Unable to see God as he is, they cannot trust him as they should, and doubt is the result,” he says.

I saw this kind of distrust firsthand when a lady approached me at a conference to say, “I don’t want to teach my children that God is always there. It sounds creepy.” To her, God is like Santa Claus, who, as the old song says, “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” I’m sure creepiness was not on the minds of John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie when they wrote the song featuring those lyrics, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”10 But the upbeat melody disguises a vaguely threatening theology that Santa’s watching you topunish or reward you. Uninformed people believe that God is like Santa. No wonder they feel freedom in giving up belief in him.

Giving up belief in God is not like switching a light from “on” to “off.” Unbelief represents shakiness in a person’s answers to life’s ultimate questions. Think of a set of building blocks. If the blocks at the base are unstable, the blocks at the top will wobble. Often people experience a crisis of belief when they have an inadequate foundation and their “knowledge blocks” pile up faster than their foundation can support. If people start with an inadequate understanding of God, they’ll grow more confused with every piece of unintegrated information they gain. Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Those who grow up in church but never grapple with hard questions often find themselves on the receiving end of this proverb.

I experienced this myself as a university student. I heard a psychology professor parrot Sigmund Freud’s idea that people believe in God because of wish fulfillment. In other words, Freud taught that weak-minded people are fearful of the world and wish for a great father figure to protect them, so they invent God. “Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the danger of life,” Freud said.

At the time, it sounded like a good theory. Who hasn’t felt a sense of fear and wished for protection from someone bigger? Fortunately, a professor named Paul Vitz helped me see that it could be the reverse—that perhaps Freud’s strained relationship with his own father led him to attack the idea of God as a father. After all, Freud’s argument isn’t really an argument; it’s an assertion purporting to explain why we have a desire for God, with no particular bearing on whether God actually exists. It’s a fairly simple observation on Vitz’s part, but it helped shore up my basis for belief.

But be careful to shore up your faith with strong arguments, not just slogans. When young Christians come across arguments against Christianity, they are tempted to shore up their thinking with whatever little bits of knowledge they find compelling at the time rather than develop a deep understanding of the problem and a humble, articulate response. As Basil Mitchell, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, put it, “Many ordinary people, particularly young people, [are] quite happy to adopt a pragmatic, utilitarian attitude to society at large, and to meet the crises of personal life with odd and often inconsistent scraps of ‘philosophy’ picked up from anywhere and claiming no universal truth or even relevance.”


This excerpt from Understanding the Faith: A Survey of Christian Apologetics by Jeff Myers, available in Summit’s bookstore, is part 1 in the series Shaky: Why Christians Lose Faith. The entire series can be found here: