I Didn't Lose Faith. I Just Don't Have It

Many mistake this nonbeliever for a lapsed Christian. Here's what they don't understand.

Tommie Shelby

I found my faith in college -- and lost it there, too. Though Harvard is often said to have ruined more good Negroes than bathtub gin, it was actually at Florida A&M University, a historically black university, that I went from being a devout Christian to being an atheist.

Though I didn't read the Bible growing up, I was taught to respect it as the authoritative word of God. In my home, as in many black homes, God's existence was treated as an obvious fact and was never questioned. So when, during the spring of my freshman year, a friend invited me to join a Bible-study group, I couldn't refuse. How could I truthfully say I believed that this sacred text expressed God's will for my life and not even bother to read it?

And so one day, after much study, I joined a church and was baptized. Soon I was earnestly sharing the gospel with family and friends. I lived at home during the summer after my freshman year, and my mother and I studied together. As a result, her faith was renewed. Indeed, she held tightly to her faith until the day she died.

I can't say the same for myself. By the time I graduated, I no longer believed in God. I didn't get to this place easily. It was a painful and trying process that involved hours of study, reflection, self-examination, fasting and prayer.

I had come to my religious belief through, among other things, a search for truth. I felt that if God had given me the rational capacity to discern the truth, I should not hesitate to use it, even if this use involved reconsidering my reasons for believing in his existence. Testing my belief would only make it stronger, right?

So, drawing on the history of philosophy and theology, I carefully considered the main arguments for and against God's existence: Pascal's wager, the first-cause argument, the argument from design, the problem of evil and so on. I took courses in the history of the Bible and on the major world religions.

But the intellectual road was not the hardest part of my journey. Confronting my underlying motives for having faith was much more challenging.

It is a mundane feature of the human condition that we are susceptible to self-deception and wishful thinking. In particular, the cognitive side of our minds can sometimes unknowingly surrender to the emotional, noncognitive side. We believe some things, not because we have good reasons for thinking them true, but because believing them gives us hope, consolation or a sense of security.

I worried that my belief in God was ultimately rooted in things like fear of death, desire for community or longing for the loving father figure I didn't have. Was my attraction to Christian doctrines driven by the fact that I was a lonely, alienated, scared kid looking for something firm to hold on to? After all, faith made me feel powerful and protected.

How could God respect my conviction if it was grounded in such things? I had to look deep inside myself to scrutinize my motives. Once I'd done this, I was free to follow my reasoning wherever it took me.