I couldn’t tell you exactly when I started losing my faith. I can only describe it like this: It’s something like standing near the ocean and watching the sun glistening on the water, only to realize much later that the tide has gone out.
That’s exactly where my conservative, evangelical faith left me in college, when it collided with the extraordinarily complex and vibrant religious fabric of New York City: stranded on dry land. The faith my parents gave me had been constructed like a delicate house of cards. I needed to believe all of it ― the miracles, the commandments, the eschatology, the sexual ethic, etc. ― in order to be considered safely out of the reach of hellfire. Let just a little bit of doubt creep into that “all or nothing” system, and the whole thing can come tumbling down.
I’m not alone. America is full of people who have asked tough questions about the religion they were raised in. This phenomenon is so common that the Pew Research Center has a name for it ― religious switching.
According to the center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, about 34 percent of American adults have participated in religious switching, meaning their current religious identity is different from the one in which they were raised.
As a whole, Christianity loses more followers than it gains through religious switching. Although 85.6 percent of American adults say they were raised as Christians, more than a fifth of that group (19.2 percent of all U.S. adults), no longer identify with Christianity. The exception to this trend is evangelical Protestantism, which actually gains more adherents through switching than it loses.
But for the individual, the journey isn’t easy. To break out from your religious tradition is a brave thing, especially if you come from a tight-knit community where religion permeates the culture. In such an environment, it’s hard for religious seekers to be honest about their doubts.
For some of my friends and family, religious identity is a matter of heaven or hell. When your religion has such stark eternal consequences, it makes sense that when you see a loved one doubting, your instinct is to find a way to bring that person back into the fold as quickly as possible. But to achieve that goal, perfectly well-meaning Christians sometimes do more harm than good ― even though they may not be aware of it.
I’m still in the process of building my faith back up from the ground. I’ve learned to live with my doubt, wrestle with it daily, even cherish it. I’ve found people who are willing to take my doubt seriously and admit it when they don’t have the answers. But that peace of mind came only after years of bitterness and anger towards God ― most of it fueled by the unhelpful and borderline profane advice I got from some of my religious friends and family.
With the help of a few writers and HuffPost contributors who have gone through periods of doubt in their own lives (some who have come back to Christianity and others who have left the faith altogether), I’ve put together this list of common phrases that people hear when they express doubt in their religion. Keep scrolling to the end because we’ve also included a list of the opposite ― advice and support that doubters wish they had received from their loved ones.
From tone deaf, quick-fix remedies (“Just read the Bible”) or claiming to know how the seeker’s journey will end (“It’s just a phase”), here are 6 things I wish Christians would stop saying to people who are doubting their faith.
“It’s okay to doubt, but don’t deny God.” / “God is big enough for your doubts.”
At first glance, phrases like these appear to give people permission to doubt. In reality, it’s only permission to doubt in a certain way, within a specific set of boundaries. Telling someone that they can “doubt but not deny” reveals an inability to step outside of your own worldview and into a space where the very existence of God is up for debate.
Many religious seekers start their spiritual journeys without knowing where the end will be ― they could end up subscribing to a different religion, or they could end up atheist. All bets are off.
HuffPost contributor Kelsey Munger told me that phrases like “God is big enough for your doubts” left her wondering how people would take it if her doubts got really big.
“I wondered how they would react if I were to change religions or I discovered that I was agnostic or atheist,” she told HuffPost in an email. “While I believe the intention was to provide comfort and a sense of freedom, it actually made me feel trapped and like I would be disappointing people if after the doubts had cleared my faith didn’t look like theirs.”
“Just pray about it.” / “Just read the Bible.” / Or Another Quick-Fix, Faith-Based Remedy
Some Christians respond to doubt by telling people to pray more, or read a specific Bible verse. I’ve had one well-meaning spiritual advisor tell me repeatedly, “Just pray, ‘God, I don’t know what these Christians are telling me to believe, but if you’re real, show yourself to me.’”
These spiritual practices help people who are already confident in their religion get closer to God. But for people who are doubting, these practices don’t have the same meaning. What use is it to tell a someone who is doubting to “just pray” when they’re still deconstructing what the word “prayer” even means?
Often, doubters are familiar with all of these tactics. They’ve heard it all before.
What use is it to tell a someone who is doubting to 'just pray' when they’re still deconstructing what the word 'prayer' even means?
Neil Carter, the atheist author of the blog Godless in Dixie, told HuffPost: “I ... get really tired of people who try to be helpful by suggesting things I’ve already done so many times, and after I tell them I’ve already done them they fire back that I didn’t try hard enough, or that my heart wasn’t really in it. How can they sit in judgment over that? What makes them know me better than I know myself?”
“It must be the devil’s work.” / “Satan is testing you.”
This one hurts. I can’t count the number of times pastors have placed their hands on my head and tried to pray for Satan’s forces to flee from my body. They may have had good intentions, but the truth is, this kind of language hedges on abuse. When a seeker hears this, they hear an accusation that they have allowed the devil claim territory in their hearts. It’s the kind of statement that can make people think that something is intrinsically wrong with them, something that has reached the inner depths of their souls.
No. No. No. There is nothing wrong with doubting. Avoid these kinds of accusations at all costs.
“You just want to have sex / drink alcohol, etc.”
These kinds of comments are offensive because they reduce a spiritual journey that is often life-changing and transformative to something done merely as an act of rebellion.
These statements are also dismissive of the experience of doubt as a whole, since they make it seem that the questioning person knows in his or her “heart of hearts” that God is real, but is just finding an excuse to live the way he or she wants to live.
Mike McHargue, author the upcoming book Finding God in the Waves, told HuffPost that he’s had people ask him, “Do you have an unconfessed sin problem?”
“Too often, people of faith associate doubt with some kind of hidden sin, but for many, faith starts to come apart due to an honest pursuit of truth, or because of some life trauma. Neither have anything to do with sin.”
“It’s just a phase.” / “God will show you the answer.” / “Your eyes aren’t opened yet.”
These aren’t empty platitudes. It’s an attempt to take the seeker’s experiences and place them on a roadmap that he or she doesn’t have access to, which can feel frustrating and even patronizing. It’s assuming that you know how everything will turn out.
Most importantly, when you think you can trace out a seeker’s faith journey and final destination, it makes it feel as if the place where that person is right now is inconsequential.
“I felt either blamed, misunderstood, judged, or all of the above,” she told HuffPost.
“You’re hurting me.” / “Why are you doing this to me?”
Guess what? This journey is not about you. People who leave their childhood faith do not purposefully set out on this path to their family or friends, or cause any shame to their communities.
This is about one person’s struggle to find purpose and meaning, to figure out what it means to be good and what it really means to be alive. It springs from a desire to seek the truth and to live honestly. This journey is sacred, and it’s much, much bigger than your ego or reputation.
Instead of using the offensive phrases like the ones listed above, try this instead.
Recognize that your words and actions may not be helping and that in fact, they can make things even worse.
In other words, learn to step into someone else’s shoes and try to see how your words and actions are being received. Are your words and actions hurting or helping?
Carter says that what he wants the most from his religious friends and family is for them to “quit thinking they know better than us what’s going on inside of us.”
“Their behavior toward [non-believers] is coercive, often passive-aggressive, and at times outright cruel and uncaring. They say they are doing what they are doing because they love us, but their actions are terribly inconsiderate and tone deaf to our own need.”
Listen. Listen. Listen.
Nearly everyone I reached out to told me that listening was the most important thing that their religious friends could do for them during their period of doubt.
Stop judging people’s motives, doubting the sincerity of their intentions, and offering unhelpful advice. You don’t need to brush up on Christian apologetics and treat every conversation like a battle. Sometimes, saying, “I don’t know the answer to that,” before shutting up and listening hard is exactly what a seeker needs.
Keay Nigel, a HuffPost contributor and ex-Christian, told me, “I wish people were more patient and showed more interest in what I was going through, instead of what they thought I was going through. Lend a listening ear. Don’t be too quick to judge or give advice. Listen first.”
Love them by suspending your judgment and certainties. Love them by talking less and listening more. Reba Riley
Riley added, “If you love them, LOVE them. Love them by suspending your judgment and certainties. Love them by talking less and listening more. Love them by offering a hand to hold, a hug, a number to call when they need to talk.”
Accept the fact that your loved one may never believe again. And pledge to love them no matter where their spiritual journey leads.
Carter said that he hopes friends and family who are still religious learn to see the “myriad ways they subtly communicate to us that we are not okay the way we are.”
He writes, “I want them to come to terms with the possibility that I will always be a non-believer for the rest of my days, and I want them to clearly communicate to me ― in word and in deed ― that they will accept me as I am and not punish me or treat me differently for no longer believing. They likely don’t even know that they do this, so that right there is the first problem that must be dealt with. After they learn to see it, then maybe they will learn to work on doing it less.”
Part of establishing a safe space is ensuring people that your love for them will not change, no matter where the doubts take them. Be an anchor for the friend who is going through doubt. Make sure your friend knows that you will still be there for them, even if they end up never coming back to the church.
Doubt is a gift. It means the way you see God is fraying at the edges, and maybe it needed to. Mike McHargue
The most important thing is to see doubt for what it really is ― an invitation to embark on the greatest spiritual quest of your life.
McHargue put it this way:
“Doubt is a gift. It means the way you see God is fraying at the edges, and maybe it needed to. None of us have God mastered, and a lack of doubt just means you aren’t thinking about the ways you could be wrong.”