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How I lost my faith at a Christian university

By Mark ~ 

I recently completed a Master’s degree in clinical psychology from Azusa Pacific University (APU), an evangelical Christian university. I had to write a paper summarizing my experience in three faith integration classes.

When I interviewed at APU I knew that one of the distinctives of the program was spiritual integration. I didn’t really know what that meant but I knew I wanted it as part of my training because my faith was important to me. However, being on the liberal end of the Christian spectrum, I was concerned that I would be in dialogue with too many people on the conservative end. My concern turned out to be reality. Initially I was disappointed and frustrated, however it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. As I learned the importance of being a spiritually attuned therapist I had to learn how to accept those whose beliefs are not the same as mine. All of these thoughts were stimulated by the content of the integration classes and my life was changed forever.

As a result of exploring morality and spirituality, my journey took a surprising turn. I have made a deliberate shift away from Christianity of any kind. I gave up evangelical doctrine long ago and found a place in progressive Christianity. Now my link to Christianity has more to do with how it shaped who I am than what I currently believe. Religion attempts to address the questions that science cannot yet answer but its answers are not satisfying to me. The more science evolves, the more religious doctrine becomes irrelevant for me. The relevance of Christianity comes in the community it creates in the form of churches to bind people together. When it works well, it creates a place to be in relationship with others and supports moral behavior and survival of the species. It is irrelevant and vital at the same time.

A belief in God usually supports morality however moral behavior does not require belief in God. It is part of our biological nature to survive. Survival could also include the creation of religion as a way to organize moral behavior, creating a supportive system to encourage morality. The church, mosque, synagogue, and temple are places where the ethical dialogue can take place in order to hold our morals up to scrutiny. Morality is worked out through constant scrutiny of those affected by the values asserted. One puts out a judgment about a certain action, desire, intention, motive or trait and it gets a reaction. We must be willing to clearly evaluate all the facts, universalize our judgment and consider the impact the act has on ourselves and others. If it holds up it is adopted. If it doesn’t it changes. If spiritualizing helps us to be moral, that’s a good thing. I desire to live a moral life because it brings meaning to my life with a side benefit of contributing to our survival.

Spirituality in a general sense refers to a person’s inner journey to discover the essence of his or her being, or the deepest values and meanings by which we live. It is an experience of connectedness with a larger reality which would include ourselves, others and humanity. It is an openness to the sense that there is something more than we can ever fully know. Religion is an expression of spirituality; however spirituality can occur outside of religion.

Thinking clinically, the question is not what the truth is, but what purpose does faith, or belief, serve in one’s life? The reason it is important to consider someone’s faith clinically is because the power of religious beliefs lies in the fact that they are so emotional. Spirituality also comes into play in the deepest issues of our lives. Carlton Cornett identifies six clinically relevant elements of spirituality: the meaning of life, values, mortality, organization of the universe, suffering, and life after death. Cornett encourages an active, non-judgmental curiosity which emphasizes an interest in understanding. Rigidity and dogmatism, associated with absolutism (found inherently in Christianity), work actively against curiosity. Spirituality presents more mysteries than knowable conclusions. The therapist must be willing to see questions as being valuable in locating answers. (Cornett, 1998)

Therapeutically we have to be open to the idea that someone’s faith system can be very destructive to their own emotional health and the welfare of others. One of the distinguishing features of any religion is the attention to right belief or right thinking. For a fundamentalist, or even most evangelicals, their faith is at the core of their identity. It provides a framework for meaning out of which good things can and do happen. However any threat to the loss of this meaning system is serious. If they find that part of their belief system is in error, it challenges their entire system. They live under the schema that says, “If I don’t get it right, I am not a Christian and I will go to hell.” Therefore they are intolerant of ambiguity and must defend their beliefs at all costs, even if they are contrary to evidence and otherwise unreasonable. (Mercer, 2009) Faith is about belief in belief and the meaning that belief has for the client. The supportive power of faith to console and provide hope has nothing to do with whether it is actually true and everything to do with whether one believes it is true.

I am now gravitating toward humanism. As I was growing up Christian, humanism was always referred to as secular humanism, as if anything secular couldn’t be good. Humanism puts the responsibility for our behavior on us rather than blaming Adam for our downfall and relying on God to redeem us. As I have found a new psychological language to explain the human experience, I have less use for a religious framework to provide meaning for my life. Humanism leaves room for people of faith as long as their behavior is moral. It was said in class that humanism does not have enough focus on the other, because of the emphasis on self actualization as the way to ultimate meaning. I don’t see it that way at all.

Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard, says we need to realize that we are not wicked, debased, helpless creatures waiting for God to bless us with strength, wisdom and love. We have that potential inside us but by ourselves we are not enough. However, it isn’t God we need, it is people. “All of us know what it feels like to realize, ‘I am a person.’ But it takes a little more awareness to realize, ‘You are also a person.’ And it takes even greater awareness still to recognize that I am more of a person when I am helping you to be more of a person.” (Epstein, 2009, pg 93) I find this to be incredibly other focused and worthy of a very deep commitment equivalent to a belief in God.

Finally, we help our clients explore the meaning of the complexities of life through the exploration of metaphors. If my life metaphor is a journey, then I have arrived, at least for a time. The next road will take me into relationships with others. I will actively pursue and engage in authentic, connected, intentional relationships and help facilitate the same in others both personally and professionally. That is a commitment that provides meaning to my life.

Although I’ve arrived, I find myself in a new liminal state. The greatest strength of the church is the community it provides. I long for that community that I found so valuable to me for most of my life, but the church is no longer an attractive place because it houses beliefs which I no longer hold to be true. If I openly expressed my lack of belief, I fear I would be sidelined. My vision would be to lead dialogue with people who are questioning their faith and exploring the meaning of life. Unlike the church, my goal would not be one of helping them hold onto something they are finding irrelevant but to facilitate a dialogue that helps them discover for themselves what role faith would have in their life. If it meant they would leave their faith I would be on the other side to help them reconstruct meaning without the faith that was so meaningful to them at one time. What would start in one on one dialogue could lead to small groups meeting in my home. This would be my church.

Although I’m very content with my journey, there are still times when I wonder if I’ve given up something too valuable. It feels like the emotional ties of my faith still have a hold on me even though rationally the doctrine no longer makes sense. I continue to be moved by hymns when I don’t believe the lyrics. My entire life in church I’ve been told directly or indirectly that one can’t be complete without God, or more specifically, that Jesus was the only son of God who died for me that I may have eternal life. I’ve been told that as a Christian, we have the truth and all others do not. God favors us. Non-believers are somehow less than us until they join the club. Until they do we need to love them and witness to them hoping they will see the light.

When a child stops believing in Santa Claus he gives up the myth of a supernatural being that can pass out gifts to the entire world in one night, but he retains the spirit of giving. It is impossible to believe in Santa Claus again once you’ve stopped believing. Is the same true of God? What have I given up? Where does meaning come from if not from God? Ironically in the midst of these questions, the journey out of my faith has had the power of a conversion experience. Fortunately for me the faith of my past was, for the most part, the supportive, life-giving experience it was intended to be. I now realize that the community was more life giving than the belief. The belief bound the community together. If I worship anything it is the human experience of connected relationship. It is the awe and wonder of life itself and I want to be intentional to experience that in some way in every encounter. As of now that encounter is what I would call God.

Cornett, C. (1998) The Soul of Psychotherapy New York: The Free Press
Epstein, G. (2009) Good Without God. New York: Harper Collins
Mercer, C. (2009) Slaves to Faith. Westport, CT: Praeger