Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, Free Will, God, Religion, Truth

A Curious Mix of Confidence and Low Self-Esteem

Since leaving Christianity, I’ve had time to reflect on why some people leave their faith when confronted with issues and why others stay. The reasons are quite varied, of course. And a large part of how people react depends upon how literally they take things in the Bible. I was raised in a very conservative version of Christianity that believed in biblical inerrancy, so much of my criticisms of Christianity come from that. As I was going through my deconversion, I studied with many friends and family, and I was surprised at how differently we ended up dealing with the various problems in scripture. Why did we have such different approaches?

When we believe in God, I think at least part of that belief comes from a position of confidence, maybe even arrogance. Why must there be a God? Well, just look at the complexity of life! And by that, we mean the complexity of humanity. After all, many people reject atheism because it means that life has no higher purpose or meaning. It’s difficult for people to accept that. We’re intelligent enough to know that we’re all going to die, and that’s not a pleasant thought. We feel that our lives have meaning (and to us, they certainly do!), so it’s hard to imagine that death could really be the end. Surely there’s a bigger point to it all! Yet most of us don’t have trouble accepting that when animals die, that’s the end. There’s no soul that lives on. Why do we accept that with animals, but not ourselves?

Beyond just a belief in God, when we hold to a particular religion, we’re employing even more confidence. We’re saying that we know who God is. We have a personal relationship with him, and we believe he has a plan for us. We believe we know what he wants to the extent that we’ll correct those who are doing it wrong. Sometimes, we believe this so wholeheartedly that we’re willing to inflict harm upon those who disagree.

At the same time, there’s a curiously low level of self-esteem among the religious. When we encounter problems in our beliefs, this lack of confidence helps allay doubt and worry by reminding us that the wisdom of God is far superior to the wisdom of man. That we should “lean not” on our own understanding.

The brand of Christianity I came out of used fear to great effect. We believed in a literal Hell, and nothing sells Heaven better than a literal Hell. You can’t afford to deeply question your beliefs if it’s going to land you in a never ending barbeque. And this is where the strange duplicity really comes in: Christianity tells you you’re important because God made you, he loves you, and he has a plan for you. At the same time, you aren’t smart enough to understand some parts of his plan, like why he would promise to destroy Tyre so that it would never be rebuilt, but then didn’t do that. Or how Jesus’ genealogy could be given 3 different ways. Or how he could die at two different times on two different days.

This fear of getting it wrong causes many of us to simply put our heads in the sand and avoid the issues. Though after reading the Parable of the Talents, it’s surprising that any Christian would pursue such a tactic. What’s most ironic is that many Christians believe that people from other religions are required to question their own beliefs so they will turn from them. But why should they expect something of others that they’re unwilling to do themselves?

Of course, not all Christians are this way. And this is something that all people can be guilty of, no matter their worldview. But this curious mix between utter confidence and cripplingly low self-esteem is definitely something that many people struggle with, and they really shouldn’t. If the God they serve really has the qualities they think he does, then they don’t have to be so afraid of asking tough questions. But we’ll talk more about God’s nature and why it should encourage honest inquiry in the next post.

72 thoughts on “A Curious Mix of Confidence and Low Self-Esteem”

  1. Hey Josh: Hope I can jump in – I appreciate your honest opinion on this one and there isn’t too much I can argue on what you’ve said (of course I could offer opposing viewpoints and possible guesses about my own conclusions of the disparity of belief, but you’ve heard them all before and I’ve heard yours as well.) Truth is it’s people like you who I feel I can have a true dialogue with about the issues, and I also feel that it’s people like you that I can join with in a common goal of trying to make the world a better place. You believe in God – fine with me – sounds like you can respect other viewpoints and like myself you want to be kind to others and build a better world. Our motivations for that might be a bit different (perhaps not as different as we think), but that doesn’t bother me.


  2. I completely agree with this, Howie! Sometimes, I think I lose sight of that when I get in the weeds in these different posts and comments. But when it’s all said and done, as long as people are tolerant of one another, everything else is a bit irrelevant.


  3. @Nate

    The brand of Christianity I came out of used fear to great effect.

    This fear of getting it wrong causes many of us to simply put our heads in the sand and avoid the issues.

    One of your best posts to date.

    The two quotes illustrate perfectly how religion has managed to keep its choke hold for so long.


  4. @Chialpha

    But the various religions are so different from one an other that it seems unlikely to me that the same God could have inspired them all. So the whole topic just tumbles around in my brain unanswered.

    Gods didn’t inspire any of them , in fact.
    But if you replace the God with Man, immediately it makes perfect sense.


  5. I constantly try to understand or define this idea of what makes people hold on to religion so fervently despite the overwhelming evidence against it. I still wonder what made it difficult for me to even see the problem with religion – or at least take as long as it did to see them.

    I do think that fear is a huge part of it. Fear of being wrong. Fear of being denied heaven and/or God’s approval or favor. Fear of hell. Fear of being arrogant or ungrateful; unrighteous.

    I am fascinated by the controls that Christianity has built into it to keep people in. It reminds me so much of that children’s story, the Emperor’s New Clothes, where everyone was too afraid to standout as the lone fool who couldn’t see such marvelous apparel – even though there was nothing at all but a naked emperor.

    In religion, perhaps people are too afraid to question it because they don’t want to be seen or to be guilty of questioning god, or they do not want to be unrighteous or dishonest – since the righteous and the honest (having that good and honest heart) will follow god and his bible…

    Before I departed the faith I often had questions on different subjects. I’d ask my father or my preacher or some other older and wiser church guy and I’d usually default to their position, thinking that I was just perhaps not wise enough yet to fully comprehend it – but they must be right because they’re older and wiser.

    I’d also see god’s hand in everything. I’d see it when things would go well for me (God blessing me) and when things would go badly (God’s punishment or tests).

    In questions regarding heaven or hell, or why this or why that; I’d typically try not to dwell on. I figured that god just didn’t reveal much about it and so I must use my faith to have patience. Plus, I didn’t want to be guilty of imagining a heaven that was either worse than or better than god’s actual heaven. I didn’t want to be guilty of looking god’s gift horse in the mouth.

    If you want to be godly and righteous you had to do what the bible said. The bible said to be happy, so I said I was happy even when I wasn’t – because it was what I should’ve been. The bible said that you should want to love church since Revelation’s description of heaven is sitting around worshiping god – we say that we loved church – a little note on this point… I actually enjoyed church when I thought I was actually learning things of value, when I thought I was growing in wisdom, but honestly, I get tired of singing after awhile. I get tired of sitting around. And heaven’s descriptions of no pain or discomfort or sorrow don’t actually sound all that great to me. It sounds boring. It’s the lows that make the highs seem better, sort of thing.

    Anyway, the fear of not being worthy of god’s grace, not being worthy of heaven, not being accepted by god, I do think, keep many people in. Questioning god or thinking that you may not really need god or that maybe god hasn’t really done anything for you can produce the fear, that if he’s real, he’s going to be unhappy with your lack of faith.

    The god of the bible demands unconditional love towards him, but doesn’t give it back. The god of the bible wants every effort from you to find him, but won’t or can’t show himself to you – you are forced to imagine your relationship with him – one-sided relationship, held together by fear. When I was a believer, I was afraid consider such things. And according to the bible, living by its moral precepts aren’t enough – you must believe it all and jesus too. It just seems like the bible makes god out to be petty.

    But Ark is right, once you realize the bible is covered in human fingerprints, it makes so much more sense.


  6. @William

    Outstanding post! I could not have said it better myself.

    The one comment I might make is that while I agree that fear is at the core of belief in God, I do feel there are those who actually believe God is a good God. Their belief in him is more about his protection against harm, his concern for their well-being, his overall blessings on their life. Of course, when push comes to shove (like when one is staring death in the face), there is little doubt that fear becomes the prevalent factor..


  7. William,

    Those are all very good points – many of which did keep me within Christianity even when things were looking not quite right.

    I think some other things can be in play as well – like the fact that the alternative worldviews seem either the same as or worse than the Christian worldview (such as other religions), and the non-theistic worldview just seems to leave us with too many unanswered questions and uncertainty about questions which are very important to us. At some point though I realized that saying “I don’t have definitive answers to those difficult questions” was more honest for me than picking a religion which says it does have the answers revealed by ancient superstitious people who seemed to have gotten a bunch of other things wrong. It doesn’t feel good to say “I don’t know” but I’d rather not pretend to know when I don’t.

    Another thing for me was the encouragement I got from others that they somehow knew God and had some relationship with Him. I kept thinking that something like that was going to happen to me but it never did.


  8. Howie, I’m curious. Why does it bother you to say “I don’t know”? To me, that’s so totally honest — even if you’re a Christian.


  9. Hey Nan,

    If you were to ask me how many solar systems there are or other questions which really aren’t very important to my life then saying “I don’t know” doesn’t bother me at all. But when they are questions that are very important to me then I’d really like to know the answers more definitively.


  10. Just a couple of quick things:

    Josh, thanks for your comments — it’s great to hear from you!

    Ark, thanks for your comments too. Your point to chialphagirl was spot-on, and your compliment to me was much appreciated!

    William, brilliantly stated point. These sentences in particular really resonated with me:

    The god of the bible demands unconditional love towards him, but doesn’t give it back. The god of the bible wants every effort from you to find him, but won’t or can’t show himself to you – you are forced to imagine your relationship with him – one-sided relationship, held together by fear.


  11. You know Nan there’s a distinction that just clicked for me in your question. It’s more that “not knowing” is what bothers me not the “saying I don’t know” part (although I’m sure there is also peer pressure involved that causes discomfort in “saying” it publicly too – but that doesn’t bother me near as much the actual not knowing part). Do you not care at all about the big questions of life? You may be much like my wife – she says “why don’t you just live your life and quit thinking about stuff you’ll never know the answer to”. 🙂


  12. @Howie

    I don’t know that I would go so far as the comment of your wife because I do like to investigate and research — even if I may not find answers that satisfy me. But I can see her point because I do think some people carry it too far (not to say that describes you).

    As for saying or admitting that I don’t know? It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. For example, I don’t know how the universe was formed, I don’t know why I’m a part of it, I don’t know what will happen to me (if anything) when I leave this world (“the big questions of life”). I may form ideas and opinions about such stuff, but I doubt I’ll ever find the answers during my lifetime. I guess I just accept that.

    As far as religious/spiritual matters, I find the subject fascinating. Over the years, I have accepted and rejected numerous perspectives. At the same time, many are still in the “not knowing” category … and that’s what keeps me seeking for the “truth.”


  13. Sounds like a very healthy perspective Nan! Wish I could be as comfortable with uncertainty. Yeah, my wife tends to be on the other extreme end of things as far as caring or thinking about this kind of stuff goes, and fact is she’s one of the happiest people I know. I always say she is much wiser than me (she picked me after all didn’t she! 😉 ) – seriously though I’m a very lucky guy.


  14. “What’s most ironic is that many Christians believe that people from other religions are required to question their own beliefs so they will turn from them. But why should they expect something of others that they’re unwilling to do themselves?”

    Exactly. This is what got to me in the end (of my faith). When a Christian, I certainly expected people of other religions to question, hoping that once they questioned it would be made quite clear to them the error of their thinking and ways. Of course, when I finally put myself to the same test, I saw the error was mine too.

    Thanks for this post, Nate.


  15. Thanks Jbars!

    I went through the same thing. And it’s been hard for me to understand why so few of my ex-brethren don’t seem to get that. Have they really never thought about how hard it would be for someone to jettison a long-held belief system? Once I realized how hard it is to do that, how much information is required, and how few people really try it, the whole idea that a god actually wanted that from each individual began to seem ridiculous to me.


  16. I would say most Christians never even think about leaving the faith so they have no idea how hard the process actually is. Besides, why would they? It’s so much safer to stay in church and hang onto the idea of a happy and joyful afterlife.


  17. Yeah, I’ve actually known that for a while. 🙂 In fact, even before you went to Africa, since you wrote about working at the Space Center. I used to go to Huntsville for business quite a lot a few years ago. I know the city pretty well. One of my favorite places in town is The Deep comic shop off South Memorial.


  18. Hey William-
    “The god of the bible demands unconditional love towards him, but doesn’t give it back. The god of the bible wants every effort from you to find him, but won’t or can’t show himself to you – you are forced to imagine your relationship with him – one-sided relationship, held together by fear.”

    The god you describe here is not the God I believe in. My faith and trust in Him is not motivated by fear, but awe and gratitude for what He has already done. I know you and I disagree on whether Jesus accomplished what scripture teaches, but my belief, based on what I know and experience, is that He did. I love God (imperfectly, to be sure) because of what He did and the love He shows, not, as you say, while believing He doesn’t give love Himself. You have rejected a very different god than the one I believe in and trust. I would reject your former god as well.


  19. Josh, that’s cool. I reject the god of the bible because of the way the bible portrays him. where can I learn about your god?


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