The Psychology of Unbelief

I’ve been pondering a question of late that has several wordings. 

  • “Why do people not believe in God?”
  • “What is the ‘psychology’ of unbelief?”
  • “What factors come into play with ‘doubts’ about the existence of God?” 

As this is simply a blog post and neither an article nor a book, my reflections are … foundational, basic, “rough draft,” if you will. Feel free to ponder with me… 

The Psychology of Belief

To ponder the psychology of unbelief, we have to start with a psychology of belief. Of course, we all place our faith and trust in something or someone. We are all worshipping beings. Here’s how I described it and illustrated it in Soul Physicians

“Designed by God, we are faith beings. Faith is the core of the original human personality. That core involves entrusting ourselves to Someone who transcends us, yet draws near to us. In the innermost chamber of our soul resides a worshipping being; the ability to worship from the heart is what makes us human. By these descriptions, there are no atheists. Everyone must put their trust in Someone or Something. Even Madelyn Murray O’Hair. Consider these excerpts from her diary, found by the IRS in 1999.” 

A 1959 entry reveals an almost pathetic despair: “The whole idiotic hopelessness of human relations descends upon me. Tonight I cried and cried, but even then, feeling nothing.” 

1973 New Year’s Wish List: A mink coat, Cadillac, cook, housekeeper. “In 1974 I will run for the governor of Texas, and in 1976, the president of the United States.” Ironic that in 1976 we elected a self-professed born-again Christian as president. 

In 1977 she wrote: “I have failed in marriage, motherhood, and as a politician.” 

One poignant phrase appears again and again. In half a dozen places, O’Hair writes, “Somebody, somewhere, love me.” 

Reflecting on her words, Chuck Colson writes: 

“How telling that this hostile and abrasive person, who harbored nothing but hatred for God and his people, who believed human beings were merely the product of a cosmic accident, would nevertheless cry out to the great void for someone just to love her. What a powerful example of the fundamental truth that we are made for a relationship of love with our Creator, and that we can never fully escape from our true identity and purpose. No matter how much we may deny it intellectually, our nature still cries out for the love we were made to share. To paraphrase the famous words of St. Augustine, even the most bitter atheist is restless until she finds her rest in God (Colson, Prison Fellowship Ministry, 1999). 

God is our primal relationship, whether we face it or not, whether we like him or not.  We always live oriented toward God—either with our faces or our backs oriented to him. Thus it is the direction of our worship/faith that is at issue. 

Jeremiah describes it as either worshiping God “the Spring of Living Water,” or worshipping and drinking from “cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Paul describes it as worshipping either the Creator or the creature (Romans 1:18-25). 

So, in one way, we have to tweak our question: 

  • “What is the psychology of one’s refusal to place faith in, worship, believe, and entrust oneself to the true God?”
  • “Why do some people entrust themselves to anything but the true God?” 

The Psychology of Unbelief

Here are my “rough draft” ponderings about this eternally vital question. Where does someone’s system of unbelief stem from? I especially ponder this when I read people’s viciously anti-Christian diatribes. 

I ask myself, “Isn’t it ironic that this person rages against a Being he/she claims is non-existent?” Oh, I know they would say they are raging against those who believe in this non-existent Being. I’m not buying it. 

So, again I ask, “Where does unbelief stem from?” My preliminary, working interpretation or hypothesis: 

  • Unbelief stems from our emotional response to our mental perception that life has let us down, and, therefore, the Author of life is at fault and faulty. 

Proverbial Observations

Where do I “get” this from? On the one hand, this working hypothesis comes from what I might call my “proverbial observations.” Solomon, in Proverbs, stepped back and looked at life and attempted to “collate” what he observed into some maxims about life. I am attempting to do something similar. 

As I counsel people struggling with doubt, as I reflect on my own struggles at times with doubt (yes, it is okay for a Christian to admit that), as I interact with those who see themselves as agnostics or atheists, I see something of a pattern. For the Christian struggling with doubt, it goes something like this: 

  • “My doubts stem from my observations about life + my interpretations of life + my emotional response to those interpretations. I fell like God has let me down. What am I going to do with God?” 

The patterns is somewhat similar for the non-Christian unbeliever. It goes something like this, though I doubt they would word their doubt quite like this: 

  •  “My unbelief stems from my observations about life + my interpretations of life + my emotional response to those interpretations. The universe has let me down. I don’t trust the universe and I certainly don’t believe that there is evidence of an all-caring and all-controlling Being behind my life experiences.” 

Biblical Interpretations 

Where else do I “get” this from? Not only from my proverbial observations, but also from my biblical interpretations. I’ve been reading Jeremiah 2, Lamentations, Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalm 10, Psalm 14, Psalm 73, Psalm 88, Romans 1, and other passages on doubt, unbelief, and false worship. Here’s my summary of what I’ve seen from these passages: 

  • Unbelief is an emotional response to a mental interpretation about the ultimate Relational Being where we falsely conclude that this Being is unfair, un-protective, unsafe, and untrustworthy. 

While I could develop this in some detail through all the passages I listed above, consider this summary from Jeremiah 2. God Himself asks and answers the question of how people move from belief to unbelief. “This is what the LORD says: ‘What fault did your fathers find in me that they strayed so far from me?’” (Jeremiah 2:5). “Fault” (āwel) is a startling word. The KJV accurately translates it as “iniquity.” We turn from God when we perceive some iniquity in Him

Specifically, “fault” means to act in a deceitful way, tricking, an insidious manner of relating, dishonest and unfair dealings, injustice, and even perverseness. It suggests a remarkable accumulation of unrighteousness—a contemptuous view of God. Sound familiar? Satan deceived Eve into thinking that God was deceptive and unfair. 

Where does unbelief snare us? It captures our fancy, our imagination as we interpret our situation. When Jehovah asked about the fault that they found (māsā) in Him, He chose a word that means a conclusion reached by interpreting experience. Here they are in the desert seeing God in their fancy (in their imagination) as their Beloved who provides for and protects them (Jeremiah 2:2-3). They correctly imagine Him as their Spring of Living Water. Though life is bad (living in a desert), their Lover is altogether good and lovely.  

But then, something tragic happens. They interpret their desert experience through a new grid, the grid of blinded imagination (what Paul in Romans 1 calls willful suppression). Notice how they view God now. 

You of this generation, consider the word of the LORD: “Have I been a desert to Israel or a land of great darkness? Why do my people say, ‘We are free to roam; we will come to you no more’? Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number. How skilled you are at pursuing love! Even the worst of women can learn from your ways” (Jeremiah 2:31-33). 

Jehovah, who had been worthy of following in a desert, they now imagine to be a desert. Jehovah, who illuminated their path, they now fancy a land of great darkness. 

We move far from God when we think little of God. “‘Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you. Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the LORD your God and have no awe of me,’ declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty” (Jeremiah 2:19). 

We forsake God when we lose our awe (pahdâ) of Him—when we lose all respect for God. In our inner attitude we no longer detect His awesome holy love; we no longer appreciate His majestic beauty. They looked at life and said, “Life is bad, God must be bad, too.” When they could have said, “Life is bad, but God is good, He’s good all the time.”   

So… 

  • Unbelief is an emotional response to a mental interpretation about the ultimate Relational Being where we falsely conclude that this Being is unfair, un-protective, unsafe, and untrustworthy, and so we choose to trust anything and anyone but Him. 

Join the Conversation

What is your “working definition” of unbelief? What is your “rough draft” psychology of unbelief?

Be First to Comment

  1. jackpock said:

    Have you even met a rational agnostic-atheist? Does no one recognize how idiotic the proposition “I’m angry at you ergo I don’t believe in you” sounds to rational people? Both directions it just sounds infantile. I don’t put my faith in the Flying Spaghetti monster so clearly I must be mad at him. In reverse, if I’m mad at someone denying their existence would be illogical at best when you know they do exist. Here is the real psychology of unbelief that is much more ecologically valid than your proposition (as it fits with any type of unbelief, not just Christian-centric unbelief): I don’t see evidence that the object/being in question exists, therefore I don’t believe it exists. Let’s put this into practice. Do I have evidence the flying spaghetti monster exists? Nope. I don’t believe the FSM exists. Do I have evidence of psychic phenomenon or ghosts? Nope. I don’t believe in psychic phenomenon or ghosts. Do I have evidence that a god/s exist? Nope. I don’t believe a god/s exist. I guess this just means I’m mad at psychic phenomena, the FSM, and god.

    September 6, 2011
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  2. said:

    Jack, Thanks for sharing. A biblical component briefly addressed in this post explains the seeming, but not actual, tension you mention. It is willful suppression. Paul in Romans 1:16-28 (and also in Romans 2:1-12) that by creation (nature) and by conscience, we all know God exists, but we suppress that truth. It is not that we are angry at a “phantom” but that we are angry at the God whose existence we try to suppress. But like trying to hold down a beach ball in the ocean, the awareness always pops to the surface. God’s Word says that the evidence for His existence is such, that no one has an excuse for denying the reality of His existence–which, of course, is 100% different from denying the reality of ghosts or spaghetti monsters. Try as we might, we can’t suppress reality. At some point, we are forced to face truth.

    September 6, 2011
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  3. joejoejoe said:

    Bob, Why do you reject Mormonism? I reject Mormonism because they claim that large prehistoric cities and civilizations existed in the USA, that large battles took place with swords and armor and chariots involving tens of thousands of people. Yet the American Indians never borrowed technology from these supposed civilizations. The Indians never borrowed the wheel, archeology has never found ancient swords,metal blades or armor in the USA. Are you angry at the Mormon God? Is this the reason why you do not accept the Mormon world-view? After all they have 12 sworn testimonies from the church founders that they witnessed Joseph Smiths Golden Tablets. Thousands of Mormons would testify that their faith transformed their lives in positive supernatural ways, surly this is validating evidence that Mormonism is true? Mormons would request that you sincerly ask the Holy Spirit for validating evidence in the form of subjective personal experience. As a believing Mormon, I would be baffled at why you would not accept Mormonism. The only rational explanation is you must be in sin, angry at God or some other demonizing reason. I do not understand why you would not accept the obvious truth of Joseph Smith….something must be wrong with you. You are not Mormon. So its obvious too you why you reject Mormonism, its a simple answer why you reject Mormonism, but a Mormon will NEVER understand as hard…Cognitive Dissonance From the Mormons point of view, its a great mystery why you would reject Mormonism. Something must be spiritually wrong with you. You must be a spiritually blind person, lacking spiritual character maybe even in partnership with the devil. DO you understand my point? Apply the same standard to your own faith, take a step outside of the box, remove your “Mormon glasses” and the mystery of unbelief becomes less mysterious, less insidious and less evil.

    November 15, 2011
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