Dr. Don McDonald worked for 17 years in full-time Christian work before obtain-ing a Ph.D. in sociology. He has a MBA in management and a Master's in Biblical Studies. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Don is a consultant in corporate culture and com-munications.
In the process of gaining my Ph.D., I lost my belief in God. I say "belief," not "faith," because my loss ran deeper than simple loss of confidence. One can lose confidence in a person's ability or sincerity, and still believe that the person exists. I lost belief that any god even existed. I never thought it could happen to me. After all, I had been in the ministry for 17 years. Later I thought there was no way I could ever believe again. I was wrong on both counts.
We had been in the ministry for over a decade before it even crossed my mind that I could, or would ever want, to do anything else. Through my ministry I discovered that I had a skill and interest in teaching, and I realized that to develop that skill I had to be willing to leave the ministry and pursue a Ph.D. After much prayerful consideration I took the Graduate Management Aptitude Test, and applied for management programs at several universities.
Now, I know of nothing innately "unspiritual" about any of the attitudes and behaviors that led to this decision. Many Christians leave various ministries each year to go into "secular" professions, and continue to serve God in new capacities. I have personally known several people who left full-time ministry to pursue a Ph.D., and to the best of my knowledge the walk each had with God was uninterrupted. It was not so with me, and I am sure others suffered the same fate.
The Ph.D. program was intense. I worked 60 hours per week in class preparation, attendance, independent research assignments, and teaching classes of my own. I might be assigned to read as many as four books for one course . . . before the first class meeting. During the course, we might be assigned 10 to 15 journal articles to read per week. Time with my wife and children suffered, especially considering the adjustments of the move to another state, new schools, and a new community.
I found myself saying, "Lord, you did call us to this, right?" We had asked God's guidance, and truly desired His will, yet I began to wonder if I could make it. I had talked to others about how demanding a Ph.D. program could be before I leaped in. I was committed to put in the work, but about a year and a half into the program it became obvious to me that my efforts were not producing what the department wanted. They wanted a certain approach to research, and teaching ability was not a factor. I calculated the survival rate for this program to be one in three; for every one person who made it through the program in recent years, three had started. Why would God call me to something that I could not do?
I decided to change fields of study. Changing universities may have also worked, but moving my family again was not an option. In the sociology department I found a better fit with my approach to research, but other problems arose--problems more serious than the ones I left.
Once a fellow Christian student casually asked me at a departmental social, "Do any of these readings ever cause problems with your faith?" meaning they probably had caused him some.
"Oh, no," I said confidently, "Those are just models that some people use to explain how things work. You don't have to believe them to understand and explain them back to the professors."
There is something subtly different about scientific research today. Early scientists began with the assumption that the purpose of research is to discover truths of God's universe. Today the assumption is that nothing can be said with confidence unless it relates exclusively to what can be detected and measured. Since the models themselves cannot be measured, we can only make inferences about them.
This approach not only makes clear that nothing can ever be "proved," but it also makes clear that God can never be considered in any equation--no testable measure of God can be made in a material universe. The next corollary I took upon myself to draw (it is not necessarily scientific, but it is the conclusion some others in the scientific community have also drawn): All things measurable can be completely explained by measurable causes. It is only a matter of time before all things will be explained by other variables within the material universe. What good is a god that has no measurable influence in the universe I experience?
In the sociology department, such things were not even subtle. My first sociology professor managed to work into his first lecture, "There's no such [profanity] thing as god!" I was a little taken back by his position, and my respect for him as a scientist dropped. It is of course unscientific to state anything with such certainty, especially in regard to what isn't there.
Later another professor went even farther: "You can not be a good sociologist and believe in god." I came to understand that for many sociologists the models or theories were not simply pictures of the way things work, but actual attempts to explain the way things are. Such professors think the models are the real thing (a position I now know to be called "methodological naturalism"). Many others believe that nothing can exist beyond what can be measured in a material world.
I read the theories. I regurgitated them back on exams and in papers. After reading about a hundred pages of logic from one of these "great thinkers," I would begin to agree that they had reasonable explanations. Still, I didn't have to agree with the specific theory to conclude that it is possible to logically explain virtually all experience without God.
When I began the Ph.D. program, I thought I was prepared for the spiritual battle. Maybe I was, but I was beginning to lay down my armor. It occurred to me that by saying, "No, I don't want to look at the possibility that there is no god," I might, in effect, be saying, "I know God might not be there, and I don't want to find out." That hardly seems intellectually honest. If I don't want to consider the "truth," then I have already made up my mind that He is not there, and I am in fact living a lie. This logic is deadly, because it buys into the assumption that nothing can exist that can not be understood by human minds.
I hate to admit it, but one of the greatest drains on my faith was not intellectual but environmental. I only spent a few hours each week with believers, and I spent many times that among non-believers. It was the culture--the unspoken assumptions--that permeated everything.
Something had changed. I had stopped praying because I was no longer confident that Someone was listening. Any Bible reading was intellectual; I wasn't prefacing it with prayer. I was less interested in Christian gatherings. I didn't want to sing in church, because I couldn't sing the lyrics with conviction. I began to couch conversations with Christians tactfully--not to suggest doubt, but to not lie about having faith, either. I wanted to be "intellectually honest." I did not seek help with my doubts from nonbelievers in the scientific community, because they would probably say, "Of course there is no god. Get over it." I knew a few Christian professors, but none of them implied that such doubts could come to a true believer. I never told any of them I had a problem.
What if I approached a fellow Christian student and asked if he or she was experiencing doubts. He might say, "No, of course not!" I would really feel stupid. Where was that fellow student who had approached me once with that question? Now that I needed him, he had graduated. I wonder what his walk with God is like today.
Another reason for not talking with others whose faith was under fire was that if I said, "What if God isn't there?" then I might cause myself to lose my last vestige of a grip, or worse: I might cause others to lose theirs.
I ventured to say it out loud to my wife: "I'm having problems with my faith." Boy, was that an understatement! She was sympathetic, but unshaken. I am sure she did not really grasp the implications of what I was saying--for our lifestyle, for our children.
For the first half of my life I seemed to say to myself, "I know that God can not be proven, so why look for proof? I just trust and benefit from it." Now I looked and indeed there is no proof. So what was new? Imagine sitting on a perfectly firm board and being told that it has no visible supports under it. You are still being held up, so what does it matter? But suppose one day you peer upside down between your legs, and sure enough, there are no visible supports under there. I did, and I panicked at what I saw, or rather didn't see, so I slipped off the board.
I distinctly remember a long walk one night. There had been many, but this time I was not simply saying to God, "Are you there?" or even to myself, "Is God there?" This time I was saying, "There is no one there." I looked up at the stars. The sky was huge and black. It was filled with stars, yet it was oppressively empty. I trembled as for the first time in my life I said to myself, "I am alone."
The road back was slow. At times it was imperceptible, but as I look back, there were some distinct stepping stones. They occurred in the form of at least seven realizations.
(1) There are others. As I browsed the brochure of the annual national research conference for the American Sociological Association, I noticed among the special interest groups, right along side a gay and lesbian group, a Christian group. Is this a group that discusses the social implications of Christianity or a group that actually believes it? I attended the conference and sought out the group on the designated evening. Out of thousands attending the conference, about twenty gathered in the room. They were believers. They did not discuss whether God was real. That was a given. They discussed research and current social issues from a Christian perspective. They discussed how to teach sociology in a way that honors Christ. Meeting with them that night was like finding water in the desert. No, it was like meeting in the catacombs with the Christians of Ancient Rome. Among other things, they discussed the cost of discipleship. The first step to my return was realizing that believing is possible in modern academia, and that there are believers out there, probably in every field.
(2) Others have returned. I can't remember why, but some time later I found myself on the phone with my old boss Chuck. I had not talked with him since I left the ministry. Our talk was nostalgic. I ventured to say, "Chuck, this curriculum has been really rough on my faith." (There's that understatement again.)
There was a pause on the line. "I thought you had already been through that," he said.
"Well, I guess not," was all I could add. The subject changed. As I hung up the phone I also hung up my relationship with Chuck. He was a believer; I was not.
It took weeks for me to realize, but there were two valuable messages in Chuck's brief comment. First, it is possible to have strong doubts and return to faith. Second, he not only believed I personally could recover, but assumed I had in the past. Perhaps my problem was not as rare as my self-isolation suggested.
(3) True science is compatible with faith. Our God is a God of truth, and He has declared that truth is desirable (John 8:32). Christianity is logical and encourages reason, but we can and should be cautious of false interpretations of facts. We may erroneously conclude that interpretations are facts themselves. The likelihood of us understanding our Creator is about as likely as me building something that will understand me. Just because someone can explain the world without God doesn't mean God isn't true. Humans are creative enough to always find a rational alternative to the Truth, if they wish.
(4) True faith requires no proof. If someone ever says to me that they are going through such strong doubts, I think I'll say, "Congratulations! Now you can truly begin to live by faith." (Hebrews 11:1-3; Romans 10:17; 2 Corinthians 5:7).
Having looked under my board for props and finding none, I had another option besides slipping off the board. I could move to a new level of faith. Looking for God in the measurable evidence of science is like the joke of the man looking for a lost contact lens in a room next to the one in which it was lost; when asked why he was looking there, he simply replied that the light was better in that room. Faith frees us to look in other places (Hebrews 11:3). As C. S. Lewis explains, faith frees us to experience more richness than our material senses can reveal. It is like raising my head back up from looking under my legs and discovering that the board I'm sitting on is a swing, suspended from above, capable of going places that one supported from below could not. I decided to stop doubting what I could not prove, and start accepting what I could not deny--Jesus Christ offers the only meaning for life.
(5) Acts of faith reinforce faith. I decided that I must pray, even when I did not sense His presence. I would speak for Him, even when I did not feel I was His best instrument. I began to read apologetic material devotionally. I read daily, and I read only a few pages at a time to let it soak in. As I went about my day I told Him my every feeling, good or bad. In short, I began to practice the presence of God.
(6) I am not strong enough alone. My biggest problem was pride--to think that no one could help me if I couldn't help myself. If I were entering a Ph.D. program again, I would ask old friends and family to pray for me before there were problems. I would seek out Christians in my program and other disciplines, and ask them if they ever face issues of faith in their course work. I would get involved in a local church beyond simply attending--take up the offering, prayer groups, anything. All of these would not only create a network for resources; they would hold me accountable.
(7) Don't argue with your professors. Once when my committee was meeting to discuss my dissertation progress, I happened to take issue with a certain theory held strongly by one of my committee members. It was a theory that ran contrary to my faith, but it was not even relevant to my hypotheses. Believe it or not, it had to do with Darwinian evolution. I am not even sure why it came up. All progress stopped as my committee discussed what should be done about my shortfall in understanding. They agreed that I would meet with one of the committee members and review the literature on the matter. I was to prepare as I saw fit.
I reported to his office at the appointed time, and from the beginning of our conversation it was clear to me that I understood the theory and its ramifications better than he. The second revelation took longer--he was supposed to win. Eventually I said, "Oh, I see what you mean. Thanks."
Does the above scenario bother you? It bothers me, but even Jesus sometimes chose not to defend Himself against people who did not want to know the truth (e.g., John 7:41-43). If people don't want to hear, it not only wastes their time to argue, it also distracts me from more important things (Nehemiah 6:2-4). In God's own time He will make clear to everyone that the speed of light is not "The One Absolute" of our universe. As for me, I resolved that I would always let my peers know where I stand.
Now as a professor I let students know of my faith in Christ; it is a matter of intellectual honesty that I let them know where I am coming from. They may not choose to believe, and I don't ask them to make that choice in class, but neither will they have cause to doubt that I believe.
Editor's note: The author uses his real name in this article, but many others are fictitious to protect their privacy.