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Part 1: Befriending Doubt

1,500 Words

This is Part 1 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series tells my story from the last few years of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but as something different from before.

Part 1 sets the scene of this journey by taking you, the reader, on a brief journey through my teenage years and my ‘friendship’ with Doubt in those years.

As you’ll see if you read the series introduction here, this was intended to be a Five Part series, but surprise surprise, I have found myself unable to be so succinct. As such, while writing what was supposed to all be Part 1, I have found it necessary to divide it into three. So ‘Part 1’ has now become Parts 1, 2 and 3. As such, I think it wise now to refrain from predicting how many parts this series will end up being, but I hope to publish parts 2 and 3 in the next few weeks as well. I hope you enjoy reading it all regardless.

Image by Annie Spratt on Pixabay


I’m not quite sure when Doubt and I first started becoming close. Growing up, I’d somehow or other developed a sense that Doubt was not someone I should be hanging out with. It’s not that anyone had explicitly warned me against him, but I’d developed this feeling nonetheless; Doubt was best avoided, he would only cause me trouble. Nevertheless, whether it was my attraction to melancholic frames of mind, my tendency for deep broodings of thought or just my sheer curiosity, as a young teenager we increasingly started to hang out. Indeed, I often enjoyed our time together. Doubt opened up to me a whole wide world full of new places, people and ideas. Our times together taught me many things, but in particular I came to realise that many of the ideas I thought to be so certain and clear-cut were actually far more intricate, complex and unfamiliar than I’d first believed. Reality had a tendency to become bigger than I thought possible when Doubt and I chatted late into the night, though it also became scarier. But, if I was honest with myself, I revelled in it.

To understand why I appreciated Doubt opening up my world, you need to understand that I grew up as a minority. A privileged minority on many levels, but a minority nonetheless. For starters, I am an identical twin—that means there's only one of me for every 333 people worldwide. Secondly, I grew up as a white British foreigner in the immense human mass of China—there’s approximately 1 foreigner for every 231 Chinese in China. Therefore, if my poor maths is correct, that means that for every one of me (i.e. an identical foreign twin) there were 5,389,923 people in my ‘home’ country of China different from me. Both these facts meant I was different not just from almost everyone in my primary home of China, but also different from everyone in my passport ‘home’ of Britain. I mean, I looked and sounded ‘British’, but inside Britain I always felt like I stood out. Indeed, when in the UK I used to worry that some fellow Brit would ‘expose’ me as a hidden foreigner, particularly when I would accidentally speak Chinese to those working on the tills in shops!

However, my most meaningful ‘minority badge’ growing up was my identity as a Christian. This was the most significant badge I had because Christianity was my home across homes. For someone having to make sense of life between cultures and nations, it was such a relief to have something which meant it didn’t matter if someone had a different skin colour, language or passport to me—we could both still belong together. However, at the same time, whether I was in non-Christian China or post-Christian UK, I knew the badge ‘Christian’ would also make me different from most people in either country. But that didn’t really bother me because as far as my small childhood world was concerned, everyone around me was Christian (or at least I assumed them to be!). As with most people, I was able to hide from the vast array of differences surrounding me by spending time primarily with those who shared this identity. Yes, I knew the strangers I passed everyday were probably different from me, but within my Christian bubble I was very content and happy.

Nevertheless, it was precisely because I was very aware that I lived in this wonderful bubble that when Doubt first came knocking on my door as a teenager, I was very curious. I knew I lived in a box and though I was very happy with it, wouldn’t it be really cool to see just what the world outside was like? What was it that all those millions and billions of people living outside my bubble believed and thought? Did it make more sense than what I believed? How did it make them live their lives? Moreover, although I was an insecure teenager in many ways, I was at least self-confident about my intellect, and I felt like I could hang out with Doubt enjoyably enough without there being too much danger of him pulling the rug from under me.

So began our friendship, and I think it’s fair to say, it was quite pleasing to both parties. Of the many games we used to play together, our most favourite was Jenga. Doubt would push out one of my wooden blocks and hand it back to me, challenging me to keep my tower stable. This was unsettling at first, but over time I found that not only did my tower remain largely stable, it actually grew! Indeed, every time Doubt pulled out a wooden block and dared me to try and place it back on top, I found that I could outsmart him. Not only could I outsmart him, but my tower grew taller than ever! Indeed, I began to see our friendship as the best of all relationships—iron sharpening iron.

However, I didn’t have it all my own way. I remember the day Doubt finally convinced me the Earth was probably older than 6,000 years, contrary to what I’d been taught in my American Bible-Belt influenced curriculum. Indeed, I had been presented very good evidence for a 6,000 yr-old Earth. Growing up between the UK and China, I witnessed first-hand the vastly different stories and narratives each nation told themselves about what was true about the world, history and society and what was false. I quickly learned that propaganda is the sneakiest of all devils—you see it everywhere but right next to you. So it wasn’t so hard to see how the Creationist proposition could be true that the only reason the majority of the world believed that evolution and a billions year-old earth was true in the face of all the evidence I had seen against it was that, like propaganda, people just believed it because everyone around them believed it. After all, almost no one I met who believed evolution was true could actually give me a good reason why it was true in light of all the evidence I presented against it. In almost all cases in which I debated the issue with someone, their belief in its truth fundamentally came down to the fact that they had been told it was true. They certainly couldn’t argue against all the points I had up my sleeve. Nonetheless, one day Doubt introduced me to a blogger online who used to believe in a 6,000-yr-old earth. In his blog, he pointed out all the problems with the arguments put forward by young-earthers. I saw my best arguments and evidence comprehensively picked apart and couldn’t devise a come-back. “Check-mate” exclaimed Doubt. “Fair is fair” I thought, and I shook his hand and acknowledged defeat.

So our friendship went on from strength to strength. Indeed, I found that despite the subtle warnings I had picked up during my childhood about how Doubt would ‘lead me astray’ and such, Doubt had enriched my life greatly. I’d not always appreciated what he had to say, but by and large he had made me smarter, more understanding and wiser than I otherwise would’ve been. As a result, when aged 16 I finally left my Christian bubble and entered the largely areligious world of post-Christian Britain, I found myself largely unfazed. Doubt had been a faithful friend, and he hadn’t let me down. Far from leading me astray, he had prepared me for the world beyond and I found I could keep my feet.

This largely continued to be the case for the next few years as I finished school and entered university. Hanging out with Doubt had taught me that it was ok not to have certainty about everything, and that ultimately the world was a big place with far too much to say for me to know it all. That didn’t mean I should just accept ignorance; no, learning was good and important, but I wasn’t to kid myself that I’d ‘solved’ everything. Indeed, Doubt had shown me that reality was not a puzzle to be solved but a world to be explored. Indeed, as my Jenga tower climbed higher and higher, the vastness and vibrancy of the world became evermore apparent, with wonders, curiosities and fascinations stretching out to the ever-expanding horizon about me. Nonetheless, my Jenga tower had become my ivory tower; a place of safety from which I could view the vast expanse of Reality without having to actually leave the safety and security of what I knew. Doubt and I had now been friends for so long, I naively assumed that we would go on indefinitely as before—he’d pull out blocks from my tower and I’d continue building ever higher.

But then came the day Doubt betrayed me; the day Doubt brought my tower crashing down. With hindsight, I realise that my tower had been swaying for some time. Roughly a year before Doubt betrayed me, I wrote in my journal “I’ve been going through one of my ‘doubt periods’ where I re-evaluate and relook at a lot of my beliefs, particularly about God, and this period in particular has been much rougher and leaving me more confused and uncertain than usual.” Already, if I could have seen it, I’d have realised the ‘understanding’ between Doubt and myself was shifting—he was no longer happy to let me stay in my ivory tower. The day was approaching where it would all fall down.

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