Choosing: Do Lapsed Catholics Lose Their Faith? Or Do They Choose to Disbelieve?

We have all read conversion stories, conversions to the Catholic Church or to Christianity itself — the process is much the same — but, while we are shown the initial attraction and other steps along the way, what happens at the moment of decision is not infrequently obscure to us and perhaps to the writer. Even more obscure is what precisely happens when a Christian abandons the faith — also a conversion, a turning. Let us first glance at that, since few stories are written of that sort of conversion.

Almost always the man who has turned away from Christianity says, “Well, I lost my faith.” Sometimes he adds that it was during the 1960s or after Vatican II or because of preaching unrelated to life that he lost his faith. A bit odd, that phrase. He lost it, as he might have lost his eyesight. Sad, but nothing to be done about it. Or he lost it, as he might have lost a rabbit’s foot or a holy medal given to him by his mother. He might search for the medal under the cushions of the sofa or on the floor of the car, but there’s no searching for the lost faith. It’s gone, and there’s nothing to be done. Not his fault, of course. He didn’t do anything; he lost it.

The first question we must ask is this: If faith is something one can have and then inadvertently lose, where does faith come from in the first place? How does one get it? If one can gain faith in the first place, why can’t one regain it if it is lost? Many Christians hold that faith is the free gift of God — God’s grace. But those that so innocently “lose” their faith: has God withdrawn His grace? Few Christians would say so. The Church says that all men (understood, like a reference to all dogs, as including the female of the species) are given sufficient grace to believe. The fault, then, of those who lose their faith is not (dear Brutus) in their stars or in God. If they first had sufficient grace and believed and then, still having sufficient grace, disbelieved, they must be rejecting that grace.

Of course, rejecting God’s grace — the grace to see and do what is right, for instance — is something that a great many of us (including this writer) have done. Precisely what leads to loss of faith — it’s not the same for everyone — we cannot know. Few people have written soul-searching accounts of the process, and such accounts as there have been are self- justifying, blaming others; indeed, just as others are instrumental in bringing someone to the faith, others can help to destroy belief. And yet in the last analysis, what happens in the battleground of the soul is a matter of will and grace.

Externally, though, it is sometimes (for the young) a bad teacher. Or (for those older) too great an involvement in this world; too little time in prayer and too little spiritual food for growth in grace; or simply wanting something more than God. Whatever the cause, it is, I think, quite certain that the loss of faith is not something that just happens to an innocent man, like the loss of a lucky coin, without his being responsible. Leaving to one side possible promptings from Screwtape and ignored ones from the Holy Spirit, we can say, I think, that to “lose” one’s faith is to choose to lose it.

No one but a determinist will deny fateful choice: the choice of a spouse or of an occupation or of unfaithfulness to marriage vows or of the first small step into crime. A trained lawyer abandons the law and becomes a novelist or poet. A wife leaves her husband. A young man, convinced that he has a vocation to the cloister, takes temporary vows; and a year or two later both he and the monastery are convinced that he does not have a vocation. A priest abandons his vocation to follow some Helen for her gift of beauty. But all these choices seem different in kind to choosing allegiance to Christ — becoming a Christian. Or choosing to abandon that allegiance —”losing” one’s faith. We have not been wont to think of faith in terms of choice. “I lost my faith” has a sad but guiltless ring; but “I chose to disbelieve” sounds very different indeed, and few ex-Christians would care to put it that way. All the same, I think that’s the way of it; and I think the faithful — whether they know it or not — have said, ” I choose to believe.”

But do all men choose? Surely some simply grow up believing — or perhaps these days grow up disbelieving. Most of us in Christendom (the nominally Christian countries) had a childhood faith, though many of us abandoned it in our teens; and some who abandoned it came back later to a deeper faith of their own. Whether we never lost our childhood faith or did lose it, we all suffered the slings and arrows of temptations to disbelieve. There can be few, I think, who kept their childhood faith without at some point doubting or wavering, those very doubts strengthening their later faith. Of those who dismissed their childhood faith as they had earlier dismissed belief in fairies or Santa Claus, it appears that in this secular society they might then pursue their lives without ever being challenged in an adult way to wonder whether, after all, Christianity just might be true — but I don’t believe they’re never challenged.

Sounds of Bells

Churches dot the land and the bells ring forth. Obviously intelligent, learned, and witty people — like C.S. Lewis or John Paul — hold the faith and give their lives to it. And I just don’t believe that God would permit anyone to go through life without challenges to his disbelief — challenges to lift his eyes to something beyond himself. Countless references in books or the press touch the edges of the mystery. Sometime in his life he is likely to glimpse the awesome glory of a great cathedral. Mother Teresa is in the news. At some time in every life, I suspect, there is at least an impulse to find out more. Perhaps one is merely walking along a street and hears church bells or catches a glimpse through a church door of an altar ablaze with candles, and one is tempted to go in.

If, as Peter Kreeft suggests, Purgatory or the preparation for Heaven is an examination of our life in the lucid light of absolute truth, one then may see that momentary impulse to follow the bells into the church as the turning point of the whole life. However that may be, for those — and they are legion — who do know at some point that there is a real choice of whether to follow the prompting of the Spirit towards Christ or to turn away, it is life’s central choice.

If, that is, our Christian faith is true. If Jesus is, in absolute and eternal fact, the Incarnate God, then the choice for or against Him is the ultimate choosing.   But let us admit candidly that it is possible, despite the ancient documents, that Christianity is a lie, that we pray to nothing, that Jesus was the madman he must have been if he went round forgiving sins he had no power to forgive. No one who rejects the faith supposes that he is rejecting the Son of God; he is rejecting a nut who said he was the Son of God and said that anyone who had seen him had seen the Father. The one thing Jesus wasn’t is just a nice man. The choice is, nut or divine Son. To believe Jesus — well, it takes a lot of believing, doesn’t it? On the other hand, to reject Jesus as a nut takes rather a lot of disbelieving (or negative believing).

Many of us in approaching Christianity (including this writer) see that dilemma starkly: the frightful difficulty of either believing or disbelieving. We want proof, like the Apostle Thomas; but there is no proof, either way. Maybe God wants trust, not compelled-by-proof obedience. Even if we choose the Christ, we shall later have our moments of doubt. Let us not forget, though, that those who choose the other way have their moments of dreadful doubt also — “My God! What if it’s true after all, and I have rejected my God!”

Yet, if we are clear-thinking and honest, refusing to blur the choices, we have to acknowledge, first, that there is literally no evidence against Jesus’s claim, only fuzzy assumptions like “miracles can’t happen” or “God wouldn’t work that way.” (As an Oxford tutor might say, “Who told you that?”) On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that, hard to believe though it is, there is a good deal of real evidence to support Jesus’s claim. The sort of man revealed in the Gospels doesn’t seem to fit a crack-brain. Whatever the Gospel writers tell us, something happened on the third day to convince the despairing Apostles that their world had not ended. Something happened at Pentecost to turn the not-very-brave Apostles into lions. And something happened on the Road to Damascus to turn a sophisticated and bitter enemy of Christianity into a giant of the faith.

All the same, people do reject the faith. Evidence is not ironclad proof. We do not get to put our hand into Jesus’ wounded side. Nothing happens to us on the road to Damascus or D.C. It was all a long time ago. Theologians scatter their doubts about this or that. We live in a secular world (so like that of Imperial Rome), and the blare of the TV is much louder than the church bells, Those who reject the faith are not, as C.S. Lewis once said, simply brave men who have logically accepted the defeat of their heart’s deepest longings for God. True, they may at moments have felt such longings, but, much more, they simply can’t be bothered to do God’s will. The truth is that, apart from rare moments, we don’t want Christ in our lives. We don’t want a God who knows the thoughts of our hearts, some of them rather nasty. Above all, we don’t want to be creatures: we want to be autonomous, free of any outside obligations or judgment. When we reject Christianity, we, in fact, choose autonomy, as Eve did. That’s what we want: to be our own masters.

That is the essential choice, God or autonomy. But we rarely see it in its stark clarity. If we, not yet Christian or with only a shaky childhood belief, look into the faith, we probably feel the stirrings of an ancient and astonishing hope, but, at the same time, a fear that we don’t recognize to be fear — a fear of losing ourselves. So we pause; we hesitate; we sit on the fence, drawn and repelled, hoping somehow to find absolute certainty, which is never given. What we do not see with clarity is that we must choose — must choose — without that certainty either way. If we refuse to choose, then we have chosen, against the faith. And we drift away.

Choosing to believe or disbelieve: that’s what we do. Conversion stories don’t always make this clear, even less the untold stories of those who choose to disbelieve. How can it be anything but choosing when there is no certainty either way? There may of course be surges of emotion that feel like certainty, but in the cold, grey light of morning the doubts return.

Christian converts looking back are always a bit uncertain just what happened at the moment of acceptance. A woman on the verge of faith walks across a room, and, when she reaches the other side, she is a Christian. A non-believer en route to the zoo in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle is a Christian when they arrive. A man in a library begins to think that it’s true after all, but goes out on the library steps and sees a red bus; what he thinks of as the “real world” sweeps back, and he dismisses God-fancies forever. In each story, a choosing.

What I wonder is whether all committed Christians were not converts in a sense, those with a childhood faith converting in a moment of choosing to their own acceptance; and whether all committed unbelievers did not in a moment of choosing reject and turn away. Of course, it would be different for Jews, choosing or rejecting the God of Abraham, and different again for Muslims and Hindus, but still a choice of a good greater than they. For all men, I think, a choosing.

Doubting Doubt

To explore the act of choosing that is unexplored in most conversion stories and, of course, all of the untold rejection stories, I shall have to touch upon the conversion story I know best, my own. The preface to this story is that I, like many another, abandoned my childhood faith in my teens. What I had accepted on my mother’s say-so, I now doubted and abandoned. But, as some very wise man said: “To believe with certainty, one must begin by doubting.” I then became, briefly, an atheist; but then doubted that: it too is a faith, albeit a negative one. So I became a faintly theistic pagan with a poet’s allegiance to beauty and love. And then one starry night, as watch-officer on the bridge of a destroyer, thinking how very odd it was that certain brilliant scientists had seemingly become believing Christians, I decided that as a matter of intellectual honesty I ought someday to have another, grown-up look at Christianity — not that it could be true, of course.

Some years later I arrived at Oxford, “breathing from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Ages” — the Age of Faith — and I decided that now was the time to fulfill that unforgotten resolution to have that second look. Reading widely and deeply, I discovered with real amazement that Christianity could be true: it was possible. I was not seeing through it, as I had expected to do; I was seeing into it. I couldn’t dismiss it as I had ignorantly done before. A bit embarrassing.

My second discovery, equally astonishing if not dismaying, was that, historically, Christianity was probable — probably true. I was an historian, and historians deal in probability. The high probability that there was a man named Julius Caesar, the somewhat lesser possibility that Brutus helped to kill him, the still lesser probability that Brutus was Caesar’s natural son. And the copious documentary evidence made it a high probability that there was a man named Jesus, crucified under Pontius Pilate.

But the miracles, and above all the Resurrection: we all know — science has proved — that miracles can’t happen. Do we? No, we do not know that. Science has proved nothing of the sort. Science is concerned with nature, what is natural. And a miracle, by definition, is supernatural. Science can speak no word, absolutely none, about supernature, neither whether it exists nor whether it may insert an event with no natural cause into nature (after which it has natural consequences). It is only an unscientific, unprovable assumption that a miracle cannot be fed into the system. We may make that assumption, but no scientific truth requires us to. But we may also decide, without intellectual disgrace, that, if the same amount of evidence supports the Resurrection as supports the Crucifixion, we ought to accept both or neither.

We need not, of course, accept all miracles; we may remain skeptical about Sister Marie’s finding her second-best thimble by the help of the Blessed Virgin. But we may find it reasonable to assume that if miracles can happen, they might cluster especially round the time when he who called himself Son of God was among us. Moreover, if a miracle once fed into nature, becoming part of nature, has remarkable consequences, the consequences may tend to prove the miracle. And consequences are precisely what I was talking about when I pointed out that something happened on the third day, something happened at Pentecost, something happened on the road to Damascus. If ever Christianity appeared to be done for, demoralized apostles and a leader twisting upon the Roman gibbet, it was when Jesus was executed; but a thousand years later Rome and her legions were gone and the great cathedrals rose in glory across Europe. How did a handful of fishermen do it? And why?

So I was not deterred by twentieth-century folklore about miracles having been proved impossible; and Christianity — Incarnation, Resurrection, and all — appeared to me probable. But probability is not proof. If I were to swallow so enormous, so life-changing, a thing, I wanted proof. I didn’t get it. But if I were to reject Christianity, I wanted disproof of it. I didn’t get that either. I recognized that at least part of me wanted it to be true, but also part of me wanted it not to be true. So that didn’t help.

Sad Eyes

I had, when I began the second-look, the thought that after a rapid study I’d see that it was a somehow fraudulent and impossible belief, and I’d lapse back into my old comfortable agnosticism, confirmed in paganism, and just go cheerfully on as I had done before the second look. But it was not to be like that, I now saw. I had meant to look at a system of belief — had looked at it and found it probable — but in the process I had drawn near to a man. Jesus Christ had become real to me, that strange mixture of awesome severity and unbearable tenderness. Now, if I did not accept Christianity, I must reject him —not the system only, him. His sad eyes would follow me about. I could never go back to that happy ignorance of supposing Christianity to be a simple-minded folk belief, like belief in mid¬summer night fairies. Rejecting the tortured Christ  would not be easy. On the other hand, believing that God had been nailed to a cross was not easy either.

So I sat on the fence, a fence known to most people who have moved towards the faith (and perhaps those moving away). Months passed without perceptible movement. I felt I couldn’t say, “I believe”—or “I disbelieve” either. Only: “I think it may probably be true.”

What is belief anyway, I asked myself. It is not knowing. With all we know, it’s astonishing how much we don’t know, only believe. We believe our mother loves us. We believe our friend will stand by us if we are in peril. We used to believe eggs were the perfect food; now we believe bran is. We know that there are billions of suns in our galaxy, but a great many people believe, not unreasonably, that, since our sun has planets, some of the other suns must have them, too; and that some of the planets must have life; and that some of these must have intelligent life. I myself found it easy to believe in that string of linked hypotheses, though there is no evidence at all, only a degree of probability.

But such a belief costs us nothing, while belief in Christianity is a costly belief, compelling us to do what we may not be eager to do (praying, giving, going to church) and compelling us not to do what we may very much want to do (being unfaithful to our wife, seeking abortion or divorce, cheating our firm). On the other hand, the rewards of faithful belief in Christ would be immeasurably greater than discovering a city on Betelgeuse 6. Still, if Christianity means sacrifice (the burden may be light, but carrying a cross doesn’t always seem so) we want to be sure. That’s why “losing one’s faith” is not like losing the holy medal our mother gave us; it’s much more like going AWOL from an embattled army.

I saw all this, and I sat on the fence unable to say “I believe” or “I disbelieve.” Then came a break-through. Quite by chance (or was it by chance?) I heard and seized the familiar verse: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Wasn’t that me — exactly? But he had acted on his belief, not his unbelief, by coming to Jesus. Didn’t I believe and doubt? But would I act? What would be analogous? If there were a civil war, wouldn’t I, not knowing who would win, choose a side (Lee’s side) and pledge my sword to it? But Christianity — is it not in a great war against secularism and moral anarchy? And isn’t one side led by Christ the King? I can’t know with absolute certainty that he is God rather than a fraud, but I must bet my life one way or the other. That’s what this choice is: betting one’s life.

If the choice really is, in essence, God or autonomous self, it may be that on Judgment Day the question that will be put to each of us is: How did you choose? And in that moment, seeing our lives in the utter clarity of truth, unable to speak anything but the truth, we’ll answer with what we bet our lives on….

Well, we shall not pursue that line. But that’s where I was: seeing that I had got to place my bet. I had got to choose. Remaining in indecision would be tantamount to decision against Christ. A fragment of a ’60s peace poster on my ‘fridge says: “NOT TO DECIDE ISTO DECIDE.” To decide by drift, drifting away.

I uttered no ringing affirmation of “I believe!” I, in fact, said, “Lord, I choose to believe.” Those very words. My way of saying, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” I was kneeling as I said it. I was pledging my sword, the banners of pride and self, at least for the moment, in the dust. And one thing follows from “I choose to believe,” which is that it is impossible later to say, “I lost my faith”; one can only say, “I choose not to believe,” however uncomfortable.

In the wild time of the 1960s, when all about me people, including clergymen, were “losing” their faith, I was tempted to abandon it; but I kept remembering that I had chosen to believe and pledged my fealty to Christ the King and could not in honour forsake him. Once before a ’60s demonstration I was talking to a former priest and his girlfriend. “I walked out,” he said. “I couldn’t believe all that, the Incarnation and Resurrection. It cramped my spirit.” He looked at the girl and added, “Love and doing what you feel like doing is the only reality.” I said, “I pledged my sword to Christ. I cannot break my word whether the Resurrection feels true or not.” We were separated then, but I’ve often wondered what he thought of my reply.

Having become Christian through seeing that it was a choice, having, in effect, answered the question of Jesus (“Who do you say I am?”), it seemed logical to me — though not to everyone — to go straight on to the question of Rome (Is the Catholic Church the Church?). If that question is asked, followed by open-minded study, then the process — choosing in the end to believe or to reject — is almost identical to what I’ve described in becoming a Christian.

Choosing to believe or to disbelieve: that’s the heart of conversion. Conversion to the faith or from it. The more clearly one knows precisely what the choice is, the better one is armed against future doubts, as I was at a low ebb of faith in the 1960s. While we are all given sufficient grace to believe, God never (or rarely) compels us (though I think He sustains new Christians with a special grace for awhile). But He will not force us to become Christians or forbid us to “lose” our faith. A man walking up to a busy street corner where a small boy waited to cross might assume the boy knew what he was doing, but if the little boy held up his small hand, the big hand of the man might take it and help the boy to cross. Like the boy, we make a choice by reaching up, and it’s Christ’s hand that comes down.

It is, I think, of immense importance that Christians realize that they have made a free-will choice in conversion, whether from childhood faith to mature faith or from agnosticism to faith. And no less important for those drifting away from church and faith to see clearly that, by their own free will, they are drifting away from what they once chose; and, if they “lose” their faith, they will have chosen to do so. Surely, to be fully human, one should brush away the cobwebs and be aware of what one is doing. What one is choosing.

Lion Food

One good thing about the persecutions of Christians back in Imperial Rome was that, with the lions roaring from their cages under the Colosseum, one didn’t lightly choose. There was the outrageous hope of salvation — but also the lions. One morning in the City of Rome, people found a couple of legionaries at every street corner. “Citizen,” a soldier said, “have you sacrificed to Jupiter this morning? I don’t see your red ribbon. Just step up to the altar.” A pinch of grain thrown onto the flame on the altar to the god of the Empire, and one was safe. But by noon the cells under the arena were stuffed with Christians who had refused to sacrifice to the pagan god. No doubt there were Christians who in the crunch did sacrifice: “Shucks, Jesus will forgive me, maybe. He knows I’m allergic to cats.” The wonder is, to us and to the Romans, that so many did refuse and died in the jaws of the lions. Fellow Christian, what would you do?

A gentle, white-haired Vicar of the Church of England remarked to me one afternoon: “What the Church really needs is a good persecution.” That shocked me a bit — he meant it — and I’ve remembered it, thought about it, over the years. Unthinkable though it is in our fat and comfortable society, let us think about it. A couple of prominent Christians who would not deny the faith crucified on Capitol Hill. Lions in cells under the football stadium. Or maybe just gulags.

One thing the persecution would do: it would get rid of the deadwood in the churches. Episcopal bishops and Jesuits and Neo-Modernist theologians denying that they were or ever had been Christians since their innocent youth. But countless martyrs, too, as the faith became again something to die for. Christians sneaking off into the woods or sewers for Communion. What would disappear would be the lukewarm Christians the angel of the church at Laodicea spat out of his mouth: choosing to believe, really believe, or to disbelieve, would be — urgently — upon them.

Well, at the moment persecution to compel our choosing is not likely. But there is still the possibility of our hearing on Doomsday the Lord Christ speaking the dread words: “Go away; I never knew you.” Is that possible from a God who loves us? But doesn’t what we choose have consequences? Doesn’t choosing always have consequences? C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce — the divorce of Heaven and Hell — said in words that might well be engraved above every church door: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.'” It is we who choose which it shall be. That is our freedom — to choose.


  • Sheldon Vanauken

    Sheldon Vanauken (1914 — 1996) is an American author, best known for his autobiographical book A Severe Mercy (1977), which recounts his and his wife's friendship with C. S. Lewis, their conversion to Christianity and dealing with tragedy. He published a sequel, Under the Mercy in 1985.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...