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October 17, 2013

MAY: We all doubt it

— If you strike up a conversation with people about faith, you are likely to leave scratching your head.

Nationwide polls confirm that it’s hard to believe that most of us aren’t sure what we believe. In 2011, the Gallup organization posed this simple question to Americans, “Do you believe in God?”

More than 9 in 10 Americans, 92 percent, still say “yes” when asked the question in that way. In spite of everything else that you may hear, that is only down slightly from the same Gallup question asked of Americans in 1944.

This past spring, a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey confirms those numbers and discovered even more focused opinions. While more than 90 percent said they believe in God, eight out of 10 said that their religious faith is at least someone important in their daily lives. Two out of three Americans — 64 percent — say they believe in the God of the Bible.

But a column headline in the Huffington Post on March 13 may leave you scratching your head. If 9 out of 10 Americans believe in God, how can “Religion Among Americans Hits Low Point” also be true?

The article goes on to state that the number of Americans who claim to have no religious affiliation is at its highest point ever. But even that is deceptive. First it doesn’t negate the possibility of faith — it just says that the faith is not committed to a local place of worship.

Second, by using the phrase “highest point ever” the author gives the feeling that the number is the vast majority. Buried within the article, the actual numbers are quietly revealed.

In the 1940s, the percentage of people who had no religious affiliation was about 5 percent. The vast majority of those were people of the Christian faith.

Today, the number of people without a religious affiliation — defined as a place to worship on a regular basis — is a little less that 20 percent. That, too, can be deceiving because some of that number are people from other countries who do not have a local building or community with which to practice their faith.

There is also a very practical reason for the discrepancy. To most people, faith implies an unwavering certainty. I have faith that our government will work out a plan to avoid defaulting on the payment of interest on bonds. (I am writing this as zero hour is approaching. We will see whether my faith is warranted.)

I have faith that I will arrive to and from work with safety. I have faith that the God of creation holds all life — including mine — in the palm of His hand. I long to live with that certainty, to know without a doubt that I am trusting and serving the holder of truth.

But at the same time, I am limited in my knowledge and perspective. Circumstances that touch people deeply, woven with my limited understanding, cause me to wonder distressingly.

Earlier this summer, Jane, a woman of immense faith, was serving food to homeless and underprivileged families on a Saturday afternoon. A week later, we were remembering her life at her burial. This week, I stood in a funeral home while loved ones laid to rest a 21-year-old woman who died of cancer.

I wrestle with faith when a natural disaster destroys the lives of individuals that I do not even know. I wrestle with faith when an unnatural dementia snatches daily the memory and communication skills of my mother, placing the weight of care and uncertainty on the shoulders of my sister.

Truth be told — even those known for their deep faith — people like Billy Graham, Martin Luther and Mother Teresa — have wrestled with the doubt caused by unanswerable and painful questions.

John Ortberg, in an honest book titled, “Faith and Doubt,” candidly describes the grapple with doubts when walking through the faith-shaking storms of life. With a grin that somehow makes its ways to the pages of the book, Ortberg writes, “Faith and doubt. What if the most important one is the one in the middle?” What if wrestling leads to more honest faith and outrageous hope?

The Bible tells the story of a man who brought his son to Jesus to be healed. As the father described the symptoms of the boy, medical experts today would have diagnosed seizures and convulsions.

Psychological and neurological problems abound; today teams of experts would have been summoned for study and treatment. Can you relate to the father who simply says, “If you can do anything, please take pity on us and help him.” Jesus said, “Do you believe?”

The man immediately exclaimed, “I do believe; help me when it seems I don’t.”

And help me too.

— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast.

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