Loss of Faith as modelled in Lord of the Rings

Faith – how do you lose yours?

We all try to sustain our existing beliefs. We assess our experiences and new evidence through the lens of what we currently believe, and if we feel that our beliefs are threatened in some way, we find ways to defend or reinforce them. That’s not a criticism, just a statement of fact – we all do it, in all sorts of situations.

I’ve seen and heard plenty of cases of what could be described as people losing their faith. I’m not entirely comfortable with that phrase, as it implies that the faith was a valuable thing (which is up for debate), and also conjures up a strange mental picture of people turning their houses upside down looking for this faith that they lost, but it’s probably the best phrase to describe what I’m talking about.

Anyway, when I was a conservative Christian, I used to think that people lost their faith by stages, slipping ever further towards damnation down the slippery slope of liberalism. Then, as my views became more liberal because my conservative beliefs fell at the first hurdle of scientific investigation, I started to doubt that. I saw my growing liberalism as correcting errors and being faithful to the truth, not a step towards atheism. Given my current position, it’s fair to say that my later assessment may not have been entirely accurate.

There seems to be a well-worn trajectory from orthodox conservative belief, through liberal belief, to unbelief, with doctrines being abandoned, one by one, as they become untenable. But I’ve also known people who went very suddenly from a strong, conservative belief to atheism, without appearing to pass through liberalism in any way. They viewed their beliefs as more of an all-or-nothing package, so after an internal struggle, they changed their positions almost overnight.

The Ring

One ring to deconvert them all

I think these two ways of losing faith are described quite neatly in Lord of the Rings. No, seriously.

The steady slide away from conservative belief by rejecting doctrines for a more liberal or figurative alternative is similar to the defences of Helm’s Deep. Within the outer wall, there were a succession of inner walls. Whenever one wall was breached, the defenders could fall back to the next wall and regroup. They were conceding ground, and their territory shrank with every retreat, but each stage could be defended and would hold for some time.

Those who changed suddenly from orthodoxy to unbelief had a faith whose defences were more like Mount Doom. There were huge armies surrounding it in every direction, preventing anyone getting close enough to pose a threat, but if a single hobbit somehow evaded those defences and reached Mount Doom itself, it would spell disaster. Substitute terms associated with theology and faith as appropriate.

So there’s a split between people who discard their more extreme beliefs as they become unsustainable, and those who take the all-or-nothing approach of defending their whole belief system, and reject it completely if they conclude that any aspect of their belief is flawed or unsustainable.

In reality, I think everyone falls on a spectrum between the two extremes – some beliefs can be abandoned, but everyone has a bottom line sooner or later. I’m definitely more of a Helm’s Deep type, and I retreated further and further, but in the end, what finished me off was a line I just couldn’t cross.

So what about you? Are your beliefs more like Helm’s Deep or Mount Doom?

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

8 responses to “Loss of Faith as modelled in Lord of the Rings”

  1. thinkellen says :

    I myself am more of a helm’s deep type. I was and am continuously re-evaluating the content and interpretation of my beliefs as I took in new evidence and experience.

    My prior religion (Mormonism), however, was entirely structured around a mount doom-like central tenet. I remember being explicitly taught that either it was all true, or it was all a hoax – there was no middle ground. This “all-or-nothing” approach was used to entice belief. Say, if you prayed about the book of scripture, or the founding prophet, and came to believe in the truth of one of those, well, obviously the rest of it must be true as well! But this same idea eventually led to my total rejection of Mormonism and Christianity at large.

    So I guess my experience was a bit of both. It was a long process, but the eventual change went VERY quickly from belief one day to agnostic atheism the following month. My doubts had built up more and more over time until I reached the point where the sum total simply ceased to be tenable. I was tentative about letting go, ultimately treating it as an experimental exercise in ideological change, but quickly came to embrace it… and well, that’s my story!

  2. M. Rodriguez says :

    funny analogy, but it is actualy a very good one. Me myself I was a Mount Doom. Cause I actualy started off Liberal and became more fundamental conservative as I grew in the faith. But when the base of my belief (the bible) got wiped out from under me. There was nothing for me to hold on to.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I’m glad you commented. I was thinking of you as being rather “Doomy”. And yeah, it’s a pretty wacky way of looking at things, but it just occurred to me one day so I thought I’d better write it up.

  3. theaspirationalagnostic says :

    Aso, I’m a liberal agnostic/ progressive Christian. The little footsteps I take towards belief are hard won and considered- the development of a belief framework I can live with. As I’ve said before, another issue that I have with fundamentalism is there is so, so far to fall when you begin to realize the fact that the bible isn’t an ultimate truth.


  4. duanetoops says :

    I have to say I greatly enjoyed this analogy. I am an avid fan of the Lord of the Rings saga and I am well acquainted with the loss of faith. I have found my experience to be quite like what you described as the Helm’s Deep methodology, in which I passed through a immense liberalizing of theology and belief, eventually conceding to a loss of faith altogether and an accepting embrace of atheism.

    What sprang to mind in this line of thinking (Models of losing faith illustrated by the Lord of the Rings) is yet another way, although I’m sure there are many more. Early on in your post you suggested that you were uncomfortable with the phraseology of “losing faith” because of its value laden implications, as it insinuates a loss of faith as negative in which would should rigidly refrain from the loss and if lost one should do everything within their power to find it once again. Perhaps then this third way I’m describing should be called the Frodo effect, in which the faith carried, like the ring itself, is a burden, an albatross around one’s neck, becoming too heavy and two shameful to bear. In this case, one is slowly being turned into someone they are not, progressively degrading into a monster yet, all the while becoming more and more consumed by it, believing it is the one all important possession that matters more than anything else. Yet, there will eventually come a point when they absolutely must abandon this faith, it must be cast into the fires of Mount doom and destroyed if they ever hope to survive, to remain sane, or to be well again. In this model is a battle to let it go and when it is gone there remains a hole that will never be fully filled and a wound that will never be fully healed. They know they are better off for having let it go but, the emptiness remains…

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