Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Many people experience doubt about aspects of their religious lives. They wonder whether their religious texts are true. They wonder if the people claiming to represent God really do. They wonder whether God actually hears their prayers. They struggle to accept that God cares about them given how nasty the world is. Doubt about faith is completely normal.
Doubt about faith is completely normal.
Yet when we relate our doubts to religious authority figures, we are often met with puzzling responses:
Sometimes the respondent is dumbfounded: “Why would you ask a question like that?”
Sometimes the respondent is irritated: “Don’t go bothering me with ridiculous questions!”
Sometimes the respondent is mystified: “Well, I have no idea, but I’m sure God knows all the answers.”
Sometimes the respondent is hostile: “A real Christian would know better than to challenge God!”
The curious thing is that religious people are usually pretty keen on guilt. All the “shoulds”: we should pray more, read the Bible more, go to church more, give more. Add to that all the “should not’s” (which are so varying between sects that I’ll skip the temptation to add examples). Why is that? There is pretty standard agreement within the Christian communities that meeting God requires a confrontation with one’s sins. Conveniently, we find within ourselves this remarkable phenomenon called Guilt: we experience a sharp emotional prick together with a fairly clear awareness of what is morally required for amendment in our conduct. Of course, Christians would not think this merely convenient, but part of the divine design of human nature. If we go off course morally, we experience internal dissonance by design.
While guilt drives us toward the good, doubt drives us toward the truth.
But doesn’t doubt work the same way? While guilt drives us toward the good, doubt drives us toward the truth. Doubt shares with guilt both emotional and intellectual components. Doubt feels like a haunting, a sense that something just isn’t right about what we are considering or what we’ve been led to believe. That experience encourages the intellect to ponder what is lacking in those beliefs in an effort to discard the falsehood and square things up with reality, with what is true. Doubt, then, is every bit as much a divine design as guilt, both systems directing us ultimately toward God’s own nature, for we say that God is the Truth and that God is the Good.
So, why is doubt regarded as suspect in so much of the Christian world, while guilt is lauded for its beneficial results? There are plenty of reasons to consider. First, doubt sometimes threatens our self-confidence and sense of security. Many of us equate our identities with our beliefs: if you “attack” my beliefs, then you are “attacking” me. When queries about the meaning or basis for claims are confused with personal assaults, it’s difficult to move ahead and replace foolish thoughts with wise ones. Second, doubt compels our minds to consider changing what we believe. But when you consider the tens of thousands of Christian sects with very detailed conceptions of doctrine, structure, practice, and personnel, any change in belief lands you in a different group! The social impact is significant: intellectual growth (i.e., change) directly threatens the group’s cohesion. Incidentally, this is why many religious educational ministries feel like propaganda.
Third, whereas my guilt challenges me, my doubt (when voiced) challenges my religious authorities. Many religious thinkers feel that their views are matters solely of dogma, just what is to be believed. Far less emphasis is placed on the underlying rationale for these beliefs. So, when that rationale is challenged, the religious leaders have nowhere to turn for support except to their own authority. By contrast, imagine a dispute between mining engineers about whether the wooden struts in an old mine will support renewed mining. While there may be some shouting initially, engineers quickly turn to the math and the data. Evidence, not insistence, provides the basis for their conclusions. Yet Christianity is not without its own rationale. While some of the teachings of Jesus arrived as a complete surprise to his audience, since he was drawing on information wholly outside the realm of human experience (like his reply about the woman who had lost seven husbands), an awful lot of what he said made sense, i.e., fit into what human beings already knew and experienced in their lives. Perhaps the divisiveness within Christianity has drawn us away from the common touchstones of humanity that are both the source and the purpose of the Faith. Realizing that there are very good reasons for morality and the central Christian tenets about God, humanity, and the angels might go a long way toward relaxing the terror that doubts sometimes inspire.
Realizing that there are very good reasons for morality and the central Christian tenets about God, humanity, and the angels might go a long way toward relaxing the terror that doubts sometimes inspire.
Fourth, and finally, the ultimate reason that people discourage both their own doubts and the doubts of members of their communities is fear of the truth. We all like to say that we love the truth, but when our doubts begin to gnaw away at our confidence, the resulting changes in belief and practice can be very frightening. “Once I start down this path, where will I end up?” That concern about not knowing where this line of questioning is going to lead scares a lot of us. Plus, the process of ferreting out truth from error is no easy task. Our penchant for shopping, football, or Netflix usually wins our attention. Nevertheless, the questions remain, and if we choose not to suppress them, if we choose to face them head on, then, even if we don’t determine what is entirely true, at least we have a good chance at discarding a falsehood. And since the negation of any falsehood is itself a truth, the driving questions that doubt generates are our best path to discovery.