Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Christian doubt

When I grew up in Catholicism, I was never taught to think that doubt was a bad thing.  In fact, doubt was a good thing, ennobling even.  Doubts were something that everyone experiences.  Why then, is it said that Christianity is all about faith, dogma, and purging all doubt?  Where does this image come from?

Let me tell you what happened next.  I started doubting Catholicism.  And even though I was never taught that doubting was bad, I knew that the particular way I was doing it was bad.

What I was doing was reading on some arguments against Catholic beliefs, comparing them to the arguments for it.  I knew that changing my mind on so many things all at once was impossible, so I considered each issue independently, one at a time.  I worried about the consequences of deciding one way or the other, but I tried not to let that affect my judgment.  Finally, I collected my many thoughts and tried to draw some overall conclusions on Catholicism and God.

In my mind, this is more or less the proper way to deal with doubt, so why did I know in my gut I was running afoul of some rule of my religious upbringing?  The truth is that doubt was accepted in the Catholicism I grew up in, but only if the doubt fit into a specific narrative.  Doubt was not an epistemological tool, but a personal struggle to be overcome.  This is a fundamentally negative depiction of doubt.

Even the supposedly positive narratives about doubt are fundamentally negative.  When doubt is seen as ennobling, it's the same sense in which a chronic illness is seen as ennobling.*  It's not the doubt which is good, it's that we respect someone who maintained (or even strengthened) their faith despite their painful struggle with doubt.**  When everyone is said to have doubts, this is not a way of saying that doubts are good.  It's a way of saying that Christians are not Mary Sues.  Christians are imperfect (being afflicted with doubt and sin), and thus relatable.

*Even when someone literally has a chronic illness, I do not think we should see it as ennobling.
**This is largely how Catholics saw Mother Teresa's "Dark Letters", in which she expressed her struggle with doubt.

This isn't just my personal experience growing up, it's a pervasive narrative about doubt within Christianity.  To show this, I will pull out quotes from the top three page hits for "Christian doubt" (bold emphasis all mine).

1. A letter to William Lane Craig:
Natalie: When my best friend told me she was struggling, I figured it was just a phase and started thinking about what books to recommend to her. But then something hit me that had never really been an option before—what if Christianity really isn’t true?

My intuition is still that it is, but I am in dire need of your help—someone whom I know has a strong faith as well as a strong philosophical background. What advice could you offer me, my best friend, and the non-believers we know to elucidate Christianity and rekindle our faith?
Craig: I find that when folks are struggling with doubt, the doubts can balloon all out of proportion, so that their belief system comes to look rather like those maps of the world which show a country’s size according to its economic wealth rather than geographical area.
 2. Dealing with Doubt in our Christian Faith:
So what can we do if we find ourselves struggling with doubts about the truth of Christianity? Why do such doubts arise? And how can we rid ourselves of these taunting Goliaths?

First, we must always remember that sooner or later we'll probably all have to wrestle with doubts about our faith.
I know of a young man who had converted to Christianity, but who's now raising various objections to it. But when one looks beneath the surface, one sees that he's currently involved in an immoral lifestyle.
3. An interview with Greg Boyd, author of Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty:
Many today assume that doubt is the enemy of faith–as though a person’s strength is as strong as they are free of doubt. I argue that this common model of faith today is neither biblical nor healthy.
When we embrace a biblical model of faith, we no longer need to squelch doubt. To the contrary, we will find that doubt can sometimes prove beneficial in helping us grow spiritually and in keeping us honest in our relationship with God and others.
Sadly, many today think that people are “saved” simply because they espouse certain beliefs, apart from any consideration of how they live.  This is why research demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans admit to believing in Jesus (and a host of other Christian things) while also demonstrating that this belief has very little impact on how they actually live.
The reason I choose the top three hits on Google is to avoid cherry-picking on my part.  Note that #3 does not espouse the negative views on doubt that I grew up with, and in fact #3 rebels against such views.  Also note that #2 states that doubters are really trying to justify an immoral lifestyle, and this is not something I believed as a kid.  I conclude that some Christians have more positive attitudes towards doubt, and some have more negative attitudes.

I understand why Christians see doubt as a struggle.  I've seen similar patterns among questioning queer people.  But even if, in one situation, doubt is causing you distress, I think it is best to see doubt as a tool--neither good nor bad, only useful.  Doubt is a tool used to better align our beliefs with reality.  "Giving in" to doubts is bad if and only if the thing being doubted is justified and true.  Thus, the only way to know whether doubting is good or bad is to not have doubts!

(This topic was inspired by Greta Christina, but my perspective is entirely independent from hers.)