Doubt and Cognitive Rumination

Many of us struggle with religious doubts. And these doubts are persistent rather than situational, chronic rather than acute.

Much of this, as I've written about before, has to do with how modernity has affected religious belief and practice. In a pluralistic and hyper-connected world religious belief is no longer a cultural given, something taken-for-granted, an inherited legacy from our forebears. Rather, in modernity faith is experienced as a choice among a suite of competing options. Between the denominations of Christianity. Between the world religions. Between faith and the varieties of unfaith (e.g., atheism, agnosticism, ignosticism). And this is a choice--simply because it is a choice--that has to be routinely revisited. This makes faith feel fragile, tentative and provisional. Consequently, doubt is a consistent aspect of our religious experience. We doubt because we chose faith and because we chose faith we'll never escape doubt.

So doubt is ever-present. And yet, something seems to happen at this point that I'd like to comment on. The relationship between doubt and cognitive rumination.

Yes, doubt is ever-present but some of us seem to be able to accept this and move on, cognitively and emotionally. And by "moving on" I don't mean we turn our back on doubt and put it in the past. I'm talking about how our minds regularly revisit doubt (see above) but do not linger there long. We're always reminded of and coming back to doubt in the flow of the day or week, but we don't obsess, fixate or dwell upon the doubt. Our mind lands on the doubt, rests there, but then moves on. The doubt isn't ruminative.

Cognitive rumination is repetitive thinking about negative personal concerns and/or the implications, causes and meanings of those concerns. Of interest here is that cognitive rumination is often triggered by negative emotional states (such as depression or anxiety). But cognitive rumination also brings about and exacerbates negative emotional states. This creates a feedback loop between rumination and negative mood, each exacerbating the other in a downward spiral. Adding to this is the fact that people often engage in rumination because they think it will be helpful. The belief is that the intellectual activity involved in rumination will create new insight or understanding. Thus, rumination is self-perpetuating, despite its negative emotional consequences.

I'm bringing up cognitive rumination because I've talked to many, many people who struggle with religious doubt. And having talked to all sorts of doubters, a lot of the doubt out there might be better described as cognitive rumination. Especially when that doubt is accompanied by negative emotional states like depression and anxiety.

There is doubt and then there is ruminating doubt. There is the simple intellectual recognition that faith is provisional, and then there is the cognitive and emotional obsession over that fact. There is a doubt that doesn't bring about negative mood, and then there is the ruminative doubt that creates or exacerbates depression and anxiety. And the sad thing here is that the person engaging in ruminative doubt is doing so in the hope that rumination, if engaged in long enough, will "crack" the faith problem. But as we noted above, this isn't a problem that is going to be "cracked." Thus all that mental and emotional energy is being expended for no purpose. The wheels are spinning and spinning but no forward momentum is gained. All that is gained is increasing depression or anxiety. Which simply exacerbates the rumination.

My point in all this is simply to note that doubt isn't just an intellectual exercise. There is a also a mental health aspect to doubt that needs to be attended to. For there are times when intellectual discussion about faith is important. But there are other times when more discussion is just feeding and exacerbating the rumination. And in those cases, it's better to let the mind and the doubt come to rest.

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32 thoughts on “Doubt and Cognitive Rumination”

  1. I am dead in the middle of this cycle. My family, brother, sisters, and parents are getting the sh@$%t kicked out of them and have been for a couple of years. We are, or have been a family of faith but with the death of my brother in-law from cancer, my brother being diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness, and my other sister's family struggles, I simply doubt everything that I have ever been taught about God. The promises we have been given by the church or our own expectations have caused my family, in particular my 78 year old dad, to throw in the towel. I'm the only one left in church and I only go because of the societal expectations that I have placed on myself. To wonder where God is, is an understatement. I think we've given up on "cracking" anything and have simply "cracked" ourselves. All this has come about after having lost two homes to fires and having another sister killed in a car accident 30 years ago. I've really tried to hold on to my Baptist upbringing but I feel it slipping away.

  2. Wonderful post!!! I wish I had read this twenty, thirty years ago. But still very helpful and appreciated now.

    I think the excruciating part of ruminating doubt is feeling so alone with it. To be in the company of other progressive individuals who seem so confident in their journey makes one feel "second class", or as an "also-ran".

    My problem for many years was not so much doubting what I believed, but in knowing the questions that could be thrown at me and wanting to be able to word my answer perfectly, agonizing in trying to come up with the perfect come back.

    Well, it took years for it to sink in, "There are no perfect come backs"; just expressions of faith within a journey that is sometimes smooth, and sometimes quite bumpy.

  3. Thank you for this. I really needed to know this. I think I cycle on and off between being okay with the doubt and then ruminating over it. I've been ruminating the past couple of weeks and I've noticed my emotions going places I don't like to be and I see how it impacts my marriage, my family. How can I stop from the ruminating? Just by knowing doubt is a "normal" part of the process of living in modernity? Just ceasing to ruminate and just resting? I wish I knew how to do that!

  4. I'm lifting you and your family up to God, my Brother!! It may not make you feel better now. but please keep it in mind that someone else who has known much pain and doubt is keeping you in mind and heart this morning.

  5. Thank you! It makes a huge difference knowing that there are those out there who have been through similar situations that have maintained their faith. One of my favorite quotes is " I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet." I know that things can always be worse.

  6. Thanks Mike for sharing this. I think suffering adds a whole other level to this. In my post I was mainly talking about intellectual doubts, how our mind spins trying to solve theological puzzles, rather than the hot, shooting pain of suffering. That's a different sort of burden.

    I've lifted you up in prayer today.

  7. So is there any choice for those of us caught in this cognitive rumination but to leave the whole faith thing behind? We aren't going to wake up one day and just be able to the doubt 'behind us.' I have found that although I have always had a kernel of belief, being at all involved in a faith has brought nothing but angst in my life. Is perhaps the best thing for someone like me just to leave it all behind?

  8. Thanks so much. I really wasn't thinking about the suffering as much as the mental gymnastics that have been bouncing around my noggin. What do I do with what I have experienced versus what I've been told.

  9. This post was prompted by the fact that in conversations I've had with people struggling with doubts I have occasionally felt that what I was actually dealing with was depression. I would as myself, "Is this doubt or depression?" Like I mentioned in the post, I don't think people attend very much to the mental health side of the equation. Which is important because, if the doubts are symptomatic of an underlying mood disorder, then theological discussions, especially on social media, are going to be of little help. And they might make things worse. Sometimes I think the focus needs to shift away from theological discussion to dealing with the mood disorder.

  10. Richard, have you discerned in any of the gospel accounts - or, perhaps better, do you find any textual evidence of - any particular emotional or mental-health states among the disciples, especially after (and as triggered by, perhaps) Golgotha? I mean, states of the kind that concern you in this post. (Not sure if my question makes sense.)

  11. I would also like to hear Richard's response to this. I have suffered from anxiety and depression before and left the Christian faith awhile ago. As I was reading, I agreed with most of what you said, but I found myself wondering something. For someone like me, who has had depression and anxiety, do I just assume all of my doubts are only due to this? That strikes me as dangerously suppressive and piegeon holing. Although maybe that's the anxiety talking :) Is it possible for both types of doubt to coexist? Hope that makes some sense. Love your blog Richard.

  12. Rick, I hope you do not mind me chiming in, but I have suffered from serious bouts with depression since I was a teenager, and I am now in my mid sixties. I have traveled the path from very conservative to very liberal; I now consider myself a Christian Humanist. But, for me, whether conservative or liberal, I have had to live with my times of depression. Becoming a liberal did not cure me. What it did was make me honest before God, able to view life and to create more openly. That is the reason my depression is often mine and God's big secret, simply because I do not have to hear God say, "But you look fine to me".

  13. The unfathomable high stakes raised by traditional eternal-torment-in-hell teachings 1) drives one into perpetual rumination and 2) never allows one to stop rumination - many could only wish the liberty to let the mind and doubt come to rest. Of those you've spoken with over this, have you by chance spoken with a senior pastor of a large church (making over 6 figures) who teaches this way. Just wondering. Thanks again for keepin' it real Dr. Beck!

  14. That's a tough question and it goes to something I think Rick points to in his comment to you. How is the doubt interfacing with the affective issues? What is the chicken and what is the egg? If the religious rumination is the main cause of the emotional distress then something should be done about the religious issues. "Leaving it" may be one way that looks. But if the religious rumination is more of a symptom than a cause then "leaving it" doesn't address the problem as the rumination will just grab onto something else.

    There are no easy or generally applicable answers. The post is just trying to bring these issues to the surface as I don't think people things about about doubt holistically, how our mental, physical and spiritual health all interact in very complicated ways. To say nothing of how social and familial religion is. Add in toxic vs. supportive relationships and a whole other layer is added.

    Circling back to you question, I think the key thing is to get healthy. And I think religion can both help with that (what is called "positive religious coping") or hurt with that (what is called "negative religious coping"). So it all depends.

  15. I'm glad you said this. I have dysthymia, but I have been able to deal with it med-free through diet and exercise until recently. I'm approaching 40, so all kinds of things are changing, but I have wondered if my angst and doubts are from the dysthymia, some potential thyroid issues, or just plain ole' uncomfortable uncertainty that comes with deconstructing one's belief system and trying to reconstruct it--or all of these things together. I take it the best way to figure it out is counseling?

  16. We are embodied creatures, so I think it's all connected. Theological beliefs (with their accompanying doubts) don't exist in a disembodied soul but in a body. Which means that everything is interacting with everything else. Faith has carried many a person through depression and times of trial. Belief can carry the body. But the body can also, through things like depression and anhedonia, erode belief. I think the best approach is to look at it all and work on it all holistically.

  17. So true, the recommendation "Why don't you just stop worrying?" just doesn't work all that well. It's sort of like telling someone who is depressed to "Cheer up!"

    So how to stop? I've been trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy, so that's where I begin with the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders. And there has also been a great deal of attention on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. See:

  18. Thanks for the reply. My mentor in my business once told me that the answer to any question that a client proposes is 'It depends' and every year his wisdom is confirmed. Same with your reply. I did not expect a complete answer to the question, but i think there is a lot in your answer worth ruminating on. ;)

  19. Thank you, Dr. Beck. I appreciate your insights. And I love your blog. It has been a lifeline for me.

  20. Don't mind you chiming in at all. I appreciate it. What you said applies to me as well. I don't quite understand your last sentence. Could you possibly try explaining it in a different way?

  21. I appreciate your reply, and I definitely know the feeling of rumination grabbing onto something (everything?) else.

  22. I'm familiar with Cognitive Behavorial Therapy. When I was diagnosed with dysthymia, I was seeing a therapist who used it in my treatment and I found it helpful. I'll check out the book--thanks again!

  23. Perpetual ruminator brought up the point that traditional hell concepts (ECT) drive and perpetuates "cognitive rumination." I tend to agree, but then again, I have been described as anxious and depressed before. Does anyone who does not struggle with these issues care to chime in on the validity of this? Obviously not everyone who believes in traditional views of hell is anxious and/or depressed.

    Not trying to pile on, but I would Beverly interested in Richard's take on this as well, given his high level of knowledge and experience in psychology. Do you think the ECT view often leads to implacable cognitive rumination in otherwise psychologically healthy people?

  24. There were times in the past when I would try to verbalize my depression to others and they would tell me, in one way or another, "Oh, you don't seem depressed. You're fine. Everything will be alright". And that was simply because I had a lot of practice hiding it.

  25. I experienced what I’d call severe existential doubt - about the meaning and purpose of life and the reality of God - and
    what Richard calls (in a quite apt and accurate phrase) excessive “cognitive rumination”, with the combination leading to bleak, if coming-and-going depression, from my undergraduate days until, in my late twenties, Christ, uninvited,

    invaded my space told me that on these, my “issues”, as on so much else, I was being a jerk and suffering quite needlessly.

    The problem wasn’t the doubt or the rumination, the problem was the obsessiveness of my search for intellectual certainty, and the illusion that I might find it, secure it, find closure, find peace. “Nonsense!” Jesus said. “It’s not going to happen. Just as you’re always going to be a sinner, so you’re also going to be a doubter. But so what? Like I care? Do you think my love for you depends on cognitive confidence? Do you think my love for you depends on whatever goes on in your head, or in your heart for that matter? Or even that my love for you depends on your faith in me? Don’t be silly!"

    And so on. I think you get the gist. As I understand it, Jesus frees us from these concerns of being cognitively correct, of getting “it” right, and indeed opens up the possibility not only of doubt being an expression rather than a denial of faith, but also of what James Allison calls “the joy of being wrong”. Here I do not find my security in theological correctness or biblical inerrancy (a veritable doctrinal OCD and a recipe for denial, anxiety, and
    aggression). Rather here is a place of happy intellectual and affective destabilisation and decentering, where, by grace, I may find my identity not in myself (mind or heart) but in the Other who discloses himself in the other - what has been called an exocentric, ecstatic (Arthur McGill), eccentric (David Kelsey) identity (see chapter 5 of one Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death for a riveting discussion of these terms in the context of kenoticism).

    Forget about “positive thinking”, and remember what Keats called “negative capability”, viz., “when a man [sic] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

  26. PS: Why do I always have problems on this blog with the spacing? It always looks fine on "paper", but then I hit the ---> and - Wham! - a mess. Is ET possessed by format demons? Would an exorcism be in order? More likely a case of "Physician, heal thyself!", but - alas! - as a technoidiot, I don't know how.

  27. “Nonsense!” Jesus said. “It’s not going to happen. Just as you’re
    always going to be a sinner, so you’re also going to be a doubter. But
    so what? Like I care? Do you think my love for you depends on
    cognitive confidence? Do you think my love for you depends on whatever
    goes on in your head, or in your heart for that matter? Or even that my
    love for you depends on your faith in me? Don’t be silly!"

    What about those incapable of recognizing "the Other"? If the voice you hear tells you that cognitive confidence does not matter, neither do your emotions, then how do you separate sense from nonsense? How can you "know" anything? Most people of faith, including Christians, do not practice a "negative capability" when they believe. They acknowledge any mysteries as facts yet undiscovered. But if we didn't utilize our minds, logic, and reason, we wouldn't recognize a doubt if it reached out and bit us on the arse. In addition, we would not be able to see the difference between theology and, say, organic chemistry.

    BTW, I too have the formatting problem. I blame Disqus, since it only happens there.

  28. But if we didn't utilize our minds, logic, and reason ...

    Interestingly, Karl Barth was once asked how "reason" fits into his theology. Barth replied, "I use it." Me too. Embedded in particular practices - like theology or organic chemistry - or being a Christian. There, as Wittgenstein puts it, the "game" is played, without ultimate ground or foundation, justification or explanation. "Follow me," Jesus says. That's all - and that's enough. To desire more is a Cartesian fantasy - and, I think, a failure of imagination.

  29. Once again, your blog articulates feelings I have been unable to articulate. I, as you say, "often engage in rumination because [I] think it will be helpful." I personally am constantly brought around to the remembrance that loving my neighbor and being a friend to the lonely are more important than my ability to productively wrestle with the problem of suffering or faith struggles. What is troubling or disheartening, however, is seeing church friends my age who never seem to struggle with theological or existential questions. I wish I could put these problems behind me, but I can't. I suppose the best alternative is talking with people who are openly facing the same things as I face.

    Once again, thanks for writing. Your posts are always meaningful to me.


  30. This is personal and my first time to share it publicly. I have spent a lot of time in "rumination world." After getting to a place of anxiety and depression to the point of panic attacks, I finally talked to my doctor. He put me on an SSRI and a very low dose of Adderall, and made me an appointment with a therapist specializing in cognitive-behavior therapy. It has changed everything for me in the most wonderful ways!

    Though not as often, I still have a regular therapist checkup to process and I continue on the meds because I've discovered that I'm quite OCD, which plays into rumination a fair amount I believe. If you have obsessive tendencies already, ruminating doubt is a very small step. This isn't the answer for everyone, but it has been exactly what I needed and I'm thankful for it!

  31. "If the religious rumination is the main cause of the emotional distress then something should be done about the religious issues. "Leaving it" may be one way that looks."

    My friend John Risse used to say, "Sometimes, you have to go to grow!"

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