The Psychology of Belief, Part 9: In Praise of Doubt

Religiously speaking, I doubt a lot.

Maybe it's my personality or my training. Social Scientists do have some of the highest rates of agnosticism and atheism in the academy.

I used to think two things about doubt. First, that I was alone in my doubt. And second, that sharing my doubts would hurt my students.

I now think both of those are wrong.

I've gradually discovered, if you ask people in an honest moment, that just about everyone has doubts. And I'm not just talking about passing, fleeting moments of "I wonder if..." I'm talking about deep and prolonged doubts. Recurrent doubts. Doubts that keep you up at night.

Since these doubts are so widespread when I've shared my doubts with students they, almost to a person, are deeply relieved. The overwhelming response is, "You have doubts? I thought I was the only one who thought that way!" Since religious people so rarely speak of doubt we feel that expressing it is somehow pornographic, unfit for proper company. So we eat it and stew on it and think we are alone. Think we are strange or odd or different to the point of deviance.

So, I've become convinced that sharing doubts is very therapeutic. Paradoxically, sharing doubts promotes deeper faith. Here is a recent story to illustrate this.

A few years ago I was teaching in my adult faith class at the Highland Church of Christ. I was doing a lesson on doubt. I started with this, "Have you ever had doubts? If so, let's share them as I write them on the board." It was quiet at first, but then the responses flowed in...

I've doubted that God exists...
I've doubted that God really cares...
I've doubted that prayers make any difference...
I've doubted that there is a heaven after death...

So many doubts came out that I filled the board and it took all of class. After class I worried. I thought the class had gone really badly. I mean, all we did for class was just list all our doubts and put them on the board. There was no time for a "positive" response. So, it was a weird class.

A few days later a faculty friend and member of the Highland class told me this story. Apparently, a prospective ACU student, a highschooler, was visiting Highland with his parents that day and wandered into my Doubt Class. The next day the parents were touring ACU when they recognized my friend from class. They had this to say (I'm reconstructing the dialogue here): "Tell Richard how important that class was for our son. It just might have saved his faith. He has been struggling with church for some time, but that class opened his eyes. Never in his life had he heard an adult admit to doubting God. Consequently, he felt he was strange and that religion wasn't for him. But hearing all those adults sharing their faith struggles made him realize that it is okay to doubt and that he fits in at church."

I was stunned. A class of listing doubts actually rescuing faith? Apparently so.

So, I want to de-pathologize doubt. I want us to speak more openly of it. It is a ubiquitous condition and I think it is healthy to know you are not alone.

Toward that end, I'd just like to introduce myself. Hi. My name is Richard. And I'm a doubter.

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6 thoughts on “The Psychology of Belief, Part 9: In Praise of Doubt”

  1. Good blog!

    My favorite part...
    "Religiously speaking, I doubt a lot.

    Maybe it's my personality or my training. Social Scientists do have some of the highest rates of agnosticism and atheism in the academy."

  2. Probably the biggest blessing I've encountered in Sojourners class is that it's full of people who aren't afraid to admit their doubts. Many of you are too smart, or have seen too much suffering, not to admit that you sometimes (or often!) have doubts. In my opinion, that class is one of the most honest groups of people in a very honest church. So much of what we get fed as college students is "happy-clappy faith" - just trust God and everything will work out okay. Well, I try to trust Him, but it doesn't all always work out okay. And that class, especially its recent discussion on the Psalms, has given me a place to breathe a sigh of relief when I doubt. I don't speak up often in there (it's an intellectually intimidating crowd!), but my heart appreciates knowing I'm not alone.

  3. Hi, Richard. I recently got & listened to Julia Sweeney's LETTING GO OF GOD []. I found it an interesting first-person account of someone who dealt with religious doubts -- eventually becoming an atheist. I thought you might be interested. I also wondered whether some church groups might do well to listen to & discuss it? I think many would immediately reject that as a horrible idea, but perhaps(?) in the spirit of this post of yours, I think that for many -- as it would have been for me at various stages of my life -- it would be a good idea to not only face their doubts, but also the possibility that those doubts might resolve themselves in this way. For many, that's the real bogey man here, & it seems to often be a good idea to face bogey men squarely. I would worry about folks approaching the account defensively -- focussed on locating where Sweeney makes her big, fatal misstep, etc. I tried to listen empathetically, and to take it as the honest (well, there are limits to how honest any of us can be in giving such an acccount of ourselves on such a personal matter) account of a fellow traveler.
    --Keith DeRose

  4. Keith,
    Thanks so much for the recommendation. I downloaded Sweeney's audiobook from iTunes and enjoyed it all weekend. I identified strongly with Sweeney all the way through.

    I agree that Sweeney's journey would be an interesting study for a church class. Although they would probably have to be a certain kind of class. I think the class at Highland I teach might be a place to do it. I also think I might get my small group to listen and discuss it. When I do, I'll let you know how that works out. If it goes well, it will be a hopeful sign about honest ecclesial living.

    Sweeney's story made me recall a passage from Luke Timothy Johnson's The Creed where he states that honest religious seekers often have more in common with honest atheists than with many of their fellow believers. I agree with that assessment for I resonate more with Sweeney than with many of the people in my church.

    Again, thank you very much for the recommendation.

  5. I am curious if you are familiar with George Smith? He wrote, among other things, "Why Atheism?". He draws a very distinct line between doubt and uncertainty. He says uncertainty is passive and assumes some common ground with the thing one is uncertain about. IE "I am uncertain God loves me" assumes I am contemplating the fact He might love me. Or I know God loves me but, at this moment of crisis, I do not feel His love and am therefore uncertain. However doubt, Smith says, is not passive but it is aggressive. "I doubt God loves me" is an active intellectual accretion. One can stand within Christianity and be uncertain, but one must stand outside Christianity to doubt. Because of this Smith says Christianity (indeed all religion) does not tolerate doubt.

    This distention may not be important. As a philosopher Smith admits words used in everyday language must be clearly defined when used for philosophical discourse. So perhaps he is just applying a level of exactness to his language which is unnecessary and cumbersome for a blog.


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