Faith, Doubt and Modernity

In my class at church--entitled Faith at the Edge: A Conversation For Doubters--I began by stating my goals for the class. These were:

  1. Explain why doubt is and will remain a fixture of the faith experience for many if not the majority of Christians.
  2. To normalize doubt. To show that doubt isn't an illness nor is it dysfunctional.
  3. To help doubters live with doubt. We can't (nor would I want to, see #5) eliminate doubt. But many people need some assistance reconfiguring their faith experience in the face of chronic doubt. What does faith look like when you doubt?
  4. To help doubters and non-doubters live in community with each other. Too often these groups tend to misunderstand and stigmatize each other.
  5. To show how doubt is a great gift for the church.
After describing these goals I went on to tackle #1 on the list, to explain why doubt is and will remain a fixture in faith communities. Doubt is widespread and it isn't going away. Church leaders are just going to have to figure out how to minister to lots of doubters within the church.

Why this is so is largely due to our historical location. Modernity has changed the way we experience belief. We live in the age of reason, empiricism, skepticism and science. The world has become disenchanted. The are no more witches or goblins, we live with molecules and entropy. As Bonhoeffer phrased it in his letters from prison, the world has "come of age." We don't need any more fairy tales.

That is, certainly, one way to tell the story. It is a version of what Peter Berger and Anton Zinderveld call in their book In Praise of Doubt the "secularization theory." The basic claim of secularization theory is that as modernity advances people give up religious belief and become "secular." I think this is what Bonhoeffer thought he was seeing, that modern people didn't "need" faith any longer. So they discard it. Modernity destroys faith.

But Berger and Zinderveld note that, empirically speaking, secularization theory has been falsified. Modernity hasn't run faith out of the building. If anything, faith is experiencing a renaissance in modernity.

What has happened in modernity, argue Berger and Zinderveld, is not secularization but plurality. What we see around us isn't a binary choice between faith and unfaith. Rather, it's choices amongst faiths, unbelief amongst them. What characterizes modernity is the radical range of choices now in front of us. I can choose to be a Christian. Or a Buddhist. Or a Muslim. Or a Humanist. Or an atheist. And I can change my mind. Faith hasn't been eliminated. Rather, faith has become radically open. The options available to us are dizzying. We live in the wake of what Charles Taylor calls "the Nova Effect," this explosive expansion of choices, worldviews and lifestyles.

Berger and Zinderveld explain how this happened in the following way. According to secularization theory the shift that was predicted to occur was this:

faith to unfaith

But what really has happened in modernity was this:

the-world-taken-for-granted to choice

To understand this shift we need to grasp some sociological terminology. Sociologists distinguish between the background and the foreground of human culture and cognition. The aspects of life that are assumed, instinctive, unconscious and taken for granted function in the background of life. Rarely do I reflect upon or evaluate the background structures of my life. In contrast to the background, the foreground of life is the location of choice, reflection, and decision making.

Consider the following example given by Berger and Zinderveld to illustrate the point. When I wake up in the morning I have to decide what I want to wear. These considerations are in the foreground of my life. I reflect and make choices about what clothes to put on. However, I never really question the assumption that I will be wearing something! That is assumed. It functions in the background.

The point is, a great of life is regulated to the background. There my worldview hums away, largely unnoticed. And this makes good adaptive sense. As Berger and Zinderveld note, if 100% of life was up for grabs, in the foreground, we would be cognitively and socially crippled. Everything would be a matter of conscious reflection and deliberate choice. I'd have to wake up and devote time to the question, "Should I put on clothes today? Or go to work naked?" Some things just have to be assumed.

With these understandings in place we can now see how modernity has affected us. Modernity has increased the foreground relative to the background. That is, things that used to be assumed and taken for granted have now moved into the foreground and have become objects of choice and reflection. Think about the choices you face that your forebears a 1,000 years ago didn't even consider:
What should my career be?
Should I change the job I'm in?
Should I get married? When? Should I get divorced?
Where should I live?
How many kids do I want to have?
What church should I go to?
Should I be Protestant or Catholic?
In the not so distant past all these things were taken for granted, they were in the background. People a 1,000 years ago didn't worry about what their college major should be or if they should change careers. Their "life work" was largely determined: farm or herd. People 1,000 years ago didn't worry about if or when they would marry. This was taken for granted. Nor could they use birth control to determine how many kids they would have. And, importantly for our purposes, people 1,000 years ago didn't think about what religion they would adopt. This was taken for granted.

In short, modernity didn't undermine the contents of religious belief. What modernity did was change the location of belief in the mind. Specifically, faith moved from the background to the foreground. From taken-for-granted to an object of choice.

And what this means is not that modernity has made faith unreasonable. But it does mean that faith is more fragile and unstable. As are all things in the foreground. The fact that faith is a choice means that faith can be revisited and the reasons behind that choice opened up to scrutiny. Further, we are constantly in contact with people making their own faith choices and can't help but be affected by their reasons. No longer taken for granted, faith is always exposed to reflection and revisitation. When faith is a choice it needs to be reasserted, like all our other choices. It's like waking up every morning and deciding what to wear. The choice is an everyday object in the mind. Thus, we need to keep choosing faith, over and over. And, like all things in the foreground, this take a lot of time and effort. Faith is now hard work. And some people, not surprisingly, just get tired.

In short, faith is going to feel different in modernity. It's going to feel vulnerable and fragile. It's going to be effortful. All this is simply saying that faith has moved from the background to the foreground.

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4 thoughts on “Faith, Doubt and Modernity”

  1. This analysis is spot-on. That modernity per se has not made faith unreasonable is shown by the fact that philosophers were putting forward the same arguments about the reasonableness of belief in God or spirits even as far back as Socrates, Plato and Cicero. Even the arguments of biblical criticism are not entirely new. Origen had to face Celsus' accusation that the evangelists were spinners of tales way back in the 3rd Century.

  2. So really, faith is choosing to "suffer", like Christ, eh? And who are those that will be the "un-doing" of those who "follow in Christ'a steps? Why not choose atheistic belief, then? Faith is faith, isn't it, even if not in a 'god".

  3. Quite thought-provoking. Thank you for this.

    More and more though, I've come to seriously wonder if the solution to the religious challenge posed by modernity is not to make the choice to be a Christian or a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Humanist or an atheist, but rather to choose to be a Christian AND a Buddhist AND a Muslim AND a Humanist AND an atheist.

    I guess I take literally (perhaps too literally) Paul's contention that love "believes all things."

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