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Faith and Doubt October 18, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , ,

This is a wonderful book

I have been told by many people, over many years, that doubt is part of faith.  The idea is that a person who does not challenge their faith has a weak form of faith.  I sort of appreciate the sentiment here, but I wonder how genuine this is.  I wonder how deep this lauding of doubt goes.  I wonder if it is real, skeptical, doubt.

Skepticism is about doubt.  A skeptic is a person who demands substantial evidence in order to accept something as true.  Yes, a person may not be ideally skeptical about everything,  and therefore may accept as true beliefs which would not stand up to even their own scrutiny if they were to apply it. But I think this is simply the nature of our cognitive limitations.  In other words, we are all credulous to certain dumb beliefs, but we’re just human.

It take a certain amount of courage to dig deep into your own beliefs.  To be an archaeologist of the soul, as Nietzsche put it, is a hard task.  And not everyone will be up for it, nor would most know how if they tried; we sometimes need a little help from our friends, I suppose.  And so when I meet a religious person who has the courage to at least make a surface or moderate attempt to doubt, to dig beneath the surface of their convictions, I find myself bestowing respect upon them, at least provisionally.

The provisional nature of this reverence is necessary, I have learned, because the institutions of religion, the insistence of doctrine, and the fragility of faith’s foundations are such that such ego-archaeological excavations often lead to one falling into holes, and thus clutching onto the ground of such landscapes in order not to feel the true exhilaration of freethought.  To fall into oneself, underneath the facades of our social selves padded with commitments to supernatural hopes, is a terrifying prospect in the face of oblivious alternatives.  The human condition of being, in the end, alone and finite (it’s alright) is a reality which doubts lead to, and which is less often the object of faith.

How often have you met a person committed to a faith that they will cease to exist upon death, and that there is no god that loves them? These ideas are conclusions reached upon careful thought and skepticism, not hope and desires.  The claim that these ideas are equally based upon faith are absurd, and are an attempt to level the playing field.  It is a rhetorical trick with no substance.  Faith seems to almost exclusively own subjects which we seem to prefer (like Heaven), or at least fear as an alternate to what we prefer (Hell).

So, does this imply that faith and doubt are truly at odds? The snark-laiden answer is to point out that if people had evidence (the answer to doubt), then they would not need faith. And while I think that this snark contains an important insight into the nature of the question of faith and doubt, I think that we can go elsewhere to address this issue.  The skeptical methods, science and reason, are a means to figure out what is likely to be true given our best tools for determining such things.  Doubt, in other words, is the seed of science and all of our (limited) mastery of the natural world.  Faith seems to be opposed to this progressive methodology, both philosophically and practically.  Anyone who has a long conversation with a true believer will ultimately hear the faith card played; all of our questions, doubts, and debunking of theological apologetics runs into this wall at some point.

Recently Eric MacDonald weighed in on this question of doubt and faith with the following, which was a concluding comment to his long piece about a Julian Baggini article in The Guardian:

If the kind of questioning ”theology” that [Richard] Holloway now indulges in were to become the norm, the churches would simply fly apart from the centrifugal forces of doubt and questioning. And that is why religion will remain dogmatic at its core, and why openness to changing one’s mind is simply not accessible to the religions. It may happen one by one, as religious believers are leached away from religion by the corrosive forces of science and reason, but a religion whose leaders were open to changing their minds in the way that [Julian] Baggini suggests is necessary in order to avoid fundamentalism would spell the end of religion, because religions have no foundation. They are built on air, and openness to revision would quickly expose this.

That is, even where doubt, or questioning in general, is encouraged (whether by accommodating atheists or moderate or liberal theologians), it is a recipe for the excavation of holes in the landscape of religion and the faith which binds people to it.  Doubt may be considered a part of being a faithful person, but the religion that survives this process is not the same as the religion that was handed to us from pre-scientific ages.  This religion is moderated by compromise, non-literalism, etc and away from fundamentalism.  Eventually, it erodes away into postmodernism, metaphors, and empty vessels with sentimental import.

And this is precisely what religious academics, such as the Bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and King’s College president Dinesh D’Souza have been doing for some time; we “new atheists” are addressing a straw man, they say, and religion is full of doubt, questions, and nuance which are ignored by comments like Eric MacDonald above.  For such people of faith, doubt is part of their lives and to imply that faith is somehow antithetical to doubt is to be unfair and biased in a way that does no justice to sophisticated theology.  But it all falls apart, at some point.  Eventually, in the corrosive environment of doubt, religion becomes a shade in tattered robes that haunts our ivory towers and sanctuaries, largely unseen by the masses whom insist upon feeding on the corpse of literal truth, real historical promises, and miracles.

Well, Eric MacDonald (who is no stranger to sophisticated theology), Jerry Coyne, and others have said a lot about this very subject, and I shall not try and sum up their thoughts on such things here, as this would quickly turn into a small ebook if I were to do so.  So what I want to do is pose some questions which I intend to follow up on in the future.  They are questions about faith which I have some perspective on already, especially in conversation with former Christians (almost exclusively) about the role of questions and doubts in religious communities.  Having known people who would pose tough questions, voice doubts occasionally, etc within their religious communities, I have seen how some moderate religious communities (like Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, where I visited a couple of years ago) respond to such things.  Doubt and questions are not met with curiosity or answers, they are often met with ostracism and loss of friends, as I have had it explained to me.  Also, in my experience, outsider’s questions and doubts are treated with initial interest and then silence, in the vast majority of cases.

My questions are as follows (and I intend to ask them of people in positions of leadership in religious communities in coming months):

  • Are questions, doubts, and criticism welcome?
  • (if so) are doubts about any and all doctrines acceptable?
  • Have you seen or heard of people being socially sanctioned for having questions, doubts, or criticisms?
  • (if so) do you condemn such sanctions?
  • Is doubt more likely to be lauded or demonized?
  • Would the answer to the above change depending on the severity of the doubt?

As I said above, I have some experience with exposing religious ideas to doubt.  In the extremely vast majority of cases (I have not maintained a running count, but there are few exceptions) even when questions, responses, or criticisms are proposed, they almost always fizzle into nothing.  It is almost as if the leaders of these communities, whether they are priests, pastors, or whatever are so glad to hear some commentary, feedback, etc that they don’t notice at first that you have some serious objections to the message they are conveying, and then once that sinks in, they simply close off.  They are not interested any longer.  I suppose I am not surprised, nor should I be.

But right now, from where I sit, true skepticism, the kind of doubt which seeks to excavate the very foundations and assumptions of one’s worldview are not healthy for faith.  But perhaps I err in using “faith” as the Christian scriptures do:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Because that seems, on the surface, to be in philosophical opposition to skepticism, and therefore to doubt.  Perhaps some other religious tradition has a use of the word faith which differs from this.  I don’t remember much about what the Quran says about faith (there is this, for starters), but I doubt that it says much that is friendly to skepticism.  And insofar as many religious people do have and maintain doubts, how far do they push those questions, are their questions they would refuse to apply doubt to, and would they truly be open to changing their mind?

I have long said that I want to know the truth.  If there is a god (or gods) I want to know.  I am open to being convinced of things which I do not currently believe.  Do believers share this quality? And if so, how many and to what degree?

And why aren’t more people doubting?



1. Is doubt opposed to faith? « The atheist, polyamorous, skeptic - October 20, 2011

[…] I wrote up some comments about doubt and faith.  I am quite happy with it as it stands, but a question was emailed to me from an acquaintance […]

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