The idolisation of doubt

Of late, there has been an increasing trend of christians extolling the virtue of doubt. One quote in particular which epitomises this is:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

The quote is actually from Anne Lamott, though it seems to be frequently misattributed to Paul Tillich.

The trouble with the usage the way this quote is used, and the way that doubt is spoken of sometimes, it comes across that doubt is the end goal, the point of enlightenment. This can tip over into hubris, whereby there can be a kind sneering at those who stand firm in their convictions.

Doubt is indeed a useful thing, but then again, so is medicine. Medicine doesn’t do much good unless you use it. It’s no good parading it around, saying “Look, I have medicine.” You actually have to take the medicine and allow it to perform it’s healing work. Likewise, doubt has to be used for something. It has to be the basis of enquiry, of searching for the answers.

One of the conundrums when dealing with questions of faith, doubt and certainty is that there can be a certainty that nothing is certain. OK, that’s a bit twisty, let’s try putting it another. The idea that ‘everything can be doubted’ is itself an idea that is so certain in some people’s minds that it has become an unquestionable dogma, precisely of the kind the same people so frequently oppose.

If I doubt something, I investigate. The fluidity of that doubt may firm up as I learn more and understand more. If I have the same doubts in a year’s time, is that a sign of maturity? I think not; it is stagnation. It’s a giving up in the face of a tough problem.

Compare the quote at the top with that from the letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Another translation has ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ in place of ‘substance’ and ‘evidence’. The relevant Greek words being translated are hypostasis and elenchos. To equate faith with doubt here seems like a wrong way of reading the passage. And yes, I do think it is possible to state that some ideas that some christians hold about christianity are wrong.

Please don’t mistake me. I am not arguing for dogmatic, unquestionable assertions here. My point is that the way doubt is spoken of is that it is an end in itself and that there can be a temptation to humble-brag about having doubts. Such a display is, in my opinion, little more than an example of blowing one’s own trumpet or of being the self-righteous Pharisee. Instead, it is preferable for us to be firm in our convictions, not swayed or tossed by the winds of the latest opinion, but to have those convictions open to challenge. For firmness does not the mean the same as immovability. We must be open to learning, to being corrected, yet to be so to a reasonable degree.

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14 responses to “The idolisation of doubt

  1. Tanya Marlow

    Interesting. I think you’re right to spot the ‘doubt is good’ trend, and it’s good to have the other side pointed out. I always think that these kinds of things are a conversation – and I think, in America at least, the ‘doubt is good’ conversation started with an evangelical/fundamentalist ‘doubt is SIN’ / ‘doubt is apostasy’ statement, which of course needs to be corrected. I guess it will vary from church to church, but my instinct is that we still need to hear a little more of ‘doubt is good’ before the pendulum tips too far. But I definitely agree with you that there is a pendulum, and it needs watching.

    (Also – yikes! – how did you know it was Anne L and not Paul T??)

    • I definitely disagree with the American end of the evangelical spectrum (the epitome of which is the site GotQuestions) that often equates doubt with disbelief. My reading of the gospels was that Jesus got fairly frustrated with the disciples when they didn’t quite get it, but he didn’t cast them out. Yet neither did he leave them be in their doubt; he didn’t allow it to fester. He invited Thomas to touch his wounds.

      As for the quote source, I checked my facts. I came across a number of references to Anne’s work (I confess I’ve read none of them), but the most plausible seemed to be from Goodreads.

  2. Interesting – I used that quote preaching about Thomas a few weeks back, but I didn’t attribute it to anyone as I thought it was just one of those wise sayings that are around in the ether.

    I think complete, unswerving faith is a gift – whereas most of us have questions and gaps is our knowledge which might be termed ‘doubt’. When I was planning the sermon I came across the Caravaggio painting which is known in English as ‘The Incredulity of Thomas’ – I think incredulity is a more positive word than ‘doubt’.

    People I’ve talked to in churches often feel guilty about having questions, which they interpret as doubt, which they see as a bad thing. I think maybe the embracing of doubtas a good thing might arise from this – people feeling released into further exploration. But I’ve seen it go horribly wrong as people start to take on all sorts of ideas in a fairly I discriminating way. Also it can end up where one member of my first church was – when I asked how her new vicar was settling in, she indignantly told me that the vicar had preached about the Resurrection on Easter Day as if it were true – ‘As if we were children’!

    • I do think that viewing doubts or questions as negative, things to be guilty about, is an unhealthy mindset. The unswerving faith may be a gift, but certainly not something that one should try to force upon others. We are all on a journey and prescribing rigid answers (even if they are correct) robs someone of making the discovery themselves. When I was a maths student, we could only really understand what we were doing by following and reproducing the proofs, not by simply stating them and relying on the fact that someone had proved it before us.

  3. As someone who has been for quite long periods crippled by doubt I’m not about to say it’s good in itself, and I do agree that doubtfulness has almost become a badge of honour for some Christians, particularly us Anglicans, which cannot be right. It’s often said that faith implies lack of certainty, but I’m not sure that is the same thing as going about doubting stuff, and defining ourselves this way. Faith is what we need where evidence points more than one way, but that does not mean we ourselves feel equally pulled both ways, it means that we accept that certainty is impossible in many areas of life that are vital to us; but we may still feel justified in our convictions, though as you say we must be open to having these challenged. I’m rather fond of The Will to Believe by William James, where he affirms that we must go beyond what we can demonstrate or know in many vital matters, religious convictions being one.
    But perhaps some instances of doubt can also be a sign of genuine humilty? An unwillingness to claim more than we really even think we know? The results of this don’t have to be cripplingly shy of making any claims about reality. Think of Harry Williams’ book The True Wilderness, which consists of sermons he wrote after vowing not to write about anything he didn’t know from his own personal experience. They are all psychologically and spiritually convincing texts, and fully Christian.

    • I keep meaning to dive into William James. I read a fascinating series on him in the Guardian a couple of years ago that piqued my interest in him. I’d definitely agree with you the doubt can be a sign of humility. My motivation was that I’ve observed instances where people brag about their humility and how it shows that they are so much more enlightened and wise than other christians.

      • Yes I remember the series, and indeed I remember you from the comments btl! (I was chunkygiant originally, then morphed into MichaelRC). I think you can read The Will to Believe online, its quite short, and I turn to it fairly regularly, when existential doubts assail me!
        I think you are right to notice the tendency for some to revel in doubt, and am willing to admit that I’ve fallen into this myself at times, it is a temptation for those of us who have a big dose of doubtfulness as part of our constitution. But I’ve moved away from that, hopefully, it is basically dishonest I think. I just wonder though how common it really is, or whether its a trait of a particular type of Anglican christian, and then only comes up in particular contexts?
        I’m not sure ; )

  4. Thanks for this post – I think it’s interesting you notice this trend as well. I said a similar thing in my review of ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ a few weeks back (apologies for the self-promotion, here’s a link to the blog post).

    I think some people do struggle more with doubt in terms of temperament or circumstance. I do find the trend to elevate doubt almost to the position of a virtue worrying, though.

    What worries me most about the current trend is the way that doubt is used against those from a more conservative theological position. The other day, I was discussing same-sex marriage and the Bible, and someone (who holds a different position to me) said that we should have humility in our different positions. I think this is not dissimilar to what people say about doubt – you’re not allowed to hold a definite position anymore, not on certain topics anyway (and especially not if they’re ‘unacceptable’ positions)

    In other words, the fact that someone else doubts means that I have to respect their doubt and back off my own beliefs a bit, if that makes sense.

    • I think there’s another type of doubt that is far more worrying than people using doubtfulness as a way of stopping people affirming ‘unacceptable’ views – they often do have a point after all, even if not one that should finally be able to end any particular discussion. Calling into question the grounds for having a high degree of certainty about a conviction which, if followed, has real, far-reaching consequences for others is surely legitimate? If its some sort of a pose to stop discussion then that’s wrong, but perhaps no more wrong than using Biblical proof-texts, or making easy moral transfers from very different situations to ours, to clinch arguments.
      Rather it is the kind of doubt that infects everything, and which can become crippling, which is really worrying, I think. I was brought up with this way of thinking, as my father was (and is) very much an agnostic atheist, one who was himself beset by doubts about just about everything, and he vocalised all this regularly. So I became beset by the same basic uncertainties, and its taken me a very long time to find my way through all that. Committing oneself to anything at all is hard if one can see reasons for and against several competing options. A kind of primal, basic trust is needed I think, if we are to move beyond uncertainty. Or faith, if you will. People do it all the time of course, but mostly it goes unexamined.

      • I would say it’s appropriate to question beliefs – no belief should be beyond question. However – if I may take the example of same-sex marriage again – I believe there are good and reasonable grounds for being confident that the Bible means what it has always been understood to mean on marriage. The fact that some people have cast doubt on that recently doesn’t mean their doubts are valid ones. Not all doubts are equal, so to speak!

        I’m sorry to hear about your experiences growing up. I agree that doubt can be crippling and can take a lifetime of struggle. But I think by and large the doubt you speak of is not the doubt which is being commended as a virtue in certain quarters. This is why the whole topic is quite a difficult one to talk about – when you talk about ‘doubt’ you’re really talking about a whole range of things, and you want to deal with each one differently!

        • Yes there are different types of doubt, not all bad. I think the subject here is what might be termed wilful doubt, where it becomes a mantra, and can be a way of avoiding committment, and of shutting down argument. Its certainly around, but I wonder how common it really is? It seems to me that the other kind of doubt, the existential kind that leads to anxiety, bewilderment and stagnation is more common and more worrying. Options seem endless, ‘experts’ are found to bolster every view, nothing feels definitive or final, we feel unmoored…
          Without wanting to change the topic to same-sex relationships, there are as a matter of fact a wide range of views of how to treat the relevant texts, the full range of which are held by large numbers of lay people, clergy and Biblical experts. The doubts are less to do with whether the authors approved of same-sex desire, and more to do with treating such texts with consistency, and with the validity of making moral transfers from the time, context and culture of the authors to or own. Let me say again that I don’t think that the existence of a variety of honestly differing opinions on any subject ought to shut down argument, or mean that we can’t hold to our own view with conviction (Michael Polanyi is interesting here). Argument ought to be creative, not stifling or negative. But I would say that where decisions about absolutely vital things like relationships and marriage are being made, we need to be very sure indeed that our degree of certainty is high – this is no academic matter for a great many people.
          Please don’t be sorry for my upbringing! My father is a wonderful person, and it was his very atheism and doubtfulness that made me want to seek answers to his questions, and I thank him (and God) for it. Those questions are real and deep ones, but whereas he never seemed to see any hope of answering them, they led me on a journey (which has been difficult at times, partly because of a longing for certainty) but which is also enormously enriching, and perhaps my own life and faith is a sort of ‘answer’ to his questions. It’s become a bit of a cliche but I like the idea of ‘living the questions’, which seems to me an honest, hopeful and creative way – and not the only honest, hopeful and creatve way, obviously!

          • Thanks Michael. In my experience, I think the kind of doubt I mention is perhaps not that common but on the rise. I agree with you that ‘existential’ doubt is more worrying and a more general part of the human condition. I’m glad, however, that in your case it seems to have led to something positive – this is why I believe God lets these kind of things happen.

            I don’t want to derail this thread in talking about SSM. I will simply note that I have read many of the pro-SSM arguments and find them pretty weak and unpersuasive.

            Also, you say: “decisions about absolutely vital things like relationships and marriage are being made, we need to be very sure indeed that our degree of certainty is high – this is no academic matter for a great many people.”

            I appreciate that it is no academic matter, however let’s bear in mind that the church spoke by and large with one voice on this topic for 2000 years – it just happens to be rethinking that in our culture which has gone made about sex and personal fulfilment. As such I’d say the certainty needs to be the other way round – we need to be absolutely certain before changing the church’s long held teaching.

          • I wonder whether the ‘wilful’ doubt you think is on the rise is actually a sort of stage lots of Christians go through, rather than a fixed position, where they are moving away from a position where certainty had seemed the aim, but which no longer seems possible? Certainly that is very much how I experienced things. If that happens in individuals then perhaps it also happens on a larger scale too, with many feeling they can’t have the certainty they crave and retreating into a sort of christian-shaped agnosticism. This might be a sort of progress for some, something some of us at least have to go through, but hopefully we move beyond this to learn what true faith is. I often feel envious of the seemingly stong faith and belief of others who don’t seem to have these sorts of feelings, but at the same I can only proceed from where I am, not from where someone else is! Cromwell’s famous line ‘In the bowels of Christ, think that you may be wrong’ is a line we all could usefully remember; Jesus did after all spend quite a lot of time getting people to question their assumptions about their own motives for their beliefs about themselves, God and others.

            I wonder if you can accept that increasing numbers of Christians – lay people, clergy and Biblical experts, find the arguments of the ‘traditional’ teaching on homosexuality very thin, inconsistent and unconvincing? I say ‘traditional’ because of course that tradition has nearly always included severe punishments and/or penances for those found guilty – that is an essential part of the tradition you wish to defend too. That is so because of the very texts that tell us how wicked same-sex desire is. Increasing numbers of people have come to think, not just that this is dangerous for gay people, and leads directly to violence, persecution and condemnation, but that it paints a picture of God which is itself immoral, and incompatible with the God of love. God commands that homosexual behaviour be punished by death, Paul says God punishes idolatry by making some people desire their own sex, which brings further condemnation on them when they indulge those desires, etc. Many think this paints a wicked picture of God. The obvious cases of tradional things like slavery and seeing women as property now being seen as immoral make it much less clear-cut that tradition should trump reason (or more importantly, love).

            You know all this of course, as I know all the counter arguments! This is where the problem lies; the arguments don’t come to an end, and the fact that large numbers of people are convinced we are wrong is something we have to deal with somehow. Not by ignoring them, nor by throwing aside our own convictions, but presumably by honest, endless probing of our convictions, while still loving one another, and learning what that means over a lifetime.

          • Hi Michael,

            Thanks for your latest reply (replying to an older comment because I think WordPress doesn’t let you go on replying deeper than a certain level).

            I appreciate that people find the ‘traditional’ arguments thin and unconvincing – but I think they’re wrong. The problem is, as Ed Shaw has pointed out in ‘The Plausibility Problem’ (which is an excellent read on this issue and well worth your time, by the way) that our society has moved away from Christian teaching in a number of different areas, all of which combine together to make the traditional Christian teaching on sex and sexuality implausible. What is needed is not to change the churches teaching but to recapture the whole Biblical vision of what it means to be men and women.

            I think your outline of the traditional position is a caricature which I would strongly disagree with at certain points.

            However, as we’ve both said, I think this is turning into a discussion some distance away from the original post so perhaps this is a good time to draw stumps on the discussion for now. very happy to continue discussion another time though. But do read Shaw’s book if you want something other than simply a theological explanation of the so-called ‘clobber verses’ (I hate that expression, but still). Also, the Living Out website is excellent. Thanks for replying, I’ve enjoyed our discussion 🙂