Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Other Side of Faith Is Doubt

Posted by Kiskilili

One sunny afternoon when I was a naive and relatively content eleven-year-old, quite by accident and to my own horrified shock, I became an atheist. The familiar image of God who had always hung around the peripheries of my vision, propping up the sky, vanished into thin air when I tried to look him in the eye, and by no conscious act of will was I able to bring him back into view. I whimsically tried on atheism for size as a way of testing its certain absurdity, and before I knew it the absurd had become the completely natural and even obvious: the world around me simply did not need a supreme being to continue to operate. I began to doubt compulsively.

Over the course of the following months and even years a chilling haze of panic, ranging in intensity from vague to acute, gathered around me and gripped me from time to time with its promise of oblivion or damnation. During Sharing Time in senior primary I sat at the back of the room, surveyed the attendees, and reproached myself severely with the suspicion that every single one of them had faith except for me. Something was terribly, sinfully wrong with me. Try as I might, I simply could not force myself to believe.

For some reason I had convinced myself (or been convinced by well-meaning leaders?) that the only acceptable level of faith was to believe “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” and strive as I might to eliminate those shadows of doubt, they leered at me from every corner. And, in a way, I felt cheated by God. He had refused to provide certain evidence of his existence and commitment to the Church, and yet, if he did exist, he would nevertheless hold me accountable for reaching the right conclusions about him in spite of the threadbare nature of the evidence. It sometimes seemed as if he’d set up a cosmic guessing game with hundreds of doors to choose from, intending to punish me if I could not guess which door he was standing behind.

My primary teachers emphasized that the most important principle of the gospel was to exercise faith in Jesus Christ. I wasn’t sure exactly what this entailed, but I was becoming increasingly terrified that whatever it was, I was simply not capable of it.

Of course I did not so much as breathe a word of this to anyone. Surrounded by committed members in the “safe harbor” of Utah Valley, I had never met a real-life, self-acknowledged atheist, who, from my sheltered perspective, held the gruesome mythical sheen of an ogre or a goblin. I had not even encountered someone who admitted to having had doubts, ever, about anything. This quite naturally exacerbated my sense of isolation, my feeling that I was marked; I was committing a secret sin that was virtually unthinkable to the people with whom I went to church, prayed, and played. If I’d been a Calvinist I would have discovered that I was damned, while everyone around me glowed with the inscrutable and untouchable light of grace.

Over the next several years I experienced a number of intense spiritual witnesses that led me to a firm belief in God and his involvement in the Church, but, oddly, did not immediately assuage my fears. Perhaps, I reasoned, because I’d had such spiritual experiences, God would excuse no more doubts on any subject, and no more shadows of doubts. If I had to wonder whether I was certain, I wasn’t certain, and it seemed to be my curse to wonder compulsively about all sorts of things.

It was not until, as a college student, I gave up entirely on the utility of faith that I was able to lay that old, familiar panic to rest. Faith, we’re taught, is mutually exclusive with knowledge, but is invested in that which is nevertheless true–in which case by definition we can never know whether or not we have faith; we can only have faith in our faith. Why, I wondered, would God plop us down into an environment of deliberate ambiguities and then hold us accountable, as a moral issue, for selecting the right belief system when not all the evidence was available? Was God actually hankering to punish us for drawing false theological conclusions given our limited information? The thought, given the premise that God was good, made reason stare.

Instead I made a concious shift to a focus on fidelity or commitment to God, which certainly is volitional; I came to believe that our fixation on belief was merely the result of post-Enlightenment preoccupation with what is real and our response to a broader culture of skepticism and a marketplace of competing truth claims, in which expressions of commitment to stated religious tenets have become central gestures of commitment to a particular religious community.

It’s frequently asserted that orthopraxis plays a more central role in defining Mormon identity than does orthodoxy. Yet conversion and deconversion are ubiquitously framed in terms of belief: one joins the Church as a result of gaining a testimony, and leaves upon losing it, to the degree that when someone apostatizes, their withdrawal is assumed to necessarily constitute a loss of faith, which theoretically need not necessarily be the case and is demonstrably not always at issue.

Is belief a choice? And as such, is it imbued with moral implications (i.e., is doubt a sin)? In addition to psychological research suggesting belief is not under our control, I also see potential philosophical problems with construing belief as a conscious act of will. If, from the myriad truth propositions in which I could invest, I select one to believe not because I find the evidence compelling, but because it appeals to me for whatever reason–perhaps I choose to believe there are unicorns living on Neptune’s moons who suffer seizures anytime anyone on Earth steps on a crack–why does my awareness that I volitionally selected this belief (rather than “naturally” reaching a conclusion through examination of evidence) not compromise my conviction of its veracity? That is, if I know I chose it rather than opening myself to being led by the evidence (and of course my own inescapable personal biases), on what can I even base my belief?

To at least a large degree, it seems to me that belief is not only outside our volition but can even occur outside conscious formulation; I think it could be demonstrated that individuals hold particular beliefs, based on decisions they make, of which they are largely unaware. If this is the case, doubt in itself can hardly be considered sinful.

But whether or not belief is entirely under our control, how we choose to respond religiously to various pieces of evidence and the nature of our religious commitment and behavior most certainly are under our control, and this is one reason I prefer the construal of faith as fidelity in behavior to the more recent reconstitution of faith as fidelity in commitment to a set of truth propositions (although the two may exert mutual influence over each other). On some level I may not genuinely believe in those unicorns, but I can nevertheless choose to set my doubts aside and, for whatever reason, commit myself to behaving as though I do.

Is doubt, nevertheless, fundamentally corrosive to the community and a force to be entirely suppressed in favor of normalizing unwavering belief as the only model upon which to base a religious life? Is the social isolation and privacy of doubt necessary for the preservation of the community, and would the normalization of doubt attenuate communal commitment even as it served a salutary function for doubting individuals?

It seems unlikely that by its very nature doubt can ever serve as a basis for communal worship in the way that shared belief can, so a general normalization of doubt is hardly desirable. But, within the context of faith commitments, I think there’s room for some cautious acknowledgment of doubt to play a legitimate role.

What, after all, is the purpose of faith, from God’s perspective? We frequently hear that if God provided the answers there’d be no need for faith–but this assumes the need for faith rather than explaining it. But why does God not provide all the answers? Wouldn’t that give us more reason than ever to worship him?

I have no idea how to answer this, other than to offer one tentative suggestion: perhaps the value of faith involves committing oneself to a moral lifestyle and a community without certitude that this commitment will result, quid pro quo, in eventual reward. If there’s value in faith as it is commonly understood, there’s value in religious commitment even in the face of a lack of certainty. It would seem that God is not a behaviorist, training us like Pavlov’s dogs to salivate at the prospect of keeping the commandments. Perhaps God requires goodness and community involvement for their own sake. If so, there’s room for doubt in the community in the very form of faith–that is, doubt in the context of fidelity. An expression of faith is, after all, like the half-empty glass, correspondingly an expression of doubt.

10 Responses to “The Other Side of Faith Is Doubt”

  1. 1.

    A couple of points: I have had powerful spiritual witnesses that led me to believe that God is real and that He is behind the Restoration, grounded particularly in the Book of Mormon. But doubt, for me, has not been swept aside by such experiences. There are confirming experiences and there is the experience of doubt, and I’ve never been able to disentangle the two.

    I’m reminded of the story of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark chapter 5. Jesus commends her faith but equates it not with assent to the abstract proposition that He was Messiah or had power to heal but with the strategic action of pressing through the crowd and giving herself access, against great odds, to the healing power of his body/garment/person.

    The reconfiguration of faith as belief and of true religion as correct belief or intellectual assent to correct principles is a hot topic in the anthropology and sociology of religion these days. My own sense, in the case of our Church, is that the accommodation (“transition”) of Mormonism at the turn of the 20th century was, to a considerable extent, a kind of Protestantization — not in the sense that we began to take up Protestant beliefs (though fairly persuasive arguments have been made that on some level we did), but in the sense that Mormon religion was privatized and interiorized, shifted into the realm of the mind. Faithfulness was reconstrued as belief in correct principles, orthopraxy as an outward manifestation of an inward spiritually orthodox state, and a gospel in which planting crops and building grist mills were once considered exalting acts of worship was reconfigured as a set of abstract, theoretical, timeless principles.

  2. 2.

    Perhaps the most salient example of the phenomenon described in my last sentence involves plural marriage. Once believed to be a practice that exalted practitioners, in itself making them more Godly and Godlike, Mormons responded to the belief/action distinction codified by the supreme court case upholding antipolygamy legislation by stating that people only had to believe that polygamy was a true celestial principle rather than practice it to achieve total exaltation.

    By Protestantization, I mean that we privilege belief and compartmentalize it in its own private, subjective, non-political sphere like good, proper religious (read: Protestant) folks, but said beliefs are still uniquely Mormon theological concepts.

  3. 3.

    This is fairly descriptive of my interface with the Gospel.

    I don’t “know the Church is true.” I don’t “know Joseph Smith is a prophet.” I don’t “know that Jesus is my Savior.” I don’t even “know that God lives” (although I’m a bit closer on that one).

    At some level, I “believe” all of these things. But the “belief” part is not the most important to me.

    For me, the whole Restored Gospel package is a commitment. A choice of affiliation that I have made. A reasoned, thoughtful, questioning, but ultimately loyal CHOICE I have made. I have chosen to throw my lot in with God, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and the modern Church. “Belief” is really of secondary importance to the whole question.

    For me, it’s an identity choice, not a belief.

  4. 4.

    You are working with a lot of dichotomies here that I don’t necessarily accept. As an example, I don’t see doubt as self-evidently bad, nor do I accept the notion that evidence exists without interpretation. While we both see the same glass, our choice to understand it as half-empty or half-full is just that, a choice. Our reaction to that choice is also a choice and so on ad nauseam.

    I once had a strong spiritual impression that the Reverend Sun-Yong Moon (sp?) was a representative of God on Earth. Obviously, I chose to discount that impression, while I have generally favored impressions that support the truth claims of the LDS church. I have had my share of moments of doubt, where the silence, the obstinence, the neglect, and the mystery of God have irritated the crap out of me. Nonetheless, I am still here.

    Unlike Seth, I don’t pretend I chose this path. Faith is, profoundly, something that happened to me. That said, it is also something I daily chose for reasons that only make sense to me. And that is just fine, because that is what is happening. I wouldn’t dream of choosing this identity if I didn’t think there was something to it; I bear the believer’s self-delusion founded in the ethnocentric notion that everyone else has it easier than me.

    I suppose that, ultimately, I am not moved by your argument. I am trying to pinpoint why. I think it is because we always seem to use the language of agency in the discussion of our faith and our doubts, but we rarely take that language seriously. I dunno. I’ll think on it and see if I have more to say (because surely, everyone is hanging on my every word in this matter :) )

  5. 5.

    Very interesting comments, Brad!

    What you say makes a lot of sense to me, Seth–that the level of choice that’s important in our religious behavior operates on that level–behavior–more than on the level of belief. (Of course the two undoubtedly influence each other, although not necessary in intuitive ways: I’ve read social psychology research suggesting that people formulate in response to their own behavior, rather than behaving in accordance with belief. This is just fascinating!)

    Thanks for responding, John; although your post provided the stimulus for putting up my own post, I hope you didn’t read it as a direct attack–I’ve actually had this post in an almost finished state for a couple of months now.

    Although I’m not entirely certain I’ve parsed your position on faith correctly, here’s where I think I’m in disagreement with you: I think it’s already problematic to discuss faith bereft of context. It’s easy to argue that information exerts no influence whatever over belief, and thus that the individual bears total responsibility for her/his belief, when we’ve neglected to specify belief in what, since belief can’t exist without context. As I see it, information most certainly can and should play a role in the formation of belief. Currently I believe there are no unicorns on Neptune’s moons. This is because I have at least tentative confidence in the astronomical authorities I’ve consulted. But information furnished by the astronomy community and interpretations of the data offered by astronomers could potentially upset my faith and cause me to reevalute my position.

    The dichotomy I’m uncomfortable with is our predilection for talking about testimony as an all-or-nothing affair: you either have it or you don’t. In contrast, I see faith as complex, multifaceted, and entailing doubt. An individual may exercise faith that God’s just character would prevent him from ever denying access to the temple, and thus by implication to exaltation, on the basis of race. Encountering information about Church policy prior to 1978 could throw this belief into serious question. So I think it’s fair to say, contra the opening paragraph of your post, that a person could reasonably trace a loss of faith, or a reevaluation of faith and reinterpretation of evidence, to a “blog post,” or to “blacks and the priesthood.” I think we absolutely do influence each other’s faith, and that the very idea that there’s value in bearing testimony is predicated on this assumption.

    It’s hard to disagree with the statement, “[If] you lost your faith, [it is] because you lost your faith.” ;) If by this you mean that belief (or lack thereof) is completely a choice, I absolutely disagree.

    That said, based on your comment here, I’m having difficulty understanding exactly where we disagree, or which dichotomies I’ve advanced to which you object. I haven’t argued that doubt is bad–I’m merely accepting the assumption that expressions of doubt are generally frowned on in the Mormon community. I’d love to hear other people’s experience to the contrary, though. Nor have I argued that evidence exists without interpretation. What I meant by pointing out a half-full glass (faith in Jesus) is also half-empty (doubt in Jesus) is merely that faith and doubt are different facets of the same phenomenon, and this may offer an acceptable avenue for incorporating acknowledgment of doubt into discussions in the community: to the degree we place value on faith (lack of knowledge) we are implicitly placing value on doubt. And the point of my post is that our reaction to information and even to the formations of our own beliefs is most certainly a choice–this is exactly why I prefer the model of faithfulness (we can choose how or whether we commit to the community) to faith (in the sense of mental subscription to truth propositions). Like you, I’m arguing that we can discount certain impressions in favor of others, and we can choose to participate in the community even when the heavens seem unresponsive. So I guess I’m still confused about where you disagree with Seth? As I read your comments, you both might experience at least occasional doubts but you’ve both chosen commitment to the community nevertheless. Also, I’m at a loss to understand what you mean that “faith happened to you” (thus is not a choice?) in light of your contention that loss of faith is a total choice.

    I’m not sure which argument you’re unmoved by, since my rather long-winded post ranges all over the place! I don’t think we have complete choice over what we believe, and I do think other people’s conclusions and information influence those beliefs, but I do think we have choice over how we respond to that information, whether we choose to commit to the community and how we negotiate that commitment, and whether we cultivate an environment conducive to spiritual witness and how we respond to and interpret that witness (or lack thereof). My argument is that we have more agency, and thus more moral accountability, when it comes to faithfulness than to faith.

  6. 6.

    To clarify, I’m simply describing the way things work for me. I’m not trying to suggest one way is better than another.

  7. 7.

    I tend to think that many of our beliefs are potentially self fulfilling, meaning that good (or bad) things happen because we believe in them and work to make them happen. I suspect that God works mostly by inspiring us and takes little, if any, direct action on our behalf.

  8. 8.

    Good questions, K. I would like to think that I was clear in my objections, but I know I wasn’t. I was groping for words/explanations.

    As I tried to explain over at BCC, I imagine faith events (and lack of faith events) as things that happen to us, but the issue is that we put them through a filter and that filter is colored by our previously made and current decisions regarding the meaning and manner of our faith. Certainly, I agree that faith happens in a context, but I doubt there is any determinism in the faith environment. Whether a given event causes me to believe or not is dependent on my willingness to believe, my willingness to interpret as a faith event, my decisions regarding what God can and cannot do, and my desired understanding regarding the situation, amongst a host of other things. While I wouldn’t dispute that events, people, and reality influence, the fact that you may see the cup as half full and I as half empty indicates to me the inescapability of personal choice.

    I suppose I thought I disagreed with you on the faith/doubt front because I object to the notion that being Mormon equates to a denial of doubt. That notion is obnoxious to me because I believe it equates to a denial of the rich, serious spiritual lives of most Mormons. It is a case where, I think, I didn’t actually respond to what you said, but what I saw in it. Sorry about that.

    Anyhoo, I am finding that I am in agreement with most of the people who objected to the post on most of the issue. The dividing line seems to be my insistence that agency/choice plays some crucial role in the falling away (or joining) of people. Certainly, faith events are things that can happen to us (just ask Alma the Younger or Paul). But what we do with them is, often, something that we determine. Or, at least, I think it is.

  9. 9.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, John. It appears that we’re likely not as far apart on this issue as it originally seemed! I absolutely agree with you that we make choices about which beliefs to invest in, emotionally and behaviorally, and on the basis of those beliefs we interpret and reinterpret evidence (thus presumably belief and behavior mutually influence each other).

    In my own case, my decision to suspend my relationship with God was, I feel strongly, absolutely a conscious, considered decision for which I take full responsibility. Given the evidence as I interpret it and that I personally feel I have available to me, I’ve chosen to invest my behavior in the belief that God is untrustworthy and amenable to cavalier misogyny. And yet I’m extremely ambivalent when it comes to religion: a significant part of me still hopes, even believes, God is good and even loving. I don’t feel particularly capable of eradicating that belief entirely, even on the basis of disturbing evidence to the contrary. But I also don’t feel it would be prudent to invest energy in it, and I’ve chosen not to. (This may not be the best example, since it highlights my hubris and it’s the virtual complement to the situation we’re describing among committed Church members, but there you have it!)

    So even though I don’t think there’s always choice involved in belief itself–I doubt I could will myself into genuinely believing in unicorns on Triton, given the absence of any evidence–I could nevertheless absolutely choose to behave as though I did. And who knows? Perhaps my behavior would influence my belief. So I think it’s possible for people to lose their faith against their wills, although they are likely engaging in behaviors that influence that loss, such as examining their faith in detail (I personally would not have lost my belief in God at the age of eleven if I had not started contemplating the issue), and those behaviors are under their control–but I think their faith might evaporate virtually against their wills even as they try desperately to contain it.

    In any case, we should all observe that a half-full glass is simultaneously half-empty, rather than being one or the other. :)

  10. 10.

    kiskilili,
    just wanted to say, thank you for this very well worded treatise on faith and doubt and hope and belief etc…

    I must say it is has been refreshing to see a bit of discussion between JohnC and yourself on the topic of belief and choice in a venue where comments do not pile up so vociferously fast (200 is getting a bit much for me)

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