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.
- 29 February 2008