I’m a Doubter (Are You Too?)

We finished breakfast before our conversation ended. My friend shared a laundry list of doubts about God, Christianity, the Bible, science, philosophy, and world religions. His questions sprawled like trails in the wilderness. They crossed, connected, diverged. He wasn’t a skeptic, but a devout Christian leader. He wasn’t searching to abandon his faith, but to find assurance that Christianity is true truth. Maybe you know the feeling? I do.

To understand doubt, it’s helpful to understand its linguistic derivation. (I know this is weird. Just track with me.) Did you ever wonder how “b” found its way into “doubt?” It comes from the Latin word for two; compare it to “double.”

In the Roman world, doubt meant living in two minds. Take someone who doubts God’s existence: his mind simultaneously believes and disbelieves that God exists. He lives in two minds at once. Doubt is the precarious bridge over the chasm between two contradictory beliefs.

This not only explains what doubt is, but also why doubt is so uncomfortable. Doubt bends belief nearly to the breaking point. In my experience it creates uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. I once found myself defending my faith, while secretly thinking, “I don’t even know if I believe this!”

Doubt made me feel like a phony. 

Some people respond to doubt by researching. Find the answers! This is a commendable, but research rarely helps those with persistent doubts. Why? No amount of research can make me totally sure. Intellectual 1 says A is true, but intellectual 2 says B is true. How can I be totally sure? Who should I trust? 
This takes me back to breakfast with my doubting friend. Once he finished unwinding his doubts, I asked him a question that someone once asked me, “How do you know that something is true?”  He twisted his eyebrows, searching for an answer. Finally he responded, “I’m not sure.”
I suggested that his persistent doubts stemmed from his method of truth seeking. Philosophers call this epistemology, or how we know. Before my friend could seek answers to his questions, he first needed to answer determine a way to discern truth from untruth. Attempting the reverse is like trying to prove a scientific theory, without first discerning the scientific method.
In fact, one reason I struggled to overcome doubt was because my standards for truth were irrational. We live in a society which considers hard science alone as definite truth. We like numbers. We like precision. We like experiments. Our problem is that the scientific method is a specific tool, useful only in a small field of human knowledge. It helps us answer scientific questions, but cannot help us answer Spiritual/theological/life questions.

I searched for scientific exactness (2+2=4) in my doubts. That kind of hard exactness is appropriate for physics, but it’s out of place elsewhere. My life bears this truth out. I don’t demand for exact measures to prove that I love my mom. I don’t demand reproducible experiments before I claim that racism is unjust. Trying to answer our doubts using the scientific method is like using a hammer when you need a screwdriver. It doesn’t work. If you try for too long, you’ll grow hopeless about ever knowing truth.

There is one other tool society gives us to validate truth claims: doubt.

That was my friend’s primary problem. He gave up on the scientific method (wisely), and turned to doubt as his tool for truth exploration. This almost makes sense, right. One way to find spiritual might be by doubting it; if the truth withstands my doubts, then I can trust it.

Unfortunately, no truth is imperceptible to doubt. Take the cold weather today. Is it really cold outside? Well yes, unless I doubt my senses. What if we live in a Matrix-like universe where everything we experience is a virtual illusion? Of course that sounds ridiculous, but doubt makes us propose ridiculous questions. The problem is that we’re not very perceptive about when our questions are ridiculousness in the Spiritual arena.

In the end, doubt can never find truth, because it only functions to deconstruct it. This process of deconstruction is sometimes legitimate, but other times it’s irrational and unfair.

So, if you’re someone who struggles with persistent doubt, because you’re looking for scientific exactness, or because you’re trusting doubt to lead you to the truth… I offer a loving suggestion: doubt your doubts.

Take The Matrix illustration. Does it make more rational sense to trust my doubts, or to trust my senses? Is it more rational to believe I’m living in the Matrix, or that it’s simply cold outside? We forget that doubt is a (precarious) position of belief. Even though you stand between belief and disbelief, you haven’t ceased believing. You’ve simply begun to trust doubt. Which is to say, you trust nothing.

So yet again: doubt your doubt. Ask your doubt questions!

Take our first example: doubting in the existence of God. Ask, Does doubting God give a better explanation for existence than believing or disbelieving? Does doubting God explain more about why I value goodness/justice/love than believing or disbelieving? Does doubt offer more insights into how I ought to live than believing or disbelieving?

I think you’ll find your doubts are very suspicious. They sound humble and harmless, but in reality they’re simply a proud rejection of truth. They’re a proud refusal to lay our cards on the table. Doubt, far from protecting us from wrong belief, causes us to retreat from reality into a world of false-comfort where we can feel “right” because we never say what’s “right.”

But if you never say what’s right, you can only be sure of one thing: you’re always wrong. Doubt isn’t always a sin. But persistent doubts should give us pause. Have we really stopped to doubt our doubts? To ask whether doubt or belief makes the most sense? No one functionally lives out of doubt: no one stares at an apple for hours, wondering if it’s poisoned or not, before consuming it. Doubt simply isn’t a helpful way to navigate practical life. The same holds true in for the most important questions of life.

One Comment

  1. John iorio said:

    Well consider this:…most christians, and the world in general base their faith upon the sense realm….yet God is not of the sense realm- god is a spirit being….we are also spirit beings who live in a physical body….to make contact with God, therefore we must go through our spirits, not our senses or mind, or soul…..Faith is where we believe in the unseen realm….read proverbs 20: 27. It might shed light on what I’m saying.

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