08 Nov 2012

The Burdens of Doubt

Many times when discussing the path of doubt with those that have yet to experience or embrace it they come to the conclusion that it is easy, simple, or even that it was an escape from having to live with and face a life of faith. The burdens of doubt, however, cannot and should not be minimized.

Fear

Fear is the most immediate result of doubt. Even mentioning the word “doubt” can send the believer into a panic gripping his or her rational mind and wreaking havoc on their emotions and mental stability. This is because the believer who approaches doubt does so with great risks assuming that all that they believe to be true is indeed true.

Challenging god and the spiritual authority of pastors or parents is scary and is often one of the first hurdles the neophyte doubter will encounter. It’s one thing to think “what if I’m wrong?” but it’s wholly another to think “What if God or my pastor is wrong?” and then to accept the very clear risks often associated with thoughts like this.

The doubter has to fear both the rejection and punishment of god as well as the rejection and punishment of family and friends. Considering the fact that most religions contain some sort of punishment for the apostate that is far beyond that for the individual that might simply reject a particular religion that has never joined it further solidifies the strength of this fear. Religion, or at least the most popular religions and the way they are interpreted in their most agreed upon consensuses, seems to have been designed to discourage doubt, discovery, and questions almost inherently.

Guilt

The twin brother of fear is guilt.

I recall feeling like the most wicked man on earth just because I was unsure about whether or not the Bible was the literal Word of God. Guilt ravaged me throughout the process of exploring my doubts and often kept me up at night, feeling as if I had committed the most heinous crime against a most loving god. I often felt as if I was killing god and that his heart was breaking because of the questions I found myself asking.

Guilt, like fear, is inherent to nearly every religion on earth. Religious evangelism without some form of guilt is akin to a sales pitch where the salesman never identifies your need for a product before trying to convince you that you need it. Can you imagine buying a vacuum cleaner from some salesman that didn’t try to convince you that your current vacuum was failing to do it’s job?

Guilt is the problem that a savior salesman needs to convince you to have repaired and because it is a part of the faith process from the beginning it will be a part of the faith process until it’s very end. It is a heavy and persistent burden.

Honesty

Perhaps the most difficult and elusive of our great burdens is honesty, or in other words a “dedication to the truth”. It’s challenge is so because we aren’t accustomed to it as we enter into this new world of questions and skepticism but are instead acclimated to trusting in a singular source of all things true. This once unshakeable idea must fall in order to make way for honesty.

Honesty requires that we examine, critique, dispose of, reexamine, and critique again every piece of knowledge that we’ve ever held to as well as everything new that we ascertain – it takes care to ensure that we rightly divide truth from fable, and most importantly truth from our own desires.

This burden is often the greatest and most difficult because it will frequently clash with our own personal comfort and desire. Adhering to the god of your youth and the doctrines surrounding him will always be more comfortable and easy than questioning and challenging him. This discomfort is the very reason why honesty must be a conscious effort as we battle against our own confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.

After much practice honesty becomes ones’ lifestyle and these critiques of our understandings and biases become second nature. Soon after defeating the biases you hold in regards to your deity you may find yourself defeating your political biases and recognizing the dissonance that exists as you absorb information from the media. Once you’ve begun to recognize that you have believed something for any period of time simply because you wanted to all of the things in which this is the case become open to dissection and rediscovery.

Dissection and rediscovery are the whole point of this process.

Conclusion

With doubt comes great responsibility and burdens that far outnumber the ones I’ve listed here – what we must maintain, however, is that these difficulties and trials are worth it if we find ourselves with any devotion to discovering what is true.  Whether we maintain our previously held beliefs or lose them all with great despair, what matters is that we’ve been honest with ourselves about our conclusions and explored the most likely possibility that there is: that somewhere, about something, we are wrong – and that we should not rest until this is corrected.

 

 

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written by
Matt is a former Christian who, through facing his own doubts found a life without faith. Now atheist he dedicates his life to helping people transition through stages of belief via private counseling. Matt is currently working on his first book - Embracing Doubt, and contributing to the dialogue between atheists, Christians, and skeptics.
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11 Responses to “The Burdens of Doubt”

  1. Reply Matthias McMahon says:

    Matt,

    As a Christian, I hope I’m not unwelcome to respond to this post. And rather than argue immediately, I would simply request some clarification on a couple things you said.

    1) Maybe there’s a more relevant post that answers this in particular, and if there is you can direct me to it, but how are you defining “doubt”? It seems as though you’re defending it as a virtue (the highest, perhaps?) in the effort to find truth. So what would be the most accurate manifestation of “doubt”? Is it a) habitually challenging/questioning Authority (or else “the authority” on particular ideas/subjects, etc.), or is it something more tame such as b) asking questions to learn (which is more apprioriately “dispelling” doubt than “discouraging” it)? Or, I suppose, is it c) merely a perpetual state of paranoid, principled ignorance? (I don’t mean that sarcastically. I’m trying to allow for every possibility.)

    2) If b), would not science be classified similarly as religion (last paragraph under “Fear”) in that it seeks to discourage/dispell doubt? If so, why is it undesireable? If not, why not?

    3) With your identification of Fear and Guilt as legitimate burdens of doubters, do you fault religion for those things?

    4) Lastly, you mention “what is true” and “what matters.” At what point can one who doubts be sure that he’s found “what is true” (or to put it another way, what determines “true”)? And where can a doubter turn in order to verify that “what matters is that we’ve been honest with ourselves…” (or would you call it a self-evident thing)?

    I hope I haven’t been disrespectful or confusing, and I await your reply.

    Regards,
    Matthias

    • Reply Matt Oxley says:

      Hi Matthias,

      You are always welcome to comment here.

      On 1:

      Yes, I do believe doubt to be a great virtue, almost Holy in it’s own way. Doubt, as best I can define it, is a lack of certainty – the inability to claim absolute knowledge about something. Using your formula I would say it is a mixture of both B and C.

      On 2:

      I think that Science, in it’s purest form, doesn’t seek to discourage or dispel doubt – instead it seeks to explore it fully and embrace it at every opportunity. There are parts of the scientific process that require one to submit to peer review and multiple trials of testing, which is entirely intent on finding areas where doubt might become necessary and then exploring those doubts until they come to fruition or until they are worked out and no longer necessary… Science is doubt in action.

      On 3:

      Not entirely, fear and guilt are very human emotions and will be with us at certain points because of that – I do fault religion for exploiting these things with some frequency, as tools to bend one to the wills of that religion.

      On 4:

      I think that your question is one of the most important ones that exists, and I think it takes a lot of time to work your way through that question – everyone, and I do mean everyone, that explores doubt in the way that I’m encouraging will find themselves at an epistemological crossroads attempting to understand when you can trust what you think might be true and when you should throw it all away. This struggle will set one up to accept a framework at some point, from which all of our understandings will have been generated or built upon – my framework is empiricism, which relies on my experiences and confirmations to determine what is true about the world – but even after that framework is established I welcome the idea that it may have faults.

      Thank you for your questions, I hope I’ve answered adequately.

      Matt

  2. Reply Matthias McMahon says:

    Matt,

    Thanks for your responses. I know these threads can get long and tedious and veer off-topic, but I’d like to follow up on your answers, and I’ll do so concisely as I can. The numbers will correspond to your own.

    1) Is Doubt an end in itself, or is it only a means to an end, namely truth? You mention under 2 that at some point, doubts can become unnecessary. In light of the difficulty you examine under 4, are you advocating a faith of some sort, toward whatever you finally consider ‘truth”?

    2) Doesn’t submitting to peer reviews require the type of faith I mentioned above? And if science is doubt in action, how do you view creationists? Are they wrong for doubting certain conclusions of science?

    3) How do you distinguish between warrant-less fear and warrant-ed fear? I read the post you linked to regarding fear and religion. Where malicious intent exists, I agree it is to be denounced. Regarding Christianity, how can you consider evangelism an instance of exploiting fear (which assumes the fear is unwarranted) unless you’ve surrendered the doubt concerning Christianity’s truth in favor of faith that it’s wrong? There seem to be some gaps in the line of thought.

    4) Is there any knowledge that a person can say he is absolutely certain (such that there cannot possibly be faults) about? And would you consider this to be a prerequisite before a person can actually say, “I know this,” and not be lying?

    Thanks again for your replies. I do appreciate the frank interaction.

    Regards,
    Matthias M.

    • Reply Matthias McMahon says:

      I just noticed I didn’t “reply” on your post…sorry.

      Matthias

    • Reply Matt Oxley says:

      Thanks Matthias,

      1: Even in science doubt very rarely becomes unnecessary – there are few things so well established within the whole of science that there don’t exist some niggling reasons to be doubtful about the claims. I do believe that we all have some sort of faith – I’ll be talking about that at length tomorrow during my debate, I’ll be sure to send you a link to it.

      2: Peer review does require faith, or better yet – certain a priori assumptions that there is a distinct intent to discern the truth rather than to find the easiest explanation for a phenomena amongst your peers. What makes them peers is the driving force and love for truth and the lack of certainty they possess. Creationism is inherently unscientific because it begins with conclusion and then seeks evidence to support that conclusion – doubting the rest of science is fine, but flipping the method on it’s head should be called something other than science.

      3: If one cannot prove both brink and harm then I would propose that the insertion of fear into a dialog is unwarranted and only used as a sort of brinksmanship to gain an upper hand. This isn’t giving Christianity more or less credence as a workable option, it’s just holding it to the same standard that I would anything that made grandoise claims.

      4: When we say we know something we can only say it with any certainty if we are applying that knowledge to our epistemological frame only. I cannot know anything outside of a framework in which my a priori assumptions are workable to me and sensible.

      Thanks again.

      • Reply Matthias McMahon says:

        Matt,

        1) So then at what point can a person put off doubt? When does something become “so well established”? (I was able to listen to the debate between you and Chris, but thanks for offering the link. Also, by way of identification, I’m one of the contributors to Choosing Hats, and a FB friend of yours. In case you haven’t made the connection.)

        2) In your framework, must something be verified scientifically before it can be called true? This seems to be the basis on which you’re discounting Creationism. Or are there certain things that are true that cannot be verified scientifically? (This is not a concession that Creation science is not science. I’m of the opinion that “science” isn’t such a narrow concept.)

        3) I guess I’m just confused that, when a person tells you something he believes (which may include a threat of harm for consequence), it’s considered an “exploitation” of fear, when fear is a legitimate part of the belief and warning. It’s not as though people go through their lives completely devoid of fear of consequence or bodily harm for much more mundane things. If my neice or nephew accused me of “exploiting fear” when I tell him he’ll get burnt from sticking his fork into an electrical socket, I wouldn’t take it to heart.

        4) Is there anything about which you can make judgments, that you do *not* have to qualify with “within my framework”?

        Regards,
        Matthias

        • Reply Matt Oxley says:

          Oh ok, McFormtist right? I knew your name sounded familiar but I wasn’t completely sure.

          on 1. I don’t know that anything ever becomes so well established that challenging it becomes out of the question, which is why I posit the superiority of empiricism and the scientific method – as it is constantly tested, refuted, and reworked. It continually becomes better and evolves.

          2. We can call anything true, verification has no bearing on how true something is – though I try to avoid making truth claims until something has been verified multiple times.

          The existence of gravity has been called a Truth for hundreds of years now, but that doesn’t make it true – what makes it true is that right now it’s holding both of us to our seats as we type these retorts – my worldview allows for that to change.

          3. I consider it an exploitation when the consequences aren’t demonstrable in the empiricist frame – if you were brave enough you could show your niece and nephew the consequences of putting a fork in a wall socket by allowing 120v to flow through your body for their benefit (they’d likely never do the same thing after watching you shoot across the room). I’ve been hit with quite a few jolts in my career (you have to unplug stuff before you stick the screwdriver to some components) and that demonstration will teach you what not to do. However, with the threat of Hell you don’t have a way to demonstrate that threat – outside of describing what the Bible says.

          4. I don’t always use that particular language, I should make that very clear, I think my framework is superior and I think that most people use it and I find that only when dealing with the presupper do I need to use that language – so I may not qualify everything I say all of the time, though that is implied.

          Thank you,

          Matt

          • Matthias McMahon says:

            Yep, that’s me :)

            1) By “so well established” I was referring to your last reply where you said, “there are few things so well established within the whole of science…” What would these few things be?

            2) You bring up an interesting nuance. Since it’s quite possible to *call* anything true, even blatantly false things, is it a virtuous use of doubt to question what is unquestionably true; i.e. refuse to recognize it’s unquestionable truth? (Are there unquestionably true things?)

            3) If the consequences are in the future (which is sort of redundant. Consequences are always a result of preceding action.), how can it possibly be immediately empirically demonstrable?

            You said, “However, with the threat of Hell you don’t have a way to demonstrate that threat – outside of describing what the Bible says.”

            Do you consider historical testimony empirical evidence in any case?

            4) If it’s true that your claims are colored by your own framework, wouldn’t it be deceptive to intentionally omit the qualifier, for fear someone would take your subjective claims as objectively true? I understand you don’t intentionally omit it, but many people don’t think in these terms, and may mistake you for speaking on objective grounds. And yes, we do try to have our conversation partner qualify everything (which may include employing such language), in an effort to keep consistent ;)

            Regards,
            Matthias

            P.S. I pressed Enter a little too early before I was done with my entire response, so I might already have a reply before this one. That first one can be ignored.

          • Matt Oxley says:

            I forgot about this thread Mathias, sorry about that.

            1: The things that science calls Laws.

            2: In my world nothing is unquestionable, it just may not be the most fruitful endeavor.

            3: Why would it need to be immediately demonstrable? The future might be moments from the initiation of a test…science is not without it’s allowances for the passage of time and patience.

            In the case of hell, you’ve got a claim that delves into the metaphysical, predicted in a holy book…there are no good reasons to believe that it is a reliable claim and yet it cannot be demonstrated. Not only is it’s lack of demonstrativeness convenient, it further lends to it’s lack of credibility. Much like a scam artist who says you should give him 10,000 dollars so he can process the millions he has in the bank in Nigeria.

            Historical testimony is just that, at best it should be classified as second hand empiricism.

            4: That’s a lot of work, I’m learning to do so more though since dealing with presuppers.

  3. Reply Matthias McMahon says:

    No problem Matt, thanks for your replies.

    1) By “science” do you mean “scien-tists”? I’m wondering what your understanding of the subjective/objective nature of observation is.

    2) I guess I’m asking if there is anything “true” such that any questioning or doubt concerning it becomes unfruitful, and at what point we have the ability/authority to say that.

    3) Putting aside for the moment that what you consider “good reason” differs at this point from what I consider a good reason, as far as my niece and nephew are concerned, I haven’t given them demonstrable evidence that they will get severely hurt if they stick a fork into the electrical outlet. But they would be wise to heed my warning nonetheless, wouldn’t you say? Even if they consider my reluctance to stick my own fork into the outlet, “Convenient.” If the doubt you speak of really goes this far, I dare say it’s a very dangerous practice.

    I should say that I’m slightly surprised at this point at your use of “convenient.” As though Christians are conspiring to deceive the world, and that this happens to work to our purposes. You should know better, Matt. This would seem to imply that all your dealings with Christians are disingenuous. I sincerely hope I’m misreading you here.

    Matthias

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