People of faith often share an experience that is so rarely discussed among themselves that, at first glance, it seems as if it’s existence is completely covered up – this quiet secret is not rare in any way at all, however, and most people of faith know more about doubt than they are willing to admit in public or even in private to their peers. There has to be a reason for this hush surrounding the uncertainties that are likely to accompany faith and that often do – that reason is that with doubt comes consequences.
And so doubt is buried and ignored and handled with no real help at all.
The first moment in which a person has an inkling of doubt about something foundational to their understanding of reality and something they have up until this time known to be true is utterly terrifying. Most people, as they test these feared waters, find themselves bravely dipping their toes in and then quickly retreating as soon as they realize just how difficult this will inevitably become. Faith is that thing we most fear questioning as the implications of being right vs. being wrong are eternal and severe.
“I’m going to start by questioning the goodness of god,” or “I’m not sure who Jesus really was,”quickly turns into supplications made out of an overwhelming fear often generated by the simple thought of this intent toward questioning. Fear is faith’s built in survival mechanism, you threaten faith – even momentarily and even in the most seemingly miniscule way, and fear will overcome every crevice of your person. This is precisely why many never fully experience doubt – they try it out, become overwhelmed by fear, and retreat to the comfortable lie they’ve always known.
Those who fully embrace doubt do so at the expense of every comfort they’ve ever known.
The first time I started to approach my doubt I recall being absolutely terrified to the point that I trembled. I would lay awake at night pouring with sweat as I prayed for forgiveness for my uncertainty, knowing – like Pascal – that the price of being wrong was heavy and eternal and yet at the same time fiercely angry at the god who would allow for such muddy waters where the truth about his will and existence were concerned. It’s easy to be a young man who knows only his faith and only the basics of even that – it’s much more difficult to have a library of religious knowledge at your feet and still view your own faith with the same objectivity that worked previously.
Unlike Pascal and nearly every young apologist I’ve ever encountered I understand something about belief that, upon first approach, is very difficult to swallow; you are not in charge of what you believe, you will believe what you are convinced is worthy of belief – but never anything that hasn’t met that criteria. You may study and learn and throw yourself into your faith – but if you, for whatever reason, later become unconvinced of the truth of that faith – not believing it’s tenets is entirely out of your control. Simply put: You cannot believe what you do not believe.
That’s what makes doubt so dangerous, once it’s seed is planted it cannot be stopped – and once well rooted and growing it won’t be pulled out by any amount of force. Of course, there are counter measures one can make – all of which are, in my experience, temporary. Most who experience doubt retreat quickly and then employ some sort of cognitive dissonance to explain away their experience – but as I said, these efforts are generally fleeting and as long as they may last the dormant root of doubt one day revives and lays the faithful to waste once again. I certainly experienced this a number of times throughout my life as a Christian. If I look back on it the times that I was most outwardly devout they are likely also the times I was most fiercely attempting to dissuade uncertainty. I think many people are the same way; their desperation leads to devotion – strained though it may be.
As surprising as it may seem to those unfamiliar with this territory, I’m not describing any unknown phenomena. There isn’t a pastor alive today with more than a few years experience that hasn’t been precisely where I’m describing, in fact, there are ministries set up just for pastors who are so burned out that they are in peril of losing sight of what it is that led them into the ministry in the first place. Doubt, despite it’s obvious existence in the day to day life in even the most average of Christians – is a topic spoken of like Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. “That which shall not be named,” largely due to an overwhelmingly and absolutely justified fear that a congregation that gets even the slightest whiff of doubt may oust their beloved clergyman altogether. Uncertainty a dangerous thing to admit to when your financial well-being depends on a steadfast commitment to absurdity.
Clergy aren’t the only people with a vested interest in maintaining a faithful status quo. The average believer will have invested a good chunk of his or her life into building a social construct consisting mainly of people who won’t challenge their beliefs. Within this social construct exist friendships and families, churches and social clubs that watch out for one another; if there is anything that the religious are good at it’s being inclusive of those with homogeneous stances and beliefs on the issues deemed important by the bodies that make those decisions. It should be noted that they are also incredibly good at being exclusive to those who fail to fall in line. It doesn’t take long for a convert into your average religion to notice what happens to those that begin to fall out of line, many of us grew up hearing the gossip about the backsliders in our churches and watching how those people slowly became appendages of little or no use – only to be cast away.
Not only does the average believer have an interest in maintaining membership in “The Social Club”, they also generally want to maintain the simplicity of faith. It’s altogether easier to believe that every disastrous moment in the life of a person is a part of some divine plan, and to rely on whispered prayers in times of difficulty or crisis for comfort rather than facing this cold and unforgiving universe as it is. I don’t even have to mention the benefit of promised eternal heavenly reward (even if imagined) to make the ease of faith seem like an improvement over the harshness of a life without those small comforts.
The faithful cling to their faith in lieu of exploring the questions and uncertainties haunting the back of their minds for many reasons – most of them having to do with the sheer terror they face when attempting to approach those questions, the danger of losing their social or family structure as well as their membership in a believing majority, and the exclusion provided by those that remain – who exclude for fear that doubt may be infectious.
And it is.
Are you a Christian or other person of faith clinging to your faith?
What keeps you from embracing the questions and critiques you have about your beliefs?
Are you a former believer who has experienced something similar to that which is described here?
What made you finally decide to begin allowing your questions to drive your thoughts? Where did they lead you?