Fetishizing Doubt

While some in the Church fear or are anxious around religious doubt, I feel that in some circles the pendulum has swung too far the other way, so I thought I’d directly address what I personally consider to be some takes that I think are problematic. 

Periods of doubt are required to develop a stronger faith. 

Yes, doubt can strengthen faith once you come out the other side, but this isn’t strictly required. For me personally the aspects of the gospel that viscerally feel right remain the least doubt-ridden parts of my testimony. Of course, some beliefs may be affected by premises that are later shown to be incorrect, and a period of doubt might help “inoculate” one’s self, but again this isn’t required. There are some people with informed testimonies who just haven’t ever had a problem with doubt, and their testimonies shouldn’t be implicitly viewed as less developed than people who have passed through seasons of doubt, although people with a history of doubt could have a unique ability to minister to those that do doubt. 

Nobody can actually know the Church is true

I do think we throw the “know” verbiage around too much. My undergraduate epistemology course taught me you can spill a lot of ink on the actually not so simple concept of knowing, but to wit the validity of knowing and the surety of knowing aren’t the same thing or even necessarily connected. I can be delusional and believe the government is spying on me with the same level of certainty that I have that the sun rose this morning, but that doesn’t mean that the former is true. By the same token, people of all different faiths can have the same surety of knowledge that their truth claims are true that they have that the sun is above head. By the same token, I can grant that some people in the Church do in fact believe the Jesus is the Christ with the same level of confidence that they know anything else. 

Doubt is a final destination to rest at

I understand that there are some people who are not believers by disposition, and who will always have doubt until the hereafter. If you don’t have the gift of faith, fine, but I’m increasingly seeing rhetoric that seems to suggest that a state of doubt should be aspired to as a final state in itself. 

The problem with this is that it’s hard to continually build and develop the edifice of one’s faith if you’re continually questioning how stable the foundation is. CS Lewis’ excellent work The Great Divorce is an allegory that traces the paths of various individuals working through different stages of Heaven and Hell, and a chunk of people seem stalled on issues of doubt; they continue to debate and discuss while others are moving forward to a Celestial kingdom-type setting. Debate and discussion is fine and sometimes necessary, but it should be geared towards resolution, not as an end in itself. (This is one reason why I’m not sympathetic to the view that BYU should allow open criticism of core Latter-day Saint beliefs; the syncretization of the LDS faith and the intellect will go further if the core beliefs are intertwined with the intellect from the outset.) 

10 comments for “Fetishizing Doubt

  1. Another aspect is how the meaning of doubt slips in these discussions. One can be sympathetic and understanding of people who are uncertain about various points of doctrine, and I think we can all relate to uncertainty. But then the same sympathy and understanding is expected of explicit rejection of various gospel principles.

  2. “Doubt is a final destination to rest at”

    I haven’t run into this. What I have seen (and have come to myself) is more along the lines of: Uncertainty undergirds faith in this life.

    For you, are those basically the same things? They aren’t for me, but that’s just me.

  3. I fear that sometimes we may fetish doubt because there are certain things we don’t want to know with certainty.

    Re: Knowing with certainly: I can say that I know God lives with the same degree of certainty that I know my wife loves me. It’s an understanding that’s come with time and experience and is more an expression of wisdom than dry facts.

  4. Rachel, I don’t the idea is expressed with precisely those words, but James Fowler’s Stages of Faith model sees certainty as something for children, while the more mature stages in his model encompass critical examination, disillusionment with former faith, and acceptance of paradox.

  5. Doubt is a part of everyone’s belief. We are all to some extent cafeteria Mormons. Over half the members doubt the Church’s LGBTQ+ policies. A large percentage of members doubt the current interpretation of the WoW. And the list goes on an on. Nobody is fetishizing doubt, they are just accepting that for many, it is an important part of life. It’s who we are. But Stephen is just baiting us again.

  6. D&C 46’s list of spiritual gifts suggests that some people have the gift to “know” while others have the gift to “believe,” which seems to leave room for doubt. Maybe everyone should aspire to receive the gift of knowing eventually. Maybe. But in the short to medium term, it seems to me that we should recognize and appreciate the gift we’ve been given. We should also recognize that other people have been given different gifts, and not try to convince them that our gift is better and they should somehow trade in their gift for ours.

    It’s my impression that people with the gift to know and people who have the gift to believe have quite different experiences with faith. Telling people their faith will be weak if they don’t do the things that strengthened my faith would be like telling them they will be unhealthy if they don’t take my blood pressure medication. Different problems, different solutions.

    For someone with the gift to believe, a period of doubt can be a time of intense learning and personal revelation, and their faith becomes richer and stronger as a result. But they make a mistake if they assume that’s the only way for faith to become rich and strong, or assume anyone who hasn’t been through a similar experience must have a faith that’s simple or weak.

    People with the gift to know often struggle to understand the experience of doubt. Ironically, they sometimes exaggerate the intellectual aspect and leap in with arguments. They don’t realize the reason those arguments are so compelling to them is that they already know the conclusion is true. Just listening, non-judgmentally and with empathy and love, is usually a better place to start. Once you understand them, and they know you understand, you’ll be more persuasive and they’ll be more persuadable.

  7. @Jonathan Green:
    That’s a good point I didn’t think about. The word is a little slippery, so there can be a bit of a bait and switch. 

    @Rachel Taylor: 
    I agree with the uncertainty undergirds faith in the sense “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen.” In terms of the resting spot, I am admittedly thinking mostly of agnostic types that are very skeptical of any claims of surety, but I guess also see it in people are are kind of in that liminal space between agnosticism and Mormonism. 

    @Jack: I love that analogy.

    @rogderdhansen: I don’t know, I think there are some people who just don’t struggle with doubt (which doesn’t include me, although much less than before), although I’ll point out that doubt is, strictly speaking, distinct from disagreement. You can have a liberal member who has zero doubt, but simply disagrees; they’re related but distinct concepts. But yes, I do enjoy baiting you roger ;) 

  8. For many people, myself included, doubt is an integral part of their faith journeys. I have been reading a recent book written by Brian D. MclLaren ” Faith after Doubt” in which he writes about the part that doubt has in faith journeys including his own. The faith journeys can be difficult for those involved. It would be difficult to summarize Brian’s book here but I recommend the book as a way to understand doubt.

  9. The fetishization of doubt seems to occur on the believer side more than the “doubting” side. This is because strong belief in a specific set of truth claims is the raison d’etre and modus operandi for believers and they worry that the lack of evidence for these truth claims might make them lose a part of their identity. Average secular folks don’t actually seem to dwell too much on what religious truth claims they doubt, much like the average LDS believer doesn’t dwell too much on how much they doubt that Warren Jeffs is a prophet of God or the truth claims of Hinduism.

    We all doubt one religious truth claim or another. It is impossible to believe them all. However, we all live in different environments and some religious truth claims get forced into relevance more than others. It is only when a set of religious truth claims is forced into relevance in your surroundings that doubt in those claims becomes an issue. I didn’t spend much time or lose too much sleep growing up in Provo dwelling on whether or not reincarnation was a reality. But most folks in India don’t lose too much sleep dwelling on whether or not the Book of Mormon proves the existence of pre-Columbian Christians and Jews.

Comments are closed.