Doubt is Not Always a Choice

Doubt is not always a matter of choice. With regard to many LDSs who experience a crisis of faith, I would state the matter more strongly: Doubt is rarely a matter of choice. In this previous post I told a fictional story about Jack, who was born in the Church, loved the Church, but came to doubt the Church. For people such as Jack, keeping his faith in the Church would in many regards make his life easier. Transitioning out of the Church would entail painful personal and social consequences. I’m of the mind that very few people actively seek out that kind of disruption.

Interestingly, where I left off in Jacks’ story he hadn’t yet left the Church. He’d come to see himself as a doubter; he might even say he was having a crisis of faith. The way I understand a “crisis of faith” in this context is as follows: Jack wants to believe in the Church, but his level of trust in the Church has reached a state where despite his desire to believe he cannot compel himself to believe.

What we see here is that there is sometimes a gap between our desires and our dispositions. Trusting someone is about more than simply wanting to trust him or her. Falling in love with someone is about more than simply deciding to fall in love. Being happy is about more than simply desiring to be happy.

This isn’t to say that the volitional element (i.e., our power to choose) is insignificant. Rather, my point is that the volitional element is insufficient. I may really want to trust my neighbor, but if my neighbor provides little reason to trust him, I cannot make myself trust him. I may really want to fall in love, but I cannot make myself fall in love with my next blind date.

In this post Terryl and Fiona Givens defend the notion of doubt and make the following statement with regard to choice:

But this is to ignore the other determinant of belief, which is, as Augustine says: “the will.” As Aquinas concludes his analysis, the will can “choose… to assent to one side definitely and precisely because of something which is enough to move the will, though not enough to move the understanding.” The point here is that we do not need to succumb to perpetual indecision, or be paralyzed into a stance of non-commitment. As human agents possessed of a free will, we are not determined mechanistically, in our actions or in the movements of our heart. We are not limited, in our capacity to believe, to only those articles of faith that admit of irrefutable proof objectively considered.

We may bring to bear the will as it is informed by inclinations, conscience, values, what Wordsworth called “intimations” or what others call intuitions, or yearning (Sehnsucht). We may risk, and we may choose.

I agree with the Givens that one may choose belief in cases where “the equality of motives for belief and disbelief seem equivalent.” In other words, where both views seem possible, we can exercise our will to choose one from the other. The cases for or against the existence of God might be roughly equal, for instance, and in this context I can choose to believe that God exists. On the other hand, I cannot choose to believe something not proven at least possible (or likely). I cannot simply will to believe that the sky is green or that plastic is edible. Said a little differently, I cannot trust someone who seems questionably trustworthy even if I otherwise like the person. In Jack’s case, as questions mount his will to believe might still be strong, but without renewed trust, his will can only get him so far (and can only last for so long).

This language of choosing to believe also has at least one vicious side effect. By saying that we can choose to believe or disbelieve we alleviate our responsibilities to renew the trust of those who doubt. We essentially say that if you doubt, it is your own choice, and because you could be otherwise, you’re opting for a lifestyle incongruent with our community. In other words, by rendering belief or doubt volitional we pave the way for marginalizing “doubters” from our community. By making doubt a choice we effectively blame doubters for their doubts.

Making doubt solely a matter of choice means that those who are a part of LDS culture do not need to do anything differently to strengthen the trust of members in the Church. Rather than the introspective question of “Lord is it I?,” taking doubt as volitional fosters an attitude of “O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren.”

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