I have been greatly enjoying Galen Broaddus’ series lately on doubt, especially something he mentioned in his post last time:
This is not the liberty that Mill conceived of; it is a false liberty, the short leash of threats about one’s eternal salvation or damnation. Sure, you can ask questions, but you’d better find – and accept – the answers pretty damned fast.
He’s totally right.
What Galen wrote strongly resonates with me because that’s exactly what I experienced as I was sliding out of Christianity’s grasp. And the response of the people closest to me very much echoes what he was discussing. I wanted to talk about these two topics because I’ve been noticing that one of the strangest outgrowths of modern Christianity is surely its obsession with rock-solid certainty. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” goes the popular bumper-sticker slogan (though my old pastor groused once that the middle section was superfluous!). Christians today commit some of their most egregious acts of overreach because of their certainty that these acts are correct. Certainty is godly, which means that uncertainty–doubt–is the opposite of godly. I don’t see room in modern Christianity for healthy, honest doubt anymore, if ever there was room for this most human of expressions.
Doubt is nothing more than the dawning suspicion that something is wrong with a person’s beliefs or impressions. Doubt is a natural response to someone’s realization that reality doesn’t quite line up with his or her religion’s claims and mythology. Doubt is a shaking of the foundation of certainty. And because of this antagonistic relationship doubt has with certainty, it is the enemy to many Christians today–whether they admit it or not. Even while doubting, they carefully follow to the letter their culture’s teachings about doubt–and when one of their own leaves the fold after struggling with doubt, this perceived defection leaves them confused, angry, and casting about for who and what to blame (spoiler alert: often they blame the doubt itself).
Today we will look only at how Christians engage with doubt and doubters, and next time I’ll look at the resolution of doubt.
The Dance Around Doubt.
My religion had this weirdly inconsistent relationship with doubt. On the one hand, my leaders outwardly encouraged doubt. It was totally acceptable, in theory, to examine Christianity’s claims and to test its promises. Even the Bible said exactly that. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 instructs Christians to (among other things) pray continuously, give thanks for everything, and “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”
Judges 6:39 involves a rather curious test of Yahweh involving a fleece, too, so my denomination was very fond of referring to these various tests as “fleeces.” And we knew very well the story of doubting Thomas, who was encouraged in his skepticism by no less than Jesus Christ himself.
So in theory at least, testing everything and doubting outrageous claims was perfectly acceptable.
But in practice, the story looked completely different.
When I began to question the claims my religion made, my doubt became a sickness that had to be treated. I was called insane and crazy, told I was suffering madness, accused of being possessed by demons, and begged to seek spiritual healing for my malady. My desire for evidence and proof of the Bible’s claims was phrased as a symptom of my sickness and as evidence that I didn’t have enough faith in “God.”
Why such a stark difference between the theory of doubt’s essential presence and the reality of what happened when I actually doubted?
I didn’t doubt approved topics, allow myself to be guided by approved leaders and talking-points, or come to the conclusions my religion had decided in advance that doubters must soon come to.
Even Christians themselves affirm this utter mismatch between theory and reality. In an interview last year, Presbyterian minister John Ortberg (who wrote a book called Know Doubt, no less) performed exactly this dance by claiming in one breath that yes, doubt is totally necessary for young Christians because it is how they “make the faith their own” rather than simply adopting it from their parents–but then in the very next breath claims that anybody who doubts but comes to the wrong conclusion obviously is doing so purely to sin without accountability:
If my behavior is lined up in a way that makes me not want to believe in God because I don’t want to be accountable to him, then I’m likely to have more doubts. They aren’t doubts that simply reflect intellectual processes; they reflect the behavioral pre-commitments I have already made. Discerning with folks when wrong behavior or flat-out sin is producing doubt, as opposed to the process of sincere questioning, is one of the most pastoral functions for church leaders.
In Mr. Ortberg’s worldview, if someone is being truly “sincere” in their “questioning,” then they will always come to the same conclusion he has about his religion. If someone comes to the wrong conclusion, then he or she is not, by definition, sincere. So in this manner, Christians can totally tell who is sincere and who is not: the sincere ones might doubt, but they will come to the correct conclusion all the time.
This attitude is echoed completely by a blogger with Christianity Today, Nancy Pearcey, who claims to have gone through a period of questioning herself–but her questioning was totally okay because she came to the correct conclusion. Even while criticizing her peers’ condemnation of skepticism and critical thinking, she gives no advice whatsoever to those who wrestle with doubt but come out of it with the conclusion that Christianity’s claims are ridiculous. Nor does she offer any indication that this outcome is even possible, probably because she herself doesn’t think so.
Ms. Pearcey stresses that she certainly wasn’t “rebellious” or “trying to construct a moral smokescreen for bad choices,” apparently without realizing that she is implying that lots of other doubting young people are one or both of those. Christians often stress their pure motivations as an excuse for engaging in behavior they know would otherwise be condemned (see also: “the only moral abortion is my abortion“, or the astronomical divorce rate among conservative Christians); when they try to distance themselves from their actions, we need to be listening closely because that’s when they will come out with their biggest WTF whoppers. Indeed, Ms. Pearcey ends by co-opting a line from William Wordsworth: “the questioning child is father to the truly committed man.” She doesn’t talk about what happens when the questioning child becomes father to the ex-Christian man because in her world, that isn’t how sincere, rebellion-free, sin-free questioning ever ends. The correct motivation is everything here.
One needn’t go far to find Christians who have crafted testimonies* that feature a period of what their leaders have taught them is doubt. At the end of this period, they come to the correct conclusion, which they mischaracterize as a choice–because that characterization allows them to judge as wanting any of their peers who don’t come to the same “choice” they have.
I’m left with one inescapable conclusion:
The way that Christians engage with doubt is dishonest.
Doubt is acceptable only in certain circumstances. If any of these following conditions aren’t met, especially the last one, then the doubt is considered sinful and must be avoided and condemned.
* The doubter must have the correct motivations to question his or her faith, be led by careful tutelage from the doubter’s authority figures, and proceed along accepted lines of questioning (especially lines of questioning that can be answered by standard-issue apologetics arguments).
* Only approved topics may be doubted without fear of negative judgment from the tribe, as this Christian writes about so eloquently by drawing a careful line between doubt in his own understanding of troublesome Bible verses and doctrines and doubt in his religion’s major claims and demands, showing that he’s well aware of the limits imposed here–and he’s pretty sympathetic overall toward the deconversion he’s discussing!
* The doubting Christian must be as sin-free as possible. Obviously no Christian is totally sin-free, but sin’s relationship with doubt is the same as steam’s relationship with the whistling of a teakettle.
* The season of doubt absolutely, positively must end within an acceptable amount of time.
* And it must end with the Christian coming to the correct conclusions.
But there’s no way to win for losing when it comes to doubt. No matter how much someone might claim to fit every one of those conditions except the last, if the last is not met then vast numbers of other Christians will always find ways to deny that the others were in fact met either.
Doubt must also be resolved fairly quickly or the tribe will get suspicious. The tribe won’t long put up with an adherent who doesn’t resolve his or her doubts in the correct direction within what they feel is a reasonable amount of time. Doubt is much like mourning; after a certain period of time, the mourner’s and the doubter’s friends and family get a little tired of hearing about it and stop being able to show sympathy or support for the mourner or doubter.
For all of the Christians who right now are thinking that their churches are in fact very supportive of doubt, I find myself wondering: how supportive would these churches be if doubters didn’t come through their doubt with even more certainty about their faith? Doubtless (haha) some churches are still supportive even so–but probably not many evangelical groups would be. Indeed, many ex-Christians can speak from experience on this question–though our answer isn’t easy for many current Christians to hear.
Every single doubter who comes to the wrong conclusion, or who otherwise doesn’t follow the standard approved narrative for doubters, is a contradiction of Christianity’s teachings about doubt–which is, itself, probably the biggest reason why Christians both desperately ache to be thought of as friendly toward doubt and yet also are completely hostile and dishonest about engaging with doubt. They are perfectly aware that doubt leads to deconversions so of course they want to address the problem, but they also can’t really engage with it in a way that actually would lead to honest inquiry and sincere examination–because both would quickly unearth a number of reasons to reject most of the childishly over-simplistic doctrines of evangelicalism.
The seminar series that Galen discusses in his posts about doubt will end with the participating churches patting themselves on the back for being sooooo open about doubt and sooooo friendly toward doubters, but in reality I see absolutely nothing here that I didn’t see 25 years ago when I deconverted–which is why ultimately this effort will fail just like all the efforts like it have failed. Galen noted his impression that the way the seminar addressed doubt would only cause more confusion than comfort, and there’s a reason for that: Christian leaders are still totally convinced that they can offer their adherents Doubt Lite, a sort of defanged doubt that they hope will be good enough to assuage their flocks’ worst fears without bringing anybody close enough to anything serious that might lead them straight out of the religion. It’s the church equivalent of a bedtime pass: seminars like these are meant to help Christians feel like they’ve adequately engaged with doubt and come out of it with greater certainty–without actually engaging in doubt itself on honest terms. They want to feel like they’ve got some measure of control over doubt when they really don’t.
And for some Christians that’ll be good enough.
For others, though, it won’t be–and will only make the problem worse for them.
Next time I’ll talk more about how I was advised to resolve my doubts, and how that advice totally backfired, because I was one of those Christians once.
* A “testimony” is Christianese describing a Christian’s carefully curated and crafted conversion narrative. A testimony is recited to bolster existing Christians’ faith and to sell the religion to non-Christians. It generally includes that Christian’s depraved pre-conversion past, the miracle or other moment of blinding clarity that led him or her to think that Christianity’s claims were totally true, and how things are going for that Christian now as a follower of the religion. It’s a sales and marketing attempt that is slightly longer than an elevator pitch, and should be considered exactly as honest as that.