Encouraging Children to Doubt

Encouraging Children to Doubt February 24, 2017
“Warning Children” by Cosey Fanni Tutti, Flickr. Used according to Creative Commons license.
“Warning Children” by Cosey Fanni Tutti, Flickr. Used according to Creative Commons license.

Doubt is an important part of faith. That may sound contradictory, but it is true.

Faith is “hope for things unseen.” We cannot see or know everything, but we hope nonetheless. That is the basis of faith. There is always an element of uncertainty.

Part of faith is becoming comfortable with that element of uncertainty. Part of faith is saying, “I do not know for sure, I might not ever know for sure, and that is okay.” When we pretend this uncertainty does not exist, we begin to lose faith. We lose faith by moving away from the beautiful unknown and towards fundamentalism instead. We move towards the falsity of certainty, in other words.

An important part of nurturing faith in children is allowing and encouraging them to doubt. Children need to have the freedom to question, to push back, to imagine new futures, to say, “But what if?” Children need to know that doubt is not antithetical to faith. Rather, doubt is not only permissible, but also healthy. Doubt enriches faith. Doubt is faith’s dance partner.

In many Christian circles, this would be considered heresy. Children who ask questions or push back against dogma are considered rebellious, troublemakers, or even evil. They are told that doubt is sinful. It is a sign of apostasy or the Devil making strongholds in their hearts. As a result, children associate faith with rash certainty. And when the everyday struggles of life crash upon them and their rash certainty is shattered, they believe they must abandon faith altogether. For if their faith is uncertain, they believe it is worthless.

But it does not have to be this way.

Struggling is normal. Questions are normal. Uncertainty is normal.

Rather than stuffing children’s minds with bible verse memorization and apologetics catch phrases, we should be allowing children to explore faith for themselves—on their own terms—in their own unique, childlike ways. This way, children can develop their own personal relationship with God.

In The Children’s God, clinical psychologist David Heller writes about how the rigid dogma of fundamentalism keeps children from exploring faith for themselves. Heller writes that fundamentalist religion makes adults “frequently act as go-betweens for the child and deity.” But Heller found that children in such environments “desire a more direct encounter or experience with their God.” This is difficult, however, because children “seem to feel that such encounters are forbidden; they also harbor much trepidation about foregoing the intercession of adults.” Ultimately, this leads children to “see religious practice as thoroughly out of their control. They occasionally appear as the small marionettes of religious theater, acting and revealing a prepared script” (p. 134-5).

Doubt is an important tool to fight back against such situations. We should be creating environments in which children can make faith—and doubt—their own, where they can have unmediated relationships with God without the interference of adults and adultist thinking.

As Heller says, children everywhere long for “a free atmosphere to discover what the nature of God might be” (p. 140).

Join us at Raising Children Unfundamentalist.


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  • AKFletch

    As an atheist I found it necessary to allow my children their fantasies and imaginary friends until they were old enough (about 7, depending) to understand the concept that immutable knowledge is, pretty much by definition, not real.

    • Richard Lambert

      How so, serious question. 🙂 is it a “2+2 doesn’t nessiarily amount to 4, if you don’t want it to. You could make it amount to another number off you know how!” sort of thing? I know that there are people way better at math than me, that can do some sort of number voodoo to make that happen, lol.

      • AKFletch

        I think that doing arithmetic wrong thing is kind of a cliche of religiosity that doesn’t mean much, but in atheist chat groups there’s a cliche that ‘children are born atheist’ and wouldn’t become religious if religiosity wasn’t forced on them.

        In my experience of parenting I found that , while they wouldn’t be likely to invent any currently accepted religion out of whole cloth most of them are VERY susceptible to suggestion of magical thinking, and indeed will make something up to describe the mysteries of how reality works.

        Few develop the wherewithal to accept the scientific idea that no knowledge is immutable and that some things simple haven’t been explained yet, and that’s okay, until they’re five or six.

        • jekylldoc

          Atheists tend to see religion as a series of knowledge propositions, a substitute for science, in other words. That was not the religion I was raised with, by my traditional (and evangelical) parents.

          I grew up with a series of understandings about the practice of religion, including quite literally an ongoing conversation about specifics of right and wrong, and a sense that effort, dedication and a certain kind of surrender are needed to overcome the inertia of selfishness and notice the need around me.

          I now do my theology very differently, but my religion is remarkably similar to what I grew up with.

          • AKFletch

            No. Religion isn’t a ‘substitute for science’. Scientific knowledge is always subject to change, while religion is simply made up, and can’t change, less its tenuous relationship with truth be exposed.

          • jekylldoc

            AKFletch –
            What I am trying to point out to you is that the content of religion is not intellectual content. It is not bad science, as atheists and fundamentalists tend to assume, or anything aimed at explaining things. Yes, there were some myths re-told because they helped to explain something, but every one of them has some other point (or many other points) to make, which are not about explanation.

            Sure, imaginings about supernatural personalities, and origins of particular dramatic events, sometimes played a role comparable to what we now get from science. But those who really care about religion have developed, for at least 200 years, a working sense that those supposed explanations are beside the point. Before there was Darwin, there was Kierkegaard.

            The practice of religion easily admits magical thinking. But those who research theology have spelled out long ago why magical thinking is a bad way to relate to God, and would be even if the magic somehow worked.

            From experience, I know that the chances that you will understand what I have posted here are very low, and the chances that you will consider yourself intellectually superior for dismissing what I have to say are quite high. Reason may be the priority of atheists, but they have their own escapes from its rigors.

  • jekylldoc

    I have trouble believing that children’s “direct experience of God” is a reasonable path to rely on. Every such “direct experience” that I have ever heard of, whether it is charismatic glossolalia or centering prayer or mysterium tremendum, requires an interpretive context to be understood as a “direct experience of God.”

    As a result, this kind of broad call for undirected encounter usually makes me ask myself what interpretive context is being surreptitiously promoted. Maybe by giving some illustrations of how the process has gone for children given such undirected opportunities, we could have a better idea of what the writer has in mind.

  • Bill Tammeus

    To follow up on this subject, I will boldly recommend my latest book, “The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.” Its Amazon page is here: http://amzn.to/29F2bmP

  • Martha Anne Underwood

    My doubting has made my Christian faith stronger. I agree about what you said about Christian formation with children. I love Godly Play, developed by Jerome Berryman because the teacher (storyteller) and the assistant (doorkeeper) never tell the children what to think about the Bible stories told. Instead the storyteller asks “wondering questions” and whatever the child says is accepted.