A Guide for Doubting Theists
Shortly after I became a Christian, I saw a book about Jesus at the library. I couldn’t get enough of Jesus, so I brought it home and began reading. Excitement turned to horror as I realized it was arguing there was hardly any evidence that Jesus even lived, much less was a miracle-working god who rose from the dead. I was appalled. But I was also a little shaken. I never realized someone could question the existence of Jesus. Could my new found belief be wrong?
After much prayer and counsel, I decided to stop reading the book. I was convinced it was Satan trying to attack my faith, and I took that as evidence my beliefs were correct — if Satan was trying to convince me I was wrong, then I must be right!
I didn’t have any doubts about Jesus for another decade.
I was a fool.
Doubt Can Be Scary
Doubt can be frightening for a believer. It can be so frightening that some people suppress any doubt, no matter how much counter evidence they are presented with.
But you’re different, aren’t you? I know that because you’re reading this essay. You know you’ve been wrong in the past, and now you are beginning to question some things about your faith. You’re not as certain as you used to be.
Perhaps you’ve been scolded about your doubt. People of faith rarely look at doubt as an opportunity — instead, they see it as a danger. That’s why they talk about “battling” doubt. They fear it. They tell you to pray to God and ask him to remove your doubts, to read your holy book until you believe it again, and to learn to doubt yourself instead of “God” (by which they mean whatever they teach about him).
Pullquote: Doubt shouldn’t be feared and battled. If we love truth, it should be embraced.
You’re not stupid. You realize that would be brainwashing yourself, just like people do in every other religion. What you want is evidence. And that it is lacking is causing you to doubt.
You are being given an opportunity that few believers get. You are actually searching for truth. While many say they are searching for truth, really they are searching for an experience, a community, and/or comfort. And that’s why you’re different — you want the truth, even if it’s not what you want to hear.
Doubt shouldn’t be feared and battled. If we love truth, it should be embraced. Here are 10 ways a truth-seeking theist can embrace doubt.
1) Accept that doubt can be good.
Doubt is not evil — it is a tool for discovering truth. That you are doubting is a good sign. It means you’re thinking critically and not simply accepting things because someone says so. As Peter Abelard said, “By doubting we come to questioning, and by questioning we come to truth.” If we love truth, we must embrace doubt.
The only reason to fear doubt is if you fear truth. Fundamentalists of all stripes fear doubt. Is this a coincidence?
2) Be open-minded.
You don’t want to defend faith — you want to believe whatever is true. Seek the truth, no matter where it leads you.
When people speak, listen. When others challenge your beliefs, consider they might be right. In other words, be humble. There’s no reason to think we’re right about everything, so why act that way?
3) Learn to love truth, not being right.
Truth is beautiful. Unfortunately, none of us possess the entirety of truth. That’s why we see arrogance as a vice — nobody likes a person who think they are always right. We all know people like this. Don’t love being right and telling others they are wrong — love seeking the truth. This requires humility and skepticism.
By doing these things, you’ll be well on your way to embracing and using doubt instead of fearing and repressing it.
4) Learn to ask and consider hard questions.
People of faith fear hard questions. That’s one of the worst things about faith.
Hard questions lead us closer to truth. It helps us break out of false paradigms and shows us inconsistency in our logic. Hard questions should be encouraged and embraced — not feared or condemned. If those around you don’t want to think through hard questions with you, perhaps that is a sign you’re asking the wrong people for answers.
5) Look for historical and/or experimental evidence for claims of your religion or philosophy.
Look especially for evidence for supernatural claims. If this evidence is not accepted by any scholars outside your religion, then chances are it’s not reputable. Now ask yourself if you would accept a different religion’s supernatural claims with this kind of evidence. Bonus points if you look into evidence for other popular religions.
6) Pray to your god for a week. Then choose another and try again.
You probably have some doubts about prayer. Fortunately, there is a way for you to know if your God answers prayers or not. Follow these directions:
- Pray to your god for a week. Make your requests specific and something that could only come about through supernatural intervention. I’m not talking about getting a front row parking spot, which happens to us all every now and then. I’m talking about regrowing limbs, people coming back from the dead, walking on water — things that are impossible on our own.
- Keep a record of all your requests and mark the ones that were answered (if any).
- Next week, pray just as fervently to a different god (like Baal or Zeus) and keep track of your requests.
- Then the week after, don’t pray at all — but still write down your requests.
Does prayer to your deity really work? The evidence (or lack there of) will be before you.
7) Read your holy book.
Yes, read your holy book, but also look at it from a viewpoint of an outsider. Then read up on the history of the book from secular scholars. Ask yourself if this book is really written by God, when history shows it to be written by mere men.
Have you read any other holy books? If not, now is the time to learn about them. Every religion has millions of followers who believe it is the only true religion, and that their holy book(s) are inspired by God. What makes yours any different?
8) Find other doubters.
When you start embracing doubt, you’ll discover many fairweather friends — they love and support you when you think like they do, but when you start questioning, they begin to back away. Forget these “friends.” Seek out those who are comfortable with doubt and view it as a friend instead of a foe.
If you can’t find any locally, there is a thriving community online. Participating in blogs, forums, and social networking can be helpful to doubters.
9) Read widely.
Pullquote: Read other subjects and expose yourself to different viewpoints. You can only be better for it.
There’s nothing like reading other perspectives to encourage doubt. That’s how I began having serious doubts about my Christian beliefs. First, I began questioning whether the Bible was accurate about the age of the earth. Then it was about if it was right about how animals was created. Then it was Adam and Even. Then Noah’s Ark. I kept going from there. But it all started out from reading outside my perspective.
Too often we only read from authors we already agree with. I remember once, when debating with some doorstep Mormons I asked, “Don’t you guys ever read outside your own religion?” Their reply was, “Why should we, when we know we have the truth, and others are still looking?”
Narrow reading will only confirm what you already believe. If we’re always right it wouldn’t be a problem. But who of us are right even 50% of the time? As Dale Carnegie said:
If you can be sure of being right only 55 percent of the time, you can go down to Wall Street and make a million dollars a day. If you can’t be sure of being right even 55 percent of the time, why should you tell other people they are wrong?
Reading people on our side is satisfying, but why not branch out a little? Read other subjects and expose yourself to different viewpoints. You can only be better for it.
10) Always ask yourself, “How do I know that?”
Pullquote: The more extraordinary a claim is, the more extraordinary evidence there must be in order to believe it.
This is a powerful question because it gets at the root of belief. On matters of religion, you will probably find there is nothing to stand on but “faith.”
Here’s an example of how a thought conversation can go when asking yourself this question:
I believe Jesus was born of a virgin.
…Hang on a minute. That’s an impossible event. How do I know it really happened?
Well, the Bible says so.
…That’s true. It does say Jesus was born of a virgin in the later gospel accounts, though not the earlier ones. How do I know the later accounts can be trusted about such an extraordinary claim — made almost a century after it was claimed to happen? Are there any contemporary witnesses? Is there any positive evidence for it?
No, but it’s in the Bible, and God himself wrote it. That’s amazing evidence, isn’t it?
…Well, maybe. But how do I know God wrote it?
Hmm. The Bible says God wrote it, but that’s what all holy books say. So that’s not a very good reason, is it?
Unless a belief has positive evidence, then it usually isn’t worth believing. And the more extraordinary a claim is, the more extraordinary evidence there must be in order to believe it. By asking “how do you know that?,” the burden of proof is put on the asserter.
When the answer comes down to “faith,” there’s a problem. Why put your faith in one belief over another? Based on faith alone, why believe in a god at all, much less a very specific version of him? What are the chances you are actually right about such a belief, especially since there is no evidence?
So doubt isn’t something to fear. It isn’t something to repress and fight against. It is something to be embraced. It is a powerful tool to find truth, and I hope you’ll use it.