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The role of doubt in religious faith

Impacts of religious doubt

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Religious doubt has been defined as: "... a feeling of uncertainty toward, and a questioning of, religious teachings and beliefs." 1

Various groups promote different beliefs about doubt:
bullet Secularism and liberal religious faiths, like progressive Christianity, Unitarian Universalism, cherish doubt. They value the search for truth as more important than the acceptance of what others have already defined as truth. A humorist once commented on a Unitarian Universalist who arrived in Heaven only to find a signpost pointing in one direction to God, and in the other direction towards a discussion of God. He took the latter path.
bullet Most conservative faiths regard doubt as something to be battled against because it is dangerous to one's faith. It can lead to heresy, doubting the existence of God, and, according to their belief, perhaps loss of salvation and eternal torture in the fires of Hell.
bullet Scientific progress is fueled by doubt, as researchers exhibit skepticism towards current beliefs, and seek a better understanding of nature.

Religious doubt may hasten positive cultural change:

A case can be made that doubt has a critical and positive role to play in the effect of religion on social evils. In the past, some faith groups and devout individuals have been responsible for:

bullet Restrictions on religious freedom -- both beliefs and practice,
bullet The burning and hanging of heretics,
bullet The preservation of slavery,
bullet Massive loss of life in faith-based wars,
bullet Sexual repression,
bullet Religiously-based genocides, etc.

A dose of healthy doubt might have alleviated or avoided such atrocities.

In recent decades, faith groups have been divided over equal rights for women, abortion access, equal rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, same-sex marriage, etc. On the horizon is a conflict over equal rights for transgender and transsexual persons. All of these conflicts will undoubtedly be resolved in one direction or the other during upcoming decades.

Lack of doubt causes people to hold tenaciously to a specific set of beliefs which may or may not be on the winning side. Honest doubt would greatly facilitate the resolution of conflicts more quickly, to the benefit of all. Doubt forms a part of every attempt at dialogue where people holding conflicting viewpoints freely explore each other's beliefs in a search for truth.

It is debatable whether the 19 radical fundamentalist Muslim terrorists would have crashed airplanes into buildings on 9/11 if they had even a small shred of doubt about the wishes of Allah or the rewards that they believe awaited them as martyrs in the Muslim paradise.

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Religious doubt may be dangerous to your health:

Many studies have concluded that personal commitment to, and involvement in, a faith group can enhance health and lengthen life expectancy. However, some studies have concluded that the opposite can be true for some people who have negative experiences with religion. These can lead to an erosion of mental and/or physical health.

The links among religious doubt, feelings of well being and health are complex.

In a 2004 paper, Neal Krause and Keith M. Wulff comment that some:

"... theologians and investigators believe ... that having doubts about religion lies at the very heart of living a religious life, and that it is not possible to be deeply religious without having doubts about one's faith. This perspective is captured in the work of Tillich, who was a well-known Protestant theologian. Tillich ... argued that, "... doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith." Similar views are expressed in the classic work of Allport ... who maintained that, "... the mature religious sentiment is ordinarily fashioned in the workshop of doubt." Finally, and perhaps most important, Batson, Schoenrade and Ventis' (1993) work on religious quest is based, in part, on the notion that doubt is beneficial and ultimately leads to a deeper and more meaningful faith. This is evident in the following item that was taken from their widely-used quest scale, "It might be said that I value my religious doubts and uncertainties. ..." 2

Krause and Wulff cite studies that indicate that doubt and uncertainty drives an individual's growth and cognitive development; this can lead to greater maturity. On the other hand, doubt:

bullet Can cause devout believers to disengage from religious practices such as prayer, from which they may have previously derived benefits.
bullet Can cause conflict with others in the congregation who have little doubt.
bullet Can cause feelings of guilt and shame. This may lead to a lessening of self esteem.
bullet Can lead to cognitive dissonance as believers try to harmonize conflicting and irresolvable points of view. They quote as one example theodicy: the paradox of a good God allowing massive amounts of evil in the word.

Their study involving a nation-wide study of Catholic and Protestant church-goers found that more religious doubt is associated with higher levels of depression among church goers, and less satisfaction with their current level of physical and mental health. This is particularly true among church members who also have formal roles in the congregation.

They were unable to find a statistically valid correlation between these two factors and the person's frequency of church attendance, frequency of private devotionals, race, gender or amount of education.

Doubt leading to collapse of faith and attainment of peace:

William Lobdell has written a book about his personal faith journey titled "Losing My Religion: How I lost my faith [while] reporting on religion in America -- and found unexpected peace."'s review states:

"William Lobdell's journey of faith and doubt may be the most compelling spiritual memoir of our time. Lobdell became a born-again Christian in his late 20s. ... He prayed for the Lord to put him on the religion beat at a major newspaper. In 1998, his prayers were answered when the Los Angeles Times asked him to write about faith. ... "

"While reporting on hundreds of stories, he witnessed a disturbing gap between the tenets of various religions and the behaviors of the faithful and their leaders. He investigated religious institutions that acted less ethically than corrupt Wall St. firms. He found few differences between the morals of Christians and Atheists. As this evidence piled up, he started to fear that God didn't exist. He explored every doubt, every question until, finally, his faith collapsed. After the paper agreed to reassign him, he wrote a personal essay in the summer of 2007 that became an international sensation for its honest exploration of doubt."

" 'Losing My Religion' is a book about life's deepest questions that speaks to everyone: Lobdell understands the longings and satisfactions of the faithful, as well as the unrelenting power of doubt. How he faced that power, and wrestled with it, is must reading for people of faith and nonbelievers alike."

Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. B. Hunsberger, et al., "Religious doubt: A social psychological analysis," in M. L. Lynn and D. O. Moberg, eds., "Research in the social scientific study of religion," JAI Press, (1993). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Neal Krause, Keith M. Wulff, "Religious doubt and health: exploring the potential dark side of religion," Sociology of Religion, 2004-Spring.  Online at:
  3. Talitha Arnold, "A doubt and a promise," Christian Century, 2005-MAY-17. Online at:

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Posted 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Copyrights for the individual quotations held by their creators
Last updated: 2009-FEB-05
Compiled by: B.A. Robinson

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