The role of doubt in religious faith
Impacts of religious doubt
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:
|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.|
|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.|
|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
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
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
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:
|Can cause devout believers to disengage from religious practices such as
prayer, from which they may have previously derived benefits.|
|Can cause conflict with others in the congregation who have little doubt.|
|Can cause feelings of guilt and shame. This may lead to a lessening of
|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
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
Amazon.com'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
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- 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 Amazon.com online book store
- Neal Krause, Keith M. Wulff, "Religious doubt and health: exploring the
potential dark side of religion," Sociology of Religion, 2004-Spring.
- Talitha Arnold, "A doubt and a promise," Christian Century, 2005-MAY-17.
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