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The importance of doubt in religious faith

Doubt and critical analysis of religions

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Mark C. Taylor is a religion and humanities professor at Williams College, and the author of the book "Mystic Bones."1 He contributed an op-ed piece to the New York Times titled "The Devoted Student" which was published on 2006-DEC-21. 2 It discusses the importance of free discussion and genuine dialogue on matters of belief -- both religious and secular.

Unfortunately, his article was too long to reproduce here in full. A common practice is to limit the duplication of copyrighted material to 500 words in length. We have trimmed his article accordingly.

"... it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith.

For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.

Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion in the 21st century must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expansive understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in life. The aim of critical analysis is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices -- though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line -- but to examine the conditions necessary for their formation and to consider the many functions they serve.

It is also important to explore the similarities and differences between and among various religions. Religious traditions are not fixed and monolithic; they are networks of symbols, myths and rituals, which evolve over time by adapting to changing circumstances. If we fail to appreciate the complexity and diversity within, and among, religious traditions, we will overlook the fact that people from different traditions often share more with one another than they do with many members of their own tradition.

If chauvinistic believers develop deeper analyses of religion, they might begin to see in themselves what they criticize in others. In an era that thrives on both religious and political polarization, this is an important lesson to learn -- one that extends well beyond the academy.

Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. As defenders of a faith become more reflective about their own beliefs, they begin to understand that religion can serve not only to provide answers that render life more secure but also to prepare them for life's unavoidable complexities and uncertainties.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.

The warning signs are clear: unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.

References used:

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

  1. Mark C. Taylor, "Mystic Bones," Book, University Of Chicago Press, (2007) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store An reviewer writes:

    "A collection of remarkably elegant close-up images of weathered bones -- remains of cattle, elk, and deer skeletons gathered from the desert of the American West -- Mystic Bones pairs each photograph with a philosophical aphorism. These images are buttressed by a major essay, 'Rubbings of Reality,' in which Taylor explores the use of bones in the religious rituals of native inhabitants of the Western desert and, more broadly, the appearance of bones in myth and religious reality."

  2. Mark C. Taylor, "The Devoted Student," Article, New York Times, 2006-DEC-21, at:

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Mostly copyright 2006 by The New York Times Company
Originally posted: 2006-DEC-26
Latest update: 2009-APR-11
Author: Mark C. Taylor

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