Saturday, October 25, 2008

Is doubt the opposite of faith?

You of little faith, why did you doubt? - Jesus (Mark 14:31)
Over the last year or so I have seen a number of pieces around the Christian blogosphere singing the praises of doubt and raising the question, "Is doubt really the opposite of faith?" I am at times amazed at how we humans so often put our cleverness to work at the job of kidding ourselves. In a word: Yes. Doubt is the opposite of faith. In the Bible, doubt and faith are used as opposites repeatedly. My copy of Roget's thesaurus has an entry on "doubt"; it lists "belief" as the sole entry for the antonym.

I think the people who go for this line of argument -- that doubt is an intrinsically good thing and not actually the opposite of faith -- have in their minds defined doubt as the opposite not of faith but of fundamentalism, and have decided that the distasteful part of fundamentalism is rooted in certainty or the absence of doubt. Not only is this a careless analysis, but one that will eventually paint the non-fundamentalists into a corner until we define our terms better, as I will explain in a moment.

"Fundamentalism" has devolved in meaning into something other than its original meaning, and I use the word not in its original sense of "holding onto the basics" but in the sense meant by those advocating the benefits of "doubt" in the faith/doubt conversation. In that sense, "fundamentalism" is taken to mean "the type of 'faith' which excludes questions as to why the faith is legitimate, typically resting solely on a priori assumptions which, when questioned, evoke either a display of rage or a show of disdain for whether an answer exists". In this sense, the "fundamentalism" attacked by these critics is not, properly speaking, simply faith, or simply certainty. It is faith held on grounds not known to be faithful, certainty about that which is not certain.

I think these more misguided parts of what is being called "fundamentalism" have their root in a misdefinition of "faith", which I've discussed before at greater length than I'll do here. The misdefinition of "faith" as "belief in the absence of knowledge" has done much harm; certain Christian groups even consider "faith" as dependent on its object being unknown and always a "leap of faith" -- said leap being their contribution to their own salvation, and the merit of their "faith" then depending on the assumption that it was a leap: i.e., the idea that their belief is not actually supported has then become a tenet of their faith and, paradoxically, the proof of their merit. The proper evaluation is not "faith is good and doubt is bad"; it depends on the level of support.

All of this might have gone unsaid on my blog for the moment except for the misguided praise of doubt that I've heard around. When confronted with a belief about something, "how do you know?" is a reasonable question. For example, "How do you know Jesus even existed?" is a reasonable question; "There are four same-century biographies, more than I'm aware of for anyone else of that era" is a reasonable answer. If there is no reasonable answer, then belief in a thing is unreasonable; however, if there is an overwhelmingly probable rational answer and no solid reason for doubt, then in that case it is doubt which is irrational.

Here is the point: the level of certainty/faith and level of uncertainty/doubt should match the level of support. To believe something for which there is no support is unwarranted faith, even if what is believed is supposedly an article of faith. And here's the flip-side: to disbelieve something for which there is solid support is unwarranted unbelief, or to rephrase, unwarranted doubt. If there is such a thing as unwarranted belief, it follows that there is such a thing as unwarranted doubt. Many people consider the 9/11 "Truthers" to be an example of this type of unwarranted doubt. In case anyone is unfamiliar with the 9/11 "Truthers": they do not believe that Middle Eastern terrorists were actually behind the 9/11/2001 attacks on the U.S. Most people would consider that to be unwarranted unbelief in the involvement of terrorists. Another example might be those who believe the Elvis sightings, which again most people would consider unwarranted unbelief in the reports of his death and burial.

Please note that unwarranted belief in one thing almost always goes hand-in-hand with unwarranted unbelief in another, and vice versa. For example, someone with unwarranted doubt in the terrorist connection with 9/11 is likely to have unwarranted belief in the complicity of the U.S. government in attacking its own citizens. My point here is that doubt can be every bit as irrational as faith. The idea that "doubt is good and faith is bad" is wrong-headed; that's the same mistake as the fundamentalists make, just in the opposite direction. If we are to be rational, doubt and faith should both depend on the level of support.

For example: How sure am I that Jesus existed? 100% (as I've already mentioned my reasons for this above). How sure am I that Paul's contemporaries thought Paul had the authority to pronounce church policy for all times and places? Oh, count that under 50%, and that based on how decisions were reached at the council of Jerusalem. And so forth. I'm not saying anyone has to match my numbers, I'm saying that there is such a thing as rational belief as well as rational doubt; that there are times when doubt is more rational than belief and also times when belief is more rational than doubt, and finally as we saw in the case of the "Truthers" there are times when faith in a thing is irrational (e.g. believing the U.S. government conspired to kill thousands of its citizens to frame the terrorists who happened to be aboard) and times when doubt is irrational (e.g. doubting the involvement of terrorists in the 9/11 events).

Certainty is not inherently arrogant or misguided as is now often charged (though people in an arrogant mindframe may be more likely to make mistakes in determining whether their beliefs and unbeliefs are warranted by being culpably condescending towards other people). Certainty may or may not be warranted, depending on the specifics of each thing being considered. If certainty is not warranted then in that case it is misguided. However, if certainty is warranted, in that case it is doubt which is misguided.


Murf said...

This brings to mind Buechner's definition of doubt. "The opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is unbelief. Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. It keeps it alive. It keeps it moving."

Weekend Fisher said...

As far as I can tell, doubt is just a mild case of unbelief. The Bible routinely treats them as opposed, as far as how that use of the words is considered.

It seems to me that doubt has the same relation to faith that fear has to hope: it corrodes it. It's kind of like saying that germs keep the body healthy because in response to the germs, the body boosts its immune system. Maybe they do, maybe they don't; depends on how healthy the body (or mind) was in the beginning.

I'm in favor of "vaccinating" young Christians against anti-Christian myths, btw.

Meantime, doubt isn't the same as the willingness to check the foundations of faith; it is necessary and healthy to check the foundations. But what keeps faith alive is not attack, but a return to the source. If it weren't for a return to the source of health, there's no guarantee that germs will be a healthy thing ... or that doubt will improve faith.

Take care & God bless