02 May 2012

Faith and doubt

A telling commonality between myself and other apostates I've encountered over the years is just how much we wrestled with doubt when we were believers. Even more revealing, though, is finding through many conversations with believers, sermons from my old pastors, and confidential letters sent to me from old church friends, that doubt is not just the gateway drug for apostasy but a salient obstacle for believers which must constantly be warded off.

Sometimes, doubt is assuaged simply with the assumption that someone else probably has it figured out – the person next to you in the pew, the pastor, the deacons... someone can make sense of this stuff... right? Many times, it's safety in numbers or appeals to authority – surely all these people couldn't be wrong, could they? And so-and-so is a highly educated scientist, and he still believes! Other times, it assuaged through convoluted rationalizations bordering on self-deception – from esoteric apologetics to the colloquially ubiquitous dead-end, "The Lord works in mysterious ways".

Religious ideas are unique in that believers often have a vested interest in preserving them; their familial relationships, social relationships, careers, and personal identities are often powerfully interwoven with religion. When Daniel Dennett performed his study of atheists in the clergy a few years ago, it was revealing that several of them didn't want to "come out" as atheists because the repercussions would be too much to bear – "What would I say to my wife? My kids? My friends? My colleagues? What do I do for a living with an M.Div?"

This means that for a believer, it can be exceedingly difficult to view one's own beliefs as fair game for uncompromising self-criticism. The need for preservation created by those vested interests means that no matter how much we don't understand, no matter how much we find ourselves conjuring up one rationalization after another, belief must be preserved at all costs:

It's okay to doubt; just don't give up on your faith.

I think that a little critical thinking reveals just how poorly reasoned this idea really is. Self-criticism, or the rational examination of beliefs that we may hold very dear, requires us to accept that we may be completely and utterly wrong. It requires us to separate ourselves from our "vested interests" in maintaining our beliefs, almost in a sense of role-playing – that we imagine ourselves as outsiders, free of assumptions or wishful thinking.

I received a letter once from a friend of mine from my churchgoing days. She said that she had doubts about a lot of things, but that she didn't feel like there was anyone she could talk to. That's not unusual; it's a consequence of the attitude toward doubt in the church. A good skeptic embraces doubt. Doubt is healthy. Finding that we're wrong doesn't bring our world crashing down – it's a crucial step in our intellectual and personal maturity.

But for the faithful, doubt remains something to be feared, to be overcome, to be squashed out so that belief can be preserved. Perhaps that's why, without exception, every apostate I've known has described their deconversion as liberating. It's a beautiful thing to be guided by curiosity rather than fear – and, rather than swallowing our cognitive dissonance or drowning in our own convoluted rationalizations because we cannot accept our ignorance, to feel like there's a universe out there waiting to be discovered.

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