Is it wrong to doubt?

In this post I am finishing up a three-part series on dealing with doubts. The first post asked whether Christianity’s claims depend on evidence and can be falsified, and answered in the affirmative. The second post went through one recent example of how unfavorable new evidence can come to light and, if one processes it honestly, “move the needle” adversely in terms of one’s faith. Here I will share some further thoughts on dealing with doubts such as these, and also with the concept, apparently well supported in the New Testament, that doubt is “wrong”. In this, I speak as one with ongoing personal experience in this area, so if you too struggle with doubt I hope I can be genuinely helpful.

To start, let’s look at doubt as a state of mind, without judging it one way or the other. Doubt can simply mean uncertainty, and uncertainty about religious beliefs is something I suspect that almost everyone has. “Wait a minute”, you might say, “isn’t uncertainty about religious beliefs ‘agnosticism’, and doesn’t only a small minority identify themselves this way?”  In an earlier post, somewhat related to this one, I explored that word a bit, and concluded that it really means lack of concern (what the more linguistically technical might call apatheism) or lack of commitment.  People embracing more definitive religious (or irreligious) positions, as Christianity or atheism, are usually (I suspect) taking the view that they feel it is probable that their view is correct, and that they are committed to it.  Nonetheless, the dialogue often seems to proceed as if each participant is 100% convinced that they are right and the other side is wrong. Among more sophisticated apologists, there is often a token acknowledgement of some tiny chance (say 1%) of their being wrong, but it is uncommon to hear a genuine admission of doubt coupled with a commitment.

This is strange, because in many other areas of life doubt coupled with commitment is quite common. The entrepreneur who starts a business, the fan placing a bet on the Super Bowl, and the investor selecting a stock are all making decisions in uncertain situations. In all of these cases, uncertainty is not a good enough reason to “sit out” of committing oneself to one side or another of a particular question, and that sitting out itself is a choice. The entrepreneur in particular knows that while failure is a real risk, giving undue attention to one’s doubts can actually reduce the chances of success.

There have been at least a couple of written attempts to combine doubt with commitment in religious literature. The classic example is Pascal’s Pensées of course, with its presentation of Pascal’s Wager, on which I have commented here. A more recent exploration in a similar vein comes from Stephen Unwin, whose book The Probability of God explores the subject somewhat playfully from a Bayesian perspective.  The author goes through a process of considering various observed realities – the knowledge of good, the existence of evil, etc. – and describes how reflecting on each one modifies his internal estimate of the probability of God’s existence.

It’s a process I can relate to. As I described in the previous post, recent archaeological developments “moved the needle for me” in a negative direction, just as my reading of Reflections on the Psalms moved it in a positive direction a few years ago, clearing up a lot of my problems on the tensions between Old and New Testaments. I’ve never been 100% confident in my faith, and unless there is some kind of divine intervention I don’t expect I ever will.

In my mental model of probabilities, there are multiple possible truths.  It’s possible that Jesus is the Son of God (i.e. Christianity generally, which can further be divided into all the various forms of Christian belief), or that a personal God exists and is similar to the God Jesus describes, but doesn’t intervene in human history (I think of this as the view of Jefferson, who famously made a redacted version of the Gospels for his private use, keeping Christ’s moral teachings but removing the miracles), or that some other religion is basically correct, or that some other supernatural being or beings or non-physical realities exist but are very different from any theistic understanding (evil, indifferent, polytheistic, etc), and finally the atheistic view in which the physical universe is all that exists.  As new facts, readings, and experiences present themselves to me, the probabilities move around.  Prior to the aforementioned archaeological developments around the Talpiot Tomb, my mind may have assessed the probabilities as something like 70%/20%/2%/3%/5% for the five possibilities I just outlined (in the order I’ve outlined them).

This is obviously imprecise and ever-shifting set of numbers, but not too far from how I saw it.  Please note, I feel a mixture of embarrassment and fear of sacrilege in putting numbers to such things.  I realize many readers will feel the urge either to laugh at me or recoil in horror, and I hesitate deeply to put my thoughts in print.  But I think in the end it is likely to lead to more good than harm, if even a few readers benefit from it, so my conscience has given its blessing.  (God, I love You and I pray, and believe, that You will forgive me for talking about You in this way.)

Now we look at the new information. While there are a lot of things that have to line up for their theory to work, I might guess there’s about a 20% chance that the proponents are correct (the physical remains of Jesus have been found).  Neither arriving at the 20% nor adjusting my “probability map” for the new information is straightforward.  Almost all of the cases in which remains exist are cases in which the Son of God claim is not true, although there is some small possibility, which looks larger than it did before, that Jesus rose from the dead in an apparitional, non-physical form, as Prof. Tabor suggests was the earliest Christian belief.  But it is not how much of the “these are the remains of Jesus” case overlaps with existing doubts I had before, vs. how much it should increase the total level of doubt.  Ultimately, the probabilities in mind are not distinct cases each with a fixed narrative, but an infinity of potential narratives about what happened.  Some of the possible narratives in my “doubt” bucket – that miracle stories were added to a biographical skeleton either by the Gospel writers or more organically in the mid-1st century – look more likely than before, others – like the idea that Jesus didn’t exist at all or the idea that Paul wildly exaggerated his importance and figures like James the Just were never important in their own right, go down in probability.  The interplay between the reliance of the theory on the Gospels’ being accurate in some details complicates the thinking a lot.  In the end, one can’t really work out the math with any precision, it comes down to which of the millions of possible narratives go up vs. down in likelihood, and then regrouping what remains into a convenient five-bucket summary. At present, with a lot of the archaeological dust not yet settled academically, I find myself feeling something like 60%/27%/3%/4%/6%, i.e. the chances the Jesus is the Son of God feel about 10% lower to me than they did in March.

One of the interesting things to note, though, is that since bones exist in all of the 30% “doubt” cases from my earlier view, and the Jeffersonian God is (to my thinking) the most likely alternative, the total of the Christian+Jeffersonian case only drops by about 3%, even though the Christian component drops by 10%.  This is important, since these two buckets have a lot in common with one another in terms of day to day decisions.  Taken together, they are still large enough that the recent shift ideally shouldn’t affect my behavior.  All it does really, is affect my confidence.  The categories of doubt that concern me most – the ones that say my thinking is seriously on the wrong track – have risen from about 10% to about 13% (although some of the possible cases in the 3rd and 4th buckets are not too bad).  What is it like to experience that kind of shift?  Unpleasant.  Confidence-sapping.  And very notably, it drags down my energy to pursue the good life that I want to lead, to honor the kind of God I still think about 87% likely to exist.  Although recently I’ve mustered up just enough energy to write these posts, I have found my response to my increasing doubts has involved turning inward, becoming lazier, more self-centered, less energetic, less generous, less hard-working, less thrifty.  Interestingly, it didn’t lead to my becoming more prideful or less forgiving.  In that sense I suppose it’s been an interesting look at which parts of my character have really conformed to Christ’s, and which are still very much a work in progress, a work largely fueled and sustained by my faith that His way is best.  Maybe it’s been helpful to my soul in that way, although I often feel like I’d give a limb to have had my doubts have decreased instead of increased this much.

Despite my lower energy to do it well, my commitment to follow Christ hasn’t changed. The other supernatural cases still feel too improbable to me to act on, and the cold, dead atheistic view offers nothing in comparison.  I still call myself a Christian without hesitation, I still pray in Jesus’s name, I still show up at church regularly to stand up and be counted and give and receive whatever spiritual support I can, and I still try to conform my character more to His.  When asked about what I believe, I still confess Christ clearly and directly, without hesitation and with gentleness (hopefully as well as Bono does here). In English we say “I believe” all the time about things that we think are probable or most likely. The doubts only come out in the open if I’m asked directly about them or it seems helpful to share them given the audience (a judgment call I’m making in terms of the likely readership of this post).  The last thing I would want to be is a stumbling block to anyone’s faith.

For the most part, however, the classic literature on faith is disconnected from the purely probabilistic element found in Pascal, in Unwin, and in my musings above. People are acknowledged to experience doubt, but it is usually described in terms of a state of mind rather than the inherent uncertainty of a proposition. C.S. Lewis, for example, in Mere Christianity, describes faith as “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods”. Pope Francis has said something in a similar spirit (quoted here): “Who among us – everybody, everybody! – who among us has not experienced insecurity, loss and even doubts on their journey of faith? Everyone! We’ve all experienced this, me too. Everyone. It is part of the journey of faith, it is part of our lives. This should not surprise us, because we are human beings, marked by fragility and limitations.”  The “lower energy level” I am feeling is acknowledged, and I can take a little bit of support from the various remedies that are offered.  But the doubts themselves are curiously left alone.

Why is a probabilistic approach to questions of faith (in God’s existence, or in more specific propositions) so sparse? Probably because of the examples set forth in the New Testament. Christ compliments and rewards people for showing faith, presenting it as a virtue. The centurion, the woman with the bleeding problem, and blind Bartimaeus, to name just a few. Those with little faith, however, are chastised. Doubting Thomas, Peter, and the man with the possessed son are all examples of this (although it is worth noting in all cases that Jesus helped them anyway).  The authors of the epistles offer even more strident claims along these lines, with Paul saying people are “justified by faith” (Romans 3:28) and John saying belief that Jesus is the Son of God is absolutely essential to life (1 John 5:1-12).

Unlike Christian moral teachings on compassion and forgiveness, this apparent assault on skepticism (often amplified and extended into new territory by Christianity’s present-day spokespeople) is a stumbling block to many.  In most areas of life, skepticism is a virtue. This is especially dear to the hearts of the scientifically trained, but is true for everyone. As the phrase goes, “if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you”.  In this light, Jesus’s dismissiveness towards people’s doubts and simplistic calls to faith can sound flippant, and the theological demands of the epistle writers can seem unreasonable.

What can be done when facing teachings that are hard to accept? Coming from an ordinary source, the simple approach would be to reject the authority of the teacher, to say something like “sorry, Jesus, we’ll have to agree to disagree”. And yet He is no ordinary source.  Given the good evidence for the existence of a personal God, and the lack of good alternatives to Jesus as the human face of that God, my response to hard teaching is often like Peter’s – “Lord, where else would I go?”

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” […]

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:60,66-68

This is not to say that one has to take everything in the scriptures as unquestionable truth. As explained elsewhere on this blog, I do not believe the Bible to be free from error.  We see God, to borrow Paul’s phrase, through a mirror darkly, with the scriptures being part of that mirror.  We can ultimately agree to disagree with a New Testament author on some theological point, just as Paul and James at times disagreed with each other.  Even with the words of Jesus, which carry the highest authority, there is the chance that what we are reading was misquoted or mistranslated.  I don’t believe God asks us to accept anything that is ultimately contrary to reason or conscience.  Nonetheless, if we have come to accept Jesus as the Son of God, disagreement with anything attributed to Jesus in the Gospels is a last resort, to be reserved only for cases where the textual evidence is flimsy or unclear, not core principles that we find in several places.  Every “hard teaching” deserves, a second, third, and fourth look.

So when it comes to faith being a virtue and doubt being a weakness, let’s look more closely. Is the New Testament actually assaulting skepticism as a general principle? Well, not really.  In the epistles, the various authors are always warning the reader about false teachersfalse apostles, charlatans motivated by money, ungodly churchgoers, and all manner of bad ideas and behavior being offered in the name of God. The message is never “don’t use your head”, but rather to test, test, and test what you hear. Still, at times, these authors do seem to be squabbling with one another, defining the false teacher as anyone who disagrees with them.  It’s a trap that even the best of us can fall into in moments of zeal; Jesus chastised the apostles for it. Jesus Himself offered warnings about religious authorities offering bad teachings, and also about false prophets. The test procedure He advises is to look at people by “their fruits”, that is, how they act. The best evidence of whether people are following Christ is if they love one another.  Jesus is not teaching us to turn off our critical thinking faculties, rather He challenges us to be both as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Still, while Jesus doesn’t tell us to trust everyone, He consistently tells us to trust Him.  I think what we should make of that is something personal, not general. “You can trust me” may be a favorite phrase of the unscrupulous salesman, but it is also something a parent, a close friend, or another loved one would use, to encourage someone to draw closer and open up. As is clear in the context with Peter, “have faith, don’t doubt” often means “don’t be afraid, I am on your side, I can be trusted”.  Doubt, in this case, is both a barrier to closeness and a reflection of distance. God wants us to draw close to Him and living in faith is a reflection of that. And as I’ve discussed here and here, our drawing close to God for who He is may preclude His dealing directly with our uncertainties.  I can expect God to keep being on my side through my doubts, but I don’t expect Him to endorse the doubts. For Him to say “I’m here, but your skepticism is commendable” would be as strange as a parent saying “I’ll always love you, but if you ever feel to the contrary, I’d encourage you to explore that further and keep in mind the possibility that I’ve stopped”. Seen from this perspective, Jesus’s simplistic calls to faith start to look entirely appropriate given who He is relative to us.

The other reason I think doubts (about Jesus’s identity, not just about some specific doctrine) are not healthy in the context of a Christian life is that the effects are negative.  Losing confidence in Jesus is correlated to losing confidence in God, and both are hurtful in themselves and are also correlated to a weakening of other virtues.  Following Jesus is not always easy, and the animal instinct, and quite possibly the diabolical instinct as well, are in competition with God and will take opportunities to gain at His expense. Doubt has consequences.

So in conclusion, I would not suggest that a probabilistic examination such as that used by Pascal or Unwin (or myself) ought to be adopted from any pulpit, and it is not surprising to see it largely absent from Christian literature. It is, at best, a tool to be dug out and used when one encounters a nonbeliever (or fellow doubt-sufferer) who needs to see these issues acknowledged, and dealt with honestly. But in terms of moving forward spiritually, I view doubt, as regards belief in God or in His Son, Jesus, as a thing to be struggled against.

I hope these past these three posts have been helpful to you. The process of writing them has been helpful to me. Given the difficult couple of months I have had in dealing with the latest archaeological news (again, see previous post), I very much needed to commit my thoughts to paper in an organized way, assess the damage, and get back to the business of building up my relationship with God and loving my neighbor. I expect that this blog will turn in that direction as well next time I post.

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