A doubting faith

Like most people, I used to view doubt and faith as occupying two opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. In … Continued

Like most people, I used to view doubt and faith as occupying two opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. In my mind, there were people of faith, true believers, and then there were the doubters, like myself. A vast and impassable ocean separated these two groups. Or so I thought.

I don’t think that way anymore. After traveling the world and diving into several of the world’s major religions (and a few minor ones), I’ve concluded that doubt represents not an absence of faith, but rather, is an integral part of it. I wouldn’t say I celebrate doubt, not anymore than I celebrate that pain in my left knee telling me I need to see the doctor. But I do accept it, value it, and recognize its role in the spiritual life.

View Photo Gallery: Images of religion from around the world.

True some religious people desire certainty- and only certainty. For them, doubt represents weakness, an absence of faith, or at least an incomplete faith. In short, doubt is the enemy. But that is only one way of being religious. There are others. Psychologists have identified the “quest personality.” That is one category that I – and many others I expect- fit into perfectly. A Quester is someone who seeks knowing full well she will never find definitive answers. As psychologist David Fontana explains: “Such people apparently value their religious doubts and uncertainties, see questions as more central to their religious experience than answers, and accept that their view of religion is fluid and open to change.”

Gandhi was a Quester. For him, it was all trial and error. Like all Questers, he could live with doubt and ambiguity, and probably preferred it that way. He believed that, as the late academic Peter Bertocci put it, “to flee from insecurity is to miss the whole point of being human, the whole point of religion.” This outlook may run counter to how my atheist friends view the religious-as weak people looking to wrap themselves in a theological security blanket-but it may hew closer to the truth.

At first glance, Questers seem a lot like agnostics and we are, in the sense that we lack certainty. But there is a difference. Agnostics are passive, waiting for proof of God’s existence (however you define God), while Questers are active. We do things. We meditate. We pray. We question.

Like many people who fit this category, I consider myself a rationalist. I believe that reason and its offshoot, science, are good. I also believe that there is more to the world than meets the eye, though I’d be hard pressed to define what that “more” is.

Doubt can paralyze, yes, but it can also motivate. The opposite of doubt is not certainty but action, forward momentum. As E.F. Schumacher, the renegade economist put it, “Matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.” In other words, matters that are beyond doubt have nothing to teach us.

In my travels, I’ve met many deeply religious people who, nonetheless, live comfortably with doubt. My friend James, for instance, is a Buddhist who still has many doubts-about reincarnation, for instance-but this does not prevent him from practicing his faith, and benefitting from it.

Nearly all religions, in varying degrees, acknowledge the role of doubt, but perhaps none more so than the Jains, the ancient faith based in India. The Jains have a term, syadvada, which literally translates as a “multiplicity of viewpoints,” but is also referred to as “maybe-ism.” Essentially, syadvada says that for every “truth” that we hold dear there are other, equally valid, truths. For the Jains, syadvada is a way of life, and it permeates every aspect of their faith, including their doctrine of nonviolence.

The Jains know instinctively that where certainty reigns, nothing else can survive. Where there is doubt, there is also possibility. And life.

Eric Weiner is author of
Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.

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  • GordonHide1

    Yes well, welcome to reality. Nothing about the real world is certain. If you had not been indoctrinated against doubt you would have realised this at a much younger age.

  • ccnl1

    Faith based on reviews, rational thinking and conclusions via a prayer:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


  • Rongoklunk

    Doubt is a gateway drug – it leads to a high of ‘reason’. It’s great to doubt, in fact it’s terrible to NOT doubt. It’s terrible not to doubt the highly improbable claims of religion. To believe such things it seems essential to indoctrinate people when they’re children so they grow up hypnotized – believing every dumb thing they wre raised to believe. Better to raise your children to doubt. It would be the
    greatest gift you could ever give them

  • kpharri

    “Agnostics are passive, waiting for proof of God’s existence”

    I’m not sure where you get this idea from. It’s the first I’ve heard that agnostics are passive.

    It is true, though, that the Bible has something to say about doubt. But probably not what you hoped it would say.

    Take, for instance, Jesus’ words following the episode of the disciples’ boat caught in a storm. Jesus says to Peter “You of little faith … why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)

    And after Jesus (bizarrely) curses the fig tree, he says “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done” (Matthew 21:21)

    Then of course there’s famous doubting Thomas, to whom Jesus says “Stop doubting and believe” and then “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20). Not exactly a glowing recommendation of doubt.

    Finally, James has some choice words for doubters:
    “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” (James 1:5-8)

    It seems one must conclude, from the Bible itself, that faith and doubt are incompatible, just like many Christians believe.

  • ThomasBaum

    If you noticed, “doubting” Thomas was “rewarded” with proof, was he not?

    Ever thought that when Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”, He could have been speaking to us?

    I personally believe that God cares much more for an “honest doubt” than a half-hearted affirmation.

    Lots of people look at the bible as a bunch of conflicting, contradictory statements, whereas they could just as well be very complementary if we just had eyes to see.


    If you do it right, doubt will lead you to a place where you don’t need faith. It’s not as sure, but it”s not as false.

    “I don’t know, but I can try to find out.” is a much better answer for everyone concerned than “I know it’s true because of my faith.”


    What proof? I don’t see no proof. Just a bunch of stories written by a tribe of paleolithic types trying to form a political/religious hybrid to fend off the Bronze and Iron Age cultures they were surrounded by.