Thursday, 16 June 2016

Doubt: A Short Guide with Recommended Reading

Doubt (of the kind I'm writing about) is a felt lack of assurance about a belief you care about. If you are a Christian, doubts about whether God is there, whether the Bible can be trusted, whether you are saved etc can be very painful. I’ve experienced doubt in various forms since my very first moments as a Christian. Here is a quick distillation of how I think doubt works and how you might progress with it.


A felt lack of assurance has basically two sources:

(1) Your beliefs presently don’t have the degree of support that they ought to have and you rightly desire that they have that proper degree of support.
(2) You beliefs presently do have the degree of support that they ought to have and you wrongly desire that they have a higher degree of support.

Suppose you feel hungry. The problem could be that you need more food. Or the problem could be that your appetite is too large. Perhaps your body has enough food but because you are used to overeating, your body is not satisfied by a normal portion of food. You want more than you should.

A desire for assurance works in a similar way. You find yourself seeking arguments that God exists, seeking evidence that the Bible is reliable, seeking some guarantee that you are saved. The problem could be that you do, in fact, need such assurance, such “food” – that’s option (1). But the problem could be that your appetite for assurance is overblown – that’s option (2). Maybe you have a sufficient degree of evidence and support for your beliefs (“food in your belly”) but you keep craving more.

Most of us initially think that our doubt is type (1). After all, when you are hungry, it just seems to you that you need more food! But often, when we learn more about ourselves, we realise that we fall into option (2). We have an over-inflated hunger for assurance. (It’s also possible to be both; you might have an inflated appetite for assurance and yet not have even received a basic portion of it.)

Plain Intellectual Doubt

Let’s call (1) plain intellectual doubt. It’s like ordinary, normal hunger. You have a warranted desire for food – for greater support for your beliefs. If this is the kind of doubt you’re dealing with, it gets resolved in one of two ways. Either you end up getting that support or you abandon the beliefs. This one is quite simple, really. If you have plain intellectual doubt about the reliability of the New Testament, well, you confront the issue. You try and figure out whether the New Testament is reliable or not.

The complicated part of plain intellectual doubt comes when you wonder: how does this sort of examining of the evidence sit with having faith? Is there some conflict here? That’s a worthwhile question. Another question worth asking, which many doubters neglect, is: suppose I abandoned this particular belief I am doubting – would I have to abandon Christianity as a whole? Too many Christians bundle all of their religious beliefs into one tightly connected package. Should one piece of the package get broken, it would all get broken, they think. Granted, for some issues this would be true. If you conclude that God doesn’t exist, there really isn’t any Christianity worth salvaging after that. But what if you ended up thinking that this or that part of the Old Testament isn’t accurate to the degree you thought it was? Would the whole thing go out the window? That should be less obvious. In other words, don’t make more hang on your doubt than need be.

Gregory Boyd’s book, “Benefit of the Doubt” does an excellent job of showing that biblical faith is compatible with testing the evidence and showing that Christianity does not need to be so brittle as to collapse with every shift in our thought. I’d recommend it as the first stop for the person with plain intellectual doubt.

Moving on, let’s call option (2) over-inflated doubt. It can actually be further subdivided:

Over-inflated Intellectual Doubt

The metaphor I have been using of over-inflated hunger suggests that over-inflated doubt is primarily driven by emotional desire. I will get to that kind of over-inflated doubt below. It is important to note, however, that over-inflated desire can also be driven by intellectual convictions.

Suppose you believed that the only kind of evidence that counts is scientific evidence. You seek assurance that God exists but when people offer you philosophical arguments, you dismiss them. You seek assurance that the New Testament is reliable but when people offer you historical evidence, you dismiss it. “Only scientific evidence will satisfy me.” It’s not hard to see that you would have over-inflated, unquenchable doubt with this sort of scientistic belief. Philosophical & historical evidence is perfectly legitimate, but you won’t accept it. What you need is to change your belief about what counts as evidence (or what counts as rational, acceptable, plausible etc.) Of course, if you are a Christian, scientism probably isn’t tripping you up. But there are other views with overly stringent criteria for evidence that can derail you.

This gets you into philosophical territory about the nature of evidence, knowledge, rationality etc. That is, it gets you into the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. A helpful intro to these issues, requiring no background in philosophy at all, is Esther Meek’s “Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People”.

Over-inflated Emotional Doubt

In my experience, this is the most common kind of doubt Christians struggle with. As the hunger metaphor suggests, the problem here is an emotional desire for assurance that won’t take healthy portions of assurance as satisfying. If you end up fretting about mere possibilities this can be a sign of over-inflated emotional doubt. “All my friends say I am very devoted, but what if they don’t know the real me? – what if I’m not really saved?” If you notice that very few people worry about the sorts of things you do, or to the extent you do, that can be a sign that unruly emotions are running amok. Gary Habermas has helpful discussions about this kind of doubt in his books “The Thomas Factor” and “Dealing with Doubt”. Both are free to download from his website.

What do you do about this kind of doubt? Well, it’s complicated. In essence, this is an anxiety problem. Not that everyone who struggles with such doubt is clinically anxious. You can have struggles with anxiety that are not extreme enough to count as an anxiety disorder. But even so, how best to deal with anxiety is a matter of debate. For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve found helpful from personal experience.

What do you do if your appetite for food is over-inflated and you want to bring it back to healthy levels? You steadily decrease your diet so that you get used to being satisfied with smaller portions. Of course, you will often feel hungry as you do this. Your body might be crying out for unhealthy portions. But by slowly denying your desires satisfaction, they steadily weaken. That is, you need to develop a tolerance for a certain degree of hunger for a while. Same goes with the craving for assurance. You learn to tolerate a feeling of uncertainty and so eventually to bring your desire for certainty and assurance down to more realistic levels. Rather than trying to satisfy your desires for assurance (often fruitless, given how unrealistic the desire can be) you just allow them to sit there until they fade. Again, speaking personally, I have found practicing mindfulness very helpful in developing this tolerance. If you’d like to read more about mindfulness and its compatibility with Christianity, you might like to read my post, “Answering 7 Christian Objections to Mindfulness”.

So ends this quick run-down on doubt.

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