Belief versus Doubt versus Disbelief II


Spaulding and Wilkeson Quad at SUNY Buffalo

Spaulding and Wilkeson Quad at SUNY Buffalo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An article in the New Statesman, “The Social Cell” by Daniel Dennett (April 13, 2012) is an interesting work on the effects of information on some social systems. One of these is religion. The writer believes that the free flow of information challenges religion (most certainly) and will likely lead to its extinction (most “doubt”-ful). To me, the thesis seems a bit simplistic, ignoring the fact that information does not compel. Faith is needed in steering toward both belief or disbelief. Modern Physics may lead one person to believe that God is unnecessary… a “god in the gaps” until the gaps close. Another person may see the wondrous complexity and beauty of the Universe as viewed through the lens of modern physics and gain greater conviction of the power and wisdom of the Creator. Likewise, as Dennett noted, religion seems to develop spontaneously, so the death of religion seems unlikely, because out of death it springs anew in different forms.

But that is not the interesting part of the article. Of greater interest is the section regarding unbelieving clergy. These are people who started out as firm and committed believers. However, as they went to seminary, and as they had access to information and theories of others, doubt drifted towards unbelief. At some time, they drifted fully into disbelief, but did not lose their religion. Their ties (and occupation) within the religious community were too strong. They teach and preach a belief that they lack.

Why does this happen. Is it because information exists that would compel disbelief? No. Neither side has completely compelling information or logic. I suppose here are a few components that cause problems for seminarians.

1.  Upbringing that focuses on unchallenged belief. Many seminarians are brought up in a sub-culture of sorts. This sub-culture encourages belief without acknowledging the healthy role of doubt in this.

2.  They are uprooted into a broader skeptical culture, or a high culture of unbelief. Raised in an sub-culture that praises faith and sees doubt as sinful (or worse) individuals often do well until they begin to interact in other cultural settings.  Unprepared for this skeptical culture shock/disorientation, these people feel they must either deny doubt or deny belief.

3.  Having been taught that doubt is the opposite of faith, the individual finds the first feelings of doubt as a scary thing. At first the doubt is denied. But if the doubt gets to a point where it cannot be denied, there may be a feeling that they already are an unbeliever. If you think about it, there is a bit of dark humor to this. Because the individual begins to doubt one part of their doctrine (salvation, God, supernatural, whatever), a different part of their own doctrine (doubt is sin and the opposite of faith) is left unchallenged by doubt to tear down their own belief.

I remember being in college. I attended a fairly conservative Christian college (Cedarville University). While I did disagree with some things they said, it did help me to mature in a belief-friendly environment that was still academic and challenging. I then transferred to a very secular university for my Junior and Senior years. I noticed that there was a strong attempt to challenge and change the belief systems of students at SUNY at Buffalo (No, I have not found all secular schools to be this way). However, by the time I got there as a 20 year old, I was prepared to see the weaknesses and strengths of both my own beliefs and those that were seeking to challenge those beliefs. I was mature enough to know that my doubts could equally drive me in either direction. I felt sorry for the freshman, right out of High School dumped into such an environment, ill-prepared (commonly) to doubt and evaluate the “expert opinions” of those in charge.

There seems to be several fairly obvious things that could help nurture a young believer (or even a not-so-young believer).

1. Churches and families should not be so quick to squelch or ignore issues of doubt and faith. A church should be a safe place for both belief and doubt. Doubters of all types should always be welcome without fear of abuse.

2. Young believers need to be nurtured in their faith… but not by people who are sort of “Name it and claim it” or “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” These people may have their positive qualities (as well as negative) but they do not position the young believer well for the culture shock of faith in the Modernist or Post-Modernist world.

3.  Faith, doubt, and belief are important parts of seminary training. To teach the JEDP Theory of Pentateuch development as fact (a pretty doubtful theory, do be honest) will challenge faith. But even if one believes it to be fact, one should never teach it without considering how information would be integrated into the student’s faith structure.  Again, faith and doubt should be dealt with freely and honestly (not an easy thing in seminary).

4.  Ideally, seminary students should not be young (physically or spiritually). Preferably, students should already have gone through a trial of faith. That could either be a struggle that takes one from unbelief to belief, or one that challenges the faith that was there, and was taken through the fire.

Belief that is unchallenged, unquestioned, flabby… will not survive long in a culture that promotes unbelief or at least a biased skepticism.

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