Conversations about the religious and spiritual life on the other side of fundamentalism
On doubt

On doubt

[large portions of this post were cribbed with some adaptations from my personal blog]

I searched for “doubt is” in the BYU General Conference Corpus, and this is what I came up with:

  • a negative emotion related to fear (2009)
  • not a principle of the gospel (2009)
  • perhaps the beginning of his apostacy [sic] from the Church (1876)
  • removed by obedience to the doctrines of the Church (1943)
  • set at rest by the revelations (1953)
  • sometimes the very opposite of faith (1925)
  • spiritual poison that stunts eternal growth (1979)
  • swallowed up in knowledge and certainty (1924)
  • the spirit of the evil one (1873)
  • where doubt is, there faith has no power (1995)

Across the General Conference pulpit, for more than 100 years, doubt has been marginalized. This latest conference was no exception. In a talk that seems to have been generally well-received by the ‘thoughtful’ amongst us, Elder Holland warned that doubt (hand-in-hand with ‘devils’) might sway us from “God’s truth.” Elder Andersen repeated the idea that faith can overcome doubt four times in his talk.

As the snippets from conference talks above make clear, doubt and faith are often pitted against each other. We have to overcome our doubts (ideally, supplanting them with a ‘sure knowledge’ or even ‘certainty’) in order to truly exercise faith.

That is all pretty discouraging for a doubter like me…

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church every week, followed the letter of the Word of Wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously confronted my doubts until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

As a self-identified doubter, I feel like my doubts are sincere–the product of honest searching and trying to reconcile my own limited experience with the things that I am taught and have learned at Church.

I think a large part of the problem comes from a confusion in terminology.

Doubt is in the head and faith is in the heart

I have come to a place where I am realizing that faith is something qualitatively different than intellectual assent to a set of particular propositions. Faith, as Joseph taught, is a principle of action. It is a confidence that helps us to move forward.

Perhaps I am alone in making the mistake of seeing faith as requiring cramming my model of the world into something that can conform to the Sunday School curriculum (any evidence to the contrary be damned). One of the reasons that faith was so difficult for me was that I had my definitions all mixed up. As another blogger has helpfully pointed out, the secular and sacred meanings of terms like belief have become muddled in our post-enlightenment world.

With this perspective, faith is on a separate plane from things like doubt, skepticism, certainty, and knowledge, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say something like “Doubt is the enemy of faith.”

For me, it is helpful to think of two independent dimensions. On one axis, we can think of a continuum of ‘faithfulness’ or ‘belief.’ On the second axis, we can think of a spectrum of certainty and doubt. Perhaps it is just the social scientist in me that needs simplify even further and classify individuals into a four-way typology:

blog figure

As with all discrete classifications of continuous phenomena, this typology brushes over a lot of nuance, but I think it might help to clarify the concepts. I’ve inartfully labeled each quadrant of the resulting figure. It would be really interesting to have some actual data to back this up, but my hunch is that it is easier to move laterally across the faithfulness spectrum than it is to move vertically along the certainty axis. I suspect that fundamentalists are more likely to cross over into ‘evangelistic atheism’ than they are into the upper-left hand quadrant (but again, these are just my speculations).

Let’s all be wrong together

Scientists have an expression, “All models are wrong, but some are useful (and some are more useful than others).” This is surely true of our knowledge of the divine. We can do our best to formulate a mental model of divinity and the eternal realms, but it will always be only a model. A good scientist is always ready to be surprised by the world — to trade in a bad model for a less-bad one.

William Blake talked about “Christ the Imagination” — I won’t pretend to know exactly what Blake might have meant (Blake’s prose is deeply strange) — but his construction prompts me to consider the ways in which Christian cultures and communities are in a continual process of re-imagining Christ. We certainly can only “see through a glass, darkly.” Our own humble ruminations are built from copies of copies of memories and reflections from a handful of poor fishermen that lived 2,000 years ago in an obscure corner of the Roman empire.

It can be a scary thing to give ourselves over to the idea that the only way Christ exists in the world is in our collective imagining, but I can’t help but think that is a more healthy position than believing that we have some special access to his true reality. Too much confidence in an idea as powerful as Jesus can lead to dangerous places. When we acknowledge our own limited capacity for imagination, we are forced to acknowledge the possibility that we might have him wrong (a type of religious humility that is too often lacking in Mormon thought).

What I love about the Gospel is the idea of Jesus. Dostoyevsky famously said, “If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth.” This reminds me of Joseph Smith’s famous line about evicting the devil from hell and building a heaven there with the Saints — the idea of Jesus is so beautiful and right that it transcends the question of his historicity.

Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi poet, says this in verse better than prose can get across (quoted in Phyllis Barber’s beautiful 2001 Sunstone article):

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
What is God?

If you think that the Truth can be known
From words,
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,

O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly Laughing–

An unrepentant doubter

And so I remain a doubter, but a doubter that is trying to exercise faith. Realizing that the two — faith and doubt — can (and must) coexist has made all the difference for me.


  1. Cara

    This is a mental shift that I have experienced lately, that black and white can exist at the same time, though you will often hear that there are no grey areas in the gospel. As I have been reading about the early history of the church, and the actions and judgements of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young while forming the church, I have chosen to allow truth and error to exist in the same entity. If you don’t it seems as though you could easily “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when questioning your faith.

  2. Cliff

    “I have come to a place where I am realizing that faith is something qualitatively different than intellectual assent to a set of particular propositions.”

    Bingo! Awesome job on the post.

  3. Carey Foushee

    “I have come to a place where I am realizing that faith is something qualitatively different than intellectual assent to a set of particular propositions.”


    Lately, I’ve been heavily influenced on how I view faith by an essay from Adam Miller on Alma 32 where he concludes that “faith subtracts certainty from knowledge – and thus perfects it…If we allow the word to be planted in our hearts and do not cast it out by our unbelief, then it will begin to grow. And if we then say that this is good, it will become a tree and bear fruit.” This tree is of course the tree of life NOT the tree of knowledge. We don’t end up with a set of independent scientifically valid propositions to prove things to others, instead we are forced to accept and reject things on a personal level. What’s ironic is I think approaching religion with this understanding is either is going to humble us and move us vertically upwards, or make us reject its ambiguity and retreat back to a model of more certainty and move more horizontally as you suggested.

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