Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Doubt is a virtue

Oftentimes when a person dies, you'll hear that he or she was a person "of faith" listed along with their accomplishments and virtues. When they say this, they're specifically talking about somebody who held on to some sort of religious faith and/or faith in something that's supernatural. I think that considering faith to be a virtue is a mistake, but rather than criticizing faith - which would automatically turn off a lot of potential readers - I'm going to start by praising doubt.

I think that some folks might get a bit confused by the word "doubt" though. Obviously, you don't want to get so crippled with doubt that you're unable to do what you need to do. In other words, if you have a particular job to do, you don't want your doubt to stop you from doing it. However, there's nothing wrong with the doubt itself. For instance, I'm a teacher, and I doubt myself all the time. I sometimes wonder if I have even the slightest clue what I'm doing. I don't let that stop me from getting out there and teaching the class though. I listen to my doubts, but that's not the only thing going through my mind. To give an example, I had a former student - a particularly smart one at that - thank me recently for what I taught her, as she said it really helped her in college. That's but one example of what gets me through. I also know that I have a pretty good track record of being able to do what I set my mind to doing, and I know that when it comes to teaching, it does depend on some of my personal strengths. Still, the doubt is good, as sometimes I have some bad ideas, and if I never had any doubt, I'd never take the time to get rid of them.

There have been times in my life when I could have used a little more doubt. Years ago, my wife and I refinanced our house. My dad went along with us to listen to the spiel of the lender, and he told us that we shouldn't trust that company. We went ahead and did it anyway, and we wound up getting a pretty crappy deal. It could have been worse though - my dad's initial skepticism wound up getting us an even better deal than they were initially offering. Still, my dad told me to walk away, and I should have listened to him.

The reason why it's important to listen to your doubts is that we human beings have a tendency to believe what we want to be true. I really wanted to believe that some random company wanted to seek me out to give me a great deal. They managed to make it all sound very legit. I also really want to believe that a Nigerian Prince wants to hook me up with several hundred thousands of dollars, but lucky for me, that has all the hallmarks of a scam, so it doesn't require a lot of sifting through the facts to determine that it's bullcrap.

When you feel that doubt coming on, that means that your brain is working, and at the very least, you need to give it some consideration. Also, if somebody expresses to you that they have doubt about something, even if it's something you believe in very strongly, your reaction should be to listen to what they have to say. Why? Because their ideas might lead you to the truth of the matter.

Even within religious traditions, there is the precedent for doubt and questioning being a virtue. What if Martin Luther never doubted the teachings of the Catholic Church? Where would Christianity be today? If you're Catholic, and that doesn't impress you, then take a look at the life of Jesus as written in the Gospels. He questions a lot of conventional thinking at the time. You can find the same sort of thing with Mohammed and even The Buddha. 

Unfortunately, and this is the part where I badmouth faith, the problem with today's religious traditions is that while they praise the questioning that spawned their traditions, they don't think that it should be questioned any further. When a believer tells another believer that he or she is doubting the faith, they aren't met with a "Oh yeah? Why is that? Maybe you have a good reason for it." Instead, they're told to pray or they're told to read something that will reconfirm the bias that they already hold.

The problem with being told to pray about one's doubt is that it assumes that there's something wrong with the doubt in the first place. But if you've followed my train of thought so far, you can see how even in religious tradition doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. This kind of thinking, that one must ask God to "help" deal with the doubt makes it sound like there's something wrong with the person who's feeling the doubt. They've got something that needs to be expunged. What if that doubt is leading to some truth though? The believer isn't encouraged to even consider that as a possibility.

Have a look at the story that I included (on the image with the pumpkin). It lists "doubt" along with "hate" and "greed" - things that are "yucky" and need to be thrown away. (I'm with it on the second two things.) What kind of a horrible message is this to send to children? I told my son that it was a monster that was making gurgling sounds at the swimming pool (it was the filter). He just laughed at me and said, "No it's not, daddy." I couldn't have been more proud of him. Also, the day that he figures out that Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc. aren't real will be a cause for (mild) celebration, as it will show that he's got a brain and he's using it.

And if he ever doubts something that I firmly believe, I'll ask him to tell me his reasons. From there, we'll try to get to the truth of the matter, and either I'll be able to show him the error of his reasoning - or he will show me the error in mine.

11 comments:

Alex said...

I enjoyed your article. I used to be a devote Christian until I realized that I was gay so I started to doubt a lot of the information in the bible. I was a Christian not because I wanted to be originally but because the bible's stories were drilled into my head when I was young and after alt of reading I'm just now getting away from all that at age 20. Also what you said about listening to others doubts seems to be true as well, because my mom sometimes tries to steer me away from a certain course of action but I end up doing it my way anyway and so it usually turns out bad or satisfactory when it could have turn out great.

Tony from Pandora said...

I've been away a while... Helloooooo...

Now, all metaphors breakdown eventually, so while this one will have holes, I'll do the best I can.

Concerning doubt

From a Christian perspective, let's compare it to a basketball game. It's one thing to doubt other players, "Why did you make that pass? Why didn't you set that pick?" Or to doubt one's self, "I don't think I'm quick enough to guard him. I don't think I'm going to make this shot." This mentality can turn into the 'crippling doubt' about which you're talking. Christians build each other up and teach each other how to play the game better. We give each other confidence to 'take the shot' and give each other tools to become better shooters.

It's another thing to doubt the rules to the game. "I doubt this is the foul line. I doubt that the hoop is 10 feet high. I doubt I've been in the lane for longer than 3 seconds. I think I should be able to push the guy while he's shooting." For that, you simply go to the rule book and point it out. "See? It says right here... 15 feet from the backboard to the foul line."

That's why Christians turn to the bible when answering doubts of other Christians. They've already agreed to play the game... they are unsure of the rules and their ability to play the game well, so we point them to the rulebook.

this metaphor only works with Christians discipling other Christians in their doubts. If you get to the point of "I don't want to play basketball anymore. I'd rather play football." Then the metaphor breaks down... so don't get too deep in that specific analogy.

Concerning your 'badmouth faith' quote, "Oh yeah? Why is that? Maybe you have a good reason."
Most of our elders in our church actually do give responses similar to that, so while that may be true with whatever Christians with whom you associate, that's not necessarily indicative of the response of Christians in general.

Lance Johnson said...

Yeah. The metaphor breaks down.

The bit about them consulting the Bible would be like consulting the rulebook - but the rules are so poorly written that you wind up with 40,000 different ways to play the game.

"Most of our elders in our church actually do give responses similar to that..."

Are you telling me that they give full consideration to the idea that their faith might be completely wrong?

I'm doubtful.

Tony from Pandora said...

Concerning my elders.

No they don't. I mean that they genuinely listen to the one with doubts and aren't quick to say, "Just pray for the doubts to go away."

I read your post a little differently than maybe you intended. In your mortgage story, I don't see that you should've have more DOUBT in the bank, but more TRUST in you dad. You're proud of your son for not believing you about the monster in the pool, but will you be proud of him when you pass along your dad's mortgage advice, and your son doesn't listen? This is following the assumption that your father routinely gives good, experienced advice, and isn't just a gambling man.

Most of the success in my life, be it my choice of spouse, decision to have kids, career choice, have been inspite of my doubts, not because of them. And each of those decisions were brought about after much prayer and meditation.

Any time in my life where i doubt something, my decision isn't so much based on the doubt I have in that idea, but in my trust in someone or something else concerning that idea. A friend of my wife posted something on her facebook page. It said something to the effect that August has 5 weekends and that happens only once in 800+ years. I immediately doubted that. But my doubt was rooted in the trust I had in my knowledge of how our calender system worked.

This all stems from seeking truth. And seeking truth is, of course, a good thing. In the course of seeking it, doubts can arise. But I don't see doubt itself as being a virtue. I see it as a symptom of uncertainty, which isn't necessarily good or bad, but a simply trait of someone not having found truth. Once that truth is found, the uncertainty (and the doubt accompanies it) goes away. Only trust in that truth remains. If doubts arise after that... it's only because we forget the truth... or we don't like what the truth reveals and we stubbornly refuse it.

You can tell me otherwise, and maybe I'll believe you... but I doubt it.

Lance Johnson said...

"No they don't. I mean that they genuinely listen to the one with doubts and aren't quick to say, 'Just pray for the doubts to go away.'"

But they do view the doubt as a problem and not a virtue, correct?

" I don't see that you should've have more DOUBT in the bank, but more TRUST in you dad."

So, I should have trusted my dad's doubt? Kinda proves my point, doesn't it? Doubt can be a virtue.

"...but will you be proud of him when you pass along your dad's mortgage advice, and your son doesn't listen?"

The problem in that situation was that my dad didn't just give me doubt - he gave me reasons that I should have considered, but I wanted to believe the lending company so bad that I didn't listen to the doubt.

"Only trust in that truth remains. If doubts arise after that... it's only because we forget the truth... or we don't like what the truth reveals and we stubbornly refuse it."

Or maybe that doubt is your brain telling you that your "truth" is baseless and, in fact, not actually true.

Tony from Pandora said...

"But they do view the doubt as a problem and not a virtue, correct?"

No... more of a symptom of a problem... not really the problem itself.

"So, I should have trusted my dad's doubt? Kinda proves my point, doesn't it? Doubt can be a virtue.

You're missing my point. You should have listened to your dad because of the virtue of your dad... not his doubt. When I take my dad's advice, it's not because he doubts something I don't (it is often the other way around) but that I trust my dad's experience and wisdom over my own.

"The problem in that situation was that my dad didn't just give me doubt - he gave me reasons that I should have considered, but I wanted to believe the lending company so bad that I didn't listen to the doubt."

That's just cause you're an idiot.

"Or maybe that doubt is your brain telling you that your "truth" is baseless and, in fact, not actually true."

I'm speaking of actual truth. What you speak of is more like 'security'. People may claim something as truth because it makes them feel better or more secure, but that's not the same as actual truth. In that case, yes, I'd agree with you.

And yes, I know you can argue that the whole of religion is about security that people blindly hold onto despite their doubts, and not about truth, but that's a tangential issue.


P.S. I don't really think you're an idiot

Lance Johnson said...

"No... more of a symptom of a problem..."

And I find that to be troublesome for the reasons I gave in the original post.

"You're missing my point. You should have listened to your dad because of the virtue of your dad..."

But still, it goes back to doubt, doesn't it? He was doubtful, and he had good reason to be, and he was right. No matter how you word this, it keeps coming back to that.

"I'm speaking of actual truth..."

And I'm talking about doubting that you have the "actual truth".

"P.S. I don't really think you're an idiot."

I figured. I'm not an idiot, but that doesn't mean that I don't sometimes do some idiotic things. (For instance, I once used to believe in this whole "Jesus" thing. Ha! Low blow. Sorry - saw the opening.)

Tony from Pandora said...

"I find that to be troublesome..."

That's because you think doubt is a good thing. I don't think it is. I don't necessarily think it's BAD... but it's certainly not a virtue like you're trying to say.

"But it still goes back to doubt, doesn't it?" No, no, no... it goes back to trusting your dad's integrity, not his doubt. I find it little more than coincidence that your dad's doubt was correct in that instance. Maybe it's the specific example that I'm getting hung up on... I was very hesitant to buy a house. I had been married less than a year and we were renting. I didn't feel I was ready to take on a mortgage. After talking to my dad, my wife and I bought our house. We've been here the last 11 years and it's one of the best decisions we've made... DESPITE the doubts I had. However, our stories parallel in the fact that our fathers' advice was the correct one. But it WASN'T the doubt that made the situation virtuous.

And there are too numerous accounts to mention when I DIDN'T listen to my dad when I should've, but it's not because of the 'virtue of doubt’ but because of the virtue of seeking wise counsel in the face of doubt.

"I'm talking about doubting that you have the "actual truth"

Yeah, yeah... I doubt that all things can be measured by the scientific method. I doubt the universe started with the Big Bang. I doubt that we evolved from single-celled organisms. I doubt that atheists are correct. Can you say my doubt is virtuous? My guess is that you would say, “No.”. And I would agree with you. However, if I sought wise counsel regarding these topics to either confirm my doubts or change my mind… that would be virtuous. As to what is meant by ‘wise counsel’ is irrelevant to the question of doubt being virtuous or not.

"Low blow..."

Oh Snap! No you didn't! It's a good thing I've always doubted your integrity. Turns out I was right... so maybe you ARE on to something about this doubt thing...!

Lance Johnson said...

"it goes back to trusting your dad's integrity..."

I don't see what my dad's integrity has to do with it one way or the other. He could have been Hitler and still have been right about what he was saying. He does have integrity, but he could have had integrity and been just as mistaken as I was.

"Can you say my doubt is virtuous?"

Yes.

However, your lack of doubt about Christianity has blinded you to the fact evolution and The Big Bang are demonstrably true.

Tony from Pandora said...

"However, your lack of doubt about Christianity has blinded you to the fact evolution and The Big Bang are demonstrably true."

But I have such an abundance of doubt in the other subjects... so what doubt should I trust? I doubt that I should trust you. Should I trust my doubt or shouldn't I?

I assume you value your dad's integrity over Hitler. I also assume you value your dad's integrity over the mortgage lender. But you stated that integrity has nothing to do with it. If you told your mortgage lender, "My dad says this is probably a bad idea." Wouldn't he respond with something like, "I doubt he knows as much about refinancing as I do." If integrity has NOTHING to do with it, who's doubt carries more weight?

That's why I think the emphasis shouldn't be on the praise of doubt, but who's council you seek in the face of doubt.

And if you value doubt SO much that you would give credence to it coming even from Hitler, then I think our conversation is over.

Lance Johnson said...

" I doubt that I should trust you. Should I trust my doubt or shouldn't I?"

You absolutely should trust it. However, that's just the first step. Next it's up to you to learn the facts and go where they take you - not to where you've already decided you want to go.

"If integrity has NOTHING to do with it, who's doubt carries more weight?"

The one who can make a better case - usually by using facts and objectivity to back it up.

"And if you value doubt SO much that you would give credence to it coming even from Hitler, then I think our conversation is over."

Doubt is the beginning of the process. When it comes to Hitler, I'd strongly doubt his military decisions and views on race. I wouldn't, however, doubt his statements on what it's like to fight in the trenches of World War I and be exposed to mustard gas attacks. (Unless they turned out to contradict every other account of what it's like.)

He's not automatically wrong about everything just because he's Hitler, just as my dad isn't automatically right about everything just because he's my dad.