The Value of Dealing with Doubt

When we come to matters of Christian faith, it is not uncommon for folks to have a doubt from time to time. The typical prescription for these doubts seems to be very similar to the prescription for the common cold. Wait it out, treat symptoms as best you can, and then hope it goes away sooner than later. I suppose sometimes this may work for some. However, it is not going to work for everyone, and I think there are far more effective ways of confronting our doubts that can be powerful avenues for growth.

Doubting, it seems to me, is not all bad. It may not be an altogether enjoyable experience, but our doubts can be the very things that lead us to truth about a variety of matters. Where it can be problematic is when one has good reasons for believing something and yet doubts creep in that cause him to lack confidence or waver in what is an otherwise well-grounded belief. I will offer some strategies for dealing with this sort of situation.

Here’s a doubt:

I used to think that the stock market was a good place to invest money, but now I doubt that my money is safe.

Notice here the expressed doubt is pitted against the belief that the stock market is in good shape. This sort of doubt looks most naturally understood as expressing or at least being rooted in an alternate belief. It is the belief that the stock market is not a safe investment that is in tension with the earlier belief.

This is important for dealing with doubts because beliefs are only worth maintaining if we have good reasons for those beliefs. That is, evidence and rational justification matter for belief. If we find that a belief of ours is utterly without reasons or has outweighing reasons against it, we typically drop this belief. Additionally, beliefs can be “worked on” by examining our reasons for holding the beliefs. We can evaluate beliefs by searching out whether there are reasons for taking them as true. This strengthens our support for the good ones and helps us avoid false ones. So, and this is crucial, if a doubt is an alternate belief, then we can address the doubt by examining the reasons we have for that alternate belief.

I want to offer an example of dealing with doubt but, before I do so, there are two preliminary points that I think are very helpful for those that struggle with this sort of thing. The first is that just because one has a doubt about some Christian tenet, this should not automatically defeat one’s belief in that tenet, so long as one has justification for the belief. It is perfectly rational to maintain one’s Christian belief (again, so long as one has justification for the belief) in the face of some challenge or objection, even when one can’t seem to answer the objection. Is the challenge a problem? Yes, but it should drive us both to our knees (praying for understanding) and our desks or libraries (or Starbucks, as the case may be) to investigate the merits of the challenge before conceding defeat.

A second point is that there is (virtually) nothing new under the sun when it comes to objections and challenges. I have sometimes found students struggling deeply with a challenge that has been so thoroughly addressed that most non-Christians don’t even think it is a good argument. Again, it is sometimes that the student was hoping the doubt would go away and simply hadn’t looked into it. There is, these days, a remarkable amount of apologetics resources on offer in various formats and media (yes, there’s even an apologetics iPhone app!). When I first started out, it helped me tremendously just to know there were others out there further along in their journey that had looked at the most pressing objections to Christianity and found Christianity intellectually sound. Find solace in the fact that you are not alone in this.

So if you find yourself in a place of doubting, my encouragement to you is to hang on. Don’t allow the doubt to cause you to unnecessarily waver (James 1:6) but also don’t simply ignore the doubt. The strategy that I would recommend is that you, in a way, explore and examine the doubt.

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument (and because I think it is absolutely the case) that I have good reasons for thinking that Christianity is true. This belief would be, for me, a rationally justified belief. Let’s also suppose that I come to have a doubt about this belief. Let’s say I am thinking about the fact that I grew up in a Christian home, and I start to think that I have embraced the tradition without sufficient critical attention. If I had grown up in a non-Christian home or in a different part of the world, then I likely wouldn’t be a Christian. So I begin to think that my Christian beliefs that I find so plausible are only so since they are familiar. Let’s suppose that this line of thinking raises some doubts for my Christian beliefs.

Remember, the doubts we are thinking about are alternate beliefs. So I should first figure out what the belief is that I am entertaining in this case. It looks like the alternate belief is something like the following:

We unfairly privilege beliefs we grow up with making them hopelessly suspect.

Since beliefs need to be justified, we need to ask what reasons there are for holding this belief. I would concede that we sometimes privilege views that are familiar to us. However, I see no reason to think that when we are aware of this tendency that we cannot evaluate these beliefs.

John Hick once raised an objection similar to this in defense of religious pluralism (the view that all or most religious traditions are describing the same reality). He pointed out that many of us believe according to the view we were raised with. He said:

“Someone born to Buddhist parents in Thailand is very likely to be a Buddhist, someone born to Muslim parents in Saudi Arabia to be a Muslim, someone born to Christian parents in Mexico to be a Christian, and so on.” (An Interpretation of Religion)

This, he thought, made these religious beliefs somehow dubious. Hick thought that his pluralism was the remedy for the problem. In response to Hick, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga responded by saying:

“For suppose we concede that if I had been born in Madagascar rather than Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. … But of course the same goes for the pluralist. Pluralism isn’t and hasn’t been widely popular in the world at large; if the pluralist had been born in Madagascar, or medieval France, he probably wouldn’t have been a pluralist. Does it follow that he shouldn’t be a pluralist?” (“Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”)

The problem is that there seems to be no good reason for privileging a belief that is different from what we grew up with either. Beliefs have to stand on their own merit, and to judge the belief on the basis of the belief’s origin is to plainly commit what is known as the genetic fallacy. So I think this doubt lacks justification, and when it is explored, the problems it raises are resolved.

There have been times in my life where I have struggled with doubts about Christianity. But as I have explored these doubts as honestly and unbiasedly as I know how, I have to say that the truth of Christianity has come out justified time and time again. Those feelings of doubt become fewer and farther between and likewise our confidence and resolve can greatly increase.

Travis Dickinson

Travis Dickinson

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Dickinson serves as Associate Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics in the School of Theology. He is married to Shari and they have four children: Kaelia, Delaney, Emery, and Kade.
Twitter: @TravDickinson
Travis Dickinson