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Pseudo-doubt

Meghan Florian in Salon (via Religion Dispatches) notes that Teresa MacBain isn’t a reason to bash atheists. What she goes on to say after that got my rather annoyed attention.

(I haven’t said anything here about Teresa. That’s because I don’t want to. I like her a lot, so I don’t feel like it. I’m assuming that you already know the story.)

Florian recounts the recent events and disclosures first.

What strikes me as inappropriate is to use this as an opportunity to bash atheists—even those who we might feel misrepresent the Christian faith. Did it irk me when MacBain said, in an interview on Religion Dispatches,“I’d always been a thinker so when questions relating to my faith began to pop up, I ignored them at first. You see, questioning and doubts were sinful in my faith tradition”? Of course it did. I wanted to jump up and raise my hand, to shout, “I am a thinker too!” and “Doubt is not sinful! Who the hell told you that?”

But I am pretty sure that’s not the right thing to do here. After all, growing up in a conservative Christian subculture myself, I wrestled with doubt for years also. In college I encountered professors who modeled a “faith seeking understanding” approach to both the study and practice of Religion. For me, that process of asking questions—of seeking—actually saved my faith. For MacBain, it appears to have been the opposite. I respect that, as I hope anyone who has seriously wrestled with doubt can respect that.

That seems like bullshit to me. Self-flattering bullshit. It annoys me, the way religious people use “doubt” that way as some kind of empty badge of honor that doesn’t make any actual difference to anything. It’s just something they “wrestle” with for a little while in order to come out anyway on the side of Team God. People don’t wrestle with “doubts” about whether or not Elmer Fudd will be coming over to play poker. Adults don’t bother with “doubts” about Santa Claus. People shouldn’t brag about their precious “doubts” if they’re going to go right on believing the legless stories just the same. It’s nothing but pious preening. “That process of asking questions” – only to end up with the authority-based answers. “Seeking” – forget seeking and try filtering or razoring, instead. Doubts that do nothing but “save faith” are just posturing.

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    “Doubt is not sinful! Who the hell told you that?”

    A whole bunch of fundamentalists believe having doubts about religion is a sign that Satan is influencing the doubter’s thinking.

    Living Bible Studies – Doubt: A Device of Satan:

    When we consider the character of doubt as it is found in the Word of God, we might suggest to you that the character of doubt is threefold. The first thing, the basic thing, which the Devil causes us to doubt is the Word of God.

    That took less than two minutes of googling. Meghan Florian needs to do a little research on what some of her fellow Christians are saying.

  2. Claire Ramsey says

    Ophelia thank you for throwing that freezing cold water on the precious concept of “doubt.” Real doubt does not lead the so-called “thinker” right back to the beliefs that she had doubts about. Doubt isn’t supposed to be that easy to retract. Even if Baby Jesus says so. Very sorry. Think about what we mean in every day language when we say “doubt.” That is not the way it works. And “faith seeking understanding”? Kind of a circle, don’t you think. It kind of tells you what you are seeking (faith) even before you start trying to understand. Doubt is not at work here. Some nicely jumbled up thinking is, however.

  3. says

    I hadn’t heard the story. Now I have. Shit.

    Some fundagelicals anathematize doubt. Some accept it as OK — but you’re then supposed to read Josh McDowell or William Lane Craig or C.S.Lewis or Francis Schaeffer or any of the other standard apologists, by whom All Your Questions Will Be Answered, Your Doubts Assuaged, And Your Faith Confirmed. Sort of like how the Scholastics were allowed to discuss all sorts of heretical questions, as long their deliberations came back to affirming the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

    Been there, done that, in the long run it stopped working.

  4. says

    It’s just something they “wrestle” with for a little while in order to come out anyway on the side of Team God.

    Pretty much, yeah. I think there’s even a bit of a script. And some pretty solid reasons for it.

    What I figure I see: I was raised mostly Anglican, and the messages we got about doubt were a bit more mixed–I could even say conflicted–than Al got. There wasn’t much emphasis at all on eevil forces trying to deceive you, and it was even pretty much accepted you’d have doubts, even some literature of repute around it, tho’ there was also this supposed virtue in having ‘the (unreserved) faith of a little child’, so on. Like I said: a bit conflicted. I expect Ms. Florian up there would recognize the schtick pretty well, from her prose, here.

    But I’ve always sorta figured that was one adaptation of a few possible. Just way this strain of religion has adapted to handle the continual problem that the god doesn’t tend to answer his own phone, nor keep appointments terribly well, nor make a lot of public appearances, all lapses which do get people wondering…

    So the fundies try the stain of evil thing, hope you’ll flee from it, in fear of such a baleful and terrifying influence, wash your hands of the very notion, hopefully even suppress it, not even bring it up, and what you can’t voice, you may have a harder time even thinking…

    The liberal faiths, in contrast, prepare this narrative for you, this track it’s understood you shall follow in the eventuality you might start paying too much attention to a lot of things that don’t add up, or, horrors, find yourself talking too much to someone else who does. So they tell you it’s perfectly understood you’ll get a little shaky in your ‘faith’, sure, from time to time, but be a hero, rise about this, talk yourself out of it, and, see, you’ll be stronger for it, see. It’s not so much evil forces, so much, but you’re being tested. Show what you’re made of, now, soldier, come through the fire, such are the trials of the faithful…

    But note it’s a perfectly closed narrative. You might as well be on rails, or that’s the hope, here. And note also: it’s a recipe for deliberate self-delusion, deliberately encouraging a particular set of failings of the human mind. The pressure is on, to force you to do this to yourself. Evidence whatever, reason to the wind; here is how you bend your brain around it all, anyway, and it adds up to a very similar manipulation, really, as what the more conservative faiths do with their hints of brimstone. The idea is: you’ll stay, you’ll ‘wrestle’, you’ll mouth the words of the creeds until you start to believe you mean it. It’s a practical mechanism for preserving the religion, because the human brain tends to work happily backward from conclusion to rationale, anyway; so keep them busy at making the outward show, and they’ll convince themselves over time they have good enough reasons for saying what they do, convince themselves that they really do believe.

    It’s also a good badge to have in your back pocket for later, if anyone comes along, says, listen, you’re not making a lot of sense, talking to things not apparently there. You can say, oh, but look, really, I wrestled, honest. I thought about it, but I came back to my god, virtuous me. Seasoned, I am, I assure you. Doubts? Why, of course I had them; but me, I’m good, with the help of my god, I beat them back.

    So… ‘preening’? Maybe. It winds up as irritating. But I’d use the term ‘playing’, more. Also as in playing through the role. And it may indeed have started a bit method. But you play the part, play into the narrative, and yes, it winds up a pretty empty exercise, at the end.

    And in doing so, note again, you do quite the inverse, of course, of what you normally should try to make yourself do, should you be at all interested in working out what’s really going on in the world. In the inverse of an open inquiry, you don’t ask ‘where does the evidence lead me?’ but ‘how can I keep believing?’ That’s the ‘struggle’, and it would be an odd way, say, to work out most other facts about existence. But this is a feature, not a bug, as far as the religion is concerned.

  5. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Oh yes, our old friend motivated reasoning. If you start your “search” for truth with a very strong idea of where to find it, you will eventually convince yourself you have found it whether it’s actually there or not.

  6. iknklast says

    Doubt is not sinful! Who the hell told you that?

    My mother. My father. My minister. My city government. And my teachers. I had to figure out on my own that doubt was good.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    It’s just something they “wrestle” with for a little while in order to come out anyway on the side of Team God.

    Next you’ll be telling us that professional wrestling isn’t real.

  8. says

    I have basically come to the conclusion that there are at least two types of questions: One is where you ask questions in search of the correct answer and another is where you ask questions in search of conflict resolution. In the later case, the answer may or may not be correct. Also, when religious people such as her speak of having doubts, I suspect what they really have are conflicts. Therefore, when they say they ask questions, I suspect they’re asking the wrong (second) type of questions.

  9. kevinalexander says

    Religious doubt is opening your warm coat a bit to get a little shiver of reality then closing it quick to say ‘Thank you Jesus for the coat.’

  10. says

    Andrew @ 4

    The liberal faiths, in contrast, prepare this narrative for you, this track it’s understood you shall follow in the eventuality you might start paying too much attention to a lot of things that don’t add up, or, horrors, find yourself talking too much to someone else who does. So they tell you it’s perfectly understood you’ll get a little shaky in your ‘faith’, sure, from time to time, but be a hero, rise about this, talk yourself out of it, and, see, you’ll be stronger for it, see. It’s not so much evil forces, so much, but you’re being tested. Show what you’re made of, now, soldier, come through the fire, such are the trials of the faithful…

    Yes and that’s one of the most infuriating things of all, that “test” – because what it’s saying is that god tests us on whether or not we are willing to disown all our best capacities in order to bend the knee to a pure assertion. What a disgusting sick god that is. I don’t just disbelieve in that god, I despise and detest it.

  11. Forbidden Snowflake says

    Ophelia, I think you might enjoy this essay. It’s a great exploration of doubt vs. pseudo-doubt, from the point of view of a person who left Judaism.

  12. says

    Ophelia/#10:

    Agreed. Emphatically.

    It’s always seemed to me a pretty profound humiliation, demanding people say they see what they do not, whether they talk themselves into it or not. And see also Orwell, 1984, and the number of fingers (or the Star Trek version, with Picard and the number of lights; honestly, it was never really my show, but even I’ve heard of that episode, and I think it’s a somewhat promising and possibly revealing thing that that drama, apparently, was so incredibly popular; we’re a culture that knows something a bout that kind of manipulation, and, just maybe, we’re also beginning also to care).

    In darker moments, I suspect the humiliation is every bit as deliberate in religion. It’s a sacrifice you are required to make, a capitulation to the will of the authority, and in doing so, you tell them: you’ve got me, now. I’ll swear to whatever you ask me to, in order to belong, talk myself into whatever, or at least say I have…

    In this darker view, the fact that religious beliefs are at odds with the evidence of reality isn’t entirely a weakness. Yes, it shaves some members away, when they notice, and refuse to so humiliate themselves. But those who stay anyway, they’re that much more owned from having made a larger capitulation in avowing the same. So, indeed, the fact that the belief structure may contain apparently absurd claims isn’t entirely a problem, for the religion. What it does to the members, how it may twist them up, as they are required to swear to them anyway, is quite another matter.

  13. says

    Yes but it also fuels much of the anger and hostility, aka new/gnu atheism.

    I don’t know, maybe on balance that’s more beneficial to them than not, but…well over the long haul I think it’s a mistake. Defend a systematic cheat and piss people off by doing so – that’s not a benefit I would want.

  14. deepak shetty says

    One of my Catholic friends who got nominated to be a God-Parent was asked about his beliefs in the God Parenting session he had to attend in Church. So he truthfully replied “agnostic” – He was told – It is ok to doubt so long as you still believe! – i.e. doubt as much as you want – just don’t change any conclusion!

  15. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore.

    Martin Luther

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