What Even Is Doubt?

Blog Posts, doubt

We talk about doubt a lot, but what is it? Is it good or bad? Helpful or harmful?

First, “doubt” is almost entirely in relation to religion. Geoffrey Wallis made the point that once you’re out of religion, “doubt” is just a kind of curiosity. Meh. No big deal.

But religious people see doubt as an unfortunate—but inevitable—occurrence; the sort of thing you should expect to happen every so often, but not a place you want to stay for very long. It’s like having “the talk,” or buying insurance. “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike.” – James KA Smith, quoting Paul Elie, in How (not) to Be Secular, p11.

I see doubt as a kind of confusion or curiosity about some conflict between beliefs you hold. Another way of putting it is, “that feeling when you have cognitive dissonance.” As David puts it, “Something doesn’t quite feel right.” It’s a check-engine light.

Is this confusion or curiosity bad? It depends: Do you want to resolve your inner conflict toward finding out what’s really real? Or do you want to defend a position you already hold? Do you want to be a Scout or a Soldier?

So when someone tells us to doubt our doubts, one way of interpreting that is, “Are you confused by conflicting beliefs you hold? You should second-guess that confusion and definitely not investigate.”

Doubt is only bad if you’re committed to a particular way of thinking. Otherwise, it’s just an indication it’s time to dig further–an opportunity to learn and grow and possibly get better!

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