Members of the LDS church will frequently use different definitions, or versions, of the words faith and doubt. The two most common versions are what I call “truth-oriented” and “objective”. It’s important to realize that many, if not most, of the debates we have on the topics of faith and doubt are due to conflating the two versions. We think we’re using the terms in the same way but we actually aren’t. The secret to overcoming this disjoin of meaning, which should cultivate general agreement, is the context. The context will reveal the different meanings.
- Faith = Believing or even knowing true (good) things.
- Doubt = Disbelief of true (good) things.
A more orthodox church member will generally use the term faith to mean a belief in something that they perceive as a universal reality. The term doubt is used to denote a disbelief in these perceived truths. So when they hear the term doubt used in conversation they automatically assume the doubter is disbelieving an obvious and universal good principle or truth. From this perspective faith and doubt are always used in relation to what they perceive as the TRUTH.
- Faith = Believing in something.
- Doubt = Disbelief in something.
Less orthodox members generally use the term faith to mean a general belief in something that seems to be true or good – independent of source and independent of the ramification. The term doubt is used to denote something that from an objective approach does not appear to have enough evidence to be believed (faith). They see the world as more nuanced and see different degrees of truth and error. From this perspective faith and doubt are used in relation to any concept, with the acknowledgement that faith and doubt can each be associated with true and false ideas.
Misinterpretation between people in a conversation is easy. For example, someone says a simple phrase, “Doubt is bad, and causes spiritual weakness.” The truth-oriented interpretation is “Not believing true things is bad, and causes spiritual weakness.” I don’t think that anyone would disagree with that. The objective interpretation is “Disbelief in something is bad, and causes spiritual weakness.” That statement is not necessarily valid. The assessment of whether the doubt is good or bad is dependent on the truthfulness the doubt is related to.
In another example, a person may doubt the belief that God quickly gives you whatever you pray for and instead puts faith in a belief that God is not a vending machine and that there are a lot of variables to prayer (nuance). Was doubt bad in this situation? Nope. I think the person has moved on from an immature view of God to a mature one that matches reality. If the person puts their faith in the idea that God never answers prayers because there is no God, then they will have made a very poor faith-based choice in the view of theists.
The diagrams below show the harmonization of faith and doubt with truth and falsehood. The green areas are good places to be in that the person is in harmony with reality. The red areas are bad places to be in that one’s faith and doubt are misplaced.
Do you see the difference between the two versions? Truth-oriented is absolutely tied to what the person has identified as truth and goodness, while objective is well…objective, including a spectrum of true and false beliefs. The objective version allows faith and doubt to both be good or bad depending on whether the claim is true of false, while the truth-oriented removes falsehood from the conversation. The tricky part is finding what version people are using when they communicate. If you don’t identify the author’s version then you will be offended, annoyed, angry, etc. and probably think an author or speaker is ignorant. The reality may in fact be the opposite.
Take a look at some examples with the intent of understanding what faith and doubt mean in their context.
No Doubt to Know
Trying to find a way with Scriptural understanding to reconcile the honest search for Truth and the spiritual destructiveness of unbelief, I found that doubt is not a positive attribute. As described by prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ, doubt is the enemy of faith. Unbelief is slightly worse because of a more concrete condition of the mind and heart, but they are both related to each other. Doubt doesn’t lead to faith. It destroys it by leading to questioning everything; even miracles that we participate in by the Grace of God.
It would be better for them to repent and stop finding fault with the history, theology, and leadership. For those who seem to cling to their doubts as if a virtue, perhaps they should consider (as some already have) that differences are irreconcilable and time to move on.
When Doubts and Questions Arise
There is no suggestion in the scriptures or the teachings of the prophets that encourages doubt. In fact, the scriptures are full of teachings to the contrary. For example, we are enjoined to “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36). And in Mormon 9:27, we are encouraged to “doubt not, but be believing.”
…The power of doubt to destroy faith, hope, and even family is diminished the minute one sincerely says, “I will do the things the Lord has commanded, whether my questions are resolved quickly or ever, because I have covenanted to do so.” The difference between a faithful “I will keep the commandments because …” and a doubtful “I will keep the commandments if …” is of powerful and eternal import.
It is perfectly normal to feel concern and uneasiness when confronted with an unfamiliar idea, especially if it challenges a strongly held belief. What matters is not letting that uneasiness turn us from our covenants during our search for answers. I have learned from personal experience that we cannot turn our back on God and then expect Him to answer our questions on our terms. It takes faith to continue keeping the commandments while our uncertainty is being resolved. It may be tempting to withhold or limit our obedience pending convincing resolution of our concerns, but this is not God’s way.
The Spiritual Nature of Doubt
When religious paradigms break apart through critical analysis, it is natural for believers to experience doubt. The spiritual distress that accompanies uncertainty can be incredibly painful. And this is a problem, since as humans, we have been endowed with a natural aversion to pain—even the emotional kind that accompanies religious doubt.…As believers, we should neither embrace apologetics, nor fear religious doubt; for doubt by itself is neither good nor bad. We should doubt that which is not true.
Is it OK to Have Doubts about the Gospel?
It is normal to have questions about the gospel and even to experience doubt. Pondering your unanswered questions can often be healthy if it motivates you to sincerely seek greater knowledge and truth. In addition, such questions are often part of “the trial of [our] faith” that is required before we receive a witness from God (Ether 12:6). However, doubt is a dreary destination, so it should never be a goal in itself.
Why I Generally Use the Objective Version
The major benefit of using the objective version is that it allows for discussion, or the exchange of ideas.
The truth-centered version, while valuable for making statements in a setting where all are in agreement on what is truth, is simple and to the point. Faith = faith in the truth = good, Doubt = disbelief in the truth = bad. There is nothing to discuss. It is as if all truth has been found and is constant.
The objective version, on the other hand, is (and has to be) used when the truth is not readily apparent or there is a difference of opinion on what the truth is. In a discussion where all are not in agreement with regards to what the truth is, saying you have faith in something is a provisional statement. It is subject to change. The objective version is a concession of the need for epistemological humility and acceptance that we are on a search for truth.
A Couple Good Quotes Relating to Faith and Doubt
All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.
-Timothy Keller, The Reason for God
I think that we need to get a feel for the very positive, constructive role that doubt can play in a spiritual life. You and I, we have a lot of wrong ideas about things. We are attached to a lot of very selfish, very biased perspectives. If we are not brought to the point that we don’t doubt our own stories, if we are not brought to the point where doubt functions as a kind of solvent that loosens my attachment to my own version of things, then God is going to be limited in how he can reach out to me, and help me, save me, change me. God wants to make me into something more than I am, but part of that is going to involve my letting go of things that I don’t need to be hanging onto, because they are wrong, because they are false, because they are selfish. And doubt plays a powerful, important, positive, spiritual role in that story by being the solvent that frees me from what things I have to let go of. If we don’t have any doubts in our lives than we don’t have any room to change.
-Adam Miller, http://mormondiscussion.podbean.com/2013/09/02/adam-miller-rube-goldberg-machines/, 26:00-27:10
I reject both definitions. Doubt =/= disbelief. In fact, the Oxford English dictionary defines doubt as “a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction. Disbelief is the “inability or refusal to accept that something is true or real.” These are not the same thing _at all_. Having doubts doesn’t mean you can’t accept a truth, it means you question or are uncertain about the claim that it is true. I appreciate that you’re trying to say that doubt isn’t bad, but the way you’ve defined it is still really offputting.
The picture at the beginning of the article was making me hope that one of the ideas in the article would be about whether faith and doubt really are just two sides of the same coin. It seems that the doubt as disbelief, especially in the religious context, is somewhat archaic, which would explain doubt as disbelief in truth that is used throughout the scriptures.
But today, I would tend to agree with Leah that doubt is simply a feeling of uncertainty. If that’s our definition, then the two Ensign articles cited would actually say that to have doubt is okay.
I can’t remember who said it but someone made the observation that doubt is not the opposite of faith. Certainty is the opposite of faith, whether it’s certainty in the church being true or certainty that it is not true. That seems to suggest that doubt is actually a necessary and essentially component of faith. Is it possible to have faith without doubt (feeling of uncertainty)?
Leah Marie Silverman,
Thanks for the comment. I was actually guessing that one of the first comments would be along these lines. Tying these words to exact definitions is hard because there is a spectrum at play. Faith and doubt are a middle ground between absolute belief and disbelief. Both of those terms you could call certainty. Certainty that something is true or false.
Totally understand where you are coming from.
I am glad that you got the heart of what I was getting at, that “doubt is not bad”.
Thanks for adding the comment for clarity.
I will stick with the Bible, the Scriptures, and Prophets than you very much. Doubt is a sin pure and simple.
Have fun in your cave.
Don’t you realize that who you consider “prophets” and what texts you consider “scriptures” is largely dependent upon the time and culture you were born into? If you were born in Asia you would have a dramatically different view of who and what counts as spiritual authority.
You think you are being extra upright but really you are allowing your convictions about reality to be determined by rather arbitrary causes. The jihadists flying planes into buildings literally use your same logic, they just happened to be born into a different culture.
I pity those who have never breathed the fresh crisp air of reason, choosing to remain in whatever dank cave they were born into.
Even those who doubt but are still religious at the end of the day – at least they have used their reason, forged their own opinions, and seen the occasional (if not frequent) incorrectness of sacred texts and sacred leaders.
Don’t you realize that the bible supports slavery? The confederacy used the bible (they did not need to twist it) to support their cause. In the Middle Ages, the inquisition was supported by the bible.
The Book of Mormon indisputably supports the idea that darker skinned people’s are morally inferior. This is plainly in the text. Guess what has led us out of all these errors – Reason. And after the perspective change, the dogmatists forget about the no-longer-fashionable older views and embrace the new views, which they did not help forge, but which they benefit from.
Take a look at some of the proclamations of past LDS leaders. Not only are they blatantly wrong and/or morally misguided, but they frequently contradict. There is one unavoidable fact, which is that your logic negates itself. This particular point is not my opinion but the factual consequence of logically following your assumptions to their conclusions. If joseph and Brigham say there are moon men who look like Quakers, do I trust them?
Again, enjoy the cave.
Good thoughts. I would say that it is not possible to have faith without doubt. Doubt, in a way, is leaving the door open for other possibilities to be true.
When experience, logic, and spiritual experience tell you to put your faith in something other than where it is currently is your faith will transition. That is doubt being used in a positive way.
I agree that a post on the interplay of the two would be a good one.
I’m in the same boat as Leah. Doubt is uncertainty. Disbelief is the opposite end of belief and doubt is the middle region between the two.
Really, I’d love for us to move back to the etymological meaning of faith. Faith has much more to do with faithfulness than with some abstract belief. In some ways, the fact that I’m still being faithful to my religious tradition even in the midst of very significant doubt is itself a greater showing of faith than any form of abstract belief.
That said, thanks for seeking to destigmatize doubt and for highlighting the potential pitfalls of unexamined faith.
I appreciate you taking time to read my post.
From your comment, I would agree with you. It appears that you are using the “truth-oriented” version of faith and doubt. So, yes, doubting truth is bad (sin), “pure and simple.”
I also think that the vast majority of material from “the Bible, the Scriptures, and Prophets” with direct usage of the word doubt would correlate with the “truth-oriented” version. The reasoning is that all parties mentioned are speaking from the angle of sharing the Truth with others. I would not expect the scriptures to mention doubting the very teachings they were preaching.
One thing to note is that the basis of preaching, teaching, etc. depends on the interplay of faith and doubt. While you don’t directly read Christ saying “doubt” anything, He is implying to His audience (mostly Jews of various persuasions) that they doubt the teachings and traditions of their fathers and put their faith in his teachings. Thus, Jesus is challenging the current faith of his listeners, and in a way causing doubt in those that hear His words, and asking them to put their faith in what He is saying.
Is doubt bad in this situation? I, and other fellow Christians, would say no, but doubt was a fundamental part of the conversion process.
Also, please remember that a recent “Prophet” said this, “Doubt your doubts, before you doubt your faith.” Apostle Uchtdorf was asking/requesting us to doubt in general conference in an “objective” way. Of course he was asking us to do it in a prioritized way. I agree with him, don’t challenge what you have invested in (your faith) before you challenge new doubt-generating ideas (doubts).
We must remember that doubt allows for change. If you never doubt anything, even God may not be able to help you become what he wants you to be.
Great Post. I think we would all benefit from learning to use the more objective sense of the words. I feel like so much alienation and stigmatization of doubters comes from these two separate uses of the terms. It’s much like the misunderstanding we Mormons have when we try and talk with other Christians and have differing definitions fro things like grace and saved, and then wonder why we can’t agree on anything.