Much has been written in the few days since President Uchtdorf delivered his recent General Conference address, but few things have caused as much of a stir as his advice to “doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” Mere seconds after he had uttered these words, there appeared on Uchtdorf’s official Facebook page a cutesy Pinterest-style meme, copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve Inc., ready for mass sharing.
Of all the wonderful things said in this talk, I was disappointed that this meme seems to have been the most memorable for so many. As of the time of writing, Facebook reports almost 9000 shares of the above link. Add to that the number of “likes” each one of those shares likely received and you’ve got a pretty big number. But among the intended audience of the remark–those who are dealing with doubt– not only did this advice fail to resonate, but it was actually met with some backlash.
“Circular reasoning!” cried some.
“Mental gymnastics!” cried others.
“Why not just follow the evidence?!”
One person wrote a satirical letter from a woman describing how the advice to doubt her doubts had saved her marriage because it made her second-guess her impulse to investigate further when she discovered strong evidence that her husband was having an affair. The obvious point of this letter was this: if you’ve already decided what the answer is, there’s no sense in asking the question in the first place.
I hear their frustration. I feel their pain. I am no stranger to the difficult, doubt-inducing questions that so many are dealing with. I’ve read these people’s stories, and lived some of them myself. Stories about family members and friends who think they are broken. Spouses who threaten to leave them if they don’t start believing as they used to. Hours and hours spent perusing apologetics books and websites, desperately seeking answers, only to find themselves even more convinced that their doubts are legitimate. I empathize with them, and I mourn with them. As Jana Riess recently reminded us, there is much room for improvement in how our church addresses doubt. Frankly, it is not their fault that they are experiencing doubts, and I think President Uchtdorf would agree. And as a disclaimer, my intent in this post is not to counsel anyone on how to resolve those doubts. I probably have as many questions as the next person.
And yet, something about these critiques feels wrong to me. When I first began seeing the backlash, I wondered, does anyone actually think this is bad advice? Do those who are so offended by this think that we should all just abandon ship at the first sign of rough waters? I should think not. Because the truth is, we’ve all encountered people who would do well to doubt some of their doubts, and it’s not simply because they don’t toe the party line anymore; rather, some of their doubts are based on misinformation, poor reasoning, hasty conclusions, and emotional, knee-jerk responses. Then what explains all this frustration?
I think this phrase exposes a chasm that divides the “doubters” on one hand from the “believers” on the other. The real problem with the advice to doubt your doubts is that it’s so devoid of objective meaning that it permits listeners to interpret it as they please. At best, “doubt your doubts” is a rhetorical platitude reflecting the paradigm of those who advocate a life of faith in the face of doubt. At worst, it is the beginning of an infinite regress problem. That is, if doubting my doubts is to be taken as sound methodology for uncovering Truth, then shouldn’t I also doubt my doubts about my doubts? Likewise, I should probably doubt my doubts about the doubts I have about my doubts. Where does it end?! It’s turtles all the way down!
The message I hear from Uchtdorf is this: “My faith works for me, and I believe it can work for you too if you don’t dismiss it too hastily.” And I believe him to be sincere when he says that. Regardless of what we believe, it should hardly be surprising to any of us that someone in President Uchtdorf’s position would extol the benefits of a life of faith.
Now, I don’t know what experience President Uchtdorf has had with doubt, but I suspect that many of those who latched on to this catchy phrase and flooded the internet with it are scarcely aware of the issues that plague those who grapple with doubt. It’s easy to tell someone to choose faith in the face of doubt when you don’t even understand what’s causing those doubts in the first place, but it’s not very helpful. Judging by the negative interpretations people have offered to the “doubt your doubts” line, a lot of people have been receiving a lot of unhelpful advice.
And yet, focusing on the ignorant is in some ways a strawman, because there are many people who do understand those questions but continue stronger than ever in their faith. I’m consistently amazed at the ways people have found to reconcile their faith with their questions. I don’t agree with all of them, I don’t believe all of these ways are of equal value, nor do I believe in a one-size-fits-all approach, but I’ve noticed a common thread. Their faith normally takes a different form than it did before they wrestled with the ins and outs of Joseph Smith’s polygamy/polyandry, the Book of Abraham “translation,” the role of women in the Church, or whatever else they may have struggled with personally. Ultimately, a thorough examination of our doubts can lead us to ask the deepest questions of our soul, and it occurs to me that whatever particular beliefs we end up with, there can be tremendous value in the process by which we arrive at those beliefs, if we look for it. I believe doubt should affect our faith, as it has for so many I respect. To me, faith born of doubt is the only faith worth having. Indeed, doubt is one of the essential ingredients of faith.
To the honest seeker, I honor your journey wherever it takes you and trust that you will find your own answers. Regardless of where you end up, I hope you will not let a good faith crisis go to waste.