The role of doubt in religion

Peter Steinfels has a provocative column in the New York Times that discusses the importance of doubt to our modern faith. The question he raises is this: is our doubt a transition to a life without faith? Or is modern faith simply more comfortable with doubt? While inconclusive, the data seems to point to the first option:

“Belief in God isn’t quite the same thing in 1500 and today,” writes Charles Taylor in “A Secular Age” (Harvard University Press, 2007), his formidable exploration of how the conditions of religious belief — and of unbelief, too — have changed for modern Westerners.

Religious faith was once the air everyone, even the doubter, breathed. Today, religious faith, in its many forms, stands as but one possibility alongside a range of nonreligious outlooks that the honest believer cannot simply dismiss as deluded or depraved.

Far more than in the past, Mr. Taylor writes, believers must live their faith “in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.”

. . .

Is such a doubt-haunted belief merely the intermediate stage in that slow retreat of the “Sea of Faith” that Matthew Arnold lamented in “Dover Beach,” and that has left much of Western Europe with little more than a veneer of cultural or nostalgic religiosity? Call this the familiar transition hypothesis.

Or is there a newly emergent faith that is deep and constant, marked by familiar forms of prayer and practice, but nonetheless alert to, perhaps even enlivened by, the whisper saying, “I am convinced I’m right but I could be wrong”? That would be a faith lived, to use a favorite phrase of Professor Taylor, “in a different register.” Call this the new steady-state hypothesis.

At first glance, the latest findings from the United States Religious Landscape Study, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, promise a way of examining those alternatives. . . .

Gregory A. Smith, research fellow at the Pew Forum, was kind enough to fire up the computers and churn out the numbers. Unfortunately for anyone looking for a new model of strong faith with doubt, the fairly certain believers were not at all close to the absolutely certain ones on frequency of prayer and worship, the importance of religion in their lives, belief in life after death, and several other measures. In most cases the fairly certain believers were closer in attitude and observance to those saying they were not certain.

For example, 71 percent of absolutely certain believers considered religion “very important” in their lives; only 22 percent of the fairly certain did.

Strike 1 against the new steady-state hypothesis.

. . .

Obviously, religious practices like worship and prayer usually assume a God who has relationships with people. So what if one limited the comparisons between absolutely certain and fairly certain believers to ones who, in both cases, also described their view of God as “personal”?

In this case, the gap between the two groups closes — but only modestly. Strike 2 against the steady-state hypothesis.

But all is not certain–the theory that we are moving away from faith altogether itself has problems:

Since 1988, the General Social Survey, a highly regarded opinion survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has asked a parallel but somewhat different set of questions that explore confidence or uncertainty about the existence of God.

Mr. Smith points out that from 1988 to 2006 the percentages of people giving each answer have remained relatively unchanged. That does not really bolster the steady-state hypothesis because it reveals nothing about the patterns of worship and prayer and valuing religion that correspond to these degrees of certainty or doubt.

But those findings do challenge the transition hypothesis, which implies an increase over time in the number of doubters.

Read it all here.

So what do you think?

Past Posts