Doubt as a Hobby

I was recently reminded of a blog where I used to participate. While there, I wrote this, which I think is pretty good (except for the ending, which I’ve changed).

On a whole, I think that Latter-day Saints fail to appreciate the power of doubt. It may be natural; we are a movement that demands faith and demands acts that indicate our possession thereof. At the same time, we say that it is good to have questions. We seem to approach doubt as a hobby; something that we keep working on in the basement level of our mind; something which we always work on when something more important isn’t pressing; something that fundamentally only the individual is interested in and which, therefore, ought not to be widely shared; something that can always be set aside and returned to after an appropriate interval. There is much talk in and out of the church about compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance, both of which seem to accept the hobby form of doubt as the only legitimate form. People often push us to bring the doubts up from the basement; saying that there is nothing wrong with doing it. However, there is a persistent sense that, in so doing, one will become a freak, a stamp-collector or D&D player, unfit for normal company and consigned to only finding like-minded, acne-faced peers at symposia and conventions. The public airing of our hobbies risks real public consequences.

For better or for worse, another consequence of the hobby system of doubting is that, like a dream deferred, there is a chance of explosion. As we perpetually delay going through the accumulated doubts in our spiritual basement, they come to fill the shelves and floorspace. Eventually, there is no more room and the room erupts, flowing into all other aspects of our life. There is no way to contain the doubts anymore, they are too many and too powerful. Our hobby has taken over our life, like an addiction to video games. We may never leave the basement again.

This seems to often be the conclusion of the hobby/doubt system. The thing is that doubt appears to actually be necessary. In this, I don’t mean the idealized doubt of the easily satisfied, wherein one reads a single passage of scripture and is suddently convinced of the way, the truth, and the life. God’s victories are not so cheaply wrought. Instead, I mean real doubt, the kind that comes from ordinary life. Perhaps it may be the result of years of basement doubts; perhaps it is the result of one horrific event. In any case, all people, at one point or another, are brought to doubt, real doubt, not something affected. Who is this God and what does he think he is doing? Real doubt isn’t about how we approach God; it is rather about God himself, life itself, and the meaning we derive therefrom.

We may sometime find ourselves at a point where all of our life has stopped making sense; where clocks starting ticking backwards and dogs walk on their hind legs. Everything that you knew and know is wrong. In the grip of this doubt, there is no turning away or setting aside. One cannot help but make the hole where one’s life was a focus. In the midst of this doubt, we may be presented with a choice: to believe. In particular, the choice is to believe when you don’t really have any good reasons for so doing. This seems crazy, frankly, but it seems to be one of the proofs God demands of us. I used to think that I’d gone through something like this, but I’ve realized that I’d only touched the beginnings. I doubt myself with some frequency, my determination to believe, my knowledge of the truth. Nonetheless, every day I make a choice to believe. I can’t guarantee that I will do so forever; I think I will, but life is long. For now, each day, I believe. In that, I have no doubt.


  1. .

    Without doubt can faith even exist? I suspect Lehi would say no.

  2. Scott T. says:

    Very well said John. I can relate to this in a lot of ways. Nice to know others can feel the same way at times.

  3. leisurelyviking says:

    I really appreciated this line:
    “Real doubt isn’t about how we approach God; it is rather about God himself, life itself, and the meaning we derive therefrom.”
    While I no longer consider myself LDS (the result of a doubt explosion that began to taint everything I held as true), since my exit I’ve come to hold a much more nuanced view of the church and of religion in general. Objective truth is no longer the be all and end all; it’s about deriving meaning from symbols, rituals, codes, and actions. If I had been involved with Sunstone and certain parts of the blogosphere before things came to a head, I can’t help but think I might have been able to stay with the church.

  4. With faith can doubt even exist?

    Faith and doubt are not destinations. They are roads to be traveled. Along the way traveling companions join in the journey–both are spirits. The destinations for the travelers is despair or knowledge.

  5. John, your conclusion is very similar to the advice my parents have often given to their children. They always encourage us to not give up everything we believe because there are some things we don’t understand. I imagine doing so is akin to the old notion of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    I find a great deal of personal growth comes from doubt. Not, as you said, the fleeting, quickly found, quickly solved doubts, but the doubt that makes you dig deep and search hard. It is from such doubt that we come out stronger. I remember a period of intense doubt that I experienced while a freshman at the University of Illinois. It took a while, but by holding on to what I did know and looking hard for answers to the things I didn’t, I found my faith in Christ was stronger than ever before.

    Now I encourage others to bring their questions to the light, so that they can be answered, rather than letting them fester in the basement of the soul.

  6. I have found my motivations have been aligned and clarified due to doubt, helping the poor and those that are lonely has taken on a greater priority, through doubts I realised that perhaps God won’t help these people and if God won’t help them who will?

    Doubt has become a welcome friend to me, I have transitioned from helping others because it is pleaseing to God, and in doing so I’ll receive some greater reward, but because I’m a member of a comunity, my motivations have transitioned from the external to the internal.

    As my faith in God has grown once again, doubt has left behind it’s positve influences, I guess in reality I have moved from a blind faith to a nuanced faith based on reason, commitment and HOPE.

  7. Aaron R. says:

    MrQandA, I think that is a nice idea (the clarification of our motivations because of doubt). Are you also arguing then that faith is a result of the intersections between what we do and what we know? In other words, it seems you are saying that the incongruence of what you were doing with your time crashed against how the world’s poor confronted and that this created a sense of dissonance or doubt which was then resolved by a change in action. Could elaborate a little? I am curious because in someways the doubts you expressed here seem related to the intersection of praxis and belief rather than just belief, which is where most of this discussion usually situates.

  8. #1 Th has it right, I think.

    In the OP, I was struck by the conclusion of a daily choice to believe. I think that’s close to my recent experience, too. Elder Faust used to warn against become to confident in our faith, as if we are untouchable by doubt or temptation.

    I am trying to sort out the doubt-as-hobby image, stuck in the basement. Often though hobbies are in the basement, they still represent a great deal of our time and energy and enthusiasm. When I taught institute I encouraged my students to bring questions, and taught that all questions have answers, though not all answers come quickly or easily, and they may develop over time as we learn more.

  9. Interesting post.
    Its been my experience that doubting takes courage. What I doubt, what I admit that I no longer know is me being truthful with me regardless of how others perceive me.

  10. When I was first in college I knew the church to be completely correct and unfailing. All doubts were unfounded and simple misunderstandings. From the Old Testament through the Doctrine and Covenants on to the Journal of Discourses it all made sense and could easily be proven.
    Through the mission I learned nuances to my understanding and knowledge. I came to understand that sometimes things didn’t necessarily make sense, but that they could still be true.
    As time has worn on this complete knowledge (or naivete) has given way to some doubts. These doubts give me the ability to have faith. Much like Th (1) stated, there is no faith without doubt. Even though my knowledge of church-perfectness has been taken away, it has left room for my faith to grow in its place and the fire burns brighter than it ever did when I could strongly testify to “know” things. Now I am left with belief, and am quite happy to believe.

  11. Doubt has given my life as much meaning as faith has. I like Martin Luther’s (reformation not civil rights) ideas on this: “Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to ‘knowledge-with-doubt’ is no knowledge at all. Only God and certain madmen have no doubts!” To deny our doubts is to deny our humanity as I think the OP stated wonderfully. That being said, the LDS scriptures do not have much good to say about doubt and neither does Christianity in general. See Matt 21:21 and of course James 1:6. Jesus and the apostles say that doubt is something that is to be shunted aside, but this is something I just cannot do and be true to myself.

    In my own life, I have tried to understand how to seek after all knowledge about the “important” things in life even though new knowledge has often clashed with my present-day faith in the immediate scheme of things. I sought and seek knowledge because of doubt in what I had previously believed, and the knowledge I found to be true and not inline with my previously held beliefs resulted in not a crisis, but a growing, changing faith. Faith, above all things, should not be static and I think doubt has a great deal of importance to making sure we grow and do not stagnate in belief.

  12. “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Rene Descartes.

    I think there is value in going on that journey for a period in one’s life…exploring new perspectives and rejuvinating faith.

    However, I’m not sure constant and perpetual doubt is healthy. At certain points, we should find answers that help us. Like Dyson says: “Faith, above all things, should not be static and I think doubt has a great deal of importance to making sure we grow and do not stagnate in belief.”

  13. harikari says:

    @9 – Agreed, and in fact, I think doubt requires much more courage than faith in our culture. Expressions of faith are endlessly validated and rewarded, while doubt is very often threatening to others, seen as an implicit critique of faith and a sign of personal sinfulness, weakness, worldliness, etc. No disrespect to OP, but I think likening it to a “public airing of hobbies” does not communicate the trauma that expressing doubt often causes to relationships within the church. But true enough, we have no cultural or theological mechanism for dealing with doubt in a healthy way. Well, except for anonymous blogging . . .

  14. I think the burden of doubting or of being faithful shifts dependent on context. Certainly, in Sunday School, to speak of your doubts may be seen as courageous (or obnoxious, again, depending on setting). However, at a non-member friend’s dinner party speaking about one’s faith could be viewed in a similar light. Perhaps it is because we are often surrounded by the faithful in church that we feel doubt as a particular burden, but I don’t think it is necessarily heavier than faith.

    Re: hobbies, all hobbyists are obsessives. So inviting someone down to the basement to discuss you scale-model popsicle stick replica of the Taj Mahal is like revealing another side of yourself. One that you keep hidden most of the time. I don’t know that copping to stamp collecting is as damaging to friendship as copping to doubt, but in both cases you are taking a risk.

  15. B.Russ (10) explained what seems to be a common pattern for learning and growing in the Church, a pattern which I think is the intended one according to current correlation. Someone coined the term “teenage mutant Ninja Mormon” to explain the drastic change many lifelong members, like myself, have to go through after watered-down seminary, sunday school, talks, and mission zone meetings, etc. Because the mutation was so difficult for me, I am trying to forewarn my 3 teenage girls about it now, planting seeds of doubt in their seminary-wrought testimonies. Only yesterday, I mentioned Abraham’s “pimping” out his wife, twice, to my daughter studying Old Testament in Sunday School and it very much surprised her. Abraham, in her mind, was a revered prophet and nothing was mentioned about any of that. I asked her if she had read the actual account; she said she had, but admitted to speed reading it. Is there a better way to teach our youth than putting doubt in the basement until it explodes?

  16. Natasha says:

    John, I’m surprised there are only 15 other comments to this post. I never leave “thank you for writing this” comments to people’s posts because it sounds so trite but I really mean it. I cried. Because it caught me in the worst place of doubt I’ve ever been in. I’m doubting everything. I haven’t been reading anti-Mormon literature, I haven’t been talking with anyone, I’m not looking for excuses to sin…. I’m able to come up with questions all from my very own little brain. I feel like I believe hardly anything and it’s devastating and scary but I don’t know how to just MAKE myself believe.

    I was asked to guest post but everything I have to say is negative. I don’t feel emotionally capable of handling any fall-out. All I can do is complain.

    I do believe in the Book of Mormon. I do believe in Jesus Christ. Is it possible that this is all? Gosh, I don’t know.

    I’ve always been very faithful, happy to ask no questions. Until now. My husband reminds me that faith can’t exist without doubt. Doubt’s not inherently bad.

    And the worst part is feeling like I have no one to talk to about it. I don’t want to plant seeds of doubt in someone where there are none. I don’t want to worry my husband. I don’t want pat answers. I want theories! Just give me a theory I can hold on to. I don’t need to know it’s true; I just need to think it’s possible.


  17. “All I can do is complain.”

    I think complaint is underrated as a mental health booster. People always whine about it, which is ironic when you think about it (possibly actually). And asking no questions is a good recipe for a later faith crisis.

    Wow, that isn’t helpful at all. Just know that I like you (as far as I can as an anonymous internet jerk) and that I think what you are going through is normal. Which doesn’t make it pleasant, of course, but you’re not alone. May God be with you and feel free to drop by here when you need/want to.

  18. I liked this post a lot. Everyone has had good things to say.

    I think there is too much tendency to view faith and doubt as categorical motivations for actions, and manifestations of some epistemological puzzle. I think a better model is a sliding scale. Levels of confidence can be termed “faith,” “knowledge,” “belief,” “doubt,” etc. In the end, however, what separates the “faithful,” from the “disbelievers,” to me, is more a function of the kinds, quantities, and forms of evidence we accept or reject. A model for epistemology like this, IMHO, humanizes all of us. We are able to view doubters with more respect, and disbelievers don’t view the faithful as irrational.

  19. Karen M. says:

    I must have missed this post during one of my bloggernacle breaks (sometimes I just feel all Mormoned out). I’m glad there were a couple of comments today so I could see it.

    I echo what has been said that, without doubt, there can’t be real faith. At least not anything more than superficial faith. It was when I first experienced serious doubt that I finally was able to begin to understand the temple ceremony. And the understanding I gained in the temple didn’t dissolve my doubts; it just helped me see that they are necessary to my growth. It was a strange thing to feel both abandoned by God (or my idea of him) and lead by Him at the same time.
    And Natasha, I would argue that you can’t “just MAKE yourself believe”. I think if you try it will only make your doubts stronger. There is a difference (albeit subtle) between choosing to believe and making yourself believe. Good luck. I know how devastating it can be to realize everything you don’t really believe.

  20. Natasha, you have a powerful reservoir of spiritual experiences and faith stored at your blog. Reflecting on some of those might be comforting.

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