In an October 2013 talk called “Come, Join With Us” Pres. Uchtdorf welcomed everyone to be a part of the church, even if they have doubts. He famously said:
First doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.
It’s a great line. Some have taken it to mean that Pres. Uchtdorf is saying that there is no room for doubt, that only the faithless doubt, that doubting your faith should never ever happen. Given the rest of the talk, that seems like an unlikely interpretation. He speaks with empathy toward those who have doubts and invites everyone to join and participate in church regardless of their doubts.
In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.
Let’s take a closer look at what the word “before” might mean. As a non-native English speaker, Pres. Uchtdorf’s word choice is likely to be more precise and deliberate than our colloquial, casual word choices usually are. There are three possible ways the word “before” can be interpreted, and each one changes the meaning of his statement.
When the word “before” is used between two alternate options, it often means “instead of” in lazy or casual speech. For example: “Talk to someone before you commit suicide.” Clearly the speaker’s intent is not that you have a conversation with a person and then proceed to kill yourself. In this sentence it simply means not to do the thing you are considering, but to do something that is deemed a better alternative instead.
For those who find doubt highly objectionable, it is easy to interpret Pres. Uchtdorf as saying “Instead of doubting your faith, doubt your doubts.” And yet, that’s not what he said. This is also a very colloquial use of the word “before,” one that is a very imprecise way of speaking. “Before you eat that poison, read the warning label!” Again, if he is simply saying “Don’t do that ill-advised thing! Do something else instead!” using the word “before” isn’t a clear or accurate way to convey that meaning, and I refuse to believe that someone so handsome and multi-lingual would make such a rookie grammatical error.
The preposition “before” is also used to place activities in a sequence. This interpretation is supported by his beginning the phrase with “First,” as in “First add the vanilla before you fold in the egg whites.” In this example, the speaker obviously wants you to add both the vanilla and the egg whites but to do so in a specific order.
If the phrase intends a sequential process, it would mean that step one is that you doubt your doubts, and then once you’ve done that correctly, you can proceed to step two, doubting your faith. If you do it in the wrong order something in the recipe won’t work properly. Changing the sequence changes the results.
Similar to the sequential meaning of “before,” the word can be used to indicate priority. Rather than pointing to the order in which activities should occur, this contrasts two things in terms of importance, as in the phrase “Bros before hos,” indicating that male friends are more important to the speaker than female lovers.
Interpreting Pres. Uchtdorf’s quotation in this light would mean that while both doubting one’s doubts and doubting one’s faith are worthwhile, it’s more important or a higher priority to doubt one’s doubts.
This is similar to the idea of being an optimist rather than a pessimist when it comes to faith or erring on the side of faith rather than doubt. When weighing both doubt and faith on the scales, perhaps he is suggesting to let your finger weigh the faith side a little bit more. Give your faith the benefit of the doubt rather than the other way around. He could also simply mean to spend more time doubting your doubts and less time doubting your faith.
The Window and the Mirror
His advice reminds me of the famous description Jim Collins uses in his best selling book on business Good to Great. Collins refers to leaders looking out a window to see external causes or looking in a mirror to see their own shortcomings. He says that when times are tough, most leaders and companies have a tendency to look out the window to find external causes (market failures, unpredictability, competitors) to blame for the failure, and when times are good they tend to look in the mirror, assuming the majority of the credit for their success.
By contrast, Collins says that great leaders humbly look out the window to find the sources of their success – market factors, timeliness, and sheer luck–and they look in the mirror during tough times, asking themselves how they might have contributed to the problems and how they might make personal changes to solve those problems. Thus the differentiator between good leaders and great ones is personal humility and willingness to be self-critical.
First Things First
If Pres. Uchtdorf’s advice is that both doubting your faith and doubting your doubts are potentially useful activities, but that you should first (in either sequence or priority) doubt your doubts, why give precedence to doubting one’s doubts?
First of all, what does it mean to doubt your doubts? It’s not as simplistic as it sounds. Of course, some have taken it to mean “don’t doubt at all” or “doubt all doubting,” but that isn’t what he said. He said to doubt your doubts. Doubting is a qualitative evaluation process to avoid error and logical fallacies. He is suggesting we should apply skepticism inwardly toward our doubts, not just outwardly toward our faith.
A recent article points out the mistakes atheists often make in assuming they are past logical fallacies. All personal beliefs, whether scientific or religious, are founded on assumptions, philosophies and past experiences. From the article:
If we hold beliefs that we come to recognize are misguided or unsupported, we shouldn’t be hesitant to engage with the ideas and revise our position. If we are forced to change our strategy in argumentation, or perhaps our entire worldview, then for the sake of reason and truth, let it be.
Any seeker of truth will see the value in this approach.
We should consider:
- What exactly are your doubts? Can you clearly articulate them or list them? Are they based in part on assumptions, expectations, faulty premises or other subjective elements?
- Why are they yours? Why are these doubts the ones that you find compelling (vs. other doubts)?
- How do you figure in to these doubts? What personal qualities are contributing to your being doubtful? How do your feelings, behaviors, personal stories, and family relationships relate to your specific doubts?
- What emotions fuel your doubts? Do you have pet peeves or a personal stake in these doubts? If you had amnesia and were presented with the same information would you feel the same about these doubts?
- Are you avoiding logical fallacies?
- Are you too stupid to see the logical fallacies you aren’t avoiding?
- Are your doubts precise and informed or are there heuristics (mental shortcuts) at play?
Some of the specific examples of doubting one’s doubts that Pres. Uchtdorf includes are:
Allowing for missing context when evaluating the past.
Sometimes questions arise because we simply don’t have all the information and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn’t make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction.
Realizing that all leaders (and everyone else) are fallible and are hypocrites.
And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
If you define hypocrite as someone who fails to live up perfectly to what he or she believes, then we are all hypocrites. None of us is quite as Christlike as we know we should be. But we earnestly desire to overcome our faults and the tendency to sin.
Clarifying that different people interpret “facts” differently.
Sometimes there is a difference of opinion as to what the “facts” really mean. A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others.
Once you have given fair weight to evaluating and articulating what your doubts are and why you have those specific doubts, which can admittedly be a lifetime endeavor, you can then doubt your faith using many of the same evaluative techniques. You will have at least gotten some good practice in.
Jonathan Haidt spoke of an elephant and a rider to explain why we believe the things we believe. Our beliefs and actions are like the elephant, and our explanations of why we did what we did and why we believe what we believe are like the rider. The elephant goes where it goes, and the rider simply works as PR, explaining why the elephant went where it went. But the reasons, like most PR statements, are made up. The rider has no true insight into the elephant’s thinking. The explanations follow the elephant’s actions, but they don’t predict or control the actions.
If you simply doubt your faith without questioning your own motives, emotions, and assumptions, you may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. You may be looking out the window to assign blame when a part of the reason for your doubts is always in the mirror, hidden within. The real purpose of the gospel is self-knowledge and improvement. Doubting your doubts leads to self-knowledge whereas doubting your faith without self-knowledge and humility generally leads to justification and rationalization.
You may accidentally replace an unfounded faith with an unfounded doubt.
If you first doubt your doubts, there are two immediate benefits: 1) better self-knowledge and 2) better doubting skills; practice makes perfect. Then when you doubt your faith, you will be less prone to error.
This is prophetic counsel indeed.
 I know; it’s been Pinterested to death.
 The use of the word “faith” is also enigmatic. There’s a double meaning implied. One’s faith can either mean one’s own beliefs and personal spiritual experiences, or it can mean the religion to which we belong. In the former meaning, doubting our faith is akin to self-doubt; it is questioning the validity and accuracy of our spiritual experiences. In the latter meaning, doubting our faith is akin to looking out the window at flaws in the church, its history and leaders. Most of his examples suggest this latter perspective, but both are sources of doubt that seem to be common to church members.