Religious Doubt in Adversity

doubting thomasFollowing the November 2015 Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris which killed 130 people and wounded many more, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Justin Welby, was widely reported as admitting to feelings of doubt about the presence of God. For example, the Daily Telegraph (December 6) reported Dr Welby as pondering why the attacks happened, and where God was in the French victims’ time of need. When asked if these attacks had caused him to doubt where God is, he reportedly said: “Oh gosh, yes.”

Now those who don’t believe in God hardly care what the Archbishop says or doesn’t say. The only people who care are those who believe in God. His attentive audience is the Anglican subset of Christian believers. This believer was troubled, as I suspect were others. I don’t think his expression of doubt was appropriate in the circumstances. To be clear, I don’t want this to be thought of as being about Dr Welby, who I respect as the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican community. It is about doubt. Some doubts pass muster, some don’t. I will ponder on the distinction between the two because in this postmodern age we can easily be lulled into thinking that one doubt is just like another. A movie sets the scene.

Signs is a sci-fi movie made in 2002. It’s a good movie with scary aliens. Within its genre, I gave it four out of five. I might have given it four-and-a-half but for its main sub-plot of lapsed and regained faith. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, an Episcopal priest in a small community in Pennsylvania, who loses his faith when his wife is killed in a road accident. Bear in mind that Father Graham, a long-standing member of his community, would have consoled many bereaved families and presumably would have encouraged them in their faith. Yet his faith is seemingly fragile. I would have taken this in my stride if he had not regained his faith when his young asthmatic son (played by Rory Culkin) was saved from death at the hands of an alien through a line of circumstances—from his dying wife’s final remarks, to action taken by his brother (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and, finally, to his son’s asthma affording him protection from the poisonous exhalations of the alien.

It niggled at me when watching the movie and niggles at me still. I have the impression that Father Graham’s faith (in the imagined world beyond the end of the movie) is conditional on no further tragedy affecting those for whom he cares. His seems to be a fair-weather faith.

Is my reaction overblown? I don’t think so, but the question seems worth exploring. It comes to this. Whether and in what circumstances is it legitimate for believers in God, including the clergy, to allow doubt to come between them and their faith?

I don’t believe that this is a matter on which only theologians can opine. Doubt goes to the very heart of the struggle that ordinary churchgoers face in upholding their faith. Belief systems may start off as products of authoritative debate in rarefied cloisters but they don’t last the course unless they make sense in a language that ordinary people can understand.

First it is necessary to define doubt. The OED defines doubt as “a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction”. That’s fine so far as it goes, but common-or-garden usage often conflates doubt and disbelief. “I doubt that,” usually means that it is not believed. Doubting the existence of UFOs can be reliably taken as being synonymous with disbelief. Equally, doubting the existence of God is often synonymous with disbelief.

Starting with the sixth century BC, Jennifer Hecht (Doubt: A History, 2003) explores the history of religious doubt among all significant religions. While recognising the difference between doubt in the form of scepticism and straight-out disbelief, she often treats them as part of the same tapestry; because they often are. As a considered and systematically held position, doubt is code for disbelief.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia puts it plainly:

… whereas a philosophical or scientific opinion may be held provisionally and subject to an unresolved doubt, no such position can be held towards the doctrines of Christianity; their authority must be either accepted or rejected. The unconditional, interior assent which the Church demands to the Divine authority of revelation is incompatible with any doubt as to its validity.

Surely the Catholic Church is right in holding that “unresolved doubt” is in conflict with religious faith. To go to the OED again, religious faith is a “strong belief in a religion, based on apprehension rather than proof”. Thus worldly evidence is neither here nor there in removing doubt and bolstering faith; even if it were obtainable, which it isn’t. Consequently, doubt as a qualifier to belief is a barrier to religious faith.

Agnosticism exemplifies the point. Agnostics are thought to occupy a twilight world between belief and disbelief. They most certainly have unresolved and, in being beholden to proof, irresolvable doubts. I suggest that Thomas might be given the dubious distinction of being the first agnostic in the Christian era. It was fortunate for him that he was uniquely positioned at the time to obtain proof from Christ.

Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2008) refers to an apparent view of the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williams that agnostics were “wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle”. Dawkins himself mostly uses more considered language. Nonetheless, he puts requiring proof of the existence of God in the same category as requiring proof of the existence of the tooth fairy. On its own terms, this seems right to me.

Those who require proof of God’s existence put themselves in the same half of the playing field as occupied by atheists. In hanging out for proof, they are effectively atheists in limbo waiting forlornly for proof that will never come. They are akin to abstainers claiming neutrality on an affirmative resolution requiring a majority of eligible voters to pass. Sorry, in the circumstances, a no-show is as good as a nay.

There would appear to be a conundrum. Not many, if any, of us who believe in God, and think about it, are certain. We have doubts. It comes with the territory. Luckily even the Catholic Church admits of the permissibility of doubt when it is “involuntary”. Thus:

Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated, doubt can lead to spiritual blindness

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2088

Few things are crystal clear when it comes to religion. But the distinction between voluntary and involuntary doubt resonates. Believers certainly recognise involuntary doubt because it enters their minds uninvited. It can be envisaged as a force which regularly buffets the superstructure of religious faith but which, unlike voluntary doubt, does not undermine its foundations.

Os Guinness’s God in the Dark (1996) and John Ortberg’s Know Doubt (2008) are two among many treatments of doubt which tell of its validity. The argument is clear enough. Without doubt faith makes no sense. Doubt generates faith in religion in the same fashion as it generates discovery in science. Of course, religion and science are philosophically apart. Religious doubt is not subject to evidential resolution. It forever hangs about. Ortberg has a nice take on the potential effect this has when he reports a life-long churchgoer as saying: “I would be surprised to find out what I believed all along turned out to be true.” It is also a take which lends itself to scientific analogies that partly bridge the gap between religion and science and, also, offer an insight into the validity or otherwise of religious doubt.

Take Einstein. He might not have been surprised but presumably he was gratified to learn that an experiment conducted in 1919 confirmed that light beams passing the Sun bent to the degree predicted by his General Theory of Relativity. Go further and take a spaceship and head for the moon. However expert is the science and engineering, a leap of faith is required of the astronaut. And that faith might be tested if mechanical faults unexpectedly come to light along the way; and, undoubtedly, landing safely would be treated with relief that things after all had worked out as expected. Let me stretch this particular analogy.

Imagine that the spaceship blasts off with the knowledge that it will be buffeted along the way by geomagnetic storms and meteor showers. These will almost certainly cause intermittent malfunctions of the spaceship’s systems. The astronaut knows all of this. At question is whether he will be resilient in the face of mishaps or fall apart when his navigation systems fail or an asteroid deals his ship a glancing blow. The hope is that the astronaut will retain his faith because he has been forewarned.

Now I would like to go back to the movie character Father Graham. He suffered a grievous tragedy. But he knew that people died in accidents. In this worldly context, his wife’s death was unexceptional. Yet his doubt became crippling.

Dr Welby’s expression of doubt was much milder. Nevertheless, his reported remarks doubting the presence of God when the tragic events in Paris were unfolding were surprising, to say the least. Adults and children die with every passing minute, often tragically. Thousands upon thousands of people have been killed in recent years by Islamic terrorists in the Middle East and North Africa. Road accidents, cancer and natural disasters regularly take the lives of children. Quite simply, if the confidence of the clergy in the presence of God is contingent on the absence of untoward deaths they might as well give up the cloth. Let me contrast Dr Welby’s remarks after the tragedy in Paris with some earlier remarks of his.

BBC News (September 18, 2014) reported him being interviewed when he was touring the English West Country ahead of Holy Eucharist at Bristol Cathedral. He was asked if he doubted the existence of God and responded by saying:

Yes I do. In lots of different ways really … The other day I was praying over something while I was running and I ended up saying to God, “This is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there,” which is not probably what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.

It is important to say that Dr Welby later put his doubts in perspective. “It’s not about feelings, it’s about the fact that God is faithful, and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful even when we’re not.”

There is a distinct difference to note here. It seems to me that the expression of doubt in the West Country falls fairly and squarely in the category of involuntary doubt. Unprovoked thoughts entered the Archbishop’s mind which he later put in perspective. The expression of doubt after the Paris attack is—to my mind—of a different order. This kind of doubt has the potential to separate believers from their faith. Faith becomes a hostage to fortune. And we know that misfortune is ever-present everywhere.

My conclusion is that fair-weather faith is effectively no faith at all. Faith must encompass knowledge that bad things have always happened in the world and always will. The option of atheism is open to those who can’t square God with suffering. It might be objected that many biblical figures have doubted. Val Webb (In Defence of Doubt, 2012) provides a snapshot of numbers of them under the chapter heading of “A Great Tradition of Doubters”. Job is prominently included as a doubter in the face of adversity. While Job never lost his faith he lamented that God was no longer watching over him and queried his predicament—as well he might. Job’s expression of doubt about the presence of God has similarities with Dr Welby’s. But there is a crucial difference. Job was in personal anguish over the tragedies that had befallen him and his family. Crying out in anguish was surely permissible in the circumstances.

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This too, at one level at least, is a cry in personal anguish. And it must, by definition, be permissible.

Personal anguish explains and excuses temporary lapses in faith. This is poles apart from the complete abandonment of faith evinced by Father Graham. As for Dr Welby’s expression of doubt after the Paris attack; senseless suffering on the part of others understandably evokes expressions of sympathy and condolence and often anger and despair. But I would argue that they are the wrong circumstances to express religious doubts.

Let me put it starkly to add weight to the point. How appropriate would it be to voice expressions of doubt in the context of giving the last rites to someone who had been dealt with capriciously and cruelly by man or fate? It is precisely in those circumstances that faith—not doubt—comes to the fore to provide comfort to believers who well understand that bad things happen, and to good people.

Peter Smith is a frequent contributor.


  • colman moloney

    It is a good thing that the good Dr Welby was not around during either World Wars.


    Very good article as per usual Peter. However, as of yet I have not seen a definition for either ‘faith’ or of ‘spirituality’ that I would regard as satisfactory or sufficient enough to convince me that either of them, or religion has a rational basis.
    The King James Bible definition – Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. – does not inspire me. It seems to be merely a cop out or a rationalisation, and that there is no proof possible of its or of ‘Gods’ existence.

    I have religiously inclined relatives but when asked about what faith entails our discussions never gets beyond the stage of – ‘if it needs to be explained to you, you wouldn’t understand it’, or ‘because you are not a ‘believer’ your mind is closed and is unable to grasp the essence of faith and spirituality’.
    In these discussions I am constantly reminded of Robert Bolton’s aphorism – A belief is not an idea that the mind possesses: it is an idea that possesses the mind. ‘


      Thanks for you kind comment ‘denadsel’. I also liked the aphorism. On your relatives, I understand their position because there is nothing to say that I know of that would persuade some atheist friends of mine to change their minds. I think it is like a lot of things, either people change their own minds or they don’t; and people seldom change their minds about politics or religion once they have reached a certain age. Of course there are exceptions. Malcolm Muggeridge famously became a Christian in his old age. So there may be hope for you – just joshing. Peter

  • Lawrie Ayres

    God gave us a free will. We can do whatever we like but He will hold us responsible for our deeds, good or bad. If He were to intervene in our lives or the lives of others our free will would be not free at all. We are all aware of the disasters that occur when governments interfere with free markets for example so God interfering will obviously help some but hinder others so He wisely has a hands off approach but with a promise. Do the right thing and obey His very basic laws and you will be rewarded with everlasting life. That is a pretty good reason to believe. The trouble with Islam is that it removes the ability of adherents to love God and their neighbours in their own way. All actions are prescribed which nullifies any concept of a free will.

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