When you grow up believing that your religious worldview contains the key to absolute truth and provides an answer to every question, you never really get over the disappointment of learning that it doesn’t.
A while ago I saw a satirical piece: “Rachel Held Evans Suffers Momentary Lapse Of Doubt”, and it’s had me thinking ever since about how certainty can be used by the desperate as a defense mechanism against doubt.
I’ve known for some time that Christians do not approach doubt honestly. They have an accepted narrative about doubt–about how it’s developed, how it’s engaged with, and of course how it’s finally, acceptably resolved. Believers have to fit into that narrative as closely as possible or else they’ll face
the love of Jesus punishment. The tribe was like that when I was Christian, and things have only deteriorated since then.
There are, as always, reasons for Christians’ way of dealing with doubt. Because of their relationship with certainty, doubt represents a unique threat to their worldview and group cohesion. Out of every hostile force circling their faith system, sincere doubt is the one thing that they cannot combat–not without losing something more important to them than even the truth.
Little wonder, then, that when presented with a growing amount of evidence contradicting their worldview, they’ve cobbled together a way to deal with a debased sort-of-doubt that they hope will meet their members’ needs.
Certainty as a Defense Mechanism.
We’ve known for a very long time that Christians need a lot of certainty in their lives, and that they don’t handle uncertainty very well. Psychologists sometimes call this kind of certainty “closure,” though it means something slightly different from what the rest of us mean (to most folks, usually “closure” is the total-bullshit idea that a final conversation needs to happen to wrap up a difficult relationship breakup in a neat, easy package).
When psychologists use the term, they’re talking more about a firm answer for all questions and a clear decision that can be made even in ambiguous situations. Everyone has a certain “need for closure” (NFC), which drives how they process information and how quickly and easily they make decisions, cope with unfamiliar situations, change their minds, and move forward to meet goals and deadlines.
As you can guess, some people have a much, much higher NFC than others, and get a lot more rattled by ambiguous situations or unanswered (and unanswerable) questions. They’ll grab at answers faster than other people with a lower NFC will, even when they’re had through clearly incomplete or even untrustworthy information, and they’ll hold onto those answers long after it’s clear to those lower-NFC people that those answers aren’t right. They’ll find it very difficult to process conflicting information if it gets in the way of their precious closure, and may react very poorly indeed to anybody trying to present them information that up-ends their worldview, the carefully-arranged answers that support it, and the life decisions flowing from it.
Authoritarian, dogmatic people who are very conservative politically and personally tend to rate very high on the NFC scale. They also tend to suffer the most from confirmation bias (perceiving only the information that flatters their existing worldview and confirms their existing ideas), to be drawn to punishment/reward systems (and to use threats to sell their ideas rather than persuasion), and to reach for the very first answer that fits into their existing worldview without carefully examining it. They want absolutes (like another group I could name!), and they want rock-solid and complete assurance that they are in the right in whatever they think or do or believe.
Uncertainty is the worst thing that can happen to someone with a high NFC. A moment’s hesitation caused by uncertainty can end up sparking into full-blown doubt. And a worldview promising instant closure, all the time, for every question and situation, can be damned seductive to a person who fears uncertainty.
The thing is, it’s a big bad world out there. A lot of answers aren’t very easy or very simple, a lot of situations are ambiguous, and a lot of information contradicts the idea of the supernatural at all, much less Christianity. Uncertainty is just part of the human situation. As long as you’re alive, you can’t avoid uncertainty any more than you can avoid old age. You might as well come to grips with it so you don’t look ridiculous clinging to faded youth or obviously-incorrect opinions.
Certainty itself becomes the Holy Grail, wielded like a weapon against all forms of doubt and hesitation.
Most Christians have an arsenal of techniques they can use to combat doubt and bring back happy closure. Thought stopping, compartmentalizing, and outright attacks on the person expressing the doubt or the information causing uncertainty are all part of the Christian starter pack. I’ve never seen any Christians manage to actually engage with the cause of the doubt; instead, the advice centers around ignoring the information or hand-waving it away or (if nothing else) navigating around it somehow. If that cannot be done, then the doubter gets blamed for suffering the wrong kind of doubt–which sometimes will quiet them at least and keep them going through the motions of religious observance.
These techniques may well succeed for the sufferers of the highest NFC. For many others, though, doubt becomes the dragon that they cannot slay, one that rises alive anew every morning and cannot be defeated.
For those doubting dragon-fighters, some of Christianity’s leaders now offer a new kind of doubt: one that they actually can slay with the arsenal at their disposal, one that is defeated by their everything-but-the-one-thing-that-matters approach.
A New Kind of Defanged Doubt.
Trendy young Christians now allow themselves to struggle with Doubt Lite, a form of doubt that is sanctioned by their peers and leaders and inevitably leads only to the correct, prearranged conclusions. There are a host of Christians going this route now, often explicitly spelling out exactly how they will fit their doubt into the correct narrative.
Rachel Held Evans has made a whole career out of struggling with doubt; she’s written several best-selling books on the subject and tackles it regularly on her blog, to the absolute consternation of the evangelicals commenting there. (That’s why that satirical piece was so funny!) She engages with doubt in the exact same way that I once engaged with a then-partner’s substance abuse: over time his addiction eclipsed the entire relationship, to the point where my thinking was centered around this one thing rather than on us as a couple.
Yes, I’m describing codependence. In the same way, it really seems like it’s ten times more of a hassle to stay Christian and deal with that level of doubt all the time than it is to just walk away to a better, more reality-centered worldview, but a person caught in the teeth of a very high need for closure will find it impossible to leave a situation that promises closure, even if it never delivers on that promise. The promise alone will exert an inexorable grip. Such a person will do everything under the sun to find a way to make it all work somehow–any way at all, even a way that seems like way too much effort for way too little reward to others.
Like her peers in this trendy new kind of doubt, Rachel Held Evans neatly divides uncertainty into “good doubt” and “bad doubt.” Good doubt is borne out of obedience, humility, and love, while bad doubt comes from disobedience, entitlement, and cynicism. You can tell what good doubt is, of course, because it “strengthen[s] your faith” while bad doubt “hurt[s] your faith.” If someone doubts and comes out of it deconverting, obviously they suffered bad doubt rather than good doubt, even if they totally entered their period of doubt through obedience, humility, and love, as our friend Neil Carter did when he wrote a whole book of apologetics pablum, beheld the finished product, and realized he no longer believed a single word of what he himself had written.
He is far from the only ex-Christian I could name who engaged with his or her doubt under similar terms and had similar results. But none of us exist in the Christian world. There, someone who has the correct motivations and mindset will always come out of it with the correct resolution to doubt: greater certainty and faith.
There are now dozens of books out on the Young Adult Christian market that all seek to explain the correct way to doubt and how to navigate doubt to come out of it a stronger believer. Online, as well, you can hear Christians sanctimoniously explain that doubt is very painful but once resolved will result in an even stronger faith that is, as William Lane Craig explains, “truly [one’s] own,” before declaring that “doubt is prevalent in the life of the so-called carnal Christian,” echoing the standard-issue Doubt Lite blame-game and attack on the character of someone he doesn’t even know.
You won’t hear a Christian talking about doubt in any other way; if you only knew about their works, you’d be excused for thinking that there is no other way to handle or resolve doubt.
Sometimes it seems like they’re trying to vaccinate themselves against the real monster of doubt by toying with this little-bitty mini-doubt instead. Either way, when this defanged doubt is defeated, then the Christian is totally at peace again. Uncertainty has been averted; closure has been re-acquired; certainty and peace have returned to the land. Hooray Team Jesus!
It might even work, at least until the next time the doubt-dragon comes slithering around, slinking past the compartmented boxes, overpowering the forced positivity and cheerfulness, whispering through the barrage of thought-stoppers.
It’s genuinely heartbreaking to see a Christian who has begun to realize that the resolution of this defanged Doubt Lite wasn’t satisfactory, and that their uncertainty has become untenable. Especially if it’s a Christian with a very high NFC, this realization can be really dramatic and difficult to bear.
Certainty is the currency of fundamentalism.
One of the common criticisms of this trendy new Doubt Lite comes from fundagelicals themselves, who are drastically offended at the idea that a Christian should ever feel any kind of doubt, even this adulterated ersatz version of it. They believe that the Bible does indeed deal in total absolutes, and because of that they can be totally for sure certain of a number of their opinions. As one commenter on Rachel Held Evans’ blog declares, with a stunning non sequitur logical fallacy that he is blithely unaware of committing, “If we CAN be certain of anything then there ARE Absolutes.” (The capital letter there is a big tip-off that he doesn’t actually know WTF he’s talking about.)
They’re right about one thing, though, and possibly only that one thing. Faith is really all they’ve got. At this point they’ve hitched their wagon to Biblical literalism, which is about as unreliable a source of absolutes as it gets, and yet they idolize absolutes as a mark of divinity. The only way anybody could buy into literalism is through faith, because certainly nothing else would ever support the idea.
As much as these Christians cling to pseudoscience and junk history, as eagerly as they consume apologetics and its appallingly-irrational thinking, as hard as they argue with dissenters about this or that miracle they totally think someone saw, in the end they’ll always retreat back to their own boundless certainty that their beliefs are true and that their claims have merit. “Oh, well, you just have to have faith,” is the invariable sniffed response you’ll get once they’re backed completely into a corner surrounded by the debris of their shattered arsenal.
One should be wary indeed, too, of the head-spinning philosophical sorts like Alvin Plantinga who try to argue that belief itself, if strong enough, can qualify as knowledge all by itself, and the apologists who have made a career out of trying to argue that if they can possibly imagine something, then it must be true and real. The sheer intellectual dishonesty involved here ought to stop anybody dead in their tracks, and indeed probably does–at least for people who don’t have such a great need for certainty that they devour even these substitutes for truth. Philosophy is wonderful–but it has to intersect with reality and be based on reality, or else its adherents risk heading off into the weeds.
Most fundagelicals won’t ever get that far, though. I’d be willing to bet 90% of them haven’t ever even heard of Plantinga or those other ivory-tower academics. That same 90% is likely also sure that a properly prayed-up, Jesus-fizzing Christian won’t ever be uncertain about their faith or about their Heaven-bound status. Suffering uncertainty? Then maybe you oughta get back on your knees till you’re sure again. Only carnal Christians* doubt this stuff.
Yes, there are a lot of things we can be pretty certain about. We can be sure that evolution is a thing that happened and is still happening. We can be sure that a broken system’s architects will tend to maintain that system to keep their power to themselves. We can be sure that people own their own bodies and don’t owe the use of their bodies to anybody. We can be sure that there’ll be a tomorrow–if not for ourselves, then for most folks on this planet. And we can be sure that the supernatural, as people tend to use the term, isn’t a real thing that we need to worry about.
But we can be sure of those things because we can test them and see them in action. You’re not going to be able to test the supernatural because for a start you’d have to come up with a hard definition for what it even is, and nobody’s really managed to do that outside of “well it’s not natural, duh.” You’re not going to manage to test the existence of the Christian god because nobody can agree on a definition of that being either.
Worse, what you can actually test in Christianity tends to fail those tests in a drastic and unequivocal way, to the point where Christians can only have any evidence for their beliefs after thoroughly redefining the very word “fact” to the point where the bar is set low enough for their pseudoscience and logical fallacies to succeed at last on those terms.
That’s not a very good way to deal with doubt, and it’s little wonder that so many people are deconverting and walking away from their onetime churches. Sooner or later, all but those with the highest need for closure are going to be overwhelmed by the wealth of dissenting information available. Add to Christian leaders’ problem the fact that the social risks of engaging with that information–and deconverting as a result–are growing lower every year thanks to the growing, swelling numbers of ex-Christians, and they’ve got a ticking time bomb on their hands.
The worst part? I mean, the really worst worst part? The only real way they could honestly engage with the problem of doubt in their ranks is to meet it head-on, accepting that their standard apologetics arguments and pseudoscience simply don’t work and aren’t trustworthy. And they can’t do that because legions of them make a living off that nonsense, and legions more believe that this stuff is in fact trustworthy when it’s not. The religion’s leaders aren’t about to risk alienating vast numbers of Christians who buy into this form of fake-doubt to possibly draw unknown numbers of Christians back into the fold by giving them permission to feel real doubt and losing the choke-hold on literalism that is causing the whole cruel dilemma.
Christianity is a religion for people who need closure more than they need the truth. Accepting and honestly engaging with uncertainty would invalidate the whole reason that so many people buy into the religion in the first place. Thankfully, more and more people appear to be coming to the realization that the truth matters more than closure once did, and are pursuing that truth right out of their onetime religion.
* Carnal Christian: Christianese for someone who isn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. It’s a more Jesus-y way of saying “a fake Christian.” Carnality means the opposite of spirituality: “of the flesh/body/material world,” which is to say “sin,” so a carnal Christian is a Christian who is unapologetically sinning or living in a hypocritical way, or whose life is indistinguishable from that of a non-Christian. As you can guess, it is just the worst for a Christian to be accused of this.