The Fear of Doubt
It seems that one of the greatest fears of many religious people is the fear of doubt. There are many types of fear, and there are many kinds of doubt; most of us, I think, are familiar with both. However, I don’t think many people stop to recognize the fear of doubt, which is not uncommon among those identifying with strong ideological groups. They fear their own tendencies to doubt, but also fear doubt in others, because of the potential for awakening their own doubt. As I write this I am reminded of a song off Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Coil album, “Don’t Fade,” which deals head-on with this:
How could you forsake the love of God that way?
Don’t fade, you’re staying here with me
Don’t fade, I need to know that someone still believes.
Following up on my prior post on Why I Am Not a Joiner, the fear of doubt challenges our perceived commitment to an ideological group such as a church, as well as to the ideology (such as belief in God) itself. I would hazard to guess it is more common among more conservative groups, which are conservative simply because they have laid down extraneous qualifications for belonging, such as a belief in inerrancy, literalist interpretations, and doctrines such as Calvinism or dispensationalism. The more fundamentalist a group gets, the number of extra qualifications for membership increases, as does the opportunities for the fear of doubt, which becomes the worst sin imaginable for the group. Immorality, for example, can be tolerable and even forgiven. Doubt, however, is like a plague that must be eradicated. What’s worse is that these extraneous doctrines become so associated with faith itself, that when people do lose faith in, say, Creationism, or Biblical inerrancy, they will throw the baby out with the bath and walk away from Christianity altogether.
This fear of doubt often becomes cyclical: The fear of doubt, and the need to maintain control, causes leaders to insitute more rules about belief, beleiving that setting up these rules will keep doubters and non-believers out of the group. This in turn results in a strong group-think, which then causes a fear of doubt among the members, because doubt is the greatest enemy of belonging. And belonging is important. It’s so important, in fact, that the fear of doubt even plagues those who self-identify with a particular group, even if they have no direct ties (an example would be someone who is a “follower” of a TV faith preacher).
The fear of doubt can also keep people insulated from the outside world. Truth becomes secondary to the prescribed beliefs of the group, so any challange, no matter how well-reasoned or supported (like the earth rotating around the sun) is matter-of-factly rejected by the group. Truth, it would seem, should be everyone’s goal, and encourage everyone to work together to acheive that goal. However, tribal mentality puts the tribe before lofty goals like truth or the well-being of others, to the detriment of everyone.
I’m a fan of truth. I’d rather not believe in something that isn’t true, especially if it matters. On the other hand, if I choose to believe that the Vikings could actually win the next Superbowl, there’s no real harm done, except to my eventual disappointment. Facing the truth when it conflicts with your current beliefs is often uncomfortable, especially if you’ve found some type of security in that belief. However, I believe that reality and truth are good things, especially where you will have to eventually face the truth anyway.
I have, at times, suffered from a secondary fear of doubt; that is, a fear of doubt in others. I would expect this is common for people who are parents or who have served in various pastoral roles. However, I’m getting over it. After years in communities where doubt was a bad word, I find discussions of doubt now to be a breath of fresh air. Doubt is at least honest; proclamations of belief are not always.
The following is, I think, an amazingly honest treatment of faith and doubt, by Kasey Chambers. The video features her son, Talon, who inspired the song by telling her that he believes in God when he’s with her, but doesn’t when he’s at his dad’s house. In some ways this whole post serves as an intro to the song:
Apparently there’s a problem in my embedding so here’s the link: http://youtu.be/8Rh62aWp5Ow