Taking the fear out of doubt may lead to healthier congregations

I have attended weekend retreats the past couple of years with more than 100 men from neighboring churches. For the most part, they are good experiences, filled with worship, prayer and fellowship.

But there are times when I feel a little bit worse than I did before – those times when the retreat directors show films they created or give presentations that explicitly or implicitly give the impression that with enough faith all your struggles will go away.

If only it were that simple.

But for many of us, including the most religiously observant Americans, the journey to spiritual understanding comes with peaks and valleys.

Three quarters of U.S. worshipers said they at least sometimes have doubts about the things they have learned in their faith, according to a random sample of 834 respondents to the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey. Sixty-three percent said they sometimes doubted whether solutions to their problems could be found in the Bible.

But having doubts should not be equated with a lack of faith.

In analyzing the US CLS results, researcher Ida Smith found worshipers with low levels of doubt were more likely to attend worship frequently, spend time in devotional activities, participate in congregational activities and experience growth in their faith.

But even worshipers with high levels of doubt showed strong commitment to their faith, Smith found in her study on “Doubting Thomases: Characteristics of High Doubters Versus Low Doubters.” Smith, a researcher with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the congregational life survey, presented her findings at the recent annual meeting of the Religious Research Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

For example, 95 percent of high doubters believe there is a life beyond death, 93 percent said Jesus will return to Earth some day and 92 percent said Jesus was raised from the dead after his crucifixion.

While 79 percent of low doubters said they attended worship weekly or more, 74 percent of high doubters reported attending with the same frequency.

Table 1

And even though it was less than the 95 percent of worshipers with low levels of doubt who experienced some growth in their faith over the past year, seven in eight high doubters said they grew in their faith.

Table 2

Scripture offers several prominent examples of a questioning faith, from the Book of Job to the plea of Jesus as he faced his death “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Yet the fears of expressing doubt or sharing suffering remain for many religious individuals who worry such admissions may signal a lack of faith or divine judgment.

It only becomes worse when their fears are realized. Congregants who judge others struggling in their spiritual journey can alienate churchgoers dealing with doubt, and contribute to problems from loss of social support to depression, research indicates.

Churchgoers who encounter conflict and derision when they express doubt may find this “especially painful because it may involve feelings of shame and guilt,” researchers Neal Krause and Christopher Ellison of the University of Michigan reported in an article on “the doubting process” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. “Shame and guilt may arise because people may feel as though it is wrong to question fundamental aspects of their faith.”

In practical terms, it doesn’t seem to cut it to tell people who may be grieving for a loved one or overwhelmed caring for a spouse with dementia or worrying how they will support their family after a job loss just to have more faith.

“The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost,” Pope Francis said in an interview with the Rev. Antonio Spadaro.

And doubts, rather than something to be feared or avoided, may best be seen as part of the continuing journey into the light.