The role of congregations in reconciling faith and doubt

“Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” - Theologian Paul Tillich

“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” - Gospel of Mark 9:24.

The wounds of the Oklahoma City bombing were still fresh, and the rescue worker quietly, almost apologetically, admitted to a group of churchgoers that he wondered where God was as he stood amid the rubble where so many innocent lives were buried.

Almost immediately, others gathered around the table jumped in to tell the man not to question the sovereignty of God. One minister said he thought the people died for a city and a nation that needed to experience love overcoming evil. A laywoman said that “Satan’s worst” was more bombs and more people killed, but that God intervened with quick action by law enforcement.

Not long after, the rescue worker slipped away from the group without a word.

Expressing doubt may be a staple of Scripture, from the Book of Job to the plea of Jesus as he faced his death “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But it still unsettles many religious people, who fear that it demonstrates a lack of faith.

And that fear, when expressed in judgmental attitudes to others struggling in their own spiritual journey, can alienate churchgoers dealing with doubt, and contribute to problems from loss of social support to depression, research indicates.

In contrast, listening to and supporting others in their moments of doubt can foster a healthy relationship with the divine that enables human beings to talk honestly with God. Many end up with a stronger faith by working through rather than suppressing mysteries such as the deaths of innocents, some scholars say.

What is clear is that those who doubt are not alone.

In a survey of 834 respondents to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, more than three-quarters of worshipers said they often or sometimes had doubts about the teachings of their faith. The uncertainty was spread across every faith group, with two-thirds of conservative Protestants and more than four-fifths of mainline Protestants expressing at least some doubts.

In the wake of the recent mass murder of children in a Connecticut elementary school, it may come as the no surprise that the problem of evil in a world overseen by a just and loving God is a leading cause of doubt. More than half the respondents to the congregational life survey said the presence of evil caused them to have doubts about their religious faith.

So how does doubt make a difference in the lives of individuals?

The research picture is mixed, with some studies over the past few decades reporting seemingly contradictory results.

On the positive side, studies have associated aspects of religious doubt with principled moral reasoning, reduced prejudice and spiritual well-being, researchers at Indiana Wesleyan University reported in an article on adolescent religious doubt in the Journal of Psychology and Theology. They also noted some studies have linked religious doubt to higher levels of anxiety and depression, low commitment to religion, less social support and greater distrust and intolerance.

When faced with doubt, much of the research does reveal, however, the value of having positive  relationships with others at church.

In one study of older adults conducted in three waves from 2001 to 2007, researchers found that over time, people who receive greater support and attend Bible study groups are more likely to seek spiritual growth when faced with doubt.

But people who have negative experiences with others are more likely to have doubts about religion. They also are more likely to suppress those doubts, an action associated with less favorable health, 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.

Churchgoers who encounter conflict and derision when they express doubt may find this “especially painful because it may involve feelings of shame and guilt. Shame and guilt may arise because people may feel as though it is wrong to question fundamental aspects of their faith,” Krause and Ellison note.

In their study on adolescent religious doubt, Indiana Wesleyan researchers said that a process of exploring different ideas and asking basic questions can be seen as a healthy part of psychological development.

Instead of condemning all doubt as unbelief, the researchers suggest parents and adult caregivers in the church affirm young people who doubt, and give them some “elbow room” for exploration.

“Practically speaking, … some adult caregivers in the church will need a more balanced perspective  on religious doubt enabling them to respond to the doctrinal uncertainty, questions, and hesitations of religious youth as opportunities for discussion, exploration, and growth, not only as threats needing to be silenced,” the researchers said.

In other words, doubt not only happens, for many people asking questions of God is an integral part of their spiritual journey.

What churchgoers may want to consider is not how to deliver people from doubt, but how not to be led into the temptation to judge, rather than embrace, their sister or brother on their journey to understanding.