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The nature of faith and doubt

April 17, 2009

In one of my favorite games, Star Ocean 2, there is a spell early on. It wasn’t powerful, but it was special nonetheless because it was the first spell that targeted all enemies on the screen. Ah, Celine, how I enjoyed your Ray spell.

They remade Star Ocean 2 but their new translation team renamed a bunch of things that old fans like myself had gotten used to. So, imagine my surprise when I played the game, and my magician Celine learned …Laser beams?

Laser beams? This doesn’t even make sense! This is some girl from a medieval-era world and you’re telling me she knows about LASERS?!

Anyway…this post isn’t about laser beams. It’s about Ray. Ray from Things of My Soul. Recently, he wrote a post about Faith, Doubt, and Uncertainty, and I wanted to talk about it.

Ray’s point (if I understand him correctly…there have been a few times when I have completely misrepresented people) is that even with faith, there is another component — uncertainty — that may not be a bad thing at worst and at best may actually be what empowering for growth. Instead, what is problematic is doubt, which does not coexist with faith. Doubt is an “active disbelief” to Ray, that excludes the exercising of faith.

I think I agree with some of his major ideas…at least in one way or another…but the framework and operational definitions he uses make me hesitant to fully accept. Let’s go through:

1) “Faith” is not “knowledge”. It is the substance of things “hoped for” – the evidence of things “not seen”. Faith is based on “hope” – a desire for something that cannot be seen or understood fully. “Certainty” is the end of faith – the desired outcome...

Sounds good. After all, my basic intention when I write articles about agnosticism and atheism is to argue that etymologically and intuitively, agnosticism/gnosticism are dimensions to questions about knowledge, but theism and atheism are dimensions to an entirely different question — a question about belief, which includes faith. If one believes without knowledge, the gap is either left unfilled (uncertainty) or filled up with something other than knowledge (faith).

So far, so good. But then we get to point 2:

2) On the other hand, “doubt” is not a lack of certainty. It is not a passive lack of belief or faith, but rather an active disbelief. It is expressed as a negative. It is NOT expressed as, “I am not certain of that,” but rather as, “I doubt that is true” – meaning, “I don’t think that is true,” or “I don’t believe that is true.”

I can accept that doubt is not a lack of certainty…but then…with the way I look at statements of disbelief, the rest of his point destroys itself. Ray first claims that doubt is not a passive lack of belief or faith, but rather an ‘active belief’ that is ‘expressed as a negative.’ This doesn’t make sense to me, even when I take into consideration that Ray uses terms like faith, doubt, belief, disbelief in their verbal or adjectival forms rather than the noun forms. I like how he states it in the end, “I don’t believe that is true.” This statement is, in fact, a negative. It negates the belief statement “I believe this to be true.” It is a lack of that belief statement. You don’t have that belief. You don’t do that conscious action of believing.

…But then, with this description, this precisely is a “passive lack of belief or faith.” “Active disbelief” makes no sense when one uses the phrase, “I don’t believe…” For it to be active, one would have to believe: for example, POSITIVE or STRONG atheism ACTIVELY believes, “I believe there is no God.” This is wholly different than the negative position Ray is referring to, “I do not believe this is true.”


3) Faith exists NOT in conjunction with doubt, but rather it functions side-by-side with “uncertainty”. One exercises faith when one is uncertain; one does NOT exercise faith when one doubts. When one doubts s/he actively disbelieves – thus, the one who said he would not believe until he personally had seen and touched was called “Doubting Thomas”. He didn’t say, “I’m not sure.” He said, instead, “I will not believe unless . . .” He could not exercise faith, not because he was uncertain, but rather because he actively doubted.

OK, so I can understand the gist of this, and with some major adjustments, I can agree.

My doubt — what I would supposed I would call my disbelief — does not coincide with faith and belief because it is in fact an impossibility. I lack belief in God; obviously, that excludes possessing belief in God.

One might ask…why don’t I just start believing in God? I think what Ray tries to do is patch the hole up by saying that doubt is active…so the reason someone doesn’t believe is because they actively doubt.

I disagree. It boggles my mind how I would actively choose to…not believe. I actually believe that such belief or faith is not chosen…It is not enough to choose to say “I believe in God” or even start pretending to live that way. One has to feel this in his heart, mind, soul, whatever, and *this* isn’t chosen. I wrote about this in a comment on his site, in fact. Even when I used to say, “I believe in God, ” I knew I was living a lie, and the discrepancy between what I felt (namely: no belief) and what I was saying and trying to live (a belief in God) created anxiety for me.

On the other hand, I recognize that for people who have true faith, they are different. Their faith *is* that grounding of belief in the heart. So it would bring anxiety for them to try to say they don’t believe — because they can’t feign nonbelief when they believe.

So, if someone cannot exercise faith, it isn’t because they actively doubt, or “choose” to doubt. It is because a passive, yet STILL pervasive feature of their core will not allow it peaceably. So, if I may take something Ray said:

Faith is the active expression of an internal orientation toward belief; doubt is the active expression of an internal orientation toward disbelief.

I’d qualify by saying that each of these *are* be internal orientations (compasses that you find your ideal direction with), but about that idea of “active” expression… I don’t think faith nor doubt are active in the way one is active when one runs (a choice). But they may certainly be active in the way one’s heart beats…while action indeed happens, in CONSCIOUS terms, it is passive, but it is STILL pervasive. Running may affect the heart beat, but that is not to say that one chooses to keep beating.

From here I think the distinctions become too great. Mormon theology (and Ray’s admonition to have faith in something and not succumb to doubt) requires freedom that is so novel — suggesting that one can simply “desire to believe.” But the way I see it, the ‘desire to believe’ is like sexual orientation — we don’t choose it, and if we can change what we’re given, it sure as heck isn’t EASY to do. While I agree that uncertainty should not be the straw that breaks faith’s back, if we’re given to doubt or have faith, these inner inclinations are our compass. But if we are to ignore one inclination — doubt, for example — to cling to another inclination despite the anxiety it will create in us, then what use is the compass within us of anxiety on one end and peace on the other?

Why even have a compass that inclines us if we are meant to continually go against it and bring anxiety to ourselves?

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