Faith, doubt and difficult questions

Thinker

I imagine we all have doubts about all sorts of things we think are true, whether it is religious belief, politics, personal relationships or other choices we make. For many christians, especially those raised in christian families, adult life requires many aspects of belief to be re-considered.

How should we deal with this?

Faith vs reason?

Some christians take the view that we know what is true (whether that be God, Jesus, the Bible or the teachings of the church), we just need to hold on to our faith. Sceptics generally oppose that approach, arguing that reason and evidence should govern all our decisions.

But sceptics seem to misunderstand christian faith. For most of us, reason and evidence is important, but following Jesus and faith in God are personal matters as well as evidential matters. Some of us place more importance on evidence and reason (that would be me!), others place greater importance on faith, but almost all of us think both are important.

So how to deal with doubt?

Dealing with doubt

Peter Enns is an Old Testament scholar and a blogger. I follow his blog because he brings a fresh perspective to some Old Testament questions (and was required a few years ago to leave the evangelical seminary where he was lecturing because of his views on Adam & Eve – see The Bible: scholarship vs faith? (1)). He seems to me to be a christian with a strong faith and a keen, open mind.

He has recently started a series on his blog, Challenges to Staying Christian. He has asked for input on difficult questions, sorted the input into 5 themes, and now will initiate discussion on them. He intends to keep the discussion non-polemical and sensitive to those who are sharing their doubts, even to the extent of removing argumentative posts if necessary.

I think it will be well worth following, and I recommend it to you.

Next post

Next post I’ll get back to the “Christianity is Changing” series with a post on dealing with doubt personally.

Photo Credit: planetschwa via Compfight cc

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9 thoughts on “Faith, doubt and difficult questions

  1. Nate says:

    I have a high respect for Peter Enns too — at least from what little I know of him. I thought his book Inspiration and Incarnation (I think that’s the name…) was excellent. Of course, I admire anyone who puts speaking the truth about their beliefs above toeing the traditional line.

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  2. unkleE says:

    Thanks. Yes, that’s the name. I have just received it from Amazon, and look forward to reading it. He’s not the only one rebelling!! 🙂

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  3. hausdorff says:

    “But sceptics seem to misunderstand christian faith.”

    I have seen this statement a lot recently, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually seen an explanation of what faith is instead. I grew up Christian, and faith was always the reason given to believe in things.

    “Believe in God”
    “why?”
    “just have faith”

    As I grew older I realized I had no actual good reasons to believe in the stuff I had been taught as a kid. Faith was the reason given when no good reason was available. So when I hear things like “faith is the excuse people give themselves to believe things they can’t justify”, it very much rings true to my experiences in the church.

    Clearly you would argue that I am missing the point. My understanding of faith is wrong, faith is different somehow. I’m wondering if you can articulate how exactly. What is faith to you? How is it different than what I experienced?

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  4. unkleE says:

    Hi Hausdorrf, that is a worthwhile question.

    The dictionary defines faith as:

    1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.
    2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
    3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.
    4. belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty.
    5. a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.

    I think most of these are relevant. I think it starts with #2. I look at the evidence, and I find that there are reasons to believe God exists and Jesus was/is his incarnation/son, but also reasons to doubt that conclusion. My judgment is that the reasons for strongly outweigh the reasons against. So I have good reason to believe, but nowhere near proof. Faith #2 takes me from that point to a commitment to follow Jesus, which then involves #3-5.

    Then at some time later I have doubts about my belief, which is the question I was discussing in this post. And that is when the two aspects come into consideration. When I doubt, I need to consider if there are new evidential reasons that mean I should change my belief in some way (#2 again). But it may be that my doubt isn’t based on evidence, but simply on emotions, and then I need to just keep trusting God (#1).

    So my point, which you quoted, was that while sceptics understand #2, they don’t seem to “get” #1.

    Does that make sense? What do you think about it all?

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  5. hausdorff says:

    So if I’m understanding you correctly, your position is that you have some evidence for your religious beliefs, but not enough to believe based purely on evidence. Then once your combine faith with that evidence it becomes enough. Does that seem like a reasonable summary?

    One of the responses I often see to this type of thing is that other religions also have faith, and the challenge is put forth to the Christian as to why they are not Muslim (for example). If I’m understanding your position correctly, I’m guessing your response to that would be that you have evidence toward Christianity, and therefore evidence + faith could lead you to Christianity but it would be faith alone that would lead you to Islam, which isn’t enough. How does that sound?

    As to #1 vs #2, I know for myself religious faith always seemed to be #2, belief without proof. In fact I would go so far as to say it is belief without evidence. #1 is a very different use of the word. I have faith in the sun coming up tomorrow based on a perfect history of this happening combined with an understanding of orbits and such. I have faith that my chair won’t break when I sit on it based also on history and a general understanding of how it is constructed, the expected lifespan and so forth.

    I would argue that skeptics understand the kind of faith from #1, we just disagree that religious faith fits that category. It seems to be a very different use of the same word

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  6. unkleE says:

    “your position is that you have some evidence for your religious beliefs, but not enough to believe based purely on evidence. Then once your combine faith with that evidence it becomes enough. Does that seem like a reasonable summary?”

    Yes, that is a reasonable summary, except I would say “not enough for certainty”. It isn’t a lack of evidence, it is the fact that almost everything we know or believe (even in science) is based on evidence that cannot give us certainty, only probability. If we waited for certainty, all of us would be agnostics about almost everything except maths and logic.

    “I’m guessing your response to that would be that you have evidence toward Christianity, and therefore evidence + faith could lead you to Christianity but it would be faith alone that would lead you to Islam, which isn’t enough. How does that sound?”

    Again, pretty much correct. I would prefer to say that I think the evidence makes Islam less likely than christianity, though more plausible than many other beliefs.

    “#1 is a very different use of the word. I have faith in the sun coming up tomorrow based on a perfect history of this happening combined with an understanding of orbits and such.”

    I don’t think that’s #1 at all, but another example of #2. You can’t prove the sun will come up, but it is very, very probable. #1 is (to me) personal trust. It may be based on #2, but it has elements of personal emotion and commitment. So religious faith is, for me, belief based on evidence, probabilities and personal trust and commitment. This is what I think sceptics often don’t understand, and your words suggest that you too don’t see it that way.

    “In fact I would go so far as to say it is belief without evidence.”

    This really surprises me. I can understand that you think the evidence favours non-belief, but I cannot understand a non-believer who cannot see any evidence for God, just as I cannot understand a believer who cannot see any evidence against God.

    I appreciate that you have tried to understand what I have written. Can you in turn explain to me what I cannot understand, how you think all the evidence believers raise amounts to nothing in your mind? Thanks.

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  7. hausdorff says:

    [Me from the end of writing this. It turned out to be really long. The TL:DR version is that I have been presented with similar evidence from quite a few Christians (apologetics, miracles, prayer, the bible, “look at the trees”, personal experience) but I always find it quite lacking]

    Sorry for the slow response, busy weekend and I figured this would be a good one to let sit in the back of my brain for a few days anyway.

    “This really surprises me. I can understand that you think the evidence favours non-belief, but I cannot understand a non-believer who cannot see any evidence for God”

    Perhaps “no evidence” is a bit too strong to say, but if someone presents some evidence that I find severely lacking do I call it poor evidence or not evidence at all? Perhaps I should change what I said earlier to “belief without good evidence”.

    So I guess the question becomes what evidence am I usually given when I ask for it? One of the primary answers I get are philosophical arguments, apologetics. The one I personally have been presented the most is the comological argument, which I find particularly flawed, but other apologetics generally seem to be god of the gaps and arguments from ignorance.

    People will also often cite miracles, but never things that are very well documented as far as I have seen. It’s often very old (miracle of the sun 100 years ago for example) or there just isn’t much corroboration. Or it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, like that weeping Jesus from last year that turned out to be capillary action from a leaky pipe.

    People will often cite prayer, but we know how good we are at fooling ourselves and it doesn’t seem to work in controlled conditions. It certainly doesn’t work as well as the bible says it should (throwing mountains into the sea)

    People will often cite the bible, although I would argue that this contains plenty of problems as well. Take for example the passage in matthew(?) that says that when Jesus died priests came out of their graves and went in to the nearby city. This is neither mentioned in contemporary sources (as far as I know) or in the other gospels. So did it happen? If so why isn’t it mentioned elsewhere, and if not how do you determine which passages are real and which are not? And of course there is the question of competing holy books.

    People will often say “look at the trees, etc”, which are wonderful and beautiful, but I see no reason that points to a deity.

    Finally, people will point to a personal experience. This one is a little harder to deal with, as I can’t know what someone else is experiencing. What I can say for sure is that your personal experience can’t be evidence for me.

    Wow, that turned out to be super long, sorry bout that, I’ll put a [Too Long, Didn’t Read] summary up top.

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  8. unkleE says:

    Thanks Hausdorff, it wasn’t too long – I asked you a question and you gave me a clear answer.

    Obviously we think differently on this, and I don’t think I will contest all the points you make. But I will suggest that you may be interested in my other website where i address some of these issues – for example, the Cosmological argument, the Teleological argument and some apparent miracles that are somewhat better attested than the examples you give.

    Thanks again for explaining that too me. Best wishes.

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  9. hausdorff says:

    Thanks for the links. I haven’t had a chance to look in depth yet, but I quickly scanned through the cosmological argument page and it looks like it attempts to answer the common counter-apologetics raised. I bookmarked it and am looking forward to digging into it when I get the chance

    Cheers

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