Are doubt and faith compatible?

I have encountered people who say that faith and doubt not only can, but should co-exist, in the same person at the same time, and as to the same object.  An acquaintance has gone so far as to assert that faith without doubt is inhuman, immature, and cowardly.

I say that faith and doubt are incompatible.

To my mind, “doubt” is basically indecision: We have not yet determined whether to believe or assent to something. We don’t believe it’s true, and we don’t believe it’s false. If we believed it were true, we would no longer be doubting; and if we believed it were false, we would no longer be doubting; for in either case our mind would be made up.

To have faith is to decide to believe that something is true. Once we have so decided, we are no longer in a state of doubt. If doubt re-enters the picture, then we are no longer in a state of faith. It’s certainly possible to waver between belief and unbelief, but it’s not possible to do both at once.

Cardinal Newman writes that there are three types of propositions:  Interrogative, conditional, and categorical.  You may ask a question (interrogative); you may draw a conclusion (conditional, since it depends on premisses); or you may make an assertion (categorical).  He writes further that these types of propositions correspond to three modes of holding propositions in the mind:  Doubt (interrogative), inference (conditional), and assent (categorical).

Applying these three modes to revealed religion, Newman writes that a man is either a skeptic towards religion; a philosopher, having arrived at the conclusion that it is more or less probable based on logical inferences; or a believer, having an unhesitating faith in it.

You may alternate between these states at different times.  Also you may infer and assent simultaneously; but you can’t infer and doubt, or assent and doubt, at the same time.

To put it another way:  When you are in a state of doubt, you are questioning whether a thing is true.  It is simply not possible to question and assent to the same proposition at the same time.

19 thoughts on “Are doubt and faith compatible?

  1. I would agree with you for the most part, however, i would suggest it is more of a continuum. One needn’t be in either a mode of “Faith” or “Doubt” as an absolute. I may have faith in a whole of something, but doubt a part of it. That doesn’t mean I have no faith, it means that my faith is not full. Also, suggesting that faith and doubt are incompatible may be a poor way of saying what you are trying to say. Many people would suggest that Mature Faith is a faith that has been tempered in the fires of doubt. Avey Dulles wrote “When taken too much for granted, faith degenerates into superstition or fanaticism. When seared by doubt, it comes into its own as faith; it proves itself as steadfast adherence to the unseen God.” In his article entitled “Faith and Doubt” (

    Wishing you and yours a truly blessed Advent and Merry Chritmas.


  2. Brian:

    Thanks for the comment.

    I think it has to be either faith or doubt “as an absolute”, because you can’t do something and not do it at the same time.

    I think part of the problem in discussing this subject is a widespread tendency to think of faith and doubt as feelings: At one time you may be “feeling faithful”, or in other words experiencing feelings of devotion and gratitude towards your religion. Whereas at other times you may be “feeling doubtful”, or in other words dry; or maybe someone has introduced to you a difficulty concerning a particular aspect of the Catholic faith.

    I would agree that both types of feelings are not incompatible. You can experience intellectual difficulties or periods of dryness, while still maintaining your commitment to your faith. If that’s what you mean, then we’re in agreement.

    But what I’m trying to describe in my post, is what Cardinal Newman describes in his book, “An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent”. Specifically, the intellectual aspect of faith. Faith is technically an act of the will, but it’s an act of the will in the sense that when you make the “act of faith”, you are making a decision whether or not to believe that something is true.

    As Newman explains, you can question whether something is true; you can conclude that it is true; and you can assert that it is true. But you can’t question and conclude at the same time. For example the syllogism, A. All mammals have hair; B. men are mammals; C. therefore all men have hair. If you agree with A. and B., then you will agree with the conclusion C., since it follows logically. But once you have agreed with conclusion C., you no longer have the option of questioning the same conclusion: You can’t conclude and not conclude at the same time; any more than you can jump and not jump at the same time, or breathe and not breathe.

    You may later change your mind and reject the conclusion. But you can’t accept and reject the conclusion simultaneously.

    You mention the possibility that someone could assent to some aspects of the Faith, while questioning others. But isn’t this the Cafeteria Catholic approach: Judging each teaching individually, rather than the Catholic Faith as a whole?

    Faith is called “faith” because it’s not a matter of judging the reasonableness of each individual doctrine according to the methods of logic or science. Rather, it’s the decision to place one’s trust in the source of all doctrine, which is the Church. Trust in what, specifically? Trust that what it preaches and teaches is true; trust that it would not lie; trust that the source of its teaching is reliable, because it’s God himself. Once you have made that decision, you no longer question individual doctrines, but rather, you assume that they must be true because they come from a reliable source.

    If you continue questioning the Church’s individual teachings, that shows that you do *not* consider the Church to be a reliable source of teaching which is guaranteed by Christ himself.

    You may struggle to *understand* individual doctrines. But that doesn’t cause you to question whether they are true. You might find another post of mine helpful in this regard:


  3. Brian:

    I read the Dulles article you linked to, thanks.

    The “doubt” mentioned in the quote you provide, is apparently “involuntary doubt”, based on the immediately preceding sentence: “Caught in the grip of involuntary doubt, the believer must continually turn to God with fresh humility. ‘I do believe; help my unbelief’ (Mark 9: 23).”

    Going a little further back, he says that sometimes people are “attacked by the suspicion that faith, as such, may be unwarranted” and “are tempted to reject Christianity.” In other words, he is talking about the temptation to unbelief.

    I don’t have a problem saying that people can maintain their commitment to faith, while at the same time being involuntarily tempted to disbelieve. What I reject is the idea that you can have genuine faith, while at the same time deliberately continuing to question whether the content of the Catholic Faith is true (as opposed to merely trying to understand it better). This is what I’m referring to as “doubt”.

    Newman has a famous saying, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” This, I think, is what he means: Your faith may not be trouble-free. You may have difficulty understanding how it holds together; at random moments you may experience the feeling that it’s all a mirage. But none of this undercuts the deliberate decision to place your faith in Christ and, through him, in the Church.

    What does undercut it, is the deliberate decision to remain open-minded about the Church’s teachings, pending further (even lifelong) investigation. You can’t place your faith in the Church, without also assenting to the proposition that the Church is Christ’s authorized teacher of revelation, and what it teaches is therefore true.

    I am open-minded about the existence of space aliens. For me there is not enough evidence to believe in them, but also not enough to disbelieve. I may like the idea of space aliens. I may even have an instinctive feeling that “they’re out there”, and that feeling may be exciting to me. Based on such feelings I may say that I have faith in the existence of space aliens; while at the same time, staying open-minded pending further investigation.

    I think this is how some people view religious faith: They like the idea of it, and have a strong feeling that it’s real; but as rational, modern men, they want to stay open-minded pending further investigation. Thus they separate their feelings about it, labeling that faith; from their intellectual attitude towards it.

    Whereas for me, true faith means making a decision, an act of the will, to submit one’s intellect to the trust that one chooses to place in Christ and, through him, in the Church. Feelings and intellect are not separated, but both are subjected to the will in the act of faith. Thus, the intellect can’t go gallavanting around, free to question and remain “open”, while still claiming to be faithful. If you feel the need to keep your mind “open”, then in my view, you are not ready to make the act of faith. When faith and intellect are compartmentalized in that way, I don’t think true faith is present.

    Well, I rambled on a bit longer than I intended. But then you said you’re a fast reader. : )


  4. Agellius,

    i am a fast reader, but that sometimes is a downfall, and I end up misinterpreting things and commenting and then realizing i was way off base.

    In this instance, I think that defining doubt, or what doubt in a faithful person can look like may be important. In your description of a “Cafeteria Catholic” you describe someone willfully picking and choosing what to believe. That to me isn’t doubt, that is picking and choosing what to believe.

    I think Dulles describes where I am coming from far better than I:
    “So long as these doubts are not willful or arrogant, but honest and humble, there is no cause for alarm. In many instances, the questioner misunderstands the formula he is attacking. At other times, what he is rejecting is not a dogma but a reformable church teaching, or even a mere popular belief. Or perhaps he is not rejecting anything, but simply saying that he can make no sense of what he hears; he cannot see its value or relevance. Or he might even assent on the level of deliberate commitment, without being able to suppress hesitations that trouble his mind and heart.”

    For example, as we have previously discussed, I have questions about the infallibility of the idea of women not being able to be ordained. That is doubt. I am not arrogant enough to say the Church is wrong and I am right, and I accept the Church’s teaching authority. Meaning, I do not go around saying..”Well, the Church is mistaken” I suspect that through prayer and continued openness to the Spirit, i will either come to a fuller understanding, or the Church will adjust it’s teaching. If neither of those happens, I will continue to remain faithful to the Truth of God’s teaching despite my lack of understanding. (deliberate commitment…..which to me is an act of Faith in the presence of doubt)


  5. Brian:

    You write, “In your description of a ‘Cafeteria Catholic’ you describe someone willfully picking and choosing what to believe.  That to me isn’t doubt, that is picking and choosing what to believe.

    You seem to have misunderstood me. : ) However I probably wasn’t clear.

    When I mentioned Cafeteria Catholicism, it was in response to your statement, “I may have faith in a whole of something, but doubt a part of it.” To me, that implies that you are judging each aspect of the Faith individually, rather than judging the Faith as a whole. This is what you do in a cafeteria: Instead of ordering a ready-made meal, you pick and choose what to put on your plate: You judge each dish individually.

    Whereas if you place your faith in Christ and the Church, then you no longer have to evaluate each teaching individually to determine whether it is true. You know it’s true based on the source. You still may have trouble understanding an individual teaching. But that doesn’t cause you to question its truth.

    You write, “I have questions about the infallibility of the idea of women not being able to be ordained. That is doubt.”

    If you are calling that doubt, then I believe we are defining “doubt” differently.


  6. yes, I think we may be defining doubt differently
    I am defining doubt as a questioning, a sense of uncertainty, not as an outright rjection. i think belief in the presence of questions or doubt is where Faith lies.

    Using Mother Teresa as an example….I would suggest that her perseverence in the face of her doubts is was accomplished through Faith. Even though she may have not felt the presence of God, her Faith compelled her to continue with her ministry. I would suggest that many Mystics in our tradition experienced periods of doubt, of dryness, of being lacking in their prayer life. St. John of the Cross famously refers to this as “The Dark Night of the Soul”

    Faith is what compells us to continue on even in the face of doubt.


  7. Pingback: What it means to assent based on faith, part 2 « Agellius's Blog

  8. Pingback: St. Thomas Aquinas on faith and doubt « Agellius's Blog

  9. Pingback: To make provision for future doubt, is to doubt at present | Agellius's Blog

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  11. Pingback: The glorification of doubt | Agellius's Blog

  12. I’m sorry if I’m wrong, but isn’t doubt and faith go hand-in-hand? I mean, without doubting there’s no faith. I think in life we need to doubt in something in order to put faith in another thing. You see, my thinking is also based on some Taoism teachings despite me being a Christian. I was surprised by your writing and it’s good to have new insights.


    • Nata:

      Thanks for commenting, it’s good to hear from you.

      I’m not sure that I understand what you’re saying, when you say, “I think in life we need to doubt in something in order to put faith in another thing.” Can you explain that statement?


      • For example, you put your faith in God and you put doubt in your humanity/flesh of being weak etc etc


  13. Nata:

    Of course there is no contradiction between putting your faith in one thing, while doubting another thing. What I think is impossible, is putting your faith in one thing, while doubting the same thing, at the same time. Thus people will claim to have faith in the Christian religion, while simultaneously doubting the Christian religion. This, I think, is nonsense.

    Of course some people do define “doubt” differently from the way I define it (which is based on the way Cardinal Newman defines it). But I think Newman’s definition is best since it helps to clarify what exactly is meant by faith and doubt, and it also coincides with the Church’s teaching that faith is not a feeling which may come and go as the wind blows, but an act of the will, that is, subject to our choice.


  14. The feeling of uncertainty is natural. This is because we can’t see God or talk to him face-to-face or touch him. That’s why it’s called faith rather than knowledge. I know my cat is brown and my son is 5′ 10″ because I have seen and measured them; it’s not a matter of faith. But my belief in God is faith since it’s not something I can verify using my natural powers.

    My point is that this feeling of uncertainty is not really doubt. As long as you are determined to act as though God exists, and love him, and do good and avoid evil, and profess Jesus openly before men, then you have faith. What other reason would you have for doing these things? It’s easy to give in to temptation, hard to resist it. If you find yourself trying to resist temptation, then you have faith. If you find yourself professing Christ and being mocked for it, then you have faith. Your natural feelings of uncertainty don’t nullify that.


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