The glorification of doubt

I have often heard Christians speak of doubt almost as if it were a virtue. They say that true faith actually implies doubt, or at the least always accompanies it. Doubt, they say, is a good thing, since the more we doubt, the more we must have faith. Doubt, you see, actually spawns faith.

As past readers of this blog know, I consider this flaming nonsense, since faith and doubt are logically repugnant to each other. Saying that one has faith and doubt at the same time and with respect to the same thing, is like saying that a thing is both black and white at the same time and in the same respect. It may be black at one time and white at another; or black on top and white on the bottom; but it can’t be both black and white at the same time and in the same place.

Anyway, I’ve gone over this many times before (namely here and here; click the “Faith and Doubt” tag to see still more). But in the course of my travels I recently came across this answer to those who contend that doubt in a Christian is a virtue:

“The sensitive loyalty to truth which characterizes many persons tormented with doubt is most praiseworthy. But this very loyalty ought to suggest the necessity of being guided practically by the apparent bearing of the evidence actually available. In moral issues involving an immediate determination of conduct, neutrality is in effect evasion of, rather than loyalty to, truth. What seems to be duty cannot be tested by inaction, nor can the absence of conclusive evidence justify refusal to make the venture. Sympathize as we must with honest doubters, we cannot justify the too common glorification of doubt. It is neither the necessary mark of earnest truth-seeking, nor to be regarded as other than something to be thrown off by the grace of God and by courageous action.

“Our Lord’s language to the doubting Thomas contains an implied rebuke. He plainly reserves His praise for those who escape doubt: St. John xx, 29. To suspend judgment when the data available are not sufficient for satisfying proof is not to show loyalty to truth, but is to miss the only available road thereto.”

The Being and Attributes of God, Francis J. Hall, D.D., New York:Longmans, 1918, p. 74, fn. 1.

6 thoughts on “The glorification of doubt

  1. Agellius,
    I agree with you that doubt is not a thing we ought to glory in. But, may I offer some additional thoughts, which I hope are not too much at variance with your own:

    St Paul teaches that on earth we see “darkly” (1 Cor 13:12), that is, certainty concerning divine things is lacking; but in heaven we see God “face to face” and “know fully,” that is, without uncertainty. At the moment one obtains certain knowledge concerning a proposition, one no longer needs to believe in that proposition. Thus, St Thomas Aquinas teaches that the object of faith is a divine thing not seen (STh III, 7, 3). Faith necessarily contains an element of uncertainty, for without uncertainty, it ceases to be faith and becomes certain knowledge. Aquinas explains (STh I-II, 67, 3) that because perfect and imperfect are opposites, it is impossible for perfection and imperfection to pertain to the same thing at the same time. He adds that imperfect knowledge belongs to the very nature of faith, for faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Heb 11:1).

    Experience bears this out. Many, many saints have been tormented by doubts. Suffering doubt is not a sin, but a temptation to infidelity. Purposefully entertaining doubts is dangerous at best, and may in many cases constitute the sin of presumption. Faith is a virtue and a gift from God, given in different measure to each one. Fidelity through periods of doubt is a hallmark of faith.

    God bless!


  2. SS:

    Thanks for that. You’re one person by whom I actually look forward to being criticized, since I would be sure to learn something worthwhile from you — although in this case I don’t think we disagree.

    I am looking at faith and doubt from the point of view of an act of the will, namely the act of either giving or withholding assent and trust (as explained in the two posts that I linked to). Cardinal Newman writes that you’re either questioning, or concluding, or asserting. Questioning corresponds to doubt, concluding is the result of a reasoning process, and asserting corresponds to faith. Doubt, to Newman, means not having your mind made up, whereas faith means wholehearted assent (which, again, is an act of the will).

    How certain your faith can be, when faith is considered as knowledge rather than as a willful act, is another question. Granted, we can’t have certain knowledge of God’s revelation, for the simple reason that we’re not God. Our part is to receive revelation from God, and to decide whether or not God is a trustworthy enough source that we may give unhesitating assent to whatever he tells us.

    As St. Thomas writes, “[T]the intellect assents to something, not through being sufficiently moved to this assent by its proper object, but through an act of choice, whereby it turns voluntarily to one side rather than to the other: and if this be accompanied by doubt or fear of the opposite side, there will be opinion, while, if there be certainty and no fear of the other side, there will be faith.”

    And further, “[S]cience [1] is incompatible with opinion about the same object simply, for the reason that science demands that its object should be deemed impossible to be otherwise, whereas it is essential to opinion, that its object should be deemed possible to be otherwise. Yet that which is the object of faith, on account of the certainty of faith, is also deemed impossible to be otherwise; and the reason why science and faith cannot be about the same object and in the same respect is because the object of science is something seen whereas the object of faith is the unseen, as stated above.”

    I realize that it’s possible for a person to lose the will to make the act of faith, and later on re-gain it. All I’m saying is that you can’t make the act of faith, and yet withhold wholehearted assent, at the same time.


    • Agellius,
      You bring up a very important aspect of this multi-faceted issue, which St Thomas discusses in several places. You cite his distinction between opinion and faith (II-II, 1, 4), which I feel is a remarkable insight into the mystery of faith as the human mind experiences it. In I-II, 67, 3, he states that faith involves imperfect knowledge, which one would naturally expect to give rise to doubt. Yet, in II-II, 1, 4, he shows that in an act of faith the will assents to a proposition without doubting its truth. Such indubitability cannot be attributed to human faculties alone, but must be the outcome of a human will cooperating with grace. God bless!


  3. @Ag –

    This is a very powerful argument (from a very authoritative witness):


    wrt doubt, I believe that the main problem is the null or default hypothesis (the one you believe, unless compelling to abandon it).

    When the null hypothesis is that God does not exist, there is no soul, there is no meaning or purpose to the universe etc – then there is ‘never enough evidence’ to remove doubt – not least because the evidence is itself subject to doubt.

    So you get stuck with the default null hypothesis.

    This is the style of modern doubt: it has accepted a nonsensical null hypothesis, which – because it is nonsensical – is also irrefutable.


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