Doubt and the Good Life
I had a long and winding road on the way to my current approach to spirituality. I was raised with Roman Catholic, Methodist, and charismatic influences. I went to an Episcopalian high school and had a conversion experience in college that involved speaking in tongues. I meandered to a Southern Baptist church for a time before eventually becoming a Calvinist and going to an evangelical Presbyterian seminary.
Creeping Qualms, Persistent Doubts
Seminary is a time for growth in faith for some people. I had the opposite experience.
While doing independent reading in church history, I came face-to-face with the vast number of dogmatic controversies in church history, the changes in doctrine that different “orthodox” groups had undergone through time, and the seemingly countless Christian sectarian affiliations and claims. The humility urged by faith seemed to constantly point to doubt or uncertainty—and away from the likelihood that traditional religious dogmas were trustworthy.
I looked into Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism deeply, hoping to find some authority for biblical interpretation or a consistent orthodoxy that lasted through the centuries. After seminary, I even rejoined the Catholic Church for a very brief period. But I couldn’t make any of it stick.
The call to personal honesty in Christianity ironically encouraged me to confess that traditional forms of faith seemed dubious. Different believers claimed that different holy books were authentic. Whatever canon was adhered to, Scripture often seemed unclear, contradictory, or mistaken. Miracle stories seemed unlikely, God’s cruelty in the Bible appeared manifest, and inter-sectarian controversies suggested to me that competing sides both had flawed arguments. Through all these twists and turns, I experienced a cycle that alternated between fits of honest doubt, fears of hell, and repentance for lack of faith.
Mentally and emotionally weary, I eventually came to the (now seemingly obvious) realization that the most authentic path was to believe whatever I thought was most likely to be true. For me, this meant that I had to let go of traditional faith. I hadn’t heard of 19th-century freethinker Robert Ingersoll at the time, but how he described his “I’ve-had-enough!” state of mind at deconversion later struck a chord with me— "And yet in spite of all I heard—of all I read—I could not quite believe. My brain and heart said No.”
Many people experience the transition to non-religious living as a rebirth, and there was certainly some of that for me. But I also felt a sense of loss and a bit of aimlessness. The break for me was not an easy one, and I felt a fairly intense sense of isolation as I dropped religion and attempted to live in a more secular way. I had few hard rejections by Christian friends, but there were certainly estrangements and the loss of the close friendships and camaraderie that can be experienced in faith communities. I also gave up praying and devotional reading, abandoning what became impossibilities with my new perspective on religion and supernaturalism.
Skepticism and the Contemplative Path
In part, due to taking some graduate classes in religion at a secular university (including a Buddhist class with some meditation practice as part of the curriculum), I started wondering if there were some non-supernatural and non-doctrinal aspects of spirituality that I could retain. In my experience since then, I’ve found that a richer life comes from a combination of both a hearty skepticism and the adoption of certain non-supernatural contemplative practices. While “devotional reading” in the old sense was no longer possible, there were plenty of philosophical and skeptical works that provided an opportunity for reflection and helped me to chart a path ahead. They made me feel more comfortable in my doubt—and lessened the frequency of “flashbacks” about hell and divine judgment.
When appropriately modified, several different disciplines provided sources for deepening a contemplative life. I retained certain non-dogmatic elements of Christianity—including the importance of living with compassion, humility, and a sense of awe or wonder. Buddhist and Taoist teachings about meditation, mindfulness, non-attachment, and non-dogmatic thinking contributed to my growing awareness of authentic living. The implications of comparative religions and sects taught me that humans have had a common habit of strongly believing ideas that are unsupported by evidence—and that threats of damnation were an unfortunate but common interfaith method of religious manipulation. Lastly, psychological theories and counseling research indicated that progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, and realistic self-talk could improve my inner life. This, in turn, provides a healthier way to engender the sense of calm that I had sometimes experienced in prayer and in spiritual exercises.
My new eclectic approach to spiritual practice and well-being is perhaps best encapsulated in these helpful remarks from the Buddhist sage Achaan Chah:
Anything that inspires us to see what is true and do what is good is proper practice. You may call it anything you like.
Great Doubt, Great Awakening
One of the best aspects of my new life is freedom of exploration. No longer is there an “Index of Forbidden Books” or a list of forbidden thought-crimes. Simply put, I have no “orthodoxy” other than what seems true and what inspires personal growth. Doubt became for me not something unethical or dangerous—but in the words of Enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot, “the first step towards truth” and a “touchstone” for intellectual honesty.
While life continues to have its challenges and I still very much experience the difficulties of human existence, I now feel a deep sense of renewal and even gratitude for my loss of traditional faith. A great burden has been lifted from my shoulders, and I now have tools—that were previously unavailable to me—that help foster a better life. In short, doubt in my experience is a foundational ingredient for a more satisfying way of being. The words of this provocative Zen saying sum up my current perspective well: “When there is great doubt … then there is great awakening.”