Are you a person of doubt or a person of faith?

Of course, you might be someone in between: a person committed to certain beliefs in excess of the empirical who nevertheless carries them, not with the triumphalism of certainty, but with the cross of doubt. But I nevertheless think that these two categories—the person of doubt and the person of faith—are a bit more meaningful than, say, the atheist-theist dichotomy.

There are, in other words, people who strike a pose of certainty in life (confidence men, if you will), and they can be atheists or theists, but their defining character trait is that they know that they are right  and everybody else is wrong.

And then there are people of doubt.

I like the notion of a doubting community: a constituency for politicians to take account of. We’re here, and we value doubt over certainty—and see doubt as a virtue. If, afterall, we can refer to “the faith community,” why not the doubting community? We already have our patron saints: the existentialist Jesus of the Gospel of Mark, St. Thomas, Spinoza, Emily Dickinson, and Abraham Lincoln come to mind. And we have inspiring fables to tell our children, like the story of the boy who said that the emperor has no clothes. When you think about it, doubt has a rich tradition.   

I think that there are already lots of doubting communities in the world, we just don’t call them that. Step on most any university campus and you find yourself among professors who collectively make up a doubting community. It’s not that you don’t find “confidence men” and rigid ideologues among professors—obviously you do. But for the most part, professors are characteristically doubters: they doubt things and hold their beliefs provisionally, and tend to apportion their beliefs to evidence. The Enlightenment philosophes  of the 18th century constituted a doubting community.

Are you a member of a faith community or a doubting community? Or do you, perhaps, find yourself participating in one (or more) of each?

It’s time to start speaking of persons of doubt and the doubting community.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Are you a person of doubt or a person of faith?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Faith. Fundamentally there are assumptions at the basis of my understanding of the world around me. I could claim to make fewer assumptions than others, but still, it would be dishonest to claim that I make none.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Andrew:

    Good point. In that sense, we all exercise faith that our personal axioms are true (such as that I’m not a butterfly in the mind of Krishna dreaming right now that I’m a human. Instead, I’m awake). But I also think that the distinction is important between people characteristically committed, with high levels of practical certainty, to propositions wildly absent evidence or sound reasoning, and people who show caution, doubt, and critical thinking. My bet is that most of your axioms, Andrew, are plausibly founded, whereas I see no way to plausibly ground, say, the belief that Zeus, as a specific deity, exists.

    On hearing a claim, I think someone who is a doubting person characteristically asks this question: “What good reasons or evidence do I have for accepting (or rejecting) this claim?” A lot of people (most?) probably don’t even habitually bring this question to the table. Instead, they use heuristic cues to judge a claim’s truth or falsity (“I read it in the Bible, my pastor said so, I like Rush Limbaugh, the guy was wearing a Bears hat and I’m a Bears fan, the speaker was in the 9-11 truth movement and he’s cool” etc.).

    —Santi

    • andrewclunn says:

      I see, but even so I have to admit that I am operating on heuristics as well. At a certain point we all have to outsource knowledge or authority in some way. I simply don’t have the time or ability to test everything possible. James Randi gave a good example of this when he talked about sitting in a chair and how we assume that the chair won’t just collapse underneath us. Of course chairs often do collapse underneath people every so often.

      When we attempt to classify people by ideology often we do so based on the shared assumptions they have. When one starts saying that some assumptions are more ‘reasonable’ than others, that is indicative of some assumptions right there.

      I guess what I mean to say is that, it’s a matter of faith for me that no person would qualify as a ‘doubter’ in the same way that I’ve never actually met a nihilist. I’ve met many people claiming to be nihilists, but they all oddly had moral values and views on right and wrong, which means that they weren’t actually nihilists at all.

      I’m perfectly willing to say to the person of religious faith that yes, my views are also a matter of faith, but that mine will be shown to be superior not through self-referential logic, but because people with a (I don’t know, what’s the word… skeptical?) point of view will make more advances in science, invent and discover more astounding marvels and outperform in the job market people of traditional religious faith. It also doesn’t hurt that you’re much less likely to be successfully scammed out of your life savings by certain profiteering preachers. I don’t need logic to prove that my views are better suited to reality. I trust reality to do that for me, and that’s a matter of faith.

  3. Arius says:

    I would say that faith and doubt are congruent-only different in intent. The former insinuates an exclusive conjecture while the latter strives for unbiased clarity-albeit, extreme skepticism can exemplify a fundamentalist poise.

    I can accept that.

  4. Alise says:

    I would consider myself a member of both a faith community and a doubting community. There are some things that I accept on faith, but even so, I recognize that there are places where I continue to have questions and doubts. Honestly, I’m not sure that faith can exist without doubt. If I already know something, I don’t really have faith — I have knowledge. An element of uncertainty is necessary to really call something faith, IMO.

    • santitafarella says:

      Alise,

      Then why call it faith, or commit to the claim that it is attached to (more than provisionally)?

      Why not just apportion your belief to the evidence, and be done with faith?

      Where you don’t know something, why not just say, “I don’t know”?

      —Santi

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