The Sensus Dubium: William Lane Craig on What to Do about Doubts (and What You Should Really Do about Doubts)

If you are an evangelical Christian, and you start to doubt the claims of Christianity, here’s my summary of the three key things that philosopher William Lane Craig, of Talbot Theological Seminary, advises you to do:

  • Doubt your doubts. Instead of doubt, rely on your inner witness, given to you by the Holy Spirit, that what you have been taught concerning Jesus and the Bible is true.
  • Treat the source of your doubt as a symptom of spiritual warfare, not (primarily) an intellectual problem. Demons are real and they want you to doubt.
  • Engage in acts of self-persuasion. In other words, habitually practice actions that quiet your doubts: write an essay in which you confront and refute your doubts, listen to godly music, read Christian apologetics, tell others the good reasons you believe in Jesus, read the Bible, attend church services, pray, keep godly company, etc.

Observe that each piece of advice above recommends to the doubter some form of insularity. Rather than vulnerably listening to the inner gnawing voice of doubt, Craig wants you to bring it under isolation and control. But also notice the following:

  • The first one—the Holy Spirit’s inner witness—requires you to engage in question begging (circular reasoning) concerning the source of your religious experience: how do you know that your inner witness comes from God? You just know that you know what you know. Your interpretation of your inner religious experience is assumed to be accurate. You know that your Redeemer lives.  
  • The second piece of advice—treat your experiences of doubt as warfare with demons—also entails question begging: how do you know this is the source of your doubts? You just know because the Bible says so: we wrestle with principalities and powers of the air. The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. But Craig’s piece of advice here—to blame demons for doubts—entails great potential for clouding one’s thought and inquiry (because of the fear, distrust—and even paranoia—invariably accompanying such a belief). And, most tellingly, it ultimately makes the still small voice of doubt the devil’s.
  • The third gesture—engage in habitual acts of self-persuasion—causes you to be willfully complicitous, as it were, in your own intellectual bamboozlement (and even hypnosis). Cults bring people into greater conformity with their programs by ever-ready answers to questions, ritual practice, and group insularity—and it’s curious that this is exactly what Craig is advising Christians to do for themselves voluntarily. In apologetics, ceremony, fellowship, and habit the voice of doubt is drowned. 

So, if you don’t want to deal with doubts in Craig’s (frankly cultic) fashion, what might function as a good alternative model?

How about the following: just as you might assume (without evidence) that you have a sensus divinitatis (a divine sense; an inner intuition of God’s existence, which, like a radio in the heart, picks up and receives the still small voice emitting from the ontological mystery), consider the possibility that you might also have a doubting sensea sensus dubium—dubium is the Latin word for doubt or dubiousalso given to you by God (or, perhaps, by evolution, if God doesn’t exist).

Why would God (or evolution) give you a sensus dubium—a doubting sense or sense for the dubious? For this very purpose:

To help you apportion your beliefs to evidence.

In other words, what would happen if you started to frame doubt, not as something demonic to push away, but as a gift: an inner intuitive thermostat that’s there to help you navigate through the world?

On this model, doubt becomes your sixth sense—your bullshit detector. Like the still small voice of God, it whispers things to you like the following:

  • You believe strongly that there is life on Mars, but, since the scientific experiments conducted on this question are inconclusive, you should bring the strength of your belief down to agnosticism. You don’t really know if there is life on Mars, do you? Dial back on this.
  • You strongly believe that Islam is a violent religion, but be honest with yourself: you’ve not read the Quran, and you’ve never studied the religion in any great detail, right? You don’t even know any Muslims personally to discuss this question with them. Maybe you should dial down your position until you’ve looked into it further.
  • You claim to others 100% belief that the first humans and the first branchings of diverse human languages derive from Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). You say this because the Bible, read literally, affirms these things in the stories of Adam and Eve and the Tower of Babel (both of which are stories set in Mesopotamia). But you’ve never really had a serious looksie at what anthropologists, archeologists, linguists, and other scientists say about these questions, have you? And isn’t it true that you’ve never actually, you know, taken a university-level anthropology, archeology, or linguistics course? You should really dial back your certainty about this until you know what you’re talking about.

You get the idea. Doubt is a pain in the ass—a kind of inner Cassandra—but it’s also an indispensible gift: it’s the still small voice that castigates you to apportion your beliefs to evidence. It’s the voice that says, whenever you are believing things absent good warrant, “Come off it! Look again!”

It’s good you have this inner sense—this sensus dubium—because it helps you align your beliefs with what is most probably true, and so make good decisions. You should no more want to disrupt the sensus dubium’s function than you should want to pluck out your eyes or stick cotton in your ears.

But that’s what William Lane Craig is essentially advising: gum up the inner doubting thermostat—your sensus dubium—so that you can reach a degree of certainty concerning religious matters that is not warranted by the “facts on the ground.” But Craig’s solution to religious doubt is not just bad advice for that realm, but for life generally. Can you imagine taking such advice into the realms of romance, politics, medicine—or airline flight? 

So, in summary, here are the two key ways to deal with the still small voice of doubt:

  • disrupt it
  • bid it welcome

Now choose.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to The Sensus Dubium: William Lane Craig on What to Do about Doubts (and What You Should Really Do about Doubts)

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one to find Craig’s advice on doubt both creepy and ridiculous.

  2. Pingback: 50 Elite Academics Respond to the God Question | Prometheus Unbound

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