The Demonization of Doubt

Christianity is flawed at its epistemic foundation. Certainty is applauded, and doubt is disparaged. At best, doubt is treated as a hopefully brief and emotionally distraught excursion away from what must be true, rather than reflecting an epistemically honest mapping of one’s degree of belief to the degree of the evidence.

This was demonstrated very saliently in the latest episode of “Reasonable Faith” (Doubt and Certainty | July 9, 2016) with William Lane Craig (WLC).

“I suppose that you can’t doubt something unless you believe it” WLC begins the episode.

Craig immediately falls into treating the notion of belief and doubt as if they were binary, as if they were ontologically similar to a wife and a girlfriend. Sure, you might have a wife, but that does not keep you from unwisely also having a girlfriend. And this is how he treats doubt, as if it were a natural impulse, but somehow impure, the optimal condition being fidelity to your wife.

This binary notion of belief and doubt does not remotely approximate the actual concepts. Both belief and doubt are intrinsically gradient. And they are simply inverse reflections of each other in the same way “hot” and “cold” are.

Sure, you can ask “Is it hot?” or “Is it cold?” as a binary linguistic shortcut, but we all understand “hot” and “cold” are intrinsically gradient, and inverse reflections of each other. When we want precision, we instead ask “How hot is it?” or “How cold is it?”

So also for the notion of belief. While we can ask as a linguistic shortcut “Do you believe?”, we all understand that we are simply applying an arbitrary threshold, subjectively defined, to split the epistemic gradient into two artificial zones for the sake of convenience. A more precise question would be “How much do you believe?” or the inverse “How much do you doubt?” Answering one of these complimentary questions will supply the answer to the other.

And it is to the advantage of the Christian apologist that he suggest that the binary notion of belief (distorted by linguistic artifacts) is the actual essence of the concept of belief, for that is also how the Bible treats salvific belief. Every instance of salvific belief in the Bible treats belief as if it were binary. Yet we know that the gradient essence of belief will always hold primacy over any linguistic shortcuts since those linguistic shortcuts suppose some subjectively defined arbitrary threshold along the epistemic gradient. The fact that “hot” and “cold” are linguistic opposites does not warrant the notion that heat is somehow binary in its essence. Heat remains gradient in spite of linguistic artifacts. The fact that “belief” and “disbelief” are linguistic opposites does not warrant the notion that belief is binary in its essence. Belief remains gradient in spite of linguistic shortcuts. Linguistic artifacts encouraging a binary notion of belief are not a basis for an actual just and intelligent God to employ when determining alleged eternal fates as found in the Bible.

Worsening this linguistic distortion of the actual gradient essence of belief is the irrational psychological tendency of humans to default to the poles of the disbelief/belief gradient instead of rigorously positioning their degree of belief to map to the actual degree of relevant evidence. This is human, yet this is irrational.

Belief is intrinsically gradient. Belief and doubt (disbelief) are simply complimentary epistemic notions reflecting some nuanced point along the epistemic gradient. Any non-gradient artifacts in language or psychology are distortive.

So WLC, knowingly or unknowingly, distorts belief into some gargoyle of an epistemic switch flipped at some subjective threshold of confidence that warrants a move from “disbelief” to “belief” rather than honestly mapping the degree of epistemic certainty to the degree of evidential certainty as the confirming/disconfirming evidence accrues.

Let’s now examine the disingenuous disposition towards doubt held by Christians. The host of Reasonable Faith asks WLC the following.

“What would be the proper way to do it [doubt] without becoming, well, blasphemous?”

What are you doubting if you are not doubting the existence of a God without which there would be no blasphemy? If your prayers go unanswered, do you limit your doubt to the wisdom of love of your God, and rope off the notion of his existence as sacred? How can this be the disposition of an honest seeker?

WLC confirms this absurd and dishonest disposition by saying…

“Well, I think it’s important to go to God with your doubts, to be honest with Him.”

Doubting God’s existence is off limits. When you don’t understand Him, you go to Him for explanation and assurances, never actually doubting His existence. It’s similar to wondering whether your online romance may actually be with a web-bot, then asking that same potentially imaginary partner whose existence you are questioning whether they are real, never actually willing to doubt their human essence.

WLC also cites Gary Habermas in claiming doubt is “primarily emotional rather than intellectual”. This conveniently allows the apologist to shrug away any honest intellectual doubts the average believer experiences, to invoke the demonic elements in the spiritual warfare in which they perceive themselves as the source of doubts, and to again pronounce the essence their apologetics to be unassailable by “actual” intellectual arguments. You are probably just feeling a bit emotional when you doubt. You’ll get over it and come back to Jesus. Craig recommends you defeat doubt by engaging in activities in which “your emotions will be involved in worshiping and praising God…prayer, fellowship, sharing one’s faith”. It is indeed difficult to emotionally or intellectually doubt the existence of a god you praise and worship. Doubt is here treated as a spiritual illness, and the remedy is to position yourself in an emotional context in which doubt is suppressed, and in which vested interests favoring belief calcify. I suggest WLC wishes to define doubt as primary emotional so that it can be tolerated or disparaged, but not perceived as reflective of the consequence of an honest inquiry. The emotional cure he recommends for doubt, however, he does not disparage as inappropriate for an intellectually honest mind. And this asymmetry highlights the absurdity intrinsic to his position.

To be fair, WLC does admit there could be intellectual doubts. He says…

“I think one of the most exhilarating experiences in the Christian life can be to take one of these questions, and to pursue it into the ground until we come to intellectual peace with that issue.”

Note that, once again, doubt is fine only so long as it is experienced within the Christian life. No species of doubt that would actually lead to a rejection of Christianity is proper in the mind of Craig. Doubt seems to be heathy and legitimate only so long as it does not include an actual disbelief in the core entity in question.

In referencing his past reconciliation of the timeless nature of a Jesus who lived within time, Craig says…

“It [the reconciliation] enables your restless mind to come to peace with this issue, to have confidence in God…”

We are back to the only resolution to doubt that Craig will allow: confidence in God, the very God in question. This is nowhere close to intellectual honesty.

Craig encourages us to “go after” any doubts, not by looking at the arguments on both sides, but by reading the words of “good Christian philosophers, theologians, and Biblical exegetes.” Craig is “shocked at the folly” of Christians who “go to the internet” and listen to the arguments of non-Christians, “…and then they wonder why they are struggling with their faith.” Yes, once you are exposed to the arguments from both sides of the issue, you might find yourself doubting your position. Craig paints this as a bad thing. Once again, doubt is treated as some kind of tolerated, primarily emotional, nuisance or illness in the Christian life that, if only the doubter can refocused again on only the Christian side of the question, the doubt can be effectively suppressed. This is clearly intellectually dishonest.

Craig suggests that the doubter needs to go to the “work of the finest Christian philosophers, theologians, Biblical critics on these questions and see what they have to say, and whether this [the objection] stands up to the critiques and the doubts that are occasioned by the critics of Christianity.” WLC does not recommend a balanced examination of the experts on both sides.

Craig admits to promoting a “selective” approach to questions related to Christianity. He claims “The immature Christian who isn’t intellectually sophisticated ought not to be reading that sort of stuff until he has thoroughly grounded himself in the work of good Christian thinkers.” Would Craig recommend that doubting young Muslims limit their input to Islamic scholars? I think not. Does Craig recommend that young children in Sunday School be first taught intellectually sophistication before they listen to and accept the arguments from one side of the God-question. No. And this exposes the gross inconsistency in his position.

But Craig can hardly be blamed for his disparaging of doubt. The Bible itself treats doubt as a character flaw.

“But let him ask in faith, nothing doubting: for he that doubteth is like the surge of the sea driven by the wind and tossed. For let not that man think [a]that he shall receive anything of the Lord; a doubleminded man, unstable in all his ways.” [James 1:6-8]

The context here in James is petitioning God. But the reason for James’s disparaging of doubt is universal: a doubleminded man is unstable in all his ways. And you clearly can’t have full certainty that a God whose existence you doubt will answer your prayer.

This notion that doubt is a flaw in character rather than an honest, rational and necessary disposition for any inductively assessed question is an undeniably integral notion within Christianity, and good reason to reject Christianity as logically incoherent and inherently epistemically dishonest.

Expressing certainty

Be careful. Your choice of phrases when you express an opinion will often expose your lack of epistemic humility and/or your understanding of standards of evidence. For example, we all often hear…

“Y is proof of X.”

If Y is something understood inductively (by exploring its degree of regularity from a human perspective), it can only unconventionally be called a “proof”. Proofs are most commonly limited to the deductive domains mathematics and logic.  A better expression might be…

“Y is ((very) strong) evidence for X.”

Another abused expression is…

“X is a fact!”

While most often used conventionally to refer to a statement that is not currently very controversial, the word “fact” is sometimes attached to a notion as if anyone who would deny the notion must be stupid. 
Perhaps a better expression might be…

“There is ((very) strong) evidence for X.”


“Few experts in the relevant field dispute X.”

This will encourage your interlocutor to engage you with evidence and argumentation rather than having things degenerate into a shrill “‘Yes, it is”-“No, it ain’t” exchange. 

It also helps to, if at all possible, quantify your degree of certainty. Probabilities can be determined to a high degree of precision for a few scenarios such as coin flips, but for other multivariable and complex inquiries we can fairly accurately reflect our general degree of certainty by adding modifiers such as “quite”, “slightly”, “fairly” to the words “certain” or “confident”. 

This will make you appear less dogmatic and honestly committed to the evidence, as well as allow you to more easily engage in a productive discussion of the relevant evidence and arguments. 

The seductive nature of emotionally satisfying answers

Many of the world’s religions and ideologies are ultimately grounded in the notion that their particular ideology has satisfying answers to life’s questions. And the popularity of those ideologies are a good measure of the degree of satisfaction. But what kind of satisfaction do those ideologies provide?

Consider the satisfaction many children derive from hearing their parents explain that good children get presents from Santa. It makes perfect emotional sense that there should be someone watching everyone, keeping track of their behaviors, and rewarding only those who have been good. If this were not true, there would be injustice in the world, and that is simply emotionally unacceptable. This emotional drive for justice is but one of the many emotional drives that encourage children to readily accept the notion of Santa. Others might include the emotional drive to have some transcendent realm of magic we can somehow interact with, and the affection of a forever kind grandfather figure. 

But can we call Santa an answer to the question of the source of presents simply because of all the emotional holes such an explanation plugs? Clearly not if we place any value on the truth of the answers we accept. An answer that is emotionally satisfying is no more true than an answer that is emotionally undesirable. If we are to be rational, we do not accept facts and ideologies that make us feel good. In fact, we are extra cautious of facts and ideologies that have emotional appeal. We instead accept facts and ideologies that we have honestly assessed to be true. 

Yet, most of the world’s religions provide “answers” that are merely unsubstantiated plugs for our natural human emotions. Some god is presented as able to alleviate fear, loneliness, injustice, meaninglessness, and the yearning for certainty, and then the emotional appeal of such a god is said to be evidence for that god. This is not the way truth is properly assessed. 

The honest seeker of truth first commits to following the evidence down whatever path it leads, even paths that are emotionally unpleasant. Emotions are not our friend in our assessment of what may be true. Our emotions too often lead us astray. And many religions and ideologies are far to ready to encourage us to filter claims through our emotions since their systems of belief are built on claims tailored to emotionally seduce us. 

Once we commit to following truth down whatever emotionally dark path it may lead, the next step is to acquire legitimate tools for assessing truth such as general rationality, an awareness of logical fallacies and cognitive biases, and a deeper understanding of probabilities, logic and standards of evidence. 

It is much easier to follow our emotions as do those who follow unsubstantiated religious claims. Basing truth on our emotions requires far less effort. Millions of people around the world “know” they are right because it feels emotionally right. But I personally prefer to have my beliefs filtered through the more demanding filters of rationality. The question is essentially whether we want our beliefs to be correct, or to simply make us feel good.

Suggesting to children they are inherently evil. What is the social cost?

Psychologist Hans Eysenck tested 1,000 young children who were unaware of the alleged significance of their particular star signs for the degree that their introversion/extroversion mapped to what astrologers predicted. 

There was no correlation.
However, he also tested a group of adults who had, during their maturation, been quite aware of the behavioral expectations associated with their star sign. 

There was a significant correlation.[1]

In line with this, Ghanaian juvenile court records were accessed, and it was discovered that a far higher percentage of teens born on a Wednesday were delinquent than those born on Monday. In Ghana it is said that children born on Mondays will be quiet while children born on Wednesdays will be badly behaved.[2]

Conclusion: Children become the adult they think they intrinsically are, even when that notion is based on myth.[3]

Question: What correlation should we then expect between the crime rates in cultures where children are taught that human nature is intrinsically good or neutral in contrast to the crime rates in cultures in which there is the Biblical concept that humans are inherently wicked? What correlation do we see?
1. J. Mayo, O. White & H. J. Eysenck – “An Empirical study of the relation between astrological factors and personality”, Journal of Social Psychology #105, pages 229-236, 1976.

2. G. Jahoda – “A note on Ashanti names and their relationship to personality”, British Journal of Psychology #45, pages 192-195, 1954.

3. General concept taken from Richard Wiseman’s book Quirkology. 

Persistent Erroneous Beliefs about Beliefs

  • 1. Belief is not an on/off switch. It is not binary. Belief can come in degrees. And it must come in degrees to the rational mind that maps the degree of evidence to the degree of the balance of evidence. Rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the relevant perceived evidence. Any ideology that suggests you must either believe or not believe can be dismissed as nonsensical. Doubt is not only natural in the context of less-than-absolute evidence, but is rational and noble. 
  • 2. The feeling of confidence accompanying a belief is not evidence of truth behind that belief. Humans can conjure up the emotion of certainty. We can force ourselves to believe things we know are not supported by evidence if the pleasure from believing or the pain from not believing are strong enough. Religions play on this psychological weakness and embellish contexts of possible belief with beautiful music and social encouragement, plus threats of pain or loss, that draw attention away from a focus on the actual evidence.
  • 3. There is nothing noble about holding firmly to a belief in the face of contrary evidence. The rational mind will adjust its degree of belief/doubt as new confirming/disconfirming evidence arrives. The rational mind will seek out new evidence that can be added to the balance of evidence so it can appropriately adjust its degree of belief/doubt. A belief that does not change to an appropriate degree in the face of new evidence is not rational, and this irrationality is not noble. 

Don’t be fooled by false notions of belief. Rational belief is commensurate to the relevant perceived evidence. The human drive for certainty must be suppressed, and a more honest focus on the influx of evidence must be maintained. The result will be more successful assessments and decisions as we align beliefs to the evidence. And that increased success makes for a happier existence.