Trial by Fire: The Roles of Doubt and Reason in Transforming Dogma into Belief
By David Haungs
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
I. My Religious Background
Neither growing up in a Catholic family nor attending a sheltered Catholic elementary school provided me with a great diversity of opinions when it came to religion. Both sources merely taught me the same routine information about the religion that I inherited. Certain content was to be known by heart, learned and memorized like multiplication tables and spelling lists. God consists of three persons in one divine entity. "I" before "E" except after "C." Jesus died on the cross to save us from sin. Seven times six is forty-two. I learned these all as objective facts, and in the absence of contradiction, I had no more reason to think people doubted Jesus than that they doubted the commutativity of addition.
The foundation of my faith life was my family. I am still grateful I was raised in a Catholic environment, partly because this inculcated virtues like charity and kindness, which hold value exterior to religion. Familial religious life revolved around weekly Sunday Mass. Every Sunday morning, my family and I woke up early to the smell of my Mom's delicious pancakes, ate breakfast, making sure to finish more than an hour before Communion, and go to Mass together. The ritual provided order to the week, and still serves for me as a crucial source of time to relax in God's presence.
One of the most important decisions my family made with respect to my faith was to send me to a private Catholic school for my first few years of education. Immaculate Conception Elementary School, run by our parish, held all the stereotypes of a Catholic school—the uniforms, the strict principal, and religion class—a concept which has come to seem strange to me in my intervening years at explicitly secular New York public schools. I am glad to have attended this school, but my world was small; there were seven other boys in my entire class, and from the first to sixth grades, the notion of interacting with the other sex was heresy. Religion class at Immaculate Conception taught me the basics of my faith. It wasn't a theological study of metaphysics and logic, but rather a simple guide on how to live as a Catholic.
On reflection, the sources that built up my faith life were practical in giving me stable habits and routine practices that have lasted until this day. But knowing how to live is different from knowing why I believe the doctrines that inform those actions, and my formative years did not teach me the latter. As a young child, I could not have explained, and may not have even known, whether pancakes or the Eucharist were a more essential part of what my family did on Sundays, or to what extent my grade in religion class was a reflection of the purity of my soul. My beliefs were unchallenged and flimsy, but held with sufficient conviction to conform me to a Catholic way of life.
The certainty I felt towards my religious beliefs changed when I was twelve years old. Around this time, I first encountered evidence that contradicted the beliefs I had been trained to hold so strongly. I will discuss this media, including a YouTube video, with a simple argument that I distinctly remember blindsiding and shocking me into a crisis of doubt. The scholarly conversation surrounding the formation and retention of beliefs will inform my quest to understand doubt and its role in enlivening religion, which I will relate to my previously mentioned blind faith and current reasoned faith. I will also employ Saint Thomas Aquinas's theology, which tended to confirm my beliefs in a manner more consistent with my personality and private identity. Ultimately, I hope to enrich discourse surrounding the culture of Catholicism by demonstrating that critical analysis of deeply rooted religious convictions is a necessary aspect of informed, reasonable faith—which can be stronger than unreflective, axiomatic dogma.
II. Experience of Doubt and Rational Rejuvenation
The first challenge to my faith arrived alongside my first internet-capable device and my transition to public school. These two factors removed me from my safe, sheltered home environment. At this age, one of my favorite activities was browsing YouTube for videos of optical illusions, which fascinated me endlessly. It was therefore no surprise that I immediately opened a recommended video titled, "The best optical illusion in the world!" This media turned out to be quite different from that which I normally consumed.
The video started out by reviewing its distillation of the Christian belief in prayer, quoting from Christianity.com: "God answers prayers in the form of 'yes,' 'no,' or 'wait'" (GIIVideo 1:51 - 2:06). Its narrator then asked me to consider an activity that none would think of as divine. "You pray to [a] jug of milk to give you $1,000" (GIIVideo 2:31 - 2:46). He then laid out the three possible scenarios of what could happen next—you could happen to receive one thousand dollars in the mail the next day, you could wait and receive money later on, or nothing could happen at all. From the coherence of the analogy between God and a milk jug, he concluded, "As a Christian, you believe that God is answering your prayers. But all that you are seeing is an illusion" (GIIVideo 5:40 - 5:55). The simple argument made by the video falls apart upon inspection, at least as far as it purports to disprove the existence of God, as I will discuss later. But it was quite disturbing to my young mind.
I remember closing the tab and stepping away from the screen after the video ended. I did not have the tools to incorporate the argument in some manner into my worldview, nor was I able to refute it. How could I? I had been left unexposed to outside points of view thus far in my life. Memorizing facts about saints might inspire one to be a better person, but it doesn't help them to counter an argument comparing God to a milk jug. I felt a deep sinking feeling that left me staring blankly into space for minutes. Sure, I knew there were people who were not Catholic—or even Christian—but I had never encountered their arguments; to me, they were just unfortunate souls lacking the benefits of a family and school who knew the indisputable truth of God. But now I had to consider whether or not they were right—and in the absence of a logical response, I could only assume they were. Somehow, every Catholic around me must have overlooked a simple fact that destroyed the faith. It was as if I realized that one plus one was not in fact equal to two, and therefore that all of mathematics was invalid.
At the time I encountered that video, I certainly would not have said that the introduction of doubt was beneficial to my faith life. I seriously struggled with having a fundamental aspect of my worldview shaken—especially since it was so ingrained as to defy questioning. However, I now think that this struggle was inevitable because multiple parts of my identity had lain in unacknowledged contradiction. I have always identified myself as a rational person for whom logic is paramount, and yet another important aspect of my identity was based upon blind faith.
To speak more productively and clearly about a distinction in types of faith, I'd like to introduce an analogy to the field of mathematics. This discipline defines axioms to be unproven truths that are taken to be true in order to construct a system of numbers, such as the fact that a number added to zero is itself. A theorem, on the other hand, is a more complex claim which has no fundamental, defined truth value, but rather is argued to follow logically from the commonly agreed-upon axioms. In this manner, I differentiate between axiomatic faith, which takes God as an unquestioned given, and reasoned faith, which gives the benefit of the doubt to the logical process by which God's existence may be derived from concrete axioms about which religious and non-religious people are likely to agree. My aforementioned identity of rationality seeks to reduce the axioms from which it constructs the world to the most indisputable facts, and therefore favors reasoned faith, which does not take as an assumption a proposition so complex as the existence of God.
The video, and my doubt, had the effect of exposing a deep contradiction in my identity in a manner that opened up the possibility of catharsis—of reconciling faith with reason. I searched out reason-based philosophy that supported the Faith with great success. Because of his exclusive use of common sense, indisputable axioms in building a theorem of God, the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas were particularly appealing to me. In his Summa Theologica, one of the most significant theological texts of the Western tradition, Aquinas laid out several "proofs" of God—ways in which His existence could be discovered from simple principles. These premises, in the order Aquinas presented them, were the fact that things move, that events are caused by other events, that all natural events are based on possibility, that some things are better than others, and that natural bodies lack intelligence and yet are directed towards an end (Aquinas). Modern advancements in philosophy and science have made some arguments less powerful—for example, the rise of pluralism renders the premise of Aquinas's fourth proof, a hierarchy of goodness, obsolete. Other modern advancements, like quantum mechanics, strengthen the premises of particular proofs, such as the now-justified assumption that probability governs natural events.
Aquinas's second way of knowing God—the proof concerning causality—was the one that was convincing for me, and it serves as a good representation of the logic employed in the other proofs. He noted that everything has an "efficient cause"—something that made it come into existence. Thus, since nothing can be the cause of itself, it is impossible for anything to exist without some original uncaused cause, lest the chain of cause and effect regress to infinity. "Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God" (Aquinas). This proof—based on a simple, indisputable axiom that existence exists and is finite, was rejuvenating for my newly reason-conscious faith.
Once reason was introduced into the concept of God through sources such as St. Aquinas, I could also begin to realize the flaws in arguments such as those presented in the video that first shocked me into intellectual action. For example, the assertion that God shares characteristics with non-divine objects, even if true, is by no means a proof that He does not exist or is not divine—after all, I believe that humans themselves are reflections of His image. Furthermore, the doctrine that God's response to prayer encompasses all possible scenarios of what could happen to someone who prays is by no means logically exclusive with the existence of God. If anything, it merely confirms the internal consistency of the Catholic doctrine on His omnipotence—if it were not the case that God could enact any possible scenario, this would contradict the doctrine that He is all-powerful. Finally, the video assumes that the sole purpose of prayer is worldly acquisition. It imagines a God who is like a broken vending machine, occasionally offering material gain to those who transact with Him, an assumption that ignores the immaterial, spiritual dimensions of prayer that, in fact, serve as its primary purpose.
Hence, I fulfilled the opportunity for catharsis that doubt provided me. To have a response to the video that left me response-less, and more importantly, to have a substantive theology of my own, strengthened my faith greatly. This is not because I was more certain of my beliefs. It is because these beliefs became more resilient—further enabled to withstand the attacks of counterarguments and doubt.
I expect that this personal narrative of mine finds company with the experiences of many other people for whom doubt necessitated a transformation in faith from static dogma to more dynamic, refreshing forms of faith consistent with their own personal identities. It is worth noting the limitations of reason, as well; I do not—and any serious theologian would not—claim to have a mathematically airtight chain of logic leading from the fact of finite existence to the validity of each clause of the Canon Law of the Catholic Church. Faith necessarily requires interpretive, hopeful, and cultural leaps to fill the gaps between the notion of a Creator and the particular practices of any given religious tradition, and this process requires consultation of the conscience, of practicality, and of still-imperfect estimations in the physical sciences. But to obtain from the idea of a first efficient cause—or whatever one may call God—some sort of meaning is crucial to my experience as a human. Therefore, faith, in all its imperfections, still has its place in my identity and the identities of the reasonable religious, so long as it is supplemented with and supported by reason.
III. Creative Doubt and Response to Cynics
The sinking feeling I experienced—a loss of uncritical innocence—is one around which scholarship abounds. Robert Baird, in the Journal of Religion and Health, evaluated the role of a concept he referred to as "creative doubt" (Baird 172). Creative doubt, as Baird defines it, is critical skepticism of religious beliefs that serves the purpose of improving those beliefs in some manner. Most pertinently, Baird argues, "Creative doubt can play a role in keeping one's fundamental beliefs from becoming dead dogmas" (175). It is worth considering this argument with respect to my beliefs.
My quest of finding meaning in life, filled as it is now with competing visions of the truth, naturally leads me to consider creative doubt. This process of challenging beliefs is essential to determining whether or not they hold water logically—as well as ethically, socially, and psychologically, areas which further research could illuminate. But the importance of challenge is the reason why scholarly discourse suggests such a role for creative doubt: "Fundamental beliefs need to be continually challenged if they are to remain alive and vigorous. Creative doubt accomplishes this" (Baird 176). This process, while essential, is undoubtedly painful—I know this firsthand. But while the evidence of emotional distress may tend to suggest that there is some practical value associated with remaining blissfully ignorant, painful discomfort is not necessarily antithetical to the process of approximating objective truth; on the contrary, "It is often painful to evaluate critically one's inherited beliefs, but the pain gives birth to beliefs that are alive" (Baird 176).
The experience described by Baird certainly applies to me. The pain I felt in watching the integrity of my worldview disintegrate sparked within me a fire that could not be put out until I reconciled my rational identity with a rational faith—and this version is much more stable, as I will describe later.
There is one aspect of Baird's definition of the relationship between doubt and faith that provokes reflection: his mention of inherited beliefs, which he implies lack vitality (Baird 176). This mention strikes deeply at the heart of the anxiety of the group of people like myself for whom a sheltered early life inculcated these beliefs without any doubt, creative or otherwise. But the invigoration of such dead and axiomatic faith with life is well worth the reward because it gives validity to an identity which had previously existed without any notion of personal commitment. From pain comes ideas that "the person has made his own" (Baird 176), and these ideas—regardless of their source—will, of course, be retained more strongly because of such ownership.
One could also critically consider whether the mechanism described above, by which creative doubt strengthens faith through reason, is merely a way for people of faith like myself to overcome cognitive dissonance and justify their beliefs by dressing them up in the guise of rationality. After all, there is no doubt that my life is made better by membership in a strong religious group with which I identify, and perhaps Saint Thomas Aquinas is the excuse I need to retain my beliefs despite their irrationality. Of course, I do not think this is the case, but the argument could certainly be made.
I would respond by first noting that the argument assumes as a premise the irrationality of religious beliefs, cutting off any real dialogue. Additionally, without some greater purpose in life, there is no reason to search for some objective truth that becomes useless upon death. All of life, without the divination of some sort of non-scientific purpose, religious or otherwise, is a brutally rational economic game by which we seek to maximize our enjoyment. At the worst, if responses to creative doubt are but manners by which people maintain their appearance of rationality while taking advantage of the benefits of religion, then this facade of reasoned faith simply comprises another strategy for utility maximization. At the best, however, reasoned faith is a fulfilling quest for personal betterment in preparation for a goal larger than this world.
IV. My Reasoned Faith
There is no doubt that the theory and practice of creative doubt coincide in my case. As I mentioned above, my faith is now stronger than it was before, despite being no more certain. I attend a Catholic university, and Sunday night Mass in my dorm is always one of the highlights of my week. I've even been able to convince friends to consider joining the faith or to strengthen the faith they already hold. In other words, I now own the faith that I once merely inherited.
The idea of personal commitment and ownership of faith, made possible by the creative doubt that facilitates personal reflection and justification of values, is manifested in the Catholic Church through the sacrament of Confirmation. At this time, young people—who have by then had the chance to be exposed to the world like I was—get the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to become adults in the Church. While there are undeniably social and familial pressures surrounding the decision, the sacrament is only valid so long as the person being confirmed actually commits themselves to the Church. They are confirmed under their first and last name, and a Confirmation name which they choose themselves from among the saints.
I can say with certainty that I, David Thomas Aquinas Haungs, could only knowingly take ownership of my faith—and therefore receive a valid sacrament—because of my experience with doubt, the fire that tests and refines all ideas worth pursuing. It is no accident that my Confirmation name coincided with this refinement. This experience with creative doubt—which I acknowledge is not just my own, but takes place in the minds and hearts of countless other people every day—is painful. And out of this pain comes the creation of a better faith—a reasoned, non-axiomatic faith, a dynamic, living faith, and a faith of which one may assume ownership.