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Losing Our Religion: Why Doubt Is a Passionate Exercise

Doubt tests our beliefs and assesses whether they might be misplaced

Last week in "Dear Prudence," Slate.com's wonderfully sharp advice column, Emily Yoffe published a compelling letter from a once-devout reader about the crisis of faith he was experiencing. "I am devastated by its practical implications," he wrote about the impact of his religious doubt on his marriage to a "wonderful Christian woman." "My loss of faith could be shattering for just about every close relationship I have."

"I continue to believe that religion brings the potential for a great many good things," the man added. "I could probably continue going through the motions, except that I believe in morality and honesty, and I hate pretending to be something that I'm not. It would be very hurtful for my wife to hear about my loss of faith, but it might be even more damaging for me to continue lying. Should I maintain my secret as long as possible in the hopes that it never becomes necessary to reveal it?"

The reply he received from Yoffe was as compassionate as it was wise:

"You say you still respect what you see as the good religion brings, which I assume includes charity, fellowship, moral guidance, and emotional support. I don't think you are deceitful for continuing to attend services as a way of keeping connected with these things, and with people you care about. If you could read what's going on inside the heads of many members of the congregation during services," she adds, you'd likely hear an equal or greater number of doubts and routine thoughts. "Ultimately," she concludes, "it's no one else's business that not only have you stopped seeing the light; you've concluded there's no one to turn it on."

What impressed me about Yoffe's reply was how swiftly she moved to reassure the man that he was not being a hypocrite. He had assessed how deeply religion was woven into his marriage, family, and way of life, and the risk of giving that up was enormous to him—perhaps too high a price for a marriage and wife he greatly valued and esteemed.

What also impressed me about the letter was how closely it resembled earlier statements about lost faith from especially the nineteenth century. After all, as Margaret Maison wrote in her survey of religious fiction from the time, "Never has an age in history produced such a literature of lost faith, or so many great men and women of religious temperament standing outside organized religion."

In one particularly striking example of lost faith, recounted in the New York magazine Popular Science Monthly in 1882 and described more fully in my book The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty, one young man recounts a sudden "change in the aspect of [his] vision. Everything seemed to me strange and queer, although the same forms and colors were preserved."

The patient is "about twenty-eight years, of an agreeable and intellectual appearance," but he's soon beset with existential and religiously-inflected questions, tied to his faith, that he feels compelled to ask his doctor: "What am I? What are all these things that are made like me? Why am I?"

"Why am I?" is perhaps the most remarkable of these questions, with religion offering an answer more confident and comforting than science perhaps ever could. But as his doctor explains, the patient finds no comfort in theology. He is in one sense suspended between two options, greater faith and firmer uncertainty, yet neither strikes him as possible or appealing.

In the preface to his Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable, John Patrick Shanley asks his reader, "Have you ever held a position in an argument past the point of comfort? Have you ever defended a way of life you were on the verge of exhausting?"

The questions seem tailor-made for the patient in Popular Science Monthly and the troubled former-believer in Dear Prudence's column on Slate. For Shanley, as he goes on to explain, doubt and uncertainty bring to the fore "something silent under every person." They also manifest, however awkwardly, "something unsaid under any given society."

In the end, he writes, it is doubt "(so often experienced as weakness) that changes things." Doubt, too, that oddly "requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite." Doubt is, he says, "a passionate exercise" we have to undertake if we're to test our beliefs and assess whether they might be misplaced.

www.christopherlane.org Follow me at @christophlane

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