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“The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.”--John Patrick Shanley
The above quote comes from Shanley’s introduction to his play “Doubt: A Parable.” Doubt is an emotion that I’m fairly well-versed in. I’ve spent a lot of my time in the realm of doubt, and I’ve come to realize that we could all stand to spend a bit more time there.
Religion encourages us to put away our doubts. The disciple Thomas is chastised for his doubt; the children of Israel were as well. Great faith is supposed to overcome all doubts. As a Christian, having doubts is proof positive that you need to trust more. Believe harder. Pray longer. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding,” Proverbs 3:5. It’s a memory verse I will never forget, mostly because adults quoted it at me so often. Any time I questioned, adults would use this verse and others like it to stop all discourse.
I remember asking the classic questions: If God is good, why do bad things happen? If someone performs good works all their life, but doesn’t believe in Jesus, why can’t they go to heaven? Why is the God of the Old Testament such a dick? Why does the Bible advocate things we know are bad? These questions were answered with the rote response that we don’t always understand God’s perspective because we are human and he’s God. We are certain that he is good, so what he does must be good as well. There was nowhere to go from this point. My personal understanding was suspect. If I kept questioning, it obviously meant that my faith wasn’t strong enough.
One week of prayer in high school was especially bad. It’s a week that stands out as an early stop on my road to atheism. The week of prayer focused on the story of Job. I hated the story of Job, and when teachers told us to re-read it and then discuss, I asked the questions that no one had ever answered satisfactorily. God decides to kill a bunch of people to win an argument, and this is the character we are rooting for? It’s never made much sense to me. In our discussion, I made the point that if God wasn’t God, we might think he was the bad guy. If a human ruler had done something like that—killed an entire innocent family just to prove a point to his rival—we would all be calling for peacekeeping forces to remove them from power.
My teacher said that I was using human reasoning, and God was beyond that. We had to have faith like Job. After all, it was Job’s faith that lead to his reward. When I pointed out that even his reward—a new family to replace his murdered one—was appalling to me, I was told I was being disrespectful. God’s plans couldn’t always be understood, but it was not for us to doubt his plans. Who was I to question God? The discussion, as so many of them did, ended with the point that we had to cultivate our faith, so that we wouldn’t need to question. We would simply know that God was good and in control.
A large portion of my religious education focused on removing doubt from my thinking, but doubt has led me to some of my best discoveries. Without a smidgen of doubt, I wouldn’t have questioned the discrepancies I saw between a supposed God of love and the God represented in the Bible. I wouldn’t have looked at the hypocrisy inherent in a community that taught me to “judge not” and love my neighbor, but also tried to deny rights to the LGBTQ community.
Doubt made me a better and more caring individual. Doubt allowed me to question my privilege and my assumptions. Certainty has rarely served me so well. Faith and belief are not virtues. Doubt isn’t necessarily a virtue either, but it allows for questions, and without questions, we stop looking for answers.