Timpanogos Mountain — Provo, Utah (Photo Credit)

Doubt leads to truth

How Mormon communities benefit from doubt

“I hope that you will develop the questing spirit. Be unafraid of new ideas for they are as stepping stones to progress.” — Hugh B. Brown, Mormon apostle

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor, talking about the questing spirit

Like thousands (tens of thousands?) of Mormons, I experienced a faith crisis in the past decade.

The experience sent me into a tailspin. I worried about how to navigate through it, what to believe, and, most of all, how to talk about it with family and friends.

I worked through my questions by reading and writing, discovering what other people — even those far beyond the scope of Mormonism — had said concerning faith, doubt, and belonging. I didn’t want to disrupt my relationships with the people I loved, but I knew that I couldn’t ignore these new questions. I needed to find a way to move upward through my doubt.

It took many years, but I feel like I’ve once again found solid footing. I know what I believe, and I’m more confident about how to live and how to talk about it.

I’ve also come to realize that doubt is a necessary component in the journey to find truth.

It’s a journey that takes us from confidence to doubt to confidence—though, importantly, the latter state of confidence has been tested.

We might visualize the journey in a graph, such as the one below.

We take this journey whenever we’re willing to refine our opinions.

Take politics, for instance. As we start learning about political candidates, we might read a few articles or watch a few news segments and then settle in on a candidate that seems to best fit our worldview. We’re in a state of untested confidence, mostly parroting what we’ve read and heard.

Then one night we might engage in a dialogue with a friend who disagrees with our position. We see that we really should study all (or at least some of) the candidates fairly. In the process we become less prone to rabid partisanship. We doubt. We hedge our language, saying things like “candidate X seems stronger on issue Y, while candidate A seems stronger on issue B. I’m not really sure who is best.”

Then, after careful consideration, we arrive at a state of tested confidence. Our opinion might end up being the same as the one we started with, or it might be any number of alternatives. Either way, we’re now able to articulate why we’ve chosen our opinion at length. We’re not just parroting what other people have said. We’ve considered the best opinions from our opponents and have arrived our own conclusions.

This isn’t to say that tested confidence — also known as expertise—always equates to the truth, especially because experts disagree all the time.

What’s more, any expert worth listening to will also be open to doubting their new position as they find new information. We may realize that the truth is actually closer to a third option we hadn’t considered before.

So in reality, the process tends to be a wave:

However, when visualized like a wave the process doesn’t look like progress. It’s just a bunch of upward and downward movements.

A better way to think of it is like switchbacks on a mountain.

Visualized this way, working toward confidence is upward movement the same way moving toward doubt is upward movement. Confidence and doubt put us in opposite directions, but they both move us upwards.

If this is the case, a faith crisis isn’t something to avoid. It is an opportunity for growth and development. It is something we should lean into—even if it means that we risk not coming back to religious orthodoxy.

History gives proof of this.

Doubters are the heroes of history

Many of the heroes of history harbored serious doubts about the legitimacy of their community’s beliefs.

Think of Socrates, who spent his life as a gadfly, peskily provoking the Athenian community to think harder, to question the assumptions behind what they thought of as common sense. His questing spirit was carried on to Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Epictetus, whose writings (along with others) serve as the foundation of Western philosophy and inspire people to live better lives today.

This questing spirit bloomed again during the Islamic Golden Age as well as the Renaissance, which brought heroes such as Shakespeare, Montaigne, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Galileo, and Hume.

In addition, if we just look at American doubters we find Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Feynman, and Carl Sagan (to name just a few).

All these people had deep disagreements with the religious orthodoxy of their time. And yet you could do far worse than to pattern your life after these people.

They are who we talk about when we say that the heretics of one generation become the heroes of the next.

Work with doubt and confidence

So should we all doubt, all the time? That would be unsustainable. A community full of people like Socrates wouldn’t be a community at all — or rather it would be like herding cats. Consensus and confidence have their place when it comes to building strong communities, and these values should be applauded when they work to this end.

The main point is that there are limits. If you rely too much on doubt, you risk ending up cynical and lonely. By contrast, if you rely too much on consensus and confidence, you risk ending up ignorant and naive.

It’s therefore healthy to deliberately journey between both positions. (Though I should add that because doubt is typically uncomfortable, we often need more nudging to head in that direction.)

So how do Mormon communities benefit from doubt? The same way all communities have benefitted from doubt—by having our thinking confronted, tested, and refined. Doubt leads to truth, and Mormons are no different from any other group on the planet (including former Mormons) in needing our assumptions unsettled every now and then.

We all benefit from the questing spirit.

Writing about religion, philosophy, and politics on Medium. Also: UpliftKids.org.

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