The Stigmatization of Doubt

I don’t know why the church has a problem with doubt. Yet, within the church community doubt has been viewed with the same stigma that has been associated with maladies and social problems that the “normal” society does not understand. In the past, doubt has been treated within faith circles in the same way that contagious diseases were treated a century ago, or perhaps in the way that mental illness has come to be stigmatized in our day.

A “stigma” is a negative association that one group uses to label another group – it is like a sign hung around the neck of someone else to say that they are different, they don’t belong, they are not like “us.” It is a way to separate one group by creating a negative attitude toward them, putting them down, making them feel unliked and unwanted. It happens when one group identifies some quality in the other group, and says, “we don’t want to have anything to do with that characteristic, and thus with those who possess it.” Doubt has been so stigmatized that in the church it has become synonymous with being “unwell” or that “something was wrong.” Doubt meant that there was something wrong with my faith, and thus there was something wrong with me.

Somewhere along the way, doubt has become a problem, a social disease, something to be avoided at all costs.

We have raised our children to see doubt as some kind of weakness, or deficiency. And as a part of this, we have stigmatized those in the church who have had any experience of doubt and pushed them to the margins. Those who have had any thoughts of doubt in the church have been made to feel like they were unwanted, or unwelcome, or that somehow they had to hide – shamefully – their real and valid questions. They have not been allowed any experience of uncertainty in the midst of the mysteries and unknowns of seeking an invisible God.

There are, of course, horrible consequences to this. The stigmatization of doubt means that anyone who experiences a doubt seeks to hide it – in order to be accepted, in order to be welcomed; they cover up their doubt and pretend like it isn’t there. By stigmatizing doubt, we end up creating a church of fakers –- of Pollyanna-like posers all pretending that they are living a doubt-free life. We walk around telling each other “everything is fine,” and we fear ever being real and honest with our church brothers and sisters for fear that it would expose the reality that we have had questions and doubts and fears and wonderings all along.

But what if doubt was normal?

What if God never intended us to be doubt free, but instead doubt was one more process by which God grew and developed our faith?

One of my favorite quotes is from Frederick Buechner, who wrote, “Doubt is the ants-in-the-pants of faith, it keeps it awake, and moving.” What if God’s intention for doubt was not something to be shunned, but something he could use to strengthen our faith and draw us together? What if doubt was something to be spoken about, listened to, something that when told by one person was not met with embarrassment or rejection, but was instead met with an embrace, loving kindness, care, hand-holding, and reassurance? What if the church became a place where it was safe to say, “I have doubts”? And when that declaration was made, the response was, “Guess what? Me too. Welcome to the club. Now let’s keep going, and journey through this together…”

How can this be done? I have three suggestions:

  1. Don’t be afraid of doubt—redefine it. Instead of defining doubt as a stigma in the life of a believer or as some sort of crisis to be avoided or hidden, define it as one step in the journey of faith— and not the last step. Throughout history, saints have talked about “the dark night of the soul,” which was a challenging experience— but not the end of their faith. Begin to define doubt as a step in the process of building strong faith.
  2. Pastors and Teachers: Give space to talk about doubt. Invite people to share their journey, their real journey, and receive it with acceptance and without judgment. Maybe even share your own, but again, talk about how it is a step and not the end of your journey. After all, if faith is the expectation of things not seen, true faith is to experience doubt, but believe there is something that comes after it.
  3. Get real. The temptation that comes with doubt is to pretend— to present others a doubt-free face, and try to hide the reality as if we are not facing any challenges or questions. Instead, begin to remove the stigma, and process doubt as a normal part of the life of faith— one that is awake, and moving.

Bo Cassell

Bo Cassell is a professor of Sociology at MidAmerica Nazarene University. A veteran youth worker, Bo has previously been involved in youth ministry for two decades.
Bo Cassell

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