Like most people, I used to view doubt and faith as occupying two opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. In my mind, there were people of faith, true believers, and then there were the doubters, like myself. A vast and impassable ocean separated these two groups. Or so I thought.
I don’t think that way anymore. After traveling the world and diving into several of the world’s major religions (and a few minor ones), I’ve concluded that doubt represents not an absence of faith, but rather, is an integral part of it. I wouldn’t say I celebrate doubt, not anymore than I celebrate that pain in my left knee telling me I need to see the doctor. But I do accept it, value it, and recognize its role in the spiritual life.
True some religious people desire certainty- and only certainty. For them, doubt represents weakness, an absence of faith, or at least an incomplete faith. In short, doubt is the enemy. But that is only one way of being religious. There are others. Psychologists have identified the “quest personality.” That is one category that I – and many others I expect- fit into perfectly. A Quester is someone who seeks knowing full well she will never find definitive answers. As psychologist David Fontana explains: “Such people apparently value their religious doubts and uncertainties, see questions as more central to their religious experience than answers, and accept that their view of religion is fluid and open to change.”
Gandhi was a Quester. For him, it was all trial and error. Like all Questers, he could live with doubt and ambiguity, and probably preferred it that way. He believed that, as the late academic Peter Bertocci put it, “to flee from insecurity is to miss the whole point of being human, the whole point of religion.” This outlook may run counter to how my atheist friends view the religious-as weak people looking to wrap themselves in a theological security blanket-but it may hew closer to the truth.
At first glance, Questers seem a lot like agnostics and we are, in the sense that we lack certainty. But there is a difference. Agnostics are passive, waiting for proof of God’s existence (however you define God), while Questers are active. We do things. We meditate. We pray. We question.
Like many people who fit this category, I consider myself a rationalist. I believe that reason and its offshoot, science, are good. I also believe that there is more to the world than meets the eye, though I’d be hard pressed to define what that “more” is.
Doubt can paralyze, yes, but it can also motivate. The opposite of doubt is not certainty but action, forward momentum. As E.F. Schumacher, the renegade economist put it, “Matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.” In other words, matters that are beyond doubt have nothing to teach us.
In my travels, I’ve met many deeply religious people who, nonetheless, live comfortably with doubt. My friend James, for instance, is a Buddhist who still has many doubts-about reincarnation, for instance-but this does not prevent him from practicing his faith, and benefitting from it.
Nearly all religions, in varying degrees, acknowledge the role of doubt, but perhaps none more so than the Jains, the ancient faith based in India. The Jains have a term, syadvada, which literally translates as a “multiplicity of viewpoints,” but is also referred to as “maybe-ism.” Essentially, syadvada says that for every “truth” that we hold dear there are other, equally valid, truths. For the Jains, syadvada is a way of life, and it permeates every aspect of their faith, including their doctrine of nonviolence.
The Jains know instinctively that where certainty reigns, nothing else can survive. Where there is doubt, there is also possibility. And life.
Eric Weiner is author of
Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.