Belief is Not a Virtue
I know that it may seem like an odd thing for a Christian to say, but belief is not a virtue, and neither is doubt.
I recently came across an Atheist’s how-to video for helping Christians de-convert. One of the first steps in this process, the video claims, is to introduce doubt as a virtue.
This is evidence of a popular mischaracterization that associates Christianity with belief, and atheism with doubt. Introduce doubt to the Christian, and you have injected the antidote to his belief.
If the defining characteristic of Christianity were belief, it would indeed be a problem. Gullibility would be hardwired into the Christian worldview. And while the widespread success of books about heaven tourism, and the popularity of charlatans like Benny Hinn are painful reminders that there is indeed too much gullibility within the church, this need not, and should not be the case.
Belief itself should not be the defining characteristic of Christians, because Christian belief is very narrowly defined. We believe Scripture because we have good reason to do so, but that doesn’t mean that we ought to be generally more willing to believe anything or anyone else. That especially applies to those among us that claim to have some extraordinary mystical experience. Scripture has stood the test of time. For every question that arises, there are good, solid answers. The same cannot be said about some random lady in your church who says that God spoke to her last night. We only believe that which warrants belief. In reality, that practice is no different than what is expected for any rational person.
In contrast, Atheism (at least as it is defined in this instance by an atheist) sees doubt itself as a virtue. That means that the simple act of doubting in and of itself, is more desirable than that of believing. That is an interesting proposition, because the opposite of belief is not doubt, but disbelief. Doubt is an attitude and an emotion. As often described by Atheists, doubt is the default lens through which the skeptic views the world. Doubt requires no evidence, and its only foundation may be merely an appeal to incredulity, such as “Do you really believe that it’s possible for a man to live for 3 days in the belly of a whale? Doesn’t that just sound like a bunch of superstition from a whole lot of primitive middle eastern mystics?” That’s not an argument against the possibility of the miraculous preservation of Jonah in a fish, it’s just an appeal to the emotion of doubt.
Doubts are part of human experience. However, you cannot build an actual livable worldview that explains life and provides meaning upon doubt and skepticism, because any such attempt is inherently self-defeating. To be truly consistent, the skeptic would have to be skeptical of his own skepticism, or doubt his doubts. Thus, what Atheism is really saying is, “doubt everything (except for what we are telling you).” That is, when you think about it, what every worldview and ideology is communicating. While Atheism may see it as the cornerstone of rational thought, in truth, skepticism as an all-encompassing approach to the world of ideas is one of the more intellectually lazy systems of thought because it spends the majority of its time attacking other worldviews instead of providing rational support for its own.
Atheism thrives on doubt, and creating incredulity, by asking questions such as “If Mormons should doubt what they are taught, shouldn’t you doubt what you are taught?” The answer to that question is simple and not really surprising. Of course the Mormon should doubt his beliefs, because he lacks a reasonable foundation for those beliefs. But to persuade me that I should systematically doubt my own, and favor yours, you will need to demonstrate that my beliefs are wrong, and/or that yours provide a better unbiased ((By unbiased, I mean that you can’t try to stack the deck in favor of your preconceptions by trying to force me to adopt the foundational assumptions of your worldview, such as naturalism)) explanation of reality. That is something that Atheism, especially at the popular level fails to do.
Finally, we should observe that doubt does not automatically invalidate belief. In fact, the two co-exist to some degree at all times. Obviously, my Christianity is in trouble if I am seriously doubting such foundational ideas as the existence of God, Jesus, and the Resurrection, but no worldview that honestly presents itself is without lingering questions. In fact, the very claim of having all of the answers is itself reason to suspect that a particular ideology is less that forthright on its face.
No one can expect to have all the answers, given the finite nature of human knowledge. For Christians that believe in an all-powerful, personal God acting in time and space with purposes that are not entirely revealed to mankind, we understand that we will never have access to all of the how’s and why’s of God’s actions. Thus, having areas that we are not completely certain about is not only rationally consisted with our worldview, it is a requirement. What evangelists for atheism often attempt to do is to distort others’ relatively insubstantial doubts out of proportion while shielding themselves from having to answer the significant unanswered questions within their own belief system. So, while they have you questioning the existence of God on account of the fact that there is no scientific (i.e., naturalistic) explanation of how Jonah survived in the fish, I have yet to meet an atheist that can properly explain how all time, energy, and matter arose spontaneously out of nothing.
Doubt is not a problem for Christians, provided it is handled the right way. We must first look at the source of doubt. Does it arise from honest, unanswered questions? Or, is it coming from someplace else? I have seen so many people begin to question Scripture and Christian belief simply because they found the moral boundaries of Scripture too confining. Doubt nurtured because of a secret desire to be rid of a pesky moral standard is not primarily an intellectual issue, but a heart problem.
In any case, we cannot simply brush off questions, even if we suspect that those questions come from less than honorable intentions. Doubt in others or even ourselves is an opportunity to re-center ourselves on that which we know to be true, and a chance to become more educated in the Christian worldview. Brushing off honest questions with pat answers can actually cause the persistent question to seem much more significant than it really is.
In the years that I have been studying and educating others in the Christian worldview, I have never come across a question that can’t be answered. That doesn’t mean that we will like the answer. Often, due to the limits of our knowledge, we have to simply provide a possible solution that maintains the integrity of the Christian worldview. A great example of that is question of the fate of those who’ve never heard the Gospel. There are a number of different possible solutions, but in the end, we simply don’t know all the details.
Neither doubt nor belief are by themselves virtues. Their value is determined by whether there is sufficient warrant to sustain them. As such, doubt is not the silver bullet to kill faith as many Atheists seem to think. The antidote to doubt, however, is truth.