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Doubt Is the Heart of Belief

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Doubt does not undermine belief. It is central to belief, an indispensable part of accepting God and the mandates of a religious tradition. Even fervent believers have doubts -- lots of them.

The correlation between belief and doubt is not always easy to see, in large measure because of what I refer to as "in-your-face-believers" -- those who declare their belief in God and their embrace of religion as loudly, as frequently, and as publicly as they possibly can. Such people are all around us these days, sometimes on TV, sometimes in the workplace, sometimes in our own religious communities. Talking a little too openly about their personal faith, sharing it when there is no obvious need to do so, and affecting humility while actually displaying pride in the power of their devotion, they appear to be absolutely certain in their religious belief; surely, we say to ourselves, religious people like that have no doubts whatever.

But, of course, they do. In my experience, in fact, these are the people who are eaten alive by doubt, and that is why they feel the need to compensate with unending religious preening and public affirmations of faith.

Yet even believers who are secure in their convictions must struggle with doubt. It is natural, healthy and an ongoing part of becoming comfortable with God and religious observance. It is also inevitable. In the world in which we live, unbelief is everywhere and an option for virtually everyone; even the most insulated religious communities, vulnerable to the invasive technologies of the modern world, cannot escape it.

Therefore, belief in God today is almost never the comforting certainty that it was in the pre-modern era; it is, instead, more of a hunch, a feeling, an instinct or a hope. Even for the strongest believers among us, these are not the securest foundations on which to build.

A good guide to the prevalence of doubt among religious people is T.M. Luhrmann. In her article in the New York Times on May 29, "Belief Is the Least Part of Faith," she picks up on themes from her book "When God Talks Back," which deals with how American evangelicals relate to God.

Lurhmann, relying on Durkheim and the sociology of religion, reminds us that most of our religious behavior is socially determined. The point that she makes is that religion begins when we are drawn into a community, where we share stories and practice rituals that enable us to relive the sacred moments of that community's history. We do as others do, often with little thought. After all, what is shared by a community quickly becomes comfortable and has a way of seeming reasonable -- whether or not it is actually reasonable and whether or not it is rooted in belief. But eventually, if those around us believe, we believe too -- even if such belief develops slowly and gradually.

For some, no matter how it develops, their belief - -in God and transcendent values -- will be strong. For others, it will be laced with questions and doubt. And for still others, including some of the most devout, it may be altogether secondary to the experience of day-to-day religious living that they find in their community. For folks in this latter category, probably the largest group, doubt is not a catastrophe at all; while they see themselves as believers, belief in God is not the central focus of the religious commitment, and therefore questions about that belief can be managed without great difficulty. As Lurhmann puts it, these are people who prefer practical religious questions to abstract and intellectual ones.

As a rabbinical student, I spent a great deal of time studying Jewish philosophy, and particularly enjoyed the writings of Maimonides and other Jewish thinkers of the medieval period. These thinkers had a complete command of classical Jewish sources; wrote with brilliance, precision, insight and deep faith; offered proofs of God's existence; and were expert in the broader philosophical trends of their day. When I was ordained, thinking that I had mastered much of their work, I went out into the Jewish world, ready to engage my congregants in the intricacies of the philosophers' arguments and the details of their doctrines. The only problem was that the overwhelming majority of Jews in my synagogue -- and in most synagogues -- didn't seem to care at all.

These Jews were not interested in theological affirmations. They were not engaged in the Grand Quest. They had plenty of doubts, but this didn't seem to bother them at all. They were quite comfortable with their beliefs, doubts and all. And what they wanted from me instead was to help them with the concrete aspects of Jewish experience: rituals that would inspire their children, ceremonies that would enrich their lives, and holidays that would bind them to their people and their God. Doubts were a given, but also fundamentally unimportant.

Luhrmann writes that the primary concern of American evangelicals is not theology but the search for joy in a world that is good -- because God is good. Perhaps, although from what I see both in my community and in others, most religious people are engaged in a somewhat broader search -- for joy, to be sure, but also for solidarity, caring and truth. And they are also searching for justice -- because God is not only good but also just.

Yet Luhrmann's basic thesis is right and important. Belief in God is widespread but shakier than we might think, and doubt is everywhere. Nonetheless, Americans go to churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship for a simple reason: They put religious experience before theology, and value religious community more than formal religious belief. They want a place of worship that embraces them, gives their life meaning and points them in the direction of the sacred. And beyond that, questions of faith will take care of themselves.