Mother Teresa's Doubts

As an atheist, I am pleased that a big-name religious icon had doubts about her faith. If Mother Teresa had doubts, then my doubts might be okay, too.
09/06/2007 05:41 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mother Teresa had doubts. She, like so many people, had serious misgivings about the certainty of the existence of god. She felt lonely and sad because she could not feel his presence. Yet she carried on in her work and continued to hope that some day she would deeply feel the faith she professed to have.

As an atheist, I feel somewhat satisfied but this admission (even as I admit that she never wanted such facts about her private life made public). I am pleased that a big-name religious icon -- a person who will more than likely become a saint -- had doubts. It is not a mean kind of satisfaction; I am not gleeful at the pain or unhappiness expressed in the letters, I do not feel smug, or even vindicated for my non-belief. But I do feel that her doubts make my non-belief a little more comprehensible to the "true believers." If Mother Teresa had doubts, then my doubts might be okay, too.

I think that doubt is part of life. I find it to be a healthy, mind-expanding trait in me and in many other people I know. "I'm not sure." "I don't know." "Hmmm...let me think about it." These are utterances you hear from me all the time. Doubt is woven into my daily life. I doubt the small things, like whether or not the Yankees will make it into the post-season, and I doubt the big stuff, like the existence of a supreme being and the idea of an afterlife.

Let me be clear, I doubt the existence of god but I do not know that there is no god. I understand that there are non-believers out there who are certain of god's non-existence, but I prefer to stay in the Richard Dawkins camp on this one. He says that he is "almost certain that there is no god." That means that there is a sliver of doubt. And that tiny wedge of doubt keeps me from being arrogant. Because that tiny possibility means that I do not pretend to know it all. Knowing makes people too certain, and that certainty makes people arrogant and ultimately insufferable -- especially in a discussion about religion (or lack thereof).

Anne Lamott has a quote which has become one of my favorites. She says, "The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty." Mother Teresa proves this point in a lovely and very human way. In having her letters published there has been something new to see about her and about the notion of faith. She has become very human. The work she did, even as she doubted even as she feared that there was no ultimate reward, no invisible friend to guide her through life, showed that she was a humanist at heart. She helped people for the sake of helping. Not for convictions that were ironclad and unexamined.

The notion of faith is more and more narrowly defined, and the "true believers" think that they own the word. But they don't. And as an atheist I resent being told I am a person of no faith. I have lots of faith, even as I have doubts. I doubt the Yankees will make it, but I have faith that they will get the pitching staff in shape and will get to the playoffs. It isn't really a contradiction, it is just two sides of the same coin. I have faith in humanity, in gravity, in medicine and in many other things. I just don't have faith in the big guy in the sky.

I thank Mother Teresa for the example she gives me, not only as a humanitarian but as a human. And I hope that the people who think that they know for sure that there is a god can allow for some doubt. Even a wisp of doubt will erase the arrogance and ultimately allow for more faith in more things. This will especially help if we are going to start to bridge the gap between "them" and "us" which will only happen if we can sit down and have a conversation.

Admitting we aren't sure what we know is the beginning of the conversation. Being certain only ends it. If Mother Teresa teaches us anything in her posthumous writing, I think it is to reveal our own insecurities, not act like we have all the answers and let down our guard so we can start to talk.