Doubt in Religion

Just as it is simplistic to say that there is no faith component in science, it is not quite true that there is no doubt-component in the religious context. Many deeply religious people experience skeptic’s doubt when they encounter a religious system other than their own. Indeed the rejection of the doctrines of a different religion is an emphatic expression of skeptic’s doubt. St. Thomas did this explicitly with respect to Islam in his Summa contra gentiles. Such a doubt with respect to a different religion is implicit in the doctrines of religions which claim their own prophet to be the only true or last one. Sometimes, a religious person may also have skeptic’s doubt with respect to certain doctrines in one's own religion. This is often the starting point of a new religious sect. Buddhism, the Arian heresy and Protestantism in Christianity, Dvaita-Vaishnavism, and Qadianism in Islam: these and other sectarian movements have been caused by the skeptic’s doubts of religious thinkers.

Even devout believers have sometimes experienced skeptic’s doubt with respect to their own faith system. We read in the Gospel of John (20:25) that when he heard about Christ’s Resurrection the apostle Thomas said, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” It was only when he had the actual experience that he believed: a scene that is magnificently portrayed in a Caravaggio masterpiece. Later, the same Doubting Thomas is said to have brought the message of Christ to India.

The skeptic Narendra Dutt sought proof for the existence of God. He questioned many people on this. But when he met Sri Ramakrishna, by the mere touch of the saintly man, he became a believer. He was given the name of Vivekananda (Bliss of Wisdom). Later in the nineteen century, as if in a reciprocal gesture, Doubting Narendra brought the wisdom of Vedantic Hinduism to the Western world.

In the modern world, some religious thinkers who have been touched by science have argued that, at least at some stage, skeptic’s doubt is a necessary pre-condition for faith. Thus, Michael Corey has suggested that "… God might actually prefer the critical-thinking agnostic, who eventually comes to Him through a word-won battle of conflicting beliefs, to the mindless subservient ‘believer’ who hasn't even bothered to examine his or her belief structure." Though one may wonder how anybody can know about God's preferences, the point made here is that honest skeptic’s doubt is not necessarily incompatible with religious seeking. As Samuel Coleridge observed, "There is no true faith that has not wrestled with doubt." However, in this context we may recall what Christ himself told Thomas (John 20:29): “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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