“A faith that has never been doubted is not as valuable or authentic as a faith that has been doubted.” Hang around discussions of Mormonism for long and you’ll hear some variation on this claim. I’m skeptical. To be clear, I see nothing wrong or sinful about doubt. I believe that it can be a productive and positive force in one’s life. On the other hand, I don’t think that it is the good-house-keeping seal of intellectual legitimacy. In other words, there is nothing wrong with doubt, and doubt can be good. I don’t think that doubt necessarily makes one’s faith better.
I’ve got basically two reasons. The first is philosophical and the second is theological. First the philosophical reason. It is a common place of modern thought that true knowledge and intellectual respectability comes from doubting one’s beliefs and subjecting them to the highest possible level of hostile scrutiny. This is an idea that no one really had until the seventeenth century. This doesn’t mean that it is wrong. Sometimes progress happens, and new truths are discovered. On the other hand, we ought to be suspicious of ideas that require that we believe that lots of demonstrably smart people — Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas to name a few — were really dumb. The doubt-as-intellectual-legitimater idea has its origins in Descartes, who famously tried to subject all of his beliefs to systematic doubt until he found one that could not be doubted — “I think therefore I am” — from which he then reconstructed his beliefs. The overwhelming consensus, I think, is that Descartes philosophical project was a failure. First, it was a failure because the argument that he uses to save himself from skepticism and solipicism — the beliefs that I know nothing and I am the only mind in the universe — is basically specious. (It is a modified version of the ontological argument for the existence of God.) Now, you might take it as a sign of great philosophical courage and sophistication to embrace skepticism and solipcism, but it is probably better to think of them as a reductio ad absurdum. The second reason for Descartes’ failure is that it turns out he actually doesn’t doubt nearly as much as he thinks he does, and his point of radical doubt is actually chock full of unacknowledged assumptions. Now one might assume that this means that one should be even more radical in one’s doubt, and begin the reconstruction of knowledge from even thinner premises. It is not really clear that one can do this, however. There always seem to be unquestioned assumptions lurking in our thought, and systematically extirpating them doesn’t seem to be possible.
My second reason for doubting that doubt is the ultimate legitimater of faith, is that it seems fundamentally self-centered. It makes the arbiter of spiritual value into an individual psychological state through which one’s beliefs must past. The heart of the Christ’s message, it seems to me, is that it isn’t all about you. Even the most private of spiritual events — personal salvation — seems to be social, involving relationships with God, Christ, and those to whom we are sealed. Furthermore, everything that I read in the scriptures suggests that righteous action is considerably more important that justified belief. To be sure, the scriptures encourage us to be able to give an answer to any man that asks for the hope that is in us, but try as I might I can’t read this as an endorsement of Descartes. To be sure, the scriptures — especially the New Testament — exalt faith as a great virtue. However, I don’t think that “faith” in this context simply means belief. I certainly don’t think that it means something like “belief justified in Cartesian terms” or alternatively “belief engaged in as an act of existential choice in the face of courageous engagement with doubt.” Rather, I think that it means something much simpler, like trust in Christ or trust in God. Issues of doubt, epistemic justification, and existential choice simply aren’t part of the message. This doesn’t mean that they are evil or even that they aren’t valuable. It just means that they aren’t at the center of what it means to be faithful and righteous, and I take it that this is what ultimately justifies us in God’s sight. Hence, I really don’t see a reason for judging the sophisticated faith of the doubting intellectual as superior to the undoubting faith of the non-intellectual. Nor do I think that this requires a patronizing affirmation of the “simple faith” of others. I tend to find the sophisticated faith of the doubting intellectual to be more interesting, but I suspect that this has more to do with my personal temperament than with cosmic truth. I certainly don’t think that what I find interesting can act as some sort of legitmater of what sort of religious life is most valuable.
A final, and largely unrelated point: It is a mistake to equate doubt with questioning or curiosity. Lots of thinkers before Descartes were puzzled about things. Lots of them had questions to which they did not have answers. What they didn’t do was assume that the legitimacy of a belief hinged on subjecting it to “rigorous” and “radical” doubt. As an intellectual matter, I actually find the pre-Cartesian justification for intellectual life much more appealing. Descartes thought that philosophy was a matter of using doubt to gain certainty. The earliest Greek philosophers, however, saw philosophy as curiosity in the face of the wonder of the universe. Ultimately, their quest was driven by wonder rather than by doubt. Regardless of the theological merits of this approach, I think that intellectually it is a lot more fun.