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Chris Kimball: The Language of Doubt

A pond and stand of aspens near Chris’s home I am pleased to have another guest post on religion from my brother Chris. (You can see other guest posts by Chris listed at the bottom of this post.) In what Chris has written below, he is wrestling not just with what he thinks and feels about Mormonism, but also with what he thinks and feels about Christianity and about belief in God itself. The SkepticI am a skeptic, an empiricist, a Bayesian. These are not moral statements or value judgments. They are simply observations about how and whether I know anything. Essentially a matter of epistemology. This is me, and a few

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Chris Kimball: The Language of Doubt

A pond and stand of aspens near Chris’s home

I am pleased to have another guest post on religion from my brother Chris. (You can see other guest posts by Chris listed at the bottom of this post.) In what Chris has written below, he is wrestling not just with what he thinks and feels about Mormonism, but also with what he thinks and feels about Christianity and about belief in God itself.

The Skeptic

I am a skeptic, an empiricist, a Bayesian. These are not moral statements or value judgments. They are simply observations about how and whether I know anything. Essentially a matter of epistemology.

This is me, and a few other people I know. I’m sure many people think differently and that’s OK. I know there are discussions about the nature of the world, of human beings generally. Interesting discussion. Ones I’m not equipped to argue but interested to listen. This is not about the general case. Just about me.

A skeptic questions the possibility of certainty or knowledge about anything (even knowledge about knowing). An empiricist recognizes experience derived from the senses. A Bayesian views knowledge as constantly updating degrees of belief. In a functional sense, in the way it works in my life, I only know anything as a product of neurochemicals and hormones in the present. 

In science, in law, in everyday life, being a skeptic is not a big deal; it is even usual or typical to talk like a skeptic. But in religion it is a big deal.

The Spirit: When the topic of doubt comes up, a common biblical reply is that the Spirit is the ultimate witness. “The Spirit beareth witness with our spirit” (Romans 8:16 KJV). I don’t suppose everybody has the same idea what that means; I hear it as a Platonic ideal of Truth or Knowledge, and a dualist body-soul where God or the Spirit speaks directly to the soul in some form of indisputable ultimate knowledge. “For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:8

However this works for others, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t recognize any Spirit-to-soul ultimate knowledge communication. Only neurochemicals and hormones. I am reasonably satisfied there is an external world that impinges on my senses. I am willing to make room for an external supernatural world, although I am more likely categorized agnostic than believing. But the external world, natural or supernatural, ultimately registers through neurochemicals and hormones. There is no back channel, no source of certainty.  

Testing Faith: Sometimes religious people talk about overcoming doubt with tested faith. “That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:7. A Mormon version is the frequently referenced Alma 32:24, which compares the word to a seed, which if given place will begin to swell, “and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within your selves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good.” Plant the seed, watch it grow, come to “know” by proof of results.

I do in fact notice that giving place for a seed can lead to good feelings and positive experiences. However, cause and effect are mysterious to me, pattern searching is a real phenomenon, confirmation bias happens. In other words, I feel the swelling motions, but I never get to “must needs be.” The “must” is forever elusive.

Sensus Divinitatis: French Protestant reformer John Calvin used the term sensus divinitatis (“sense of divinity”) to describe a hypothetical human sense:

That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some “sensus divinitatis,” we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead … [T]his is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol I, Chapter III)

Not me. It has been suggested that this sense does not work properly in some humans due to sin. (Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief). I don’t believe it, but that is certainly a theory I have heard in Mormon circles as well.  

Gift of the Holy Ghost: The way Mormons often talk about the gift of the Holy Ghost sounds a lot like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, including Plantinga’s theory that the sense may not work due to sin. From The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Gospel Principles, a reasonable indicator of how Mormons talk, even if not doctrine by some definitions:

The Holy Ghost usually communicates with us quietly. His influence is often referred to as a “still small voice”. The Holy Ghost speaks with a voice that you feel more than you hear.[T]he Holy Ghost will come to us only when we are faithful and desire help from this heavenly messenger. To be worthy to have the help of the Holy Ghost, we must seek earnestly to obey the commandments of God. We must keep our thoughts and actions pure. (Gospel Principles, Chapter 21: The Gift of the Holy Ghost, p. 123.)

I read the “thoughts and actions pure” worthiness requirement and recognize that saying “not me” can come across as a confession. But. .  not me.

In short, for me there is no back channel, there is no Spirit-to-soul communication, there is no Gift, that I recognize as anything more than neurochemicals and hormones. Everything I know or think I know is subject to the limitations and failings of mortality. I am not certain of my own memories, my perceptions, or my emotions. I recall “burning in the bosom” experiences; I have dreamed dreams; I have seen visions. Some of these experiences have changed my life. Some of these experiences feel fresh in memory because I tell stories about them. But where they came from and what they mean seem forever a matter of interpretation. I attach meaning in the present over the surface of uncertain memory of an inherently ambiguous experience. I don’t recognize a back door, a sysop or root, an access to indisputable ultimate knowledge. I am not certain, always and forever.

The Language of Doubt

As a skeptic, the language of “doubt” can be misleading or misconstrued. Doubt can be a simple synonym for skepticism. There is a sense in which I live in a state of doubt always and forever. Because it is too all-encompassing, “doubt” is not a useful concept for me. Therefore, I find it useful to expand the vocabulary and to use words like cynicism, belief, probability, and trust.

 Cynicism: A friend once said “assume goodwill.” I’m sure it was not original with him, but it stuck as good advice, reinforced by the example of his good life.

The cynic does not assume goodwill. The cynic disbelieves the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. The cynic sees the natural man, the economic maximizer, the selfish gene, in human interaction. The cynic sees the church’s decisions and policies in terms of the collection plate or tithing receipts.

I know people who play the intellectual game of explaining everything in selfish self-centered terms. But I am convinced there is more--love and altruism and God and friendship and loyalty and long-term perspectives that extend beyond any one person’s lifetime. Therefore, I generally think I am not a cynic.

Probability and Belief: Belief sometimes sounds like a binary—you believe or you disbelieve. But it doesn’t have to be a binary. I experience life as a swarm of probabilities. It is not clear there is any propositional statement I could 100% agree or 100% disagree with.

I can adopt the language of belief and disbelief by taking high probability propositions and calling them belief, and low probability propositions and calling them disbelief. And there is substance here. It’s not all word play. It is very possible for my high probability propositions to correspond to your beliefs or certainties or knowledge. Living in a swarm of probabilities does not mean anything goes.

On the other hand, church people often use “I know” or “beyond a shadow of doubt” phrases and I struggle to fit in. Narrowly speaking, high probability is not the same as knowledge, and turning a highly probable proposition into an “I know” would feel like playing to the crowd—using the words the community expects. More broadly, living in a swarm of probabilities makes me constantly aware of uncertainty and I wonder whether there is anything in the nature of a statement about faith or belief about which I have enough confidence to consider the move to “I know.”

Trust: I find “trust” the most useful concept to structure my religious thinking and conversation. Trust feels like a principle of action. Is my confidence level sufficient to make choices or turn my life or make a commitment? That’s trust.

Instead of asking “do I believe in God?” or “does God exist?” the question becomes Ivan’s question (Ivan of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov) “How can I trust God if he allows the most unthinkable evils to destroy innocents like the little girl?” In formal terms, this is not a logical theodicy (is it rational or is there an explanation that makes sense?) It is not exactly the evidential theodicy (does the weight of evidence, including the amount of evil in the world, argue for or against God?) It is more like an existential or pastoral theodicy that asks whether God makes sense in my life, in my circumstances, in light of my pain?

Instead of asking “do I believe in Christ?”—an existence proof kind of question--the question becomes one of confidence in an atonement. Is the child Yeshua born of Mariam someone I can trust in as a Savior? Is there a Christology (a theology regarding the person, nature, and role of Christ), a soteriology (a doctrine of salvation), that makes sense to me? That motivates me? That I am willing to trust in? Enough that I am willing to take up the cross and follow?

All this leading up to the questions that arise when turning the lens of trust on the Church. As I think about trusting the Church, the catalog of standard truth claims do not strike me as very important. Instead, I think about questions like Do I trust leaders? Or, Which leaders do I trust? Do I trust the disciplinary system, the process by which some human representative judges my qualifications? Is the doctrine, the description of how God works, the Plan, a reliable representation of reality? Do I trust the history as taught in the standard curriculum? Do I trust the Church’s claim to effect salvation? Do I trust the process of extending callings or making assignments? Do I trust the Church as custodian of tithes and offerings?

For me, every one of these trust questions is thought-provoking. Not quickly answered by reference to truth claims or “I know” kinds of belief statements. For me these trust questions lead to a very nuanced relationship with God and Christ and the Church. Neither all in nor all out but forever tentative and questioning.

 Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these other guest posts by Chris:

In addition, Chris is my coauthor for

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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