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Belief / Faith

How to Handle Hesitation and Doubt

How to Handle Hesitation and Doubt
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In a 2019 study, the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of “religious nones” (those that identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”) rose from 17 to 26 percent in the previous ten years.[1] During this same time, the number of self-identifying Christians declined 12 percent.[2] This study is not the first to find a pattern of overall decline in the American Christian church; it is clear that Christianity is shrinking as a percentage of the population.

When asked, those who leave Christianity give reasons for doing so that echo statements made by their non-religious counterparts. One of the most common of these reasons is a lack of belief, sometimes characterized as “common sense,” “logic,” or a “lack of evidence.”[3] Simply put, many doubt that Christianity is actually true and as a result are uninterested in engaging with the religion.

In discussing the Christian church (as a whole rather than a particular congregation), Christian writer Gary Habermas identifies several “myths” which have persisted within the Christian community and which are damaging to those experiencing religious doubt.[4] Three of the most crucial of these myths state that Christian doubt is uncommon, that true believers never experience doubt, and that Christian doubt is always bad.[5] Historically, many Christians have preferred to ignore, suppress, or dismiss religious doubts, essentially telling their members (as characterized by Os Guinness), “Believe this! Believe that! Stop doubting and believe more firmly!”[6] Historically, many Christians have preferred to ignore, suppress, or dismiss religious doubts... Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, as can be seen in the data from Pew Research Center, traditional strategies for responding to doubt appear to be ineffective as more and more Christians are leaving the faith. Research into religious doubt supports Guinness’ criticism of the church; religious persons who suppress their doubts and / or do not have a supportive Christian community with which to share those doubts are likely to see their experience of doubt accelerate.[7] If the church is to stop the “bleeding” it must address the doubts and concerns of its members head on.

Although lack of belief often stems from intellectual concerns (characterized as “factual doubt” by Habermas),[8] these concerns do not exist in a vacuum. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig opines, “Most people make up their minds about belief or unbelief primarily on the basis of emotional factors, not intellectual factors.”[9] This assertion has some support in scientific literature; in a 2004 research article in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, researcher Paul Thagard argues that “reasonable doubt” is not developed on the basis of intellectual reason alone.[10]

Thagard contends, “Doubt is not just a cold, cognitive matter of belief and disbelief, but also involves a hot, emotional reaction to a claim that has been made.”[11] Thus, it is not simply the intellectual question that must be answered but the personal one; the church must express itself in a way which can be accepted by the believer on an emotional level. Supporting research suggests that Christians who examine their doubts within the context of a strong religious support system best deal with their doubts and ultimately tend to experience less religious doubt overall.[12]

What then should the church’s response be to the growing numbers fleeing from their faith? First, doubts cannot be ignored. In fact, to wait until someone within a congregation brings up their doubts is likely too long a wait. Instead, the church must be actively engaged in dispelling religious doubt even if there is no “obvious” problem within the church.  Pastors, teachers, and leaders must be aware of common causes for doubts, common arguments or claims made against Christianity, and common “hard passages” of scripture. These topics must be addressed by the church.

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Secondly, the manner in which these topics are addressed must be one characterized by love, acceptance (of struggling people, not of false claims), and of confidence. The Christian faithful need a community of believers who are confident in their faith, who understand not only what they believe but why they believe it, who are encouraging and supportive when people ask questions (even difficult questions), and who love their members even when their members question the truth of their faith. Data from a wide range of sources would suggest that if such a community were achieved the decline in Christian religious belief would be dramatically impacted for the better.

[1] Pew Research Center. “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center, last modified October 17, 2019. https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s- decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Foley, Avery, and Ham, Ken. “Pew Research: Why Young People Are Leaving Christianity.” Answers in Genesis, last modified September 8, 2016. https://answersingenesis. org/church/pew-research-why-young-people-leaving-christianity/.

[4] Habermas, Gary. Dealing with Doubt. Chicago: Moody Publishing, 1990. http://gary habermas.com/books/dealing_with_doubt/dealing_with_doubt.htm.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Guinness, Os. God in the Dark. 21. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1996.

[7] Ellison, Christopher G and Krause, Neal. “The Doubting Process: A Longitudinal Study of the Precipitants and Consequences of Religious Doubt.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Volume 48. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2839364/#:~:text= Religious%20doubt%20is%20defined%20by,and%20Pancer%201993%3A%2028).&text=Moreover%2C%20it%20is%20understood%20that,congregation%20feel%20the%20same%20way.

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[8] Habermas, Gary. Dealing with Doubt. Chicago: Moody Publishing, 1990. http://gary habermas.com/books/dealing_with_doubt/dealing_with_doubt.htm.

[9] Mettler, Zachary. “Christian Philosopher William Lane Craig Responds to Hawk Nelson Singer’s Leaving Christianity”. The Daily Citizen, last modified June 5, 2020. https://daily citizen.focusonthefamily.com/exclusive-christian-philosopher-william-lane-craig-responds-to-hawk-nelson-singers-leaving-christianity/.

[10] Thagard, Paul. “What is Doubt and When Is It Reasonable?” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 30. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.ccu.edu/login. aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=115985175&site=eds-live.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ellison, Christopher G and Krause, Neal. “The Doubting Process: A Longitudinal Study of the Precipitants and Consequences of Religious Doubt.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Volume 48. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2839364/#:~:text= Religious%20doubt%20is%20defined%20by,and%20Pancer%201993%3A%2028).&text=Moreover%2C%20it%20is%20understood%20that,congregation%20feel%20the%20same%20way.

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Written By

Jimmy Wallace (J. Warner's son) holds a BA in Psychology (from UCLA) and is currently completing his MA in Theology - Applied Apologetics (from Colorado Christian University).

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. John Moore

    November 14, 2021 at 4:28 pm

    I totally agree that most people make up their minds based on “emotional factors, not intellectual factors.” Also, it is indeed important for churches to provide a strong support system for people dealing with doubts.

    On the other hand, don’t forget about the GOP “elephant in the room.” By far the main reason people are leaving the church is because so many churches worship Trump, not Christ. The church these days is more about politics than religion. And this is 90% of your problem.

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