Responding Badly to DoubtBy: Andrew S
I just saw this post from Patheos which the author notes is the third part of a series on deconversion…but this part addresses the role of poor responses to doubt as a major reason for people’s deconversions.
The one thing that I noted from this article was that, even though I had no reason to believe that the author had Mormons in mind (in fact, I don’t even know if the author considers Mormons to be Christians, but that’s neither here nor there), the things discussed in that article seemed commonplace to Mormon discussions about doubt within the church. A few excerpts:
The way that Christians react to the doubts of others can, inadvertently, amplify existing doubt. Many of the writers told of sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member only to receive trite, unhelpful answers. These answers, in turn, moved them further away from Christianity.
For example, a former Southern Baptist, rather harshly, identified this tendency among the Christians that he had known: “Christians have their PAT phrases for every little whim. . . Christians always use the word “faith” as their last word when they are too stupid to answer a question.”
Standard pat answers included statements such as: “God will never put more on you than you can bear,” “God works in mysterious ways,” “it was God’s will,” “your faith wasn’t strong enough,” “God wanted him in heaven,” and “God is testing you – stand firm!”
Ex-Christians were not only critical of fellow parishioners, but also of clergy’s and church lay-leadership’s failure to address the doubter’s questions. One ex-Christian wrote: “And to top all of it off, I could get no satisfying answers to my questions (they call them sinful doubts) even from the pastors and elders. I was told not to read the bible to try to find problems, that was a sin.”
In sum, the absence of thoughtful answers and the lack of listening carefully to questions were interpreted as both anti-intellectualism and a lack of empathy, leading the writers to feel trivialized.
Two Phenomena Occurring
It seems to me like in this article, as in many Mormon counterpart stories, there is a distinction between how doubters are harmed by what believers don’t or can’t do, and how doubters are harmed by what believers did do. For example, there’s one thing if believers can’t provide satisfactory answers for those who doubt (either because they don’t have theological training to cover those issues or because they have never personally experienced those issues and therefore don’t understand them at their root)…but this is more akin to a firefighter not having a working hose or extinguisher…the fire will demolish the building on its own if there is nothing to stop it.
But the second thing that could happen is that perhaps there could be things believers proactively do that worsen the doubter. If a building has a minor fire that might go out on its own, it won’t help if someone throws more fuel on the fire. The article author recalls a story about that:
Related were several remarks about rule enforcement. For example, a former member of an Assemblies of God church recounted an incident regarding his smoking. “I was struggling with smoking at this time, and was sincere about wanting to quit. At a prayer meeting one Thursday night, I told the group of 5 men about my struggle with tobacco. They proceeded to tell me that smoking was sin (the body being “the temple” of the Holy Spirit and all), and that “god doesn’t hear the prayer of a sinner.” What happened next stunned me. As the men took turns praying, it came to be my turn, and as I began to say my prayers, they all got up and walked away from me!!!”
This looks to me to have indirect parallels with Hawkgrrrl’s recent post on lying, where she mentions the recent By Common Consent posts on the failure for many leaders to provide pastoral care (because instead, they have to serve as judge). Not being able to provide pastoral care with doubts may be example of not being able to do anything to put out the fire…but to judge someone for their doubts and actions proactively adds fuel to the fire.
So, my main question is…how much of each kind of reaction is there for people? I’d love to think that we could just teach people how not to stoke the flames (but how?) and then doubters would be more comfortable within church. But another part of me thinks that doubts themselves, if they are not addressed appropriately (and how many people can address those doubts? In a previous article to this series, the author points to the possible role of apologetics in helping), will lead to many leaving.
The comments to the article, of course, add completely new dimensions. Should we even want doubters to stay in the church if that’s the stage they are at?