Faith and Doubt

February 25, 2013

Doubt plays an important role in intellectual and faith development.  As we receive wisdom (from teachers, scripture, etc.), we test it against our own experience, our own sense of what is right and true.  In this way, we create meaning for ourselves.  Making meaning is what humans do. 


An inability to admit doubt (aka fundamentalism) masks a deep fear of being wrong.  As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it, “Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure.”  Fundamentalism comes in all flavors, including atheism and secularism!


In James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, doubt lives primarily in the “Individuative/Reflective” stage, though it stays with us as we develop and grow.  Individual Unitarian Universalists and UU congregations can sometimes get stuck here.  We can fall into a trap of defining ourselves by what we reject…what we don’t believe…rather than doing the work of articulating what we do believe. 


The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is despair.  We all despair; there are times when we lose faith, lose hold of the thread of meaning in our lives.  And so we must articulate our deepest, most sustaining wisdom, and share it with one another, so that in those times, we can be reminded of who we are and why we matter.

Read the full text of the sermon on the UU Church of the Palouse website:


Resource List


Faith:  Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg

Faith without Certainty, by Paul Rasor

 “Faith and Doubt” in The Dynamics of Faith,  by Paul Tillich

James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith,” from Wikipedia: 

“Faith and Fiction” by Frederick Beuchner

“If I Were Asked” by The Rev. Victoria Safford:

The History of Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht


4 Responses to “Faith and Doubt”

  1. Donna Holmes Parks Says:

    Thanks so much for starting this blog! I look forward to reading it regularly.

  2. Karen Faunce Says:

    Great topic, Rev. Elizabeth. My meditation teacher similarly delineates developmental stages for practitioners of meditation. He says that at first we’re “baby birds” expecting to be “fed” all of our information, coaxed to practice, not inclined to question or seek out understandings on our own. Then folks move into the “adolescent” stage, where questioning, rejecting, even tearing down the work up to that point (or the teacher) becomes prevalent. Having gotten a taste of the fruits of the practice, people want to “go solo” and will become critical of spiritual authority- texts or teachers- as they think they’ve got it all figured out. Then, the stage we aspire to, is “adult spirituality” which is founded on self-accountability in the study and practices, but that doesn’t ignore or overlook the wisdom that came before. It’s a stance of humility and gratitude that a mature and wise practitioner naturally embodies as the refinement of understanding takes root in a person. As you spoke of yesterday, people can get stuck in the early stages, but the deep sustenance of faith and practice really kicks in at the later stages according to these paradigms.

  3. Duane DeTemple Says:

    The sermon on doubt jogged my memory back to my Sunday School years. In 6th grade, as I left the Sunday School class, I told my my friend Dave that I was really having trouble believing all this stuff. I fully expected to be struck by lightning, since at that time doubt was surely on par with sin. Surely doubt was the opposite of faith. I struggled to erase doubt clear through my time with the church high school youth group, hiding it and never admitting it. It never worked, and I still have doubts, even about things I’m fairly sure about. Just this afternoon, I had to correct a proof of a result I had thought was totally convincing. It was really helpful to see last Sunday that doubt plays a positive role in faith, even a necessary one. Thank you!

  4. To me the opposite of faith is science. The whole of science is based on accepting, even enjoying doubt as a sign that there is infinitely more to know. Always wanting to know more, loving the search for greater truths, but always doubting and testing what you think you know. Feynman’s popular books give a great exposition of this. Faith rails against the power doubt has over us, science revels in it.

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