How many times during the day—if ever—do the following three words pass your lips? “I don’t know.” My answer to that question is “Not enough.”
Our culture—at least as it is expressed through religion, politics, and the media—places a premium on certainty. Turn on your television and start clicking across the media universe and you’ll soon find someone telling you Jesus is the only way. Click again and you’ll find pandering pundits playing the world’s foremost authority on everything else, arguing their political position with utmost certainty.
Certainty, of course, has a place in religion. We’ve all met the true believer. But doubt has its own spiritual tradition. Some of our greatest teachers—Jesus and Buddha come to mind—were among history’s great doubters.
More on that later, but let’s begin with another question: Are you a doubter or a believer?
To find out, consider the following test, which I’ve borrowed (and condensed) from Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book Doubt: A History. Answer Yes, No, or Not Sure.
- Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?
- Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?
- Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life forms?
- Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?
- Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?
- Does this being or force sometimes take a human form?
- Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?
- Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?
- Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?
There are no right answers, but if you answered “No” to all these questions, consider yourself an atheist. If you answered “Yes” to all of them, you’re a believer. If you said “Not Sure” more than once and answered “No” to some and “Yes” to others, you may fall into the “agnostic” camp.
I used to think agnostics were philosophical wimps. I had more respect for hard-core atheists or true believers. But I have seen the error of my ways. I am a born-again agnostic.
What about you? How do doubt and certainty play out in your spiritual search?
Don Lattin is the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. He explores these questions in his first book, Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium. Visit him at www.donlattin.com