The following is an essay I wrote on three different kinds of fears that keep Christians from examining their faith.
Please rescue me with a strong hand to deliver
from these waters of doubt lest I drown
Bill Mallonee, “Dreamcoat”
Some years ago a seminary student came to me with a question. She had been teaching an adult Sunday school class for several weeks, and now as they were entering the Easter season she had proposed to the class what she thought would be the perfect topic for a new series: a careful look at the historical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. She expected the suggestion would be met with enthusiasm by the group. After all, what could be more important for a Christian to consider than the historical evidence for Jesus? And hadn’t Paul called the Christian to seek a more intellectually mature faith (à la 2 Corinthians 10:5)? But much to her surprise the suggestion was instead met with a mixture of cautious indecision, suspicion and trepidation. One elderly lady seemed to speak for the group when she said cautiously: “I don’t think we should do that. I know at least two young men from our church that went off to university to study the Bible and ended up losing their faith as a result.” With that several heads nodded in agreement. Now my student was coming to me asking what I would say in reply.
What was it that led the elderly lady and her classmates to reject the offer of seeking understanding for their faith? There are two main factors that keep people from pursuing that goal. The first is apathy: some people do not care enough about their faith to examine it critically. While this is a huge problem in the church today, it shall not be my concern here for the simple fact that the elderly lady and her cohorts were definitely not apathetic. On the contrary, their response evinced our second factor: fear. It is that reaction which shall be our focus as we seek to understand the faith that fears seeking. To this end we will begin by considering three very different kinds of fear that prevent people from critically examining their faith: the fear of truth, the fear of error, and the fear of doubt. Then we will offer a response to these fears loosely structured on Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer”.
Fear of truth
Some people are averse to examining their faith critically for fear of discovering the truth, more specifically, a truth one would rather not know. As surprising as it may seem, sometimes deep down people don’t want to know what the truth is. Consider one striking example. A few years ago an FBI investigation led to the arrest of two men for plotting to murder their parents for insurance money. The state’s evidence included a riveting recording of a telephone conversation between one of the brothers and an FBI agent posing as a hitman. In the recording the brother carefully laid out the plan for the “hitman” to carry out the murders. Incredibly, despite the overwhelming evidence favoring the guilt of the two young men, the parents adamantly maintained their sons’ innocence while staunchly refusing even to listen to the recordings. Why wouldn’t the parents listen to the tape? Why wouldn’t they want to know the truth? It would appear, as Colonel Jessup would have said, that they can’t handle the truth.
The picture of a person fearful of learning that their own cherished beliefs are errant may warrant our pity, but can it ever warrant our sympathy? To answer that question we will need to distinguish two very different cases of people fearing the truth:
Scenario 1: Debbie deeply loved her wonderful grandfather Poppy who passed away four years ago. Now evidence has arisen that Poppy sexually abused a young boy fifty years ago. The individual that alleged the abuse against Poppy has since passed away.
Scenario 2: Debbie deeply loves her wonderful grandfather Poppy who regularly babysits her children. Now evidence has arisen that Poppy sexually abused a young boy fifty years ago.
One can imagine that in each of these cases Debbie would have some reluctance to learn what could be a terrible truth. But beyond that the two cases are radically divergent. It is possible to be sympathetic with Debbie’s desire not to know Poppy’s guilt in Scenario 1 since both Poppy and his alleged victim are now deceased. In that case you could argue that learning the truth might do nothing more for Debbie than destroy the memories of her youth. But if we are sympathetic with her fear of inquiry in Scenario 1, all that sympathy evaporates in Scenario 2 where Poppy is still alive and poses a potential threat to Debbie’s children and others. In that case Debbie may be fearful, but allowing that fear to preclude an inquiry of the charges would be absolutely unconscionable.
Just as people can be fearful of learning the truth about a loved one so they can be fearful of learning the truth about their religious faith, or their particular understanding of that faith. And as in other cases so in the case of Christian faith that fear can warrant greater or lesser sympathy depending on the specific circumstances. Consider the following two fears:
Scenario 3: Debbie is fearful of investigating her Christian faith because she doesn’t want to discover that life actually has no meaning or purpose.
Scenario 4: Debbie is fearful of investigating her Christian faith because she doesn’t want to discover that Islam is true.
In both of these cases Debbie faces a fear that inhibits inquiry of her faith, but as with our first two cases our assessment of these fears diverges sharply. The core difference is that there are very serious repercussions about getting the truth wrong in Scenario 4 but there are not serious repercussions about getting it wrong in Scenario 2. The fear that Debbie exhibits in Scenario 3 warrants our sympathy in a way analogous to the fear she exhibits in Scenario 1, for just as there is no immediate benefit to her learning that her grandfather was a pedophile so there is no immediate benefit to her learning that life has no meaning.
You might say that even if ignorance is not quite bliss, sometimes all things considered you’re just better off not knowing the truth. Meanwhile Debbie’s fear in Scenario 4 parallels that of 2 in deserving our indignation rather than our sympathy. Just as Debbie should want to know if her grandfather is a pedophile because of the import of that fact for herself and those around her, so she should want to know if Islam is true for much the same reason. Once she has reason to think her grandfather is an abuser, failure to follow up that truth could leave her children as victims. And once she has reason to think Islam might be true failure to follow up that truth could leave her children damned eternally. Thus, if Debbie believes there is any serious possibility that Islam might be true and Christianity false, then she should investigate that possibility as surely as she follows up the suspicion about her grandfather.
In closing, let it be said that even if we find a greater sympathy with Debbie’s fear of the truth in scenarios 1 and 3, that concession should not be understood as an exoneration of her decision not to seek the truth. On the contrary, that decision reflects a failure of the innate human disposition to seek truth. Simply put, we should never prefer a comfortable error to an uncomfortable truth.
Fear of error
The fear of being led into error is the second major type of fear. I suspect that this is the primary motivating fear behind the reluctance of the elderly lady in the Sunday school class. She has no doubts about the historical Jesus of her faith. Instead, her suspicions are that a historical investigation of that faith might lead her astray from that truth. Consider a similar scenario with Debbie::
Scenario 5: Debbie is fearful of investigating her Christian faith because she doesn’t want to be led away from the truth by bad arguments.
In this case Debbie’s concern is that she may be led into falsehood. One can practically hear Paul’s warning echoing in the background: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8) Some people are fearful of the wiles of “deceptive philosophy” and not, it must be said, without reason.
Let us agree that Paul’s warning against hollow and deceptive philosophy should be carefully heeded. But we cannot let that warning keep us from heeding Paul’s equally important call to seek the solid food of spiritual and intellectual maturity (1 Cor. 3:1-3; Heb. 5:14). Think about it like this. There is an inherent risk in driving a car, a risk attested to in the thousands of injuries and fatalities annually that result from automobile accidents.
Serious though this risk may be, the proper response to it is not to walk everywhere. Rather, it is to drive a safe car in an attentive and defensive manner. Likewise, there is a risk involved in evaluating your beliefs critically. But the proper response is not to refuse to evaluate your beliefs critically. Rather, it is to do so in an attentive and defensive manner. We simply cannot allow the fear of truth to preclude critical inquiry of our beliefs.
Fear of Doubt
In addition to the fear of truth and error there is the fear of doubt, the fear that takes hold when you simply don’t know what to believe anymore. None of us wants to end up doubting like the wave of the sea being blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6). Consequently, undertaking an endeavor that has a significant likelihood of ending in debilitating doubt could seem equivalent to going sailing when a hurricane is forecast or playing with matches when you’re pumping gas, or putting on your brightest red cape and running blindly into the bullpen. How can we address this final abiding fear that after an inquiry we might find ourselves not only believing a painful truth or an error, but literally unsure what to believe?
Doubt isn’t necessarily good
If you travel in skeptical circles an attitude of doubt is highly lauded. For example, self-described skeptic Michael Shermer comments: “Doubt is good. Questioning belief is healthy. Skepticism is okay. It is more than okay, in fact. Skepticism is a virtue and science is a valuable tool that makes skepticism virtuous.” Shermer is partially correct. Doubt can be good. And that’s an important point to which we shall return momentarily. But it isn’t necessarily good. Consider, for example, the following proposition:
“It is wrong to inflict suffering on others simply because doing so is pleasurable to the perpetrator.”
Does Shermer seriously think that we ought to have some doubt of this proposition? I doubt it! If you are unconvinced consider this: when Shermer is choosing a babysitter for his kids do you think he’d hire one who expressed doubt about the truth of this proposition? Of course not. The lesson is clear: doubt is not always a good thing, even for so-called skeptics. We all think there are some beliefs that are best held without qualification or doubt.
But we can go further. Not only is belief important, it is actually necessary for doubt even to exist. To see what I mean you can think of doubt as analogous to jumping. You can only jump because you have a solid place from which to launch yourself. The person caught in quicksand is not jumping anywhere. Likewise, you can only doubt to the extent that you have a solid place of belief from which to launch your doubt. Augustine famously made the point in his refutation to the skeptics of his age with his argument “Si fallor, sum” (meaning “If I am mistaken, I am”). His point was that recognizing I could be wrong (as the skeptics loved to do) still entails that I exist. Thus, my own existence is the condition for my doubting anything. At the very least I can be sure that I exist: my very fallibility establishes that fact infallibly.
Consequently, the reasonable person is not merely the one who doubts. Rather, he is the one who considers carefully which authorities are to be believed and which are to be doubted. The point is illustrated in a conversation I had recently with my daughter:
Daughter (while reading National Geographic for Kids): “Hey, it says here you can’t tickle yourself.”
Me: “That’s true.”
Daughter (puzzled): “But Anika at school said she can tickle herself.”
Me: “Who are you going to believe? Eight year old Anika or National Geographic?”
Daughter (sheepishly): “National Geographic.”
It made good sense for my daughter to doubt Anika’s testimony precisely because it made good sense to believe National Geographic’s testimony. Our doubt should always be calibrated to the careful evaluation of proper authorities.
Doubt isn’t necessarily bad
While the self-described “skeptic” needs to be reminded that doubt isn’t necessarily good, the typical evangelical Christian needs to be reminded that it isn’t necessarily bad either. Evangelicals have a long history of viewing doubt with grave suspicion. In keeping with this tradition Christian apologist William Lane Craig advises the following in an interview on dealing with doubt: “There is an enemy of your souls, Satan, who hates you intently and is bent on your destruction and who will do everything in his power to see that your faith is destroyed.” While Craig does not explicitly say that the devil is behind every doubt, the linking between doubt and demonic activity is strongly implied. I don’t deny that there may be a link at times, but there is also a real danger in this kind of analysis, not least because there are many beliefs Christians hold which should be doubted. Consider the following three doubts:
Doubt 1: Did God really intend for the white race to enslave the black race? While racism is widely rejected today, Christians appealed to theological arguments to justify racist beliefs for centuries, and many still do so today.
Doubt 2: Is the King James Bible really the one authoritative, divinely revealed English translation? Perhaps it is a surprise to you, but there are many people who believe that the KJV is inspired and the only legitimate English language Bible.
Doubt 3: Is the earth really six thousand years old? Many conservative Christians come to university thinking the earth is a few thousand years old. When they encounter the universal consensus of scientists that the earth is 4.6 billion years old it creates a crisis of faith for many of them.
When Craig warns Christians that the devil is likely behind their doubts, Christians who hold to these beliefs, including theologically driven racism, KJV Onlyism, and young earth creationism, will understandably apply the warning to those beliefs. But for those of us who don’t accept those beliefs (and in the case of the first, actually consider the belief in question to be evil), the doubts people have about them are very well placed and not the result of demonic agency at all. These are beliefs people should be doubting. Given that fact, the danger of Craig’s advice is that it could serve to inoculate people against legitimate counter-evidence to their belief. And that could amount to giving one’s confirmation bias free rein.
There is another problem with Craig’s advice. Recall Paul’s plea that a thorn in the flesh be lifted from him. The prayer was answered, but not in the way Paul had expected as the Lord said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This led Paul to comment, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
So God allowed Paul’s thorn in the flesh for Paul’s benefit. Paul doesn’t tell us what his thorn in the flesh was, but doubt is one thorn in the flesh that many people do face. Among the great doubters of the Christian tradition are Martin Luther and Mother Teresa.
Could it be that here too we have doubt so that Christ’s power may rest the more clearly on us? Could it be that the doubts of these individuals served as catalysts to spur them on to deeper dependence in Christ and great works for the kingdom? Doubts are not simply the temptations of the devil in the desert. They can also be that which is benevolently allowed by a loving God for our benefit. Indeed, who says the two are exclusive? After all, Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit.
I would suggest that we think about doubts as analogous to physical pain. When it comes to thinking about pain the Christian community is indebted to Paul Brand’s masterful insights on the role that pain plays in the health of the human body. In the same way that pain is a sign of a healthy body so is doubt the sign of a healthy faith. As Peter Kreeft observes, “Dullness, not doubt, is the strongest enemy of faith, just as indifference, not hate, is the strongest enemy of love.”
Think about it like this. Two men have crashed their plane into a frozen wood in the middle of winter. They are both in relatively good shape but they need to weather the night before they can seek help. A few hours later they are in very different state. The one man says “My fingers and toes are really hurting and I’m so cold!” The other man replies serenely: “I feel quite comfortable. Heck, I can’t even feel my hands and feet anymore. I’m going to take a snooze.” The second man may sound more content, but the first man is much better off. His pain and discomfort are signs that he is in better condition than the individual who can no longer feel pain.
God, grant me the serenity…
We may agree that the fear which inhibits the quest for understanding is not defensible, but that doesn’t immediately make that fear disappear. So practically speaking how can we hope to tame it? I suggest that we can begin to do so by setting our fear against the backdrop of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer”. If you’re like many Christians I know, you need no introduction to this venerable prayer. Indeed, there’s a good chance that you have a cross-stitch of it hanging in your hallway. That familiar cross-stitched petition reads as follows:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
It certainly is a wise prayer, and one we’d do very well to apply to the fear that inhibits faith from understanding. But how exactly shall we apply it? How do we live this prayer out? Simply put, we identify those things we cannot change and those things we can change and then accept the former and work to change the latter.
The things you can’t change
You cannot directly change your beliefs. This may strike you as a surprising claim since we do in fact change our beliefs on a regular basis. But the key is that we don’t change our beliefs directly as a result of volition. The properly functioning human being can exercise direct control over their body (for example, blink your eyes right now) but not over their beliefs. Indeed, you might liken the hazy, indirect control we have over our beliefs to an individual who suffers from cerebral palsy. That individual can will that his body move, but he cannot control precisely how it will move as a result of his willing. In a similar fashion we can will to change our beliefs by engaging in a particular action, but we cannot directly control which beliefs we will gain, retain or lose as a result of that action. For example, imagine that you’re sitting in the living room when you hear a soft thump in the kitchen. You immediately form the belief that the dish towel fell on the floor. You then walk into the kitchen expecting to confirm that belief, but instead you discover that the sound was created by a fallen loaf of bread. You exercised control over your body by willing it to move into the kitchen, but you didn’t have the control to will what you would believe upon reaching your destination.
This lack of control over belief is a significant factor in the fear people feel when they critically examine their faith. It is a fear captured in the anguished plea of the man seeking deliverance for his son who cried out to Jesus “I believe; Lord, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24, NKJV) If the man really believed he would have no unbelief to overcome. The fact is that he desperately wanted to believe even as he had to confront the fear of being unable to will himself to believe. This is where the wisdom of the serenity prayer becomes critically important. If we cannot exercise direct control over our beliefs then the sooner we come to terms with this fact the better.
You cannot change your fallibility. Another fact we cannot change is our liability to make errors. You are liable to make mistakes just like the rest of the human race. You’re not right all the time and some of your errors are very significant. Even now, at this very moment, you believe many things which are in fact false. (Don’t take it too hard: I do too.) Needless to say, if you knew what those things were you wouldn’t believe them to begin with. But alas, you simply don’t know where the errors in your beliefs lie and that’s the problem.
How should we respond to this fallibility? Ancient Greek skepticism took the radical position that we ought to avoid the possibility of errant belief by believing nothing at all. After all, if you don’t believe anything to begin with, you can’t be wrong in your beliefs. (Think of the logic as like a scorned lover who determines never to love again to save his heart from being broken once more.)
But this is a flawed proposal for two reasons. To begin with, as we just noted, we cannot directly change our beliefs. The ancient Greek skeptic may serenely profess to believe nothing in calm circumstances, but when he is being chased by a grizzly bear the fear in his eyes suggests he really does hold a number of beliefs about the grizzly and the serious danger it poses to his person. Second, the skeptic simply adopts an unreasonable response to the problem of fallibility. Think about it like this. You accept a job in a town where the only houses for sale are aging heritage homes. While you hate rodents, you know that any home you move into will have some rodents living in it.
This leaves you with two options. You could choose to live in a tent rather than a house. But surely that is a gross over-reaction to the situation. By doing that you may avoid the rodents but you also lose in-door plumbing, central heating, television and much else besides. The much more sensible response is to move into a house while accepting the reality that some rodents are hidden within.
That’s precisely the human condition. The house is like our belief system, the rodents the errors that lie within that system. The skeptic wants us to eschew belief and live in a tent of skepticism but that is an unreasonable response to our fallible condition. It makes much more sense to work with our belief system and continue to work diligently to expunge the errors from it.
The things you can change
The fact that we cannot directly change our beliefs or prevent ourselves from having some false beliefs may seem disheartening. But there is some good news as well, for there are some things you can change. Most importantly, we can change the way we assess evidence.
You can change the way you believe. We already observed that you can change your beliefs indirectly by choosing to pursue one course of action rather than another. You can also change your beliefs by intentionally training yourself to adopt truth-directed belief practices. Think of an obese man. Due to his life choices he is at present utterly unable to run five meters let alone five miles. Given that he is now unable to run it makes no sense to chastise him for this inability.
The man’s culpability lies instead with his life choices over an extended period of time, choices which have led to his present incapacitation. Consequently, while he cannot choose to run now, he can choose to adopt new dietary and exercise habits which will enable him to run in the future. Similarly, we do not chastise people for their inability to hold certain beliefs but rather for their belief practices that have led to certain negative habits of belief. And we challenge them to develop the practices that enable them to believe properly.
We know how to help those who have fat bodies: a regimen of diet and exercise. But how do we help those who have “fat minds”? What is a good belief practice? One plausible suggestion is that we should make it a policy to look for evidence before we believe something. There is certainly some truth here, but we have to be careful in how we articulate this evidence principle lest we fall into greater error.
The dangers here are well illustrated by the nineteenth century mathematician William Kingdon Clifford who famously defended the following principle of evidence: “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” While “Clifford’s Principle” may sound attractive (and many have accepted it), it is easy to see that it can’t be right. The problems begin when we ask whether Clifford believed his own principle. Presumably he did.
But then to believe it consistently he’d need evidence for it. Yet Clifford provides us with no evidence to support it. This leads to the perplexing conclusion that if we believe his principle we ought to reject it! You might think that this problem could have been dealt with had Clifford simply provided evidence for his claim (we’ll call it “Evidence A”). We can leave aside the question of what kind of evidence would support Clifford’s Principle, and turn instead to a much deeper problem. Even if Clifford had furnished some “Evidence A” to support his principle, we would then need further evidence (“Evidence B”) in order to justify belief in Evidence A. But then we’d need additional evidence (“Evidence C”) to warrant belief in Evidence B, and so on. As you can see, an infinite regress quickly emerges in which rational belief in anything requires an infinite series of supporting evidences. Since that is an impossible standard for a finite human knower to achieve, if we accepted Clifford’s Principle then we would have to accept that we know nothing … including Clifford’s Principle!
The failure of Clifford’s Principle drives home the point that even if we do need evidence for some beliefs, it is equally clear that we cannot demand evidence for all beliefs. So then we come to the next obvious question: which beliefs need evidence and which do not?
That’s a complex question, but we can begin to address it by considering a couple cases. If you ask directions from a stranger you may have to take it on faith that they know what they’re talking about. After all, it is hardly practical to require character references from every stranger who offers directions. But the situation is very different when you are interviewing potential child care workers to watch your infant. In that case it is de rigueur to demand and carefully assess character references. This provides us with two criteria for seeking evidence: practicality and importance. It may not be practical to seek evidence for all beliefs, but we should seek it for some. And among the beliefs we should seek evidence for are those about which it is most important that we get things right. Getting faulty directions to the restaurant is relatively trivial, but hiring an abusive care worker is monumentally serious. Needless to say, getting your beliefs about God, the human predicament and the nature of salvation wrong is at the very highest level of importance, and so these are beliefs about which we ought to be the most concerned to corroborate through evidence.
Another belief practice that we should note is a determination to be fair in the weighing of evidence for and against our beliefs. This is especially important because human beings tend to evaluate evidence in a way that favors their beliefs. This tendency is called the “confirmation bias”. If you need a corrective to the confirmation bias you need look no further than the Golden Rule: “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you….” (Matthew 7:12) If we want others to be fair in the assessment of problems with their beliefs and the evidence for ours, we should equally be consistent in assessing the problems with our beliefs and the evidence for others. Thus, in the same way that we ask others to confront difficulties in their belief so we should do it in our own.
The interesting thing is that Clifford himself failed to check his confirmation bias since he never subjected his own principle to it. The lesson is this: the formation of our belief should focus not on an unrestricted evidentialist demand which we cannot hope to meet, but rather upon a careful and consistent examination of our most cherished beliefs while avoiding the distortions of our own confirmation bias. And that means being fair in our evaluation of evidence both when that evidence supports our beliefs and when it doesn’t.
 The general cultural malaise was famously analyzed by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1986.
 I discuss this case in You’re not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica, 2011), 39.
 In the film “A Few Good Men” Colonel Jessep (played by Jack Nicholsen) famously retorts to the DA while under cross-examination, “You can’t handle the truth.”
 There are some exceptions to the rule in which it is permissible, even wise, to seek not to know the truth. For example, imagine that Tom has been attacked by a bear on a hike. He is now injured and needs to cross the old rope bridge to get to the village or he will die. While the bridge is his only way down at this point, it may be rotten. But at this point knowing that it may be rotten will not be of any value to Tom, and may make it more likely that he will fall to his doom. In that case, his desire not to know the state of the bridge may be acceptable. However, a case like that is the exception which simply confirms the general applicability of the rule, a rule that surely applies in the case of investigating one’s Christian faith.
 How We Believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), xxv.
 See Theology in Search of Foundations, 13. Augustine’s famous argument provided the template for Descartes to develop his famous seventeeth century refutation of skepticism in the Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).
 Everything you ever wanted to know about Heaven but never dreamed of asking (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 20.
 The eighteenth century philosopher Thomas Reid stated this delightfully. See Rauser, Theology in Search of Foundations, 228.
 Randal Rauser, Theology in Search of Foundations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 203.
 Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals don’t think and what to do about it (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994).
 Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” in Lectures and Essays, ii (London: Macmillan, 1901), 174.
 My view is that Christian beliefs can be properly basic which means that we can know them in an immediate way apart from evidence. The demand I describe here thus relates not to the initial justification we have for our beliefs but rather to an ongoing corroboration of them.
 See the discussion in You’re not as Crazy as I Think, 38-42.