Is doubt really so unreasonable?

June 2005

If anything ought to undermine an evangelical's confidence in scriptural inerrancy, it is Paul's claim that there is no excuse for unbelief.

Let us never mind for the moment whether anyone can be a believer by choice. Skeptics "are without excuse," Paul said, apparently allowing for no exceptions. Naturally, I disagree with Paul about that, but if he was right, then of course my disagreement is beside the point.

Evangelicals ought to think very long and hard, though, about their obligation to assume that Paul could not have been mistaken when he wrote that. Paul occasionally did admit elsewhere in his writings that he was expressing a personal opinion, not conveying a revelation from God. I don't think it unreasonable to suggest that he might, on one or two other occasions when he failed to admit it, have failed to distinguish between his own thinking and God's thinking.

My point is not that Christians ought to start thinking that atheists might be right. I do wish they would consider the possibility, but that is not my point here. My point is that Christians ought to entertain the notion that, even if our doubts are wrong, we are not being unreasonable when we express them.

Most Christians, after all, concede that they cannot offer irrefutable proof that their beliefs are true. Most apologists insist that faith is necessary, that there can be no certainty for the Christian without it. They concede that the evidence for Christianity's truth is not conclusive and that it was never supposed to be. They say that is how God set it up -- that it was his intention that no one be compelled by incontrovertible facts to believe in him. The justice of that setup is not quite perfectly obvious, but I don't have room to go there in this essay. What I am noting is the concession by apologists that there is some room for some doubt. The only question remaining is whether any of that doubt could be reasonable.

Obviously, I think it can. The notion that skepticism is simply inexcusable is one of the most pernicious doctrines promulgated by evangelical Christians. It would be hard enough to defend if the evidence for their beliefs were absolutely and irrefutably conclusive. But they do not have that kind of evidence, and they admit they do not. The most they can claim is that the evidence justifies their belief. Very well, then, let us stipulate that: They are justified. But their justification does not make other people's doubt unreasonable. The evidence that persuades them does not persuade everyone.

Believers sometimes accuse us of arrogance. Atheists comprise probably not much more than 10 percent of the world's population, and so we're supposedly claiming to be smarter than 90 percent of all the people who have ever lived. Well, some of us are smarter, as a matter of fact, but that's really beside the point. Some Christians, too, are smarter than 90 percent of all the people who have ever lived.

Yes, there are atheists who think no intelligent person can believe in God. But the rest of us atheists wish those people would grow up. We acknowledge that although we think theism is a mistake, it is a mistake that reasonable, rational, intelligent people can make. It is an attitude that Christians ought to reciprocate. Christians and skeptics cannot both be right, but they can both be reasonable.

I don't consider it reasonable to say, about a belief held by 90 percent of the world's people, that only fools could believe it. Neither do I consider it reasonable to say, about any statement whatsoever, "If you don't believe it, you deserve an eternity of suffering." Real arrogance, it seems to me, would lie not in saying that 90 percent of the world is wrong but in saying that their biggest mistake is not taking my word for it that they're wrong. Christians cannot prove what they say, and they admit they cannot prove it, but they also claim that if we will not believe what they say, then we belong in hell. That is arrogant.

Evangelicals don't like to state their position in quite those terms, but it is the logical implication of their message. The truly unforgiveable sin is skepticism. Anyone who believes can be saved, no matter what he does or has done, but the unbeliever cannot be forgiven for anything.

Think about that. If Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao had prayed for forgiveness with his dying breath and accepted Jesus as his savior, his lifetime of moral depravity would have become instantly irrelevant. God's mercy knows no limits. He can forgive anybody for anything.

Well, not quite anything. God's mercy cannot deal with skepticism. He cannot forgive unbelief. For a man who murders millions, salvation is no problem. For the unbeliever, though, salvation is an insurmountable problem. "With God all things are possible" -- with one exception, it would seem. Even with God, forgiveness of skepticism is not possible.

Well, I doubt that, and I think my doubt is reasonable, and I challenge any apologist to prove it is unreasonable.

The apologist will say we are not being denied forgiveness but rather are rejecting it. But no, we are not rejecting forgiveness. What we are rejecting is the apologist's claim to special knowledge. The apologist is saying, "I know somethiing about God that you don't know but need to know." That is unobjectionable as far as it goes. But then he adds the kicker: "If you doubt me, you're doubting God."

Of course they don't say that, but it is the bottom line of what they do say. It is implied by what they say. According to their dogma, people who love God love the truth, and people who love the truth know it whenever they hear it. Therefore, when Christians speak and I don't recognize their words as truth, I don't love God. That sounds arrogant to me. I doubt that God gave me a brain and then expected me to turn it off whenever his people had something to say to me.

The Bible has "reasonable doubt" metaphorically stamped on every page, but apologists assure me that my doubt is not reasonable. I have only their word for that, but their word is all I should need, to hear them tell it.

In the evangelical universe, there can be no such thing as reasonable doubt. When the fate of a person's eternal soul depends not on how he lives but on how he thinks, there is no place for uncertainty. When what you believe matters infinitely more than what you do, "Maybe it's true" will not work. Neither will "It is likely to be true." Neither will "It is probably true." Only one thing will work, and that is "It cannot possibly be wrong."

I think that explains a lot of evangelical thinking. They can afford no uncertainties, and so they must believe that no reasonable person can think differently from how they think. Unbelief can in no way be excusable. There can be no reasonable doubt, because if doubt is reasonable, then certainty is impossible. But the evangelicals must be certain, because their dogma has set the stakes so high.

Unfortunately, evangelicals do not agree among themselves on what it is that they must be certain about, except that salvation is contingent on acceptance of Jesus. Exactly what constitutes acceptance depends on which evangelical you ask, but the answer will probably entail believing in scriptural inerrancy. Jesus is not reported ever to have told anyone that they could not go to heaven without believing that Genesis was historically accurate, but most evangelicals have managed to so construe what the gospel authors recorded of his message.

But of course mere belief that the Bible is inerrant is not enough. One must also believe in the correct interpretation of its message. Now, I have various reasons for doubting the Bible's inerrancy, only one of which is that it seems inconsistent in several places. Apologists assure me of course that there are no real inconsistencies, only apparent inconsistencies arising from my failure to assume inerrancy.

It would be a somewhat more plausible argument if all who agreed on the Bible's inerrancy also agreed on what the Bible actually says. But they don't. They don't even agree on what will happen to unbelievers. They agree we'll go to hell, but what does that mean, specifically? Lake of fire? Some say yes, some say no. If not fire, some other kind of torment? Some say yes, some say no. Will it last forever? Some say yes, some say no. Some say that whatever it is, I will actually like it there, or at least will prefer it to heaven. Others say that I will spend eternity wishing I had decided in this life to be a believer. They get all these contradictory messages from a book they say was inspired by an omnipotent, omniscient god whose paramount concern is for humanity's well-being.

And I have no excuse for suspecting that they're all mistaken?

I doubt that. Reasonably.

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