Doubt and atheism aren’t the same thing

Thomas has an excellent riposte to some of the truly insipid things being said about Mother Teresa in light of some recently publicized letters that make it clear that she (like many, many other saints) struggled with doubt and a feeling of God’s absence.

Of course, this won’t be news to anyone who read Carol Zaleski’s “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa,” published in that notorious skeptic rag First Things over four years ago. What is surprising is that some atheists have such a shallow understanding of religious faith that they can’t fathom how it can coexist with doubt. Indeed, you might think that someone who could persist in the kind of ministry Mother Teresa was engaged in, even in the absence of the kind of experiential awareness of God she had experienced earlier, was displaying even greater faith.

5 thoughts on “Doubt and atheism aren’t the same thing

  1. Camassia

    It’s not really that surprising, given that some believers also seem to think that real Christians don’t doubt. Certainly a lot of Christians I know from fundamentalist and evangelical backgrounds have told me that. It’s another example of how fundies and atheists feed each other, since you will hear many an atheist explain how science is better than religion because it’s willing to doubt everything. (In practice it really doesn’t, but that’s another story…)

  2. Joe

    It is interesting that theists that have experienced genuine doubt still often seem to completely misunderstand the atheist perspective. I wonder if that misunderstanding is what “saves” them from their doubts.

    “Indeed, you might think that someone who could persist in the kind of ministry Mother Teresa was engaged in, even in the absence of the kind of experiential awareness of God she had experienced earlier, was displaying even greater faith.”
    I find this statement to be quite interesting though. I think it gets to the crux of atheists issue with the idea of faith. It seems the greater likelihood or perception of being wrong that is overcome to believe the more someone is admired for their faith. Why is it admirable to believe something without a good reason?

  3. No – it’s not a matter of how likely one is to be wrong. It’s that Mother T. was able to sustain her commitment to her mission without experiencing the ecstatic feelings she had earlier.

    No one thinks it’s admirable to believe something without a good reason (at least I’ve never met anyone who thinks so); but it is admirable to persist in doing what one believes one is called to do and believes is right without being validated by warm fuzzy experiences.

  4. “No one thinks it’s admirable to believe something without a good reason (at least I’ve never met anyone who thinks so); but it is admirable to persist in doing what one believes one is called to do and believes is right without being validated by warm fuzzy experiences.”

    Unless, of course, those doubts are justified… in which case the persistence is merely obsessive and stubborn.

    I think virtually anyone has to admit this, because the things people believe are contradictory: someone (or everyone) has to be wrong.

  5. “Unless, of course, those doubts are justified… in which case the persistence is merely obsessive and stubborn.”

    Of course. But justification isn’t a binary value; it’s a matter of degree. Doubts can have some justification without being sufficient to overturn longstanding beliefs.

    Someone who persists in belieiving in their spouse’s faithfulness in the face of some countervailing evidence is being virtuous. It’s not easy to say exactly at what point it becomes foolish.

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