Unlike many religious adherents, atheists understand the merit of doubt. Doubt is the cornerstone of healthy skepticism and of intellectual honesty. To the religious, however, doubt is often just something that coexists with faith, and is seen as a test of it; meant to be overcome. Typically this is done by applying even more of that same blind trust. Atheists, however, value doubt, not to test our resolve, but for the questions it raises in ascertaining what is true.
But can one doubt their own doubts? It sounds redundant, but more and more often I have been hearing accounts of what might be described as “atheistic doubt”.
One recent example is an article that was recently published in The New York Times by a woman named Colleen Oakley, who is a non-believer that became increasingly uncomfortable with her husband losing his own faith:
Christians and religious zealots might say that deep down I was searching for a sense of peace that only the Lord can provide. Maybe, but I doubt it. I know myself enough to know that I can’t fuse my intellectual knowledge with a blind faith in a supreme deity. It just won’t ever happen.
But I did realize I liked the comfort of other people believing, especially my other half. It made me feel safe. Not believing in something, or not being steadfast in what you’re told to believe, can be frightening. It makes those pesky existential questions in life more difficult to answer, particularly when you wake up at 4 a.m., short of breath from contemplating the finality of death.
Fred’s faith was my safety net, just in case this whole God thing really was the way. With him, there was always the chance that when I got to the bouncer at Heaven’s door and my name wasn’t on the list, I could say: “Hey! I know someone inside.”
In a sense, though she espouses disbelief, Colleen has accepted the “fire insurance” policy of Pascal’s Wager. And apparently this isn’t entirely uncommon. If you read some of the stories on ex-christian.net or recoveringfromreligion.org you’ll hear a lot of personal accounts of atheists who have a vestigial fear of hell. It stems from childhood indoctrination and/or life-long belief, and for many it can be extremely difficult to get over. In fact, some never do. It’s such fears and doubts which are exploited in some rumored and confirmed deathbed conversions.
Generally though, I don’t think you can doubt your way back into a faith structure. Doubt and skepticism tear down rather than build up. But some of us experience doubt about our disbelief nonetheless. And while (outside of irrational fears stemming from indoctrination) it may not be common, as it was doubt which lead to the position of disbelief in the first place, it’s still overall a good thing. No position should ever be held unquestioned, including disbelief.
Matt Dillahunty put it best on a recent episode of The Atheist Experience. Responding to a recently de-converted caller who asked, “How long did the guilt feeling stick around? Every once in a while I’ll think to myself, ‘What if I’m making a mistake?'”:
I hope it sticks around forever. .. And when I say I hope it sticks around forever; what you’re talking about isn’t so much guilt, it’s doubt. And I hope you are plagued with doubt for the rest of your life, and that you find a way to actually cherish that. Because I find it incredibly valuable. Every time that I doubt, it’s confirmation that I haven’t just switched from one dogma to another. My beliefs are based on evidence; I don’t believe anything unless there’s good evidence for it.. which means I’m a constant state of doubt. Though, there’ a lot of things that I’m really, really confident about.
Am I encouraging atheists to actively apply skepticism to their disbelief? No. There is unarguably a certain amount of redundancy to doubting one’s doubts. Doubt is the default, and intellectually honest, position until there is sufficient evidence to justify a belief. However, doubts of one’s own doubts may nevertheless be experienced. And if/when you have them, there’s no reason not to hold them in the same regard as in any other matter. It isn’t weak atheism to consider the possibility that you might be wrong… it’s strong skepticism. It’s intellectual integrity.