Learning to Embrace Your Doubts: The Role of Uncertainty in Science and Religion

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Have you ever believed in something very passionately and then later wondered if you were wrong? Maybe you even changed your mind completely? 

  . . . doubt is an emerging property of a maturing faith.

– Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

If so, you’re certainly not alone. In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey of more than 35,000 Americans, it was revealed that even when it comes to beliefs as central to one’s life as religion, a sizable number of people express significant doubts.

For instance, even people who attend religious services weekly or occasionally have some degree of doubt on fundamental issues like their belief in God (13% and 38%, respectively) and a heavenly afterlife (13% and 23%, respectively).

But, the concept of doubt presents a paradox of sorts. Depending on the person and circumstance, it seems to have the potential to offer greater meaning and richness to life, on the one hand, but also more sorrow and despair, on the other.

In this piece, we take a closer look at this apparent paradox and offer thoughts on developing a productive outlook on religious and spiritual doubts.

Doubt as a Positive Unifying Force300x250 The 30-Day Affirmation Challenge

Doubt—asking questions and acknowledging uncertainty—has been hailed by both scientists and religious leaders as a key ingredient of a meaningful life.

For example, the theoretical physicist and 1965 Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Richard Feynman, saw doubt as a fundamental part of science, once arguing that “Of all its many values, the greatest must be the freedom to doubt.”

But doubt was more than just a scientific exercise for Feynman. For him it was a life philosophy that could improve and enrich one’s life. As he put it, “it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

Similar sentiments have been echoed by a number of religious leaders and scholars. Paul Tillich, the 20th century Lutheran theologian and philosopher, argued that, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

More recently, in a 2013 interview Pope Francis spoke on the topic and advised that, “The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.”

These quotes alone would suggest that doubt is a marvelous, common thread that’s woven throughout both scientific and religious thought.

But, there is undoubtedly a dark side to doubt. 

The Dark Side of Doubt

Doubts about one’s religion have been shown to be linked with lower life satisfaction, diminished well-being, less connection with others, more depressive symptoms, and greater anxiety about death. Hardly an endorsement for doubt as a life philosophy, right?

So, what on Earth then were Feynman, Tillich, and Pope Francis talking about when they exalted the virtues of doubt?

There are two answers to this question.

1. The Capacity for Doubt

The first piece to this puzzle involves taking a look at who is best equipped to manage doubt and uncertainty.

Here, the scientific literature on religious doubt provides a few clues. The negative effects of doubt have been found to be absent or muted for (a) older individuals, (b) those with more years of education, and (c) people with greater humility.

This pattern generally fits with the notion that doubt is an emerging property of a maturing faith.

As we learn more, accumulate more life experiences, and become more aware of our limitations, our relationship with doubt seems to change. No longer a source of spiritual angst, we develop a realistic acceptance of uncertainty as a basic fact of life.

2. The Context of Doubt

In his 1916 essay on “The Place of Doubt in Religious Belief,” a pastor and theology professor named Dr. James Snowden distinguished between two different kinds of doubt.

He wrote:

It may be the morning twilight in which a doubtful truth or hope or speculation is growing into positive knowledge, or the evening twilight in which an accepted truth or theory is withering away.

a) The Evening Twilight.

Over the past century, a growing body of research has emerged underscoring the importance of this distinction. And it seems that the “evening twilight” kind of doubt that Snowden discussed holds far more potential for negative life outcomes.

For example, my colleagues and I have examined the role of spiritual struggle (e.g., religious doubts, confusion, anger, or feelings of betrayal) after the loss of a loved one.

In other studies we’ve also looked at experiences of moral injury, which  involves a compromised sense of morality following a traumatic life event, like serving in combat or being victimized in the workplace.  

And consistently we find that when cherished beliefs are perceived to be shattered or desecrated by a difficult life event, people are more likely to develop a number problems, like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complicated grief.

READ RELATED: When Your Life Story Takes a Nose Dive: 3 Ways of ‘Re-storying’ the Darker Moments in Life

b) The Morning Twilight.

So, what are we then to do when an event or experience has caused us to doubt our faith? Is our faith destined to be degraded bit-by-bit as we encounter experiences that fail to conform to our worldview?

Snowden suggests there is another way. His notion of the “morning twilight” of doubt, which is most commonly referred to as spiritual quest, involves an orientation toward life that embraces uncertainty as part of one’s journey, as their faith grows and matures.   

Those who describe themselves as being on a spiritual quest show some unique characteristics. For instance, they have been found to be more likely to engage in altruistic behavior and less likely to hold prejudiced and authoritarian views.

Although there still may be a cost to this kind of religious questioning, as some studies have indicated that it is also associated with spiritual instability and disappointment, it offers a potential pathway for those who feel stuck in their doubt.

And the best evidence suggests that there could be light at the end of the tunnel of a religious quest for many. In one study of older adults who had lost a spouse, for example, individuals were found to show a pattern of intense questioning in the early aftermath of the loss, which was then followed by less religious questioning over time and positive re-engagement with their faith.

The Bottom Line

There is some comfort in knowing that, like a fine wine, experiences with doubt seem to improve with time. As we age and mature, we become more able to tolerate it. And when we are tossed into the throes of doubt because of a difficult life event, like the loss of a loved one, spiritual questioning appears to often resolve in constructive ways.

So, next time you find yourself stuck in the darkness of doubt, know that every evening twilight has a morning twilight that’s following just behind it.

Tell us about your experiences with doubt and how you have learned to overcome, manage, or possibly even embrace it. We want to hear from you in the comments box below.

You can also use our Charting Your Spiritual Journey exercise to further explore the role of faith and doubt in your life.  

LS EXCLUSIVE – Charting Your Spiritual Journey


Further Reading:




Altemeyer, B., & Hunsberger, B. (1992). Authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, quest, and prejudice. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 2, 113-133.

Batson, C. D., Oleson, K. C., Weeks, J. L., Healy, S. P., Reeves, P. J., Jennings, P., & Brown, T. (1989). Religious prosocial motivation: Is it altruistic or egoistic? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 873-884.

Burke, L. A., Neimeyer, R. A., Holland, J. M., Dennard, S., Oliver, L., & Shear, M. K. (2014). Inventory of Complicated Spiritual Grief: Development and validation of a new measure. Death Studies, 38, 239-250.

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., & Malott, J. (2015). Moral injury, meaning making, and mental health in returning veterans. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71, 229-240.

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., Drescher, K., & Foy, D. (2015). Initial psychometric evaluation of the Moral Injury Questionnaire—Military version. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 22, 54-63.

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., Rojas-Flores, L., Herrera, S., & Foy, D. (2015). Morally injurious experiences and meaning in Salvadorian teachers exposed to violence. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 7, 24-33.

Ellison, C. G., & Lee, J. (2010). Spiritual struggles and psychological distress: Is there a dark side of religion? Social Indicators Research, 98, 501-517.

Galek, K., Krause, N., Ellison, C. G., Kudler, T., & Flannelly, K. J. (2007). Religious doubt and mental health across the lifespan. Journal of Adult Development, 14, 16-25.

Henrie, J., & Patrick, J. H. (2014). Religiousness, religious doubt, and death anxiety. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 78, 203-227.

Hunsberger, B. (1995). Religion and prejudice: The role of religious fundamentalism, quest, and right‐wing authoritarianism. Journal of Social Issues, 51, 113-129.

Kojetin, B. A., McIntosh, D. N., Bridges, R. A., & Spilka, B. (1987). Quest: Constructive search or religious conflict? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 26, 111-115.

Krause, N. (2003). A preliminary assessment of race differences in the relationship between religious doubt and depressive symptoms. Review of Religious Research, 45, 93-115.

Krause, N. (2006). Religious doubt and psychological well-being: A longitudinal investigation. Review of Religious Research, 47, 287-302.

Krause, N. (2012). Religious doubt, financial strain, and depressive symptoms among older Mexican Americans. Mental health, Religion & Culture, 15, 335-348.

Krause, N., & Hayward, R. D. (2012). Humility, lifetime trauma, and change in religious doubt among older adults. Journal of Religion and Health, 51, 1002-1016.

Krause, N., Ingersoll-Dayton, B., Ellison, C. G., & Wulff, K. M. (1999). Aging, religious doubt, and psychological well-being. The Gerontologist, 39, 525-533.

Krause, N., & Wulff, K. M. (2004). Religious doubt and health: Exploring the potential dark side of religion. Sociology of Religion, 65, 35-56.

Feynman, R. (1999). The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. Cambridge, MA: Helix Books.

Pew Research Center. (2014). Religious Landscape Study. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/

Sandage, S. J., Jankowski, P. J., & Link, D. C. (2010). Quest and spiritual development moderated by spiritual transformation. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 38, 15-31.

Snowden, J. H. (1916). The place of doubt in religious belief. The Biblical World, 47, 151-155.

Thompson, E. H., Noone, M. E., & Guarino, A. B. (2003). Widows’ spiritual journeys: Do they quest?. Journal of Religious Gerontology, 14, 119-138.

Tillich, P. (1957). Systematic Theology, Volume 2: Existence and the Christ. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.  


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