After writing some good things about doubt, I got to thinking if it was really that good to doubt. As it turns out, there is an ugly side to doubt as well. As with most good things, too much tends to be detrimental and unhealthy.
So what is the ugly side of doubt? It is when one doubts just for the sake of doubting; of opposing just for the sake of opposing; of questioning just to satisfy a rebellious streak within, not really caring about whether the answer might be reasonable or not.
Yes, there are such people with such attitudes and they turn me off about as much as fanatic bible-thumpers. I was once at this forum where there was someone expressing his religious views in response to a question from the audience. Then this other guy probably hears a phrase that pricks his ears and he asks a question in a sarcastic tone. Despite that, the first speaker takes the question seriously and begins to answer in earnest. But when I turned to look at the other guy, he wasn’t even listening but was smirking and chatting with his friends, probably celebrating his own wit and intellectual superiority.
Even though I shared the same question with that other guy (it was after all, a perfectly reasonable question), his attitude turned me off. Whether one calls himself a doubter, an intellectual, a skeptic, a freethinker, a logician, or whatever is no license to disrespect other people and cast their views aside. Doubt is ugly when used in this manner.
The healthy way to doubt is to always be open — not always accepting — but always willing to listen, to process, to discuss. When I ask doubting questions, the purpose is never to destroy the other person (well, unless that person is already being an insufferable ass), or to prove that I am better than him. Rather, my goal is always to come to a greater understanding of truth than the one I started with before. It is perfectly possible to be skeptical, yet not come across as being arrogant and spiteful, and it would make for more interesting and stimulating conversations.
I grew up in a Christian environment where doubt was hardly encouraged. Faith was a virtue. Doubt was not. The foremost illustration of this is the biblical story of Jesus’ disciple Thomas who claimed not to believe in his resurrection unless he saw his risen body and touched his wounds. When Jesus did appear to him and erase his doubts, Jesus said, “Blessed are you because you see and believe, but more blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.” And from those words sprung up an entire culture of faith, of not seeing yet fervently believing.
The first thirty something years of my life were spent aiming for this kind of faith. The urge to doubt would always be attributed to my human weakness or even to the wiles of the devil. But the deeper I went inside Christianity, the more discordant I would feel. Yes, there was always the heat of the moment in worship, and there were days when I felt that I was indeed in god’s loving arms. But these were also peppered by moments of doubt. I would always wonder if answered prayers weren’t just coincidences; if the faith I felt wasn’t just leveled up wishful thinking; or if the feelings I had for god’s presence weren’t just that — feelings.
Then a thought came to me: if I believe that god created me, then he must also be responsible for creating this machinery in me that makes me doubt and think and reason. And since this is so, why should I not then trust this thinking and reasoning of mine? What if all I ever believed in was just other people’s beliefs imposed upon society for generations? What if my doubts were the way to truth even if a lot of people (at least in my circles) didn’t seem to share them? Didn’t Jesus say that the gate was narrow and only a few people ever find it?
Ultimately, I was confronted with this question — would I be willing to let go of all I ever believed in my search for truth — yes, even Christianity, the bible and the concept of god that Christianity has imposed upon me? And for me, this was harder than it sounded. It was like being in the middle of the ocean hanging on to a piece of wood, without any land in sight, and deciding whether or not to let it go so I could swim faster to where I wanted to be. I also realized the irony of it — that it takes so much more faith to doubt than to believe. So I took a leap of faith and began my journey of doubt.
In that journey, I went to church less and less because church for me had just been a meaningless habit and the sermons were just rehashed ideas that I heard over and over throughout the years. Even the idea that “we go to church not to receive from god but to give him our worship” seemed stale because if god were everywhere, then I could most certainly worship him anywhere, even in the toilet. Conversely, I could be in church every Sunday with my mind wandering elsewhere and it wouldn’t amount to an iota of worship. So I decided to give up this false pretension and would not go to church unless I really wanted to, but not for reasons of appearances or habit or to “be a good influence” to my kids. (Yes, I got flak for this when my eldest daughter decided she didn’t want to go to sunday school also, but that’s another story).
I began to read books and listen to other teachings that were outside the norm of Christian propriety, and my horizons were widened and I realized that there were also a lot of people like me — much more than I thought there would be — and in the midst of my doubts, it was a reassuring thought.
Of course, I could not avoid the whispers going on behind me — Christian friends, relatives and acquaintances talking about me, reading my blogs and saying that I was going astray — but I got most of this information third-hand. These people I heard about never approached me and asked me head-on what was going on with me — except for a couple of them — and I appreciated their willingness to listen and their acceptance (of me, not my way of thinking). Although hearing the words, “I’ll just pray for you,” is grating to my ears. I know they mean well but it just sounds so condescending — like “I know something you don’t. I’m someplace better than you, so I’ll just pray for you until you realize that.” I know they don’t mean it that way, but still, it does sound that way.
In the tail end of this journey (which means just about over a year ago), I discovered freethinking and a group called Filipino Freethinkers through a close friend of mine. And when I read about it, realized that this was me (I just didn’t know what it was called). Though this group has been closely linked to atheism, it actually isn’t and its members are a mixed bag of different believers and unbelievers. The basic creed of a freethinker is that you may have your own set of personal beliefs but you don’t go around imposing them on others as if it were THE truth. “To a freethinker, no idea is sacred; all truth claims are subject to skepticism, rational inquiry, and empirical testing.”
A freethinker embraces doubt as a way of life, for it is through doubt that one gets to really dig in and think about what one believes in — not just to swallow everything the church, priest, imam or rabbi says. One of my favorite quotes comes from Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, who says “to doubt is infinitely more important than to adore. To question is infinitely more important than to believe.”
Some time ago I took a step of faith into doubt, and have never regretted it since. I feel more spiritually and holistically in tune with myself, my thoughts and my emotions than I have ever been before. There is less fear and guilt, and more love and compassion for me and for everyone around me.
Most people would answer with a yes or a no. My answer would be “It depends”.
“Depends on what?” You would probably again ask.
“Depends on what ‘god’ is”, I would answer.
The moment that question is asked, the one asking already assumes a certain definition of god (god is a loving creator, god is a stern judge, god is a blue-skinned woman, etc.), and he assumes that I share the same definition, which I most probably don’t.
It is like when you go to a field and see a tree, and then you tell me, “I saw a tree.” I don’t really know what you saw. I know you didn’t see dancing pigs or exploding frogs, but I don’t know EXACTLY what you saw because the word “tree” is just an abstraction of something that’s very concrete. When you say “tree” I may picture a mango tree in my mind but what you actually saw was a pine tree. In fact, we both may have pine trees in our minds but I did not see the pine tree that you saw and those are very different things.
The point is that a tree is something that is quite common that every person above the age of three probably knows, and yet, it can mean many things to many people in many different instances. If that can happen for “tree”, imagine now when you talk about “god” that people have not actually seen, heard, or touched.
What in the world (or out of this world) are you talking about when you say “god”?
People’s belief or unbelief in their concept of god is just that — a belief — a conscious choice to declare for or against something. It is something that can neither be proved or disproved. Which is why theists and atheists have been arguing (and will continue arguing) for hundreds of years without any clear resolution. It no longer is a matter of reason but of conviction, of opinion, of differing points of view.
So do I believe in god?
The most sensible answer I can think of is: “Well, I love mashed potatoes”.
Zen is not a religion, although it most closely follows Buddhist principles.
It is not a religion in the sense that one cannot claim to be a “zennist”. There is no formal doctrine of zen, nor is there a zen priesthood. Neither does one worship zen gods, zen masters or zen spirits.
Rather zen is an approach to life — a way of seeing — of looking beyond the illusions created by the mind, of awakening to reality, of enlightenment. And this is achieved not by a strict adherence to any dogma or set of rules, but simply by being increasingly alert and aware of one’s thoughts, feelings and actions. The individual seeks that inner center that is unchanging and undisturbed, capable of seeing life as a mysterious and great adventure, a grand theater, a delightful journey that has no other purpose than to enjoy and celebrate each step (or misstep) along the path.
Zen is not about emulating a messiah or a buddha. It is about becoming a buddha. It is about the full flowering of the love and compassion within all of us.
At least, not in the traditional sense that people have of prayer — of verbally talking to a god, whether to ask for something or to praise or adore. Being brought up in a Christian background, I was taught that prayer is powerful and that it can move mountains. I read about great men of prayer who would spend hours on their knees each day. I learned to pray for great things and small things, for healing a relative from disease to asking for an Atari game console (my generation’s equivalent of today’s Xbox or Playstation).
Over time, I’ve had a few of my prayers were answered but many more went unanswered, and I began to ask questions. But then I was told that I had to pray “by faith”, and that prayer had to be “according to God’s will”. And then I thought, well, if it’s God’s will, why should I pray about it then? It’s going to happen anyway because, I mean, who can thwart God’s will, right? But still I was told to continue praying because God loves it when we come to him and ask in prayer.
And for a long while I just accepted that.
But then I thought, why would God want me to keep asking him for things that aren’t his will (which I only have a vague idea about)? I mean, what if I had a relative who was dying of brain cancer. And so I pray for healing. But then it is actually God’s will for this relative to pass on. Will he now change his will (as they say, his “good and perfect” will) just to give in to my request? That would seem silly, especially since his will is already perfect. So why bother praying? Because he just wants me to ask? He wants me to keep looking and feeling like an idiot? He wants me to keep making excuses for him about why my prayer isn’t being answered?
This made me shift my attitude towards prayer, and to life. Instead of looking at life as a constant struggle between good and evil, for which I have to keep battling by praying for the good forces to win, I have come to accept life as it comes.
Everything is good, even if it doesn’t feel good at that time. The universe gives us what we need from moment to moment, and the way to live is to be grateful for each moment. Prayer is not a ritual, not a grocery list of petitions, nor fancy-sounding words of praise. The best prayer is not made with words, but in living life head-on, without regrets, always learning, always thankful.