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On Doubt and Intellectual Autonomy

By Paul So ~

When I was young child raised in the church, it was always implied that doubting is at least discouraged (if not sinful), and trying to abandon your faith on the basis of doubt is usually frowned upon. What disturbs me now is that many of the Christians I’ve encountered believe that while one can occasionally doubt their faith, overall one should never abandon their faith on the basis of doubt, and to do so would somehow entail that the doubt is unjustifiable. It bothers me because I am powerless to convince them that my doubt was well justified and reasonable, and it is further exacerbated when some of them stubbornly think that I must have conclusive proof (beyond reasonable doubt) that my case is true. The problem with that is not many things can be believed only solely on the basis of conclusive proof, but most of time on the basis of the degree of reasonableness. But even this does not satisfy many Christians because many of them are not evidentialist (that is the belief that believes that knowledge is justified by evidence) but subscribe more or less to some form of fideism in which faith is the bedrock of the belief on God. Additionally, I find it some-what amusing that many Christians assume that to abandon your faith on the basis of doubt if unjustifiable without providing reasons why their faith is justified. This is mostly because they act under the presumption that their faith must be correct.

But what really bothers me is that in many churches where children are raised, to ask questions that explicitly (or implicitly) indicates penetrating doubt is often evaded, discouraged, or nullified with emotional non-sequitor arguments. To whatever degree, children are being indoctrinated to believe in God without asking any questions. But how do I define indoctrination? I believe that indoctrination is a general social conduct of reinforcement that limits both actual and potential intellectual autonomy of any agents as the means to make them accept a certain belief without being aware of the possibility of other alternatives. Indoctrination, I believe, is a common social norm among many (if not all) religious institutions because they want to exercise control to keep their members within their institutions; to lose the people would mean to lose the institutional status and power.

In many churches where children are raised, to ask questions that explicitly (or implicitly) indicates penetrating doubt is often evaded, discouraged, or nullified with emotional non-sequitor arguments.While institution in general is important, I believe that religious institutions have always been hostile and inimical to intellectual autonomy in which the person exercise his or her intellect to examine the unexamined. What becomes more problematic is that religious institutions make it a taboo to critically re-examine certain beliefs; Note that there is a difference between beliefs that are prohibited to be examined and being prohibited to critically examine beliefs. The former implies that one must refrain from examining certain beliefs, while the latter implies that one should not exercise their intellectual autonomy. I think many religious institutions do both of them (some do more with the latter than former, vice versa).

I guess the conclusion I am trying to arrive at is that to doubt is to question the truth-value of any beliefs on the basis that there are recognizable flaws to the belief. Such recognizable flaws can amount to inconsistency, lack of justification in terms of reason and evidence, immoral implications, etc. This is very different from subjective doubt in which you think there are flaws to the belief, but you have insufficient reasons and evidence to demonstrate your doubt. However doubt is much more than recognizing flaws to the belief; it is to actively exercise the intellect autonomously and independently of any potentially coercive institutions. To think autonomously is not only thinking in the absence of coercion, but to think in spite of coercion. Philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza, and Kant have argued that it is our nature to reason, and we should try to reason, and I think that they are correct. However, whenever institutions discourage us to reason, they are discouraging us to act according to one of our most fundamental nature that makes us human. In a sense, I think indoctrination and the anti-intellectual social stigma against reason is dehumanizing because they discourage us to optimally exercise our innate capacity to reason. This is why when I witness similar events that have trodden down reason I feel outraged because they have violated something that has intrinsic value.

While human beings are dependent creatures in the sense that they passively and receptively accept the cultural, social, political, and religious norms of their environment in an early age, human beings also have the capacity as autonomous agents to change the social landscape of their environment that is conducive to independent thinking. But when the environment limits them to the state of passivity in terms of the freedom of the intellect, it is a tragedy since they have failed to recognize that they also posses something that is significantly valuable: that is to independently reason. Such independence, however, cannot remain merely individualistic (although to do so is also important) but can also emerge into a community of people who, like scientists, are eager to examine and test their beliefs in an open democratic discussion. This, to me, is freedom of speech in its highest form.

The reason why I am not only an atheist, but a freethinker who is suspicious of organized religions, is because these organized religious are also the institutions that tries to restrict the intellectual autonomy of the people through indoctrination and other forms of negative social reinforcements. This kind of institutions cannot possibly produce an open democratic discussion in which a community of people discusses to re-evaluate their ideals in order to arrive more closely to the truth. Such institutions, instead, makes people merely passive individuals who merely conform to irrational rules and beliefs.

I am an atheist, but in the historical and social context I am in now I also consider myself a free-thinker in the sense that I strongly value intellectual autonomy. I can possibly say that I am an atheist because I am a free-thinker who exercises my intellectual autonomy, and consequently doubt the beliefs that deserved to be doubted. I think that it is about time that we decide to declare ourselves the heir of the Enlightenment, carrying on the very values that promotes free-thinking.