Ethics, Doubt, and the Expression of Disbelief

In recent months I’ve read various comments and conversations about both the existence, and the discussion of religious doubt in the information age. This is a topic of special interest to me given that I, myself, have experienced — and continue to experience — the ups and downs of being tightly connected with a specific religious ideal, tradition and community and then experiencing doubt in some of the fundamental beliefs or claims of that tradition.

Reaching the conclusion that long- and/or strongly-held beliefs and perspectives are not what we had previously imagined can produce, broadly speaking, three reactions. Depending on our affinity for those beliefs or perhaps what those beliefs represent, we may find great relief or great pain. Or perhaps we may not effected one way or the other.

For some — and perhaps most — simply setting aside old beliefs and ideas and choosing to explore new ideas and possibilities without looking back is the most appropriate and satisfying response. Others may wrestle with feelings of anger and frustration at having been misled or perhaps they may feel foolish for once holding beliefs they now view negatively. Still others may formulate and adopt new ideas and perspectives by blending the old with the new.

It should be obvious that the assumption of of any of the positions described above is a morally neutral choice. There is no moral good nor bad within the positions themselves. However, how one chooses to act within the context of any given position is precisely and primarily a question of ethics. The reason for this is quite simple. Religious belief does not exist in a vacuum. It sits at the foundation of many communities, nations, and cultures. Therefore, our response to changes in belief impact not just ourselves, but those around us. Often close family and friends. An awareness of our impact on others is requisite to fully consider the ethics of doubt and the expression of disbelief. Of course, we must also be mindful of how our chosen behavior impacts our own well-being.

For purposes here I will focus on those who wrestle with anger and frustration and, out of concern for current believers or those who may become believers, may choose to speak out against their former allegiances. I will also consider those who retain allegiances; albeit with modified views. What follows are broad generalizations

It is not uncommon for those raised within relatively conservative religious traditions to feel a sense of anger and even betrayal after a change in faith. I think that many people who encounter this feeling may, after a while, simply walk away from the old and embrace the new. Others may feel it is important to oppose their former beliefs and openly advocate against them as a form of public service. In recent years, some former Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists have participated in efforts to “expose” the problems with belief systems and the institutions that support those systems.

Certainly those believers who remain committed to both their beliefs and show allegiance to religious institutions will view such efforts as an affront. An immoral insult to be expected from those who have rejected the true faith. In reality, these former members may serve a very valuable and I would argue, positive moral, purpose. Outside critics are abhorred by institutions but in reality, these institutions benefit from their critical efforts.

However, any effort to “expose the truth” to either outsiders or current insiders by means of dishonesty and deception are inherently immoral and misguided. If we stand in opposition to former beliefs or institutions, then we should make our position clear. To do otherwise is to enrich our own sense of ego at the expense of believers. I imagine that someone may critique this view by arguing that the only way to reach believers is to deceive them into reading/viewing critical material. Putting aside the paternalistic arrogance of such a position, there are two significant problems here. First, if the critic was able to discover new information and form new conclusions independently or through existing material, then why can’t a current believer do the same without the deceptive “aid” of a biased outsider? And why would we deny the believer the opportunity to explore these matters without the undue influence of deception? Second, dishonesty and deception intended to expose the dishonesty or deception of other’s beliefs or allegiances is both morally inconsistent and self-contradictory. We can’t oppose immoral deception by employing it ourselves.

For those who adjust belief but remain loyal to their religious community, both a sense of honesty and propriety should govern moral behavior. If we assume heterodox or heteroprax positions, we should be upfront about our views, when appropriate. There may be a desire to “evangelize” others to our particular way of thinking. If so, it is important to be upfront about our intentions. Also, we should be judicious about how, when, and where these ideas are discussed and/or promoted. For example, if a group of believers gathers for the purpose of worship and fellowship, it would be inappropriate to raise controversial issues within this context. We must respect the beliefs and desires of believers if we want to remain a part of the community. Part of that respect is knowing when it is appropriate to share heterodox views and when it is not. Again, we must avoid serving our own egos when others have simply come to worship and pray.

It may be tempting to view such context-aware engagement as an infringement on free speech. I simply call it being polite. Of course, it should be clear that “free speech” simply doesn’t exist within private organizations. If, for example, I started a blog outlining all of the complaints I have about my employer, I would be fired — and quite quickly. Has my speech been silenced? No. I can still blog all I want. But It would be unrealistic to expect that I could openly criticize my private employer or other private organizations with which I have association and retain employment or membership.

But shouldn’t religion be different? Shouldn’t doubters be given more latitude when it comes to expressing doubt and disbelief within the context of their chosen religious institution? In my view, religions do make accommodations for doubt. But with the expectation that such questions, doubts, disbelief, and concerns be expressed in a way that will not disrupt the worship of others within the tradition. Perhaps one could counter that this is a purely Western idea and that more compassionate and open religions — like Buddhism — provide such latitude.

For point of reference, let’s take a look at the Bodhisattva Precepts of Mahayana Buddhism. These vows — in one form or another – are always taken by monks. But in some schools, similar vows are taken by lay people as well. Among these is a vow:

Not to speak ill of the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) or the Sangha (Buddhist religious community members) or encourage others to do so

The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are considered the “Three Jewels” and in Soto Zen Buddhism, practitioners vow to:

… not defile the Three Treasures

So we can see that even in the most open and “liberal” traditions, speaking ill of the founder, the teachings, or members of the community is considered a serious violation of previous vows. Of course, if one rejects those vows, then there is no obligation. However, to act the part of devoted religionist committed to community and cause while, in reality, seeking to undermine the tradition and the faith of believers, is not only dishonest, but indecent for anyone who pursues the moral life.

In most Buddhist Sanghas — as with other religious communities — there are appropriate and explicitly outlined ways to raise concerns and questions without disrespecting the community. But this may not always be the case in situations where the religious institution or its doctrine is overly-authoritarian and actively suppresses the expression of doubt by not providing appropriate venues in which to openly explore questions and ideas. In such cases, those who choose to remain members have a moral obligation to improve conditions and to work towards an environment that maintains its doctrines and norms, but also allows for the respectful expression of doubt without fear of negative repercussions. It would naive to suggest, however, that such a dialogue is always possible. Indeed, in some cases such improvements cannot be made and authoritarian dogmatism is left the norm. In my view, this type of harmful dogmatism should be examined critically and discussed openly. And yet, the bad behavior — or perhaps more simply, behavior that we strongly disagree with — cannot be overcome through deception or egoism.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

  • Romans 12:17-21