The Compatibility of Faith and Doubt in Christianity and Hinduism

The Compatibility of Faith and Doubt in Christianity and Hinduism

Back to the time when nonconformists to the Christian church were punished, Origen, a Christian scholar, said: “If someone from this people wants to be saved, let him come into this house [The Christian Church] so that he may be able to attain his salvation” This quote reflects his orthodoxy and conformism to the Christianity faith. At that time, there was the appearance of other churches that had different beliefs. Gnosticism was one of them. This movement criticizes Christianity and believes that salvation is reached through knowledge rather than faith. Thus, the Christian Church was considering Gnostic sects as heretics, and persecuting them was a way to make all believers follow the same and unique doctrine.
Conflicts of this sort have dominated the history of religions. Religious skepticism has been considered as a sin against God and a threat to the foundation of beliefs by most religions. In Christianity, militating attitudes toward doubt were directed by the fact that ecclesiastic members considered religious claims as being an ultimate and salvific reality and rejected any questioning of their religious faith. Also, doubt was seen as evil because it would take away followers’ faith. Alternatively, doubt began with the ancient Greek philosophers; this is the reason why most people associate doubt with philosophy. They consider the fact that philosophers don’t believe in any religion belief as hostility toward religions. However, doubters should not be seen as enemies to religion because they are rather religious thinkers trying to find their spiritual destiny. Their quest for truth should erase the virtual separation usually made between religion and philosophy.

Doubt is diabolized in the context of religion. In the speeches given by religious authorities such as Imams and Pops, they all reject the idea of questioning and try to protect “the souls” of followers against any idea that could threaten the purity of their faith and make them wonder about its origins. On the other hand, human beings, not only intellectuals, feel the need to reflect on their beliefs to try to make an overall sense. Any aspect of human life can be subject to reflection; religion is no exception. No one can claim that he has never doubted about his religious convictions. Even those who consider themselves with no religion may have moments of doubt about their atheism. So, when trying to understand our religious beliefs, should we take religion for granted because we fear the judgment and the misunderstanding of others? Or should we follow our own sceptic path to find a meaning to our faith?

Doubt exists within religions. In Islam, ideologies of doubt were established by Al-Ghazali whose methods were quite similar to those of Descartes. As Greek philosophers, he claimed that God’s acts are expected and purposeful which is not compatible with Islamic principles and gives raise to confusion. Also, he believed that people can experience doubt at different levels. According to him, skepticism was not developed because of rationality; rather it was a result of quest of the truth. During his life, he experienced a deep crisis of scepticism; he doubted about his senses and his knowledge. After Al Ghazali realized that the only way to reach certain knowledge was though Sufism, he claimed that doubt was his habit to search for the true reality of things. Thus, doubt and religion cannot be separated, and everyone should look for the truth to better understand his convictions and answer his doubts. Among the history of most religions, doubt has always been a source of conflicts. So let us discuss this debatable subject in the context of two religions: Christianity and Hinduism.

The history of Christianity has known some critical period when persecution of infidels was widespread. Saint Thomas Aquinas, considered as a Church's greatest theologian and philosopher, declared that: “heretics deserved not only to be separated from the Church, but also to be eliminated from the world by death” The Catholic Church was using its secular power to enforce its unity. Followers of non-Christian religions or other Churches other than the Catholic one were arrested, beaten, tortured, and executed. All the means were used to protect “the one true faith”. The main Christian argument to justify these persecutions was to save Christian souls from heretic teaching. Thus, Christians were supposed to accept their faith for granted without any doubting or questioning even when they found some of the beliefs irrational.

Christian doctrine has made a clear separation between eclectics and heretics. Anyone who did not share the dogma of Catholic Church and/or demonstrated worship to another religious sect was seen as an infidel. The Roman Church believed its followers will be the only ones to reach salvation and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven after death; however, pagans, Jews, heretics, and schismatics won’t reach salvation, but rather they will go to eternal fire. It considered its doctrine as the only true way to reach faith, and thus even Christians from other Churches were considered as heretics and their ways as deviant.

In Middle Ages, with the appearance of the Cathars (or the “Albigensians”), the Roman Church established the inquisition, a church court, to counter this religious group. This disciplinary engine defended the Christianity faith against any doubt because it was founded to seek out and prosecute heretics. The inquisition’s punishments involved burning, imprisonment, and property confiscation for heretics in order to make those people abandon their doubt about the Christian doctrine. In addition, Innocent III, who was known for his protection of “the true fait”, launched a crusade to suppress “Albigensians” that lasted for almost 20 years (1209-1229). It is considered as one of the biggest campaigns that a religious authority, the Catholic Church, initiated to eliminate non-conformists to its religion.

Nowadays, doubt is more accepted by most societies even if some strict religious groups are still considering it as a moral failure and an enemy to faith. Doubt can be defined as being the unwillingness to step beyond what we know with certainty, which is an attitude of intellectual integrity rather than a moral failure. This statement doesn’t imply that faith is a moral failure. Each individual should reflect on his beliefs that were passed on from other generations since his birth. Therefore, doubt is a human way to reach our faith by eliminating beliefs that are not compatible with our personal convictions.

When we go back to Christianity, we found that today there are two divergent kinds of Christians: Those who are said to be conservative Christians because they are convinced that their religion is the only path to true faith, and those who are Christians because they are award and afraid of the eternal punishment of non- Christians.

Christian theology has been using religious doubt and faith as analyzed by Al Ghazali. This theology has summarized ways of reasoning is three different methods. The first method of reasoning is to follow the available dogma and Revelation as they are presented and interpreted. The second method consists of following your own reasoning to deal with religious beliefs. Finally, the third method is about experiencing religious knowledge. The two last methods both involve a huge amount of doubt. However, no method is better than the other; each one of the three helps individuals to find their way to truth following different paths depending on their personal perceptions and interpretations of religion.

All in all, there is no single way to interpret a religion. Each one should be given the alternative to look for the interpretation that suites more his personal convictions. Christianity has been known for being judgmental and for repressing its followers, but today it offers people a possibility to reflect on its dogma and considers doubt as a way to faith.

Now, let us discuss the concepts of faith and doubt in Hinduism. This religion is more elastic, tolerant, and liberal than Christianity in many of its aspects and traditions. One of Hinduism flexible aspects is the path proposed to its believers to reach the truth. For instance, there is Jnana Yoga and Karma Yoga. These two paths of salvation are different and are not the only ones. The first one focuses on knowledge and devotion, whereas the second one is about action. As a consequence, being a plural religion shows Hinduism tolerance and acceptance of doubt. Atman or Brahman is a person seeking eternity by reflection on his relationship with the Universal Self in order to reach the absolute truth and break the reincarnation’s cycle. To find salvation, believers should follow their own way. Thus, this freedom to choose the appropriate way to each individual reflects another aspect of accepting doubt among Hinduism faith.

Another aspect of tolerance toward doubt is illustrated by a passage in Bhagavad Gita, one of the main scriptures of Hinduism, in which the promise of salvation includes even those who have doubt about their faith: “When righteousness is weak and faints and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth.” This is to say that even in case of doubt, an individual should deal with it and find its own way to the truth. Hinduism offers an endless number of ways to reach salvation for it followers and this pluralism is seen as a consideration of the different spiritual needs of people based on their different personalities. It allows individuals to choose their religious path without any constraint and gives them the possibility to change it as many times as it is necessary for them to find the right one. In this religion, people are reincarnated because they failed to reach salvation in their previous lives. This is a way to punish individuals for their mistakes in faith and at the same time give them another chance to break the reincarnation cycle. This is quite different from Christians’ notion of death, final judgement, and eternal Hell or Heaven. In addition, in Hinduism, the quest of the truth may take many lives contrary to monotheistic religions. It is more about being patient and exceeding the limitations of the self than following a predefined dogma and Revelation. Doubt is seen as a way to faith; it pushes individuals to think critically about themselves and their relations with the external world to find the truth.

To conclude, Hinduism and Christianity have clearly different perspectives about doubt. The first one considers questioning as an inescapable step in the process of looking for the truth; whereas the second one is not very tolerant when it comes to questioning its doctrine. This difference doesn’t make any one of these religions better than the other. However, one should not consider that religions that put limitations to doubt as bad ones. One should rather reflect on their own interpretation within what the religion offers as sacred texts and ideologies. Individuals that have beliefs that are quite different from the main religion may to choose to belong to a subgroup. Others may choose a single religion, but find some part of the truth in other ones. So, if the purpose of all religion is to help believers reach the truth, doubt and questioning should not be banished; rather it should be accepted and tolerated as part of the human way of thinking.

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Al-Ghazali’s Biography and Major Works. Retrieved November 7th, 2010, at: http://www.ghazali.org/

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