Is doubt an STD?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Questioned Proposal' photo (c) 2008, Ethan Lofton - license:

For most people, young adulthood is a time of stretching, evolving, questioning, and growing. It’s a time when you start thinking for yourself, making decisions on your own, scrutinizing your past, and dreaming about your future. 

And so it was for me. 

I was in my early twenties when I first encountered a fossil record that didn’t match what I’d been taught in Sunday school about the “myth” of evolutionary theory. 

I was a junior in college when the execution of a Muslim woman, broadcasted on TV, challenged everything I believed about heaven, hell, and religious pluralism. 

I was 21 or 22 when I began questioning what I’d been taught about what constituted  “biblical” politics,  “biblical” marriage, and  “biblical” womanhood, and wondering if it was wise, or even possible, to reduce the Bible into an adjective. 

I was young and newly married when I first started whispering these questions out loud—Did Anne Frank really go to hell? How does a young earth explain how we can see the light of distant stars? Did God really ask Joshua to commit genocide? Is it possible to follow Jesus with my intellectual and emotional integrity intact? How can we know any of this is true? 

These questions emerged from the deepest, truest parts of my being, after many sleepless nights, long talks with Dan, tears of frustration, intense study and prayer, and seemingly endless periods of silence.  It was my first encounter with doubt, and it was scary. 

The most painful part of the process, though, was when friends and well-meaning mentors dismissed my questions as silly, or, even worse, questioned whether my doubt was nothing more than an attempt to justify some sort of secret sin in my life, usually pride. If they could just uncover my moral failing, they reasoned, all these pesky questions about science and theology and religion would disappear. 

Those responses only alienated me further from the Church, where I began to feel less and less comfortable sharing my thoughts and questions with my faith community. 

This is why I found Tim Keller’s response to a question posed to him at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference this week both familiar and disheartening. 

In responding to a question about obstacles to revival, Keller said that one of the biggest threats to spiritual renewal, particularly among young adults is sexual activity. He connects sexual activity to increasing doubts among young adults, and suggests that when twenty-somethings come home from college with scientific or philosophical questions related to their faith, those questions are just a guise for what’s really at work—they’re having sex. 

Derek Rishmawy summarized Keller’s response in a post entitled “Who are you sleeping with?”

"Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue.  Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience. Honestly, as a Millennial and college director myself, I’ve seen it with a number of my friends and students—the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more “doubtful” for some of them once they’d had sex."

I was surprised to see such a dismissive statement from Keller, who has devoted so much of his life to carefully addressing the questions of skeptics with nuance and respect, and who has a generally open attitude toward doubt. (I am hoping that perhaps Rishmawy just didn’t summarize Keller exactly right; he has issued a few helpful clarifying points since the post originally ran.) But this response to doubt is common enough to address here generally, for the sake of those of you who doubt and those who are in a position to mentor those who doubt, so without focusing too much attention on Keller himself, I'd like to address why it's problematic. 

First, the suggestion that the primary reason young people might have questions about, say, evolution and biblical interpretation is because they have a “guilty conscience” is dismissive and hurtful. It unfairly discounts the very real, and often very legitimate questions of searching young adults and treats their doubts as unworthy of addressing directly. 

Believe me. It does not help your cause when a biology student comes into your office to ask how young earth creationism can possibly explain the fossil record and your response to her is ,“Who are you sleeping with?” 

Keller seems to assume that thoughtful questioning among young people are typically the result of sexual activity and their desire to justify it. This was not true for me, and it is not true for many of the young adults who leave college with questions about science, philosophy, politics, and religious pluralism that challenge the fundamentalism with which they were raised. I encountered doubt long before I got married and had sex, (not to mention long after), and I think it’s silly that I would have to share that information with Keller, or anyone else for that matter, in an effort to prove the sincerity of my questions.  

Furthermore, learning that a college student is sexually active does not somehow discredit his or her faith experience.  While sexuality is indeed an important element of personhood, it is not he be-all and end-all of our existence, and as we’ve discussed in the past, connecting a person’s worth to his or her virginity is a serious problem within evangelicalism. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of those who do in fact leave the Church over issues related to sexuality do so because they’ve been told over and over again that their value as a Christian, and as a human being, is wrapped up in their virginity, so they no longer feel welcomed or worthy. 

As I’ve written before, the doubts I wrestled with most profoundly as a young adult were doubts related to salvation and religious pluralism. Those doubts often took he form of a single question in my mind: “Did Anne Frank go to hell?”

I cannot think of a more trite, inappropriate response to that question than, “Tell me who you’re sleeping with.”

Second, Keller is a smart guy and he should know that correlation does not mean causation. As I mentioned above, It is often during young adulthood that people begin to think for themselves and ask tough questions about their faith. It is also during young adulthood that people begin to form serious romantic relationships and think about sex. So if Keller sees a correlation, it may have more to do with this particular stage of development than anything else. 

I have already heard from pastors and campus ministers who say they too have observed that twenty-somethings seem to be struggling with questions related to both faith and sexuality, and I’m not surprised. While questions, experiences, and struggles related to sex can most certainly generate questions about faith...(we are holistic, integrated creatures after all)....we have to be careful of generalizing or oversimplifying here.  It may be true that young adults are both asking questions about science & faith and having sex, but that does not mean that they are asking questions about science & faith because they are having sex. 

Pastors and mentors will of course feel compelled to offer guidance and prayer as young adults navigate the tricky terrain of sexuality, but they should not be deceived into thinking that the all the questions about faith, science, technology, religious pluralism, politics, justice, equality, and ethics emerging from the Millennial generation are related to sex and can be solved by abstaining from it. This is shallow, reductive thinking, and again points to a somewhat irrational preoccupation among evangelicals with sexuality as the root of all that is evil or good. 

I am often asked to speak at churches and conferences on the topic of why young adults are leaving the church.  I usually begin by sharing a little of my own story, and then I point to research conducted by the Barna Group in which young adults, ages 18-29 were asked the same question. As David Kinnaman explains in his enlightening book, You Lost Me, one of the top six responses among young adults is that they left the church because they didn’t feel like their pastors, mentors, and friends took their questions about faith seriously. 

“Young Christians (and former Christians too) say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts,” writes Kinnaman. “They do not feel safe admitting that faith doesn’t always make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial and fact-focused, as if people can be talked out of doubting.” 

As I’ve said on multiple occasions, most young adults I know aren’t looking for a religion that answers all of their questions, but rather a community of faith in which they feel safe to asking them.  A good place to start in creating such a community is to treat young adults like the complex human beings they are, and to take their questions about faith seriously.

(Credit to Chris Cox who gave me the idea for the title of the post. In response to the article he tweeted, “Doubt as a STD seems like a desperate ploy.”  I agree. )

See also:
What happened when I tried to love God with my mind
The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart


Have your doubts and questions ever been assumed by others to stem from a "guilty conscience"? How did you respond? 

I'd also love to hear from ministers who work with college students and young adults. Have you noticed the correlation that Keller observes? Is he on to something?

Several of you have noted that this doesn't sound like typical Keller. I totally agree. He's usually a lot more nuanced about please don't interpret this as a critique of him as a theologian or pastor, just a discussion around this particular idea that doubt is the result of a guilty conscience. 

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