For many people-young and old alike-doubt is a frequent companion in our spiritual journeys. Adolescents often wonder if there is a God, if they can trust religious traditions and institutions, and if there is anything of transcendent value beyond the here and now. Is doubt the opposite of faith, or does doubt help faith grow? Surely in many cases, doubt can lead to genuine spiritual growth by challenging the individual and leading to new breakthroughs and deeper insights; in other cases, some individuals may expand their doubt to a wholesale rejection of faith. Doubt is part of the adolescent's personal experience, but it does not occur in a vacuum-adults can influence whether doubt derails faith or helps it grow. Different approaches can help illuminate adolescents' doubt and suggest ways to respond to it.
Scripture tells us that faith is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). The Wisdom tradition, especially Ecclesiastes and Job, offers a philosophical vantage on doubt, showing it to be a common and even natural aspect of living a faithful life. The New Testament also addresses doubt in many instances. One of the more famous ones is the "Doubting Thomas" incident (John 20:29). Here, Thomas inserts his finger into the wound of Jesus, who responds, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe." Another crucial incident occurs when the man with a demon-possessed child asks if Jesus is able to help him (Mark 9:20-24). Jesus replies that "all things are possible to him who believes," and the father's famous retort is "I believe; help my unbelief!" This father feels the paradox and struggle inherent in faith, a predicament some youth find themselves in-wanting to believe, but reluctant to do so. As these excerpts illustrate, many organized religions recognize the impact of doubt and want to uphold individuals in their struggles with it.
Theologian Paul Tillich's (1957) classic, Dynamics of Faith, analyzes different kinds of doubt. The doubt integral to faith, Tillich claims, is existential doubt, the capacity to accept the uncertainty that comes with faith in the divine. Tillich insists that doubt is not the negation of faith but is always present in faith and that this faith has a distinct "in spite of," an uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with faith. Tillich's view may also help the teenager (and adult) realize that courage is needed to face doubt. Every spiritual journey has its high seasons and low seasons, and faith is marked not by certainty but by trust.
Psychologist Gordon Allport suggests adolescent doubt may be due to skepticism-not about the deeper meaning and lasting commitments of faith but many of the concrete behavioral expressions of faith, such as worship styles, rituals such as communion or prayers, and so on. Adults could take on the important task of helping teenagers understand this crucial distinction between the ultimate object of faith and its worldly, concrete forms.
Another classic, Stages of Faith by James Fowler (1981), asserts that the opposite of faith is not doubt but nihilism-profound despair and inability to envision any transcendent relationships. Fowler describes how doubt emerges. In late childhood, youth notice discrepancies between major accounts of truth (e.g., science and religion) and wonder about which is "right." Children also detect hypocrisy in the gap between what adults preach and practice. Later in adolescence, youth develop an "individuative-reflective" faith that is marked by questioning whether their beliefs are actually their own or mere holdovers from others (parents, congregations, peers). Thus, doubt helps youth outgrow their earlier "absorbed" faith. This "demythologizing" or stripping away of prior beliefs can cause anxiety, but the result is that the teen feels a personal ownership of the faith. In some cases, this new faith may indeed be the teen's "old" faith (of family or congregation); the key difference is that the teenager now takes personal responsibility for believing and being committed to it.
Several Canadian psychologists-Bruce Hunsberger, Michael Pratt, Mark Pancer, and others-have studied adolescent doubt. In one study of high school seniors, teens higher in religious doubt had parents low in warmth. Youth of such parents may feel alone and unsupported in their spiritual journey and thus be more inclined to doubt. In another study by Hunsberger and colleagues, teens and college students who had trouble forming a stable and committed identity were higher in doubt, whereas those with a foreclosed or premature identity had lower doubt. In the former groups, doubt seems linked to uncertainty over who they are; in the latter group, taking on an identity without sufficient exploration or questioning of beliefs seems to suppress doubting.