Doubt and skepticism are cousins, the kind of cousins who bear a family resemblance but not as close as siblings. Both are part of the uncertainty family. They’re the kind of cousins about whom a great aunt would comment, “My, you both look like your great-grandfather!”
Doubt is, at its base, not being certain of something. It is neither a negative nor positive—it’s simply a lack of knowledge. Doubt can go either way.
Skepticism is doubt with attitude. It is unsure of the facts or details but pretty sure that what it can’t see isn’t good. It brings its doubts to bear with bias and looks for confirmation of them.
All people doubt. That’s the nature of being finite and not knowing everything. We will inevitably and daily run into situations that raise questions and cause doubt. They will occur at work, at church, in our faith, in our relationships, in our own private thoughts. Some people, though, are more inclined toward skepticism. When the questions arise they bring with them a certain negativity, almost a pessimism, telling them that the answers won’t be what they want or maybe that the answers won’t be discoverable at all.
Such skepticism might be a product of nature, nurture, or both. It might just be an inclination, but most often it is an inherent inclination fostered by experiences of being disappointed. Skepticism usually has self-protective roots; it expects little because having high hopes leads to disappointment as often as not.
There are times when skepticism is beneficial because the world is full of things toward which we should not be trusting. But as a way of life, as a lens through which one views the world, is it beneficial?
Doubt too can be a positive thing because it raises questions and questions are how people learn. It can lead us deeper into truth. On the other hand, doubt can devolve into skepticism over time, especially when we face repeated frustration or disappointment.
What separates the healthy from the unhealthy, the good from the bad, in doubt and skepticism?
The Difference Maker
Curiosity makes the difference, of course.
Both doubt and skepticism are questioning mindsets. Curiosity, or a lack thereof, determines whether these questions are healthy or not. If questions stem from a desire to find truth, to learn, to see deeper things, then either the doubt or skepticism is going to be healthy.
However, skepticism must only be used sparingly. It ought not be the default point of view. It is one thing to be skeptical of something or someone because you have reason to believe they are untrustworthy. It is something else entirely, something insidious even, to be a skeptic. Curiosity can be skeptical, but a skeptic will have a nearly impossible time maintaining curiosity because skepticism has a predetermined outcome it expects. It is closed minded and has a difficult time accepting or even recognizing a different result.
This is why curiosity is so crucial. It turns our doubts into fuel for learning and discovering instead of seeds of fear or anger or bitterness. It softens our skepticism, even when it is justified, so that we can still find truth and goodness where it shows itself. And, since curiosity is the pursuit of truth, when skepticism is proven correct curiosity gets what it came for too.
This is an excerpt from Barnabas Piper’s forthcoming book The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life (B&H), due to be released in early 2017.
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