Experiencing spiritual doubt can be lonely, but according to a new study from Barna, it’s much more common than you think. Most Christians have at some point experienced a time of spiritual doubt when they questioned what they believed about their religion or God. But many make it through stronger for having faced their honest questions, especially when they have a community to guide them through it. So how pervasive is doubt, and what is the most common response to it? Whom do people turn to along the way—and how many make it through with their faith intact?
The Pervasiveness of Doubt
The comforting reality is that questioning what you believe about religion or God is commonplace for most American adults who self-identify as Christian (or have in the past) (65%). Just over one-quarter (26%) say they still experience spiritual doubt, while four in 10 (40%) say they have experienced it in the past but have worked through it. Only about one-third (35%) claim to have never experienced it at all. Even devout groups like practicing Christians (19%) still experience doubt, though perhaps because they are the most active in their faith practice and enjoy the support systems and resources of a church community, they are also one of the most likely groups to have worked through their doubt (42%).
Having come of age in a more secular and pluralist culture, Millennials (38%) currently experience about twice as much doubt as any of the other generational groups (23% Gen-Xers, 19% Boomers, 20% Elders). Men are also more likely than women to actively experience doubt (32% compared to 20% women). Those who have been through college and encountered an array of ideas, philosophies and worldviews are twice as likely to experience doubt as those who have a high school education or less (37% vs. 19%).
The Response to Doubt
Among those who either currently or previously experienced spiritual doubt, the most common response for about half of them (45%) was to leave their church or worship gatherings. This was also the most common activity to halt even among practicing Christians (36%) and regular churchgoers (33%). Three in 10 adults stopped reading the Bible (29%) and praying (29%), while another quarter (25%) quit talking with friends or family about spirituality, God or religion. Millennials were significantly more likely than other generations to stop doing all of the above, and at rates much higher than the general population. Facing spiritual doubt can also be a quiet experience; four in 10 doubters (39%) didn’t change anything in response to their doubt.
Though doubt may affect one’s spiritual routines, many refuse to sort through their questions alone. Four in 10 (40%) of those who experienced spiritual doubt went to their friends or family to find help or answers, and 19 percent found an ally in their spouse. The church remained a refuge for one in five doubters (22%), and a similar percentage (29%) turned to the scriptures for support.40% of those who experienced spiritual doubt turned to friends or family. Click To Tweet
Surprisingly, only 18 percent of spiritual doubters turned to their pastor or spiritual leader for answers, just before books on God, spirituality or religion (15%). The fact that so few would go to their spiritual leaders (or church, for that matter) may reflect the awkwardness of confiding in the individuals and institution that represent one’s questions, as well as the challenges that ministry leaders face to create safe spaces for doubt. Among practicing Christians, more than half (52%) would turn to scripture, 42% would turn to the church, and one in three (32%) would turn to a pastor or spiritual leader.
Other places doubters turned for help or answers include online resources (12%), a counselor (5%), a conference or retreat (4%). (One in five [20%] mention they had some other method of dealing with doubt.) Non-practicing Christians—those who profess a faith but do not actively attend church—sought answers primarily from friends and family (38%) or the Bible (25%), with very few turning back to the church (16%) or a pastor (12%).
The Consequences of Doubt
At the end of the day, spiritual doubt can be a powerful and formative experience, strengthening and bolstering faith. For more than half of those who have wrestled with doubt (53%), the time spent asking honest questions about what they believe about their religion or God made their faith stronger. For another three in 10 (28%) it had no effect at all. About one in 8 (12%) lost their faith entirely, small minority (7%) say they held on to a weakened version of their faith.
Among more devout groups who have experienced spiritual doubt, it overwhelmingly made their faith stronger. Almost all evangelicals (95%) say their time of doubt improved their faith, as well as a high number of practicing Christians (87%) and active church attenders (81%). For those without the support of a robust spiritual community, however, doubt can take its toll. For instance, of those who self-identified as Christian but did not attend church (unchurched), only one-third (34%) came out the other side of spiritual doubt feeling their faith had been reinforced. This unchurched group also report the highest percentage of those claiming to have lost their faith entirely (20%). A sense of solidarity at home can also be important during a faith crisis: Both married adults (57%) and parents of children under 18 (68%) report higher rates of a strengthened faith post-doubt (compared to 49% single, 45% no kids under 18), as well as lower rates of a lost faith (9% and 6%, respectively) than those who were single (15%) or did not have children under 18 (15%). It’s obvious that relationships provide emotional and spiritual footing when belief is under pressure, helping many become stronger for having experienced it.
What the Research Means
“Spiritual doubt has been a reality of the Christian journey since the disciples—and today is no different,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief of Barna Group. “Just like first century Christians, their twenty-first century counterparts question aspects of their theology, doubt the existence of God and mourn his seeming absence during hard times. Doubt remains a flip side on the same coin as faith. For the majority of Christians, this inevitable doubt is a catalyst to spiritual growth.
“This should lead pastors and spiritual mentors to view seasons of spiritual doubt in their constituents as fertile soil—not as dangerous ground,” notes Stone. “The challenge here for leaders is that people experiencing doubt have a tendency to withdraw from Christian institutions and practices: church, Scripture, prayer, their pastor. Much of the journey through spiritual doubt, then, falls on their closest relationships: spouses, friends, family. How can pastors equip Christians to walk with their friends and family through seasons of doubt? How can churches institute closer, mentor-like relationships that can persist even when people pull out of other formal Christian community?”
“This challenge is particularly true for Millennials,” points out Stone. “Their attachments to Christian institutions and relationships are already more tenuous. They are less likely to attend church and less likely to have Christian friends and family—especially nearby. When they go through periods of doubt, and naturally withdraw from Christian practices and church community, they have fewer built-in Christian relationships to support them and point them back. Even the ‘peer pressure’ of having friends and family who are still attending church, praying or reading scripture, just aren’t as present for Millennials. It is easier, then, for them to fully disconnect. Yet, as we can see from the data, staying connected to people of faith (whether through church or intimate relationships), is key to coming out the other side of a time of doubt with your faith intact—or stronger.”
About the Research
The research in this report was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,015 U.S. adults, ages 18 and older. The survey was conducted online between June 5-9, 2017. Self-identified Christians and past Christians comprise 888 respondents. The error rate associated with a sample size of 888 interviews is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2017
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