E. Bednar’s recent comments disparaging doubt (in an innovative youth meeting with a Q&A) seem to imply a different definition of the word than most who experience doubt would use, as evidenced by some of the chatter about it. Why is that? Let’s explore what he and other church leaders might mean when they talk about doubt.
When Pres. Uchtdorf said “Before you doubt your faith, doubt your doubts,” he was clearly equating doubts with questions. He wasn’t saying questioning is bad, just that sometimes we make an assumption when we ask a question that the thing we are questioning is wrong. Just the presence of uncertainty makes you waver. It’s like someone being accused of a crime. If you watch Law & Order, a “person of interest” is immediately under suspicion, practically a perpetrator already. Did they do it? What was their motive? Sometimes just the idea that someone is being questioned is enough to make us think they are guilty. Likewise, some equate having a doubt with a thing being dubious or untrustworthy, regardless of the process doubt should entail: investigation, research, study, and in the case of faith, prayer. So his warning not to leap to assumptions when you have questions is a valid caution. What’s interesting about his admonition is that he is advocating going slowly, taking the time to question even your questions, not avoiding questions altogether. This is one way to view doubt.
Conversely, E. Bednar’s address implied that questions (theoretical and conceptual) are okay but doubts (that cause inaction or lack of confidence) are not. In other words, his message is in favor of action and trust, not necessarily the process of questioning assumptions. We should take action despite doubts and not let questions slow us in our purpose or cause us to stray from the path. E. Bednar would place obedience as a higher virtue than understanding. It’s similar to the rules given to soldiers in wartime. If you hesitate, you die. Follow orders or lives will be lost, your life or others’.
And maybe wartime vs. peacetime orders are the core distinction here. Some leaders (and scriptures) take a siege mentality. Our faith is under attack. Sometimes this attack is couched in literal terms: unseen forces or Satan or his minions are literally surrounding us trying to lead us astray, rejoicing in our failures. Others take a peacetime approach, referring to an individual spiritual quest of enlightenment, one of study, prayer, learning, and seeking; these are not things you can readily do when you are at war or under seige. While both of these perspectives have scriptural support, the framing of wartime or peacetime makes a big difference in how we live our lives and how we interpret gospel messages.
So how do we understand what various leaders mean when they say “doubt”? Here are some possible meanings based on how the term “doubt” has been used in General Conference talks over recent years:
- Doubt = disbelief / disagreement. Sometimes doubters on the down low call the things they don’t accept “doubts,” when this word is not an accurate reflection of their views. I don’t have doubts about polygamy being divine; I don’t believe it. I am not questioning it; I don’t accept it.
- Doubt = pessimism / cynicism. Some see doubters as the skeptics of the group, those who cynically criticize or who wallow in negativity. They see doubters as those with a half empty glass, focusing on loss rather than what they have.
- Doubt = lack of commitment / fortitude. This perspective sees doubters as armchair quarterbacks, too lazy to play the game, but instead content to call out criticisms from the sidelines. These folks are seen to be doubters of convenience, using doubt as justification to do whatever they want to do anyway (e.g. sin).
- Doubt = inaction / analysis paralysis. These are individuals who get stuck in their doubts. They can’t quit thinking about them, but they can’t decide what to do. They won’t tinkle or get off the potty.
- Doubt = distrust / paranoia. These are the tin foil hat conspiracy theorists, the crackpot doubters who chalk up to deception what could really be the fruit of incompetence.
- Doubt = questioning. Some, like Pres. Uchtdorf above, would characterize doubt as questioning things, wondering and exploring whether one’s assumptions are correct or not, and even being willing to question the assumption that assumptions are flawed. Most doubters would accept this definition also.
To avoid being pigeonholed, doubters can do the following:
- Don’t say “doubt” when it’s a disagreement. Overusing the word “doubt” is probably part of the problem.
- Embrace what faith you have or what you do know. Bear testimony of the things you do believe. Say “believe” instead of “know,” and say “hope” if you don’t feel comfortable with “believe.” Your sincerity and focus on what you have will help others see you as a seeker of truth, looking for value in your church experience.
- Participate freely in your congregation. Assist how you can. Demonstrate your commitment to the group and to living like a Mormon if you want to be counted as a Mormon.
- This one’s a tough one. Some leaders seem impatient for people to quit doubting, but others are more patient for the journey people travel. Go at the pace you need to go.
- Be skeptical of conspiracy theories or using terms like betrayal and deception unless you have more than a feeling of confusion due to faulty assumptions or discovering new information. Assume people, like you, have positive intent. If you discover otherwise, at least you will have been charitable.
- Questioning has been declared acceptable, so feel free to question. Which brings us to my next point.
Is church for answers or for questions? This depends on whom you ask. Many people join the church as converts because they feel like they got answers to life’s difficult questions. Many within the church embrace the message of the spooky “Follow the Prophet” song , interpreting it as doing what the prophet says (he has the answers) rather than doing what he does (he seeks revelation, setting the example for us, showing us the process). Working out your salvation with fear and trembling means that it is a process of becoming, not a set of answers to learn. And yet, it can be difficult to remember that week in and week out, hearing talks about obedience and following leaders or talks emphasizing that our answers are better than those offered in other religions. Wouldn’t it be great if we had better questions? 
Some of the negative connotations of the word “doubt” revolve around the question of authority. Doubt can also imply mistrust of leaders. And yet, relying on the authority of the church is a poor substitute for one’s personal quest for insight.
A few questions to consider:
- Which definition of doubt do you think is most common when church leaders discuss doubt?
- Is doubt really acceptable at church? Opinions seem to be divided.
- How would you recommend doubters avoid negative labeling?
- Which kinds of doubt do you experience? Do you doubt your doubts?
 Spooky = Fox News lyrics sung by children ending in a minor chord.
 Truth be told, we have a few better questions, but most of our questions are exactly the same as all religions, and so are a lot of our answers, more than we like to admit.