I grew up in a devout Roman Catholic household. My childhood was laced with Cathechism classes, Sunday masses, rosaries, novenas, lenten fasts, and a Friday ritual of tuna salad—the only fish dish my family would eat. I often hear lapsed Catholics talk about the church with rage, but my experience was positive. It filled my childhood with so much awe, hope, and comfort that after mass on Sunday morning, I would play mass, forcing my younger sister to be the sole parishioner, while I was the world’s first girl priest.
Although my loss of faith must have been gradual, I remember it as happening at a specific time on a specific day. I was daydreaming in class. I was thinking about John Kennedy, who had recently died. I was imagining him in Heaven (which was surely where he was residing, a good Catholic man), and I was mulling the idea of the afterlife and how all the good people would live forever, and awful things like Kennedy’s assassination wouldn’t happen any longer, when a question rang in my mind, like a tiny, clear bell: What if it’s not true? What if all of it—the resurrection, the Eucharist, Heaven, even God himself—is made up, like Santa and Snow White? The question was as painful and undeniable as an electric shock. I was thirteen, and everything in my life changed.
I fought with doubt for a long time. Belief was so much safer than uncertainty, so much more reassuring. The idea that there might not be a god made me lonely and despairing. I didn’t want to lose the attractive trappings of religious ritual and ceremony. And the thought that death might be the end of everything was unspeakable. And yet, there was another voice that kept telling me this: You can’t believe something just because you want to.
Those two opposing forces—the desire to believe and the refusal to believe for no reason—led me on a search. While still in high school, I read book after book about different spiritual traditions. I started exploring philosophy. My lifelong fascination with science deepened. Naturally, my adolescent comprehension was limited, but my hunger for understanding was intense.
From that point in my life, I’ve explored the world with a kind of wide-eyed wonder that I never would have experienced had I not questioned what I grew up with. Instead of settling into a comfortable, familiar faith, I’ve found myself questioning, curious, and perpetually surprised at what I discovered in the world.
Something else changed in my life then: I became impatient with people who have no doubt. I’m certainly not annoyed with people who follow different spiritual paths from my own: I see value and beauty in virtually all faiths, and in atheism, too. But I don’t understand people who never question their beliefs. Who accept them wholesale and without hesitation.
Oddly, the unwillingness to question seems especially true on both extremes of the faith continuum. I know deeply religious people who have been taught that doubt is an indication of evil—or at least weakness. Yet, I have met atheists who are equally unwilling to question their own assumptions, even though atheism is supposed to be built on reason, and reason requires doubt, demands it.
To me, uncertainty is a sign not of evil or of ignorance, but of openness, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to change and grow. Far from a weakness, doubt is one of the greatest strengths we have. It makes us approach the world with our eyes open and everything on the table. It allows us to imagine fresh possibilities. It increases our tolerance of the beliefs of others. No, uncertainty is not a cozy place to be, but it’s a place of great adventure. You could call it a form of grace.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...