Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Religious Doubt and Identity Formation: Salient Predictors of Adolescent Religious Doubt

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Religious Doubt and Identity Formation: Salient Predictors of Adolescent Religious Doubt

Article excerpt

Different ideological perspectives about religious doubt spawn controversy and confusion among some Christians. Typically misunderstood as unbelief, doubt is often characterized as dangerous if not outright prohibited by Scripture. As this study demonstrates, comprehending religious doubt through the lens of Marcia's ego identity statuses offers a more nuanced understanding of the cognitive phenomenon. Multiple regression analyses of survey data from 604 religious adolescents revealed identity moratorium, identity achievement, and doctrinal uncertainties are positive predictors of doubt while identity foreclosure, identity diffusion, and religious satisfaction are negative predictors. Implications from the findings relevant to Erikson and Batson's theories are discussed along with practical applications for those in the church community working with youth.


Over the past thirty years, a broad base of knowledge about religious doubt has accumulated. Yet, this phenomenon in human cognition remains a controversial and confusing topic among many Christians (Guinness, 1976; McLaren, 2003).

Some of the misunderstanding about religious doubt can be eliminated by taking into account the identity status of doubters and their unique experiences with identity formation. More specifically, Marcia's ego-identity statuses can function as an interpretative lens assisting interested persons in comprehending religious doubt and coping with it.

Unfortunately, the relationship between religious doubt and identity statuses has been understudied. The following discussion exposes aspects of the controversy and confusion associated with doubt among Christians and presents a rationale for and outcomes from a multiple regression study with religious adolescents on the doubt-identity relationship.

A Controversial Phenomenon

Beck (1990) contended, "Doubt is an integral part of each person's belief system" (p. 327). Any contact with reality creates contact with doubtable ideas (Newbigin, 1995). However, some Christians perceive doubt as a significant threat functioning as a usurper or enemy of the faith and entailing risky, dangerous, and destructive thinking. Lucado (1989) described doubt as an obnoxious pest, a "nosey neighbor," which must be barred or prohibited from the mind and soul. Buchanan (2000) likened doubt as a cancer burning and mutating healthy beliefs, a carcinoma with an insatiable appetite consuming like quicksand and uncomforted by evidence. Moreover, Darmani (2002) considered doubt as a demonic weapon striking in the vulnerable moments of life and creating a disturbing restlessness within the human heart.

Other religious adherents embrace doubt. They regard it as a universal experience germinated from human finitude and a necessity for faith maturation and its transitional experiences (Fowler, 1996; Halfaer, 1972; Parks, 2000; Tillich, 1957). Instead of an adversarial role, some evangelicals view doubt as a valuable aspect of mental life encouraging authenticity with God. Geering (1997) argued doubt is not the rival of faith, but a foe of false beliefs. Webber (2002) identified a new generation within the church, 'the younger evangelicals,' and noted they expect theological and biblical thought to be "lively [and] controversial," because they are not afraid to "question, push, and challenge" (p. 168). Moreover, Jones (2001) profiled Christian post-moderns as persons who deconstruct the known by questioning everything, assuming nothing, and taking nothing for granted, habits which often lead them to be skeptical and cynical.

A Confusing Phenomenon

Along with being controversial, religious doubt is often confused with other mental processes (Beck, 1990). Unbelief is one of those phenomena. For instance, in John 20, Thomas was confronted with a report from his companions about their encounter with the resurrected Messiah (v. 25a). The common interpretation of his reaction is that he doubted. …

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