Doubting Kenneth

(I’m writing this first part last.

I just want to say that the opinions expressed herein are my own. I’m not looking to diss your own opinions or anything.  Quite the opposite, your opinions are great... No, really, they are.)

Prince played Dublin last week.  I didn’t go.  I’d seen him in Wembley Arena in the Eighties and thought it was brilliant.  That’ll do for me. 

This isn’t about Prince, though, not after this first bit.  It’s about something a DJ said about him on the radio last weekend.

The DJ said something like, “If you live in the vicinity of the hotel where Prince is staying, don’t be too surprised to get a knock on your door Sunday morning and find him standing there…”  Prince, you see, is a Jehovah's Witness and, as such, is required to engage in door-to-door preaching from time to time.

This throw-away line got me thinking…

When people call to my door, evangelising, I am usually polite and a tiny bit receptive.  I tend to respect people’s beliefs and their right to hold them and if that requires them speaking to me for a few minutes then I can bear that, within reason.  These bright, polite, doorstep conversations are usually quite short.  I may be a nice guy but you don’t have to talk to me for too long before you realise that, if you want to convert me to your way of thinking, you better be coming with some cold-hard facts.  That’s why the Jehovah’s Witnesses will probably leave my door tut-tutting and saying, “Nice Guy, ‘pity we could do nothing for him.”

There is a basic problem with converting people to your own choice of religion.  Basically it boils down to Faith.  None of the religions of the world, as far as I know, are rolling up to your door with a series of Facts and a big book of Knowledge.  No.  They deal in ancient scriptures and writings or what I like to call ‘Hearsay’.  Religious people fear that word – Hearsay – so much so that they converted it into another word ‘Heresy’.  They will tend to throw this word at you if you try to speak about Hearsay with them.

This brings me to the crux of today’s matter,  ‘My Pet Hate’.  If you come to my door wishing to discuss your beliefs, I may give you a few minutes.  You’re a person and I am interested in people and what they think.



If you come to my door and tell me you ‘Know’ stuff - that your particular branch of ‘Creed’ is the ‘Proven Way’ and that your belief springs only from certain-knowledge and fact – well then you are in trouble, my friend.  There is no knowledge in religion.  That’s why it’s religion and not science.

It’s all about Faith, isn’t it?  And the reason it’s all about Faith is that there isn’t any proof of anything.  God.  The Afterlife.  Whatever Particular Paradise you Picture.  There is no proof.  As George Michael succinctly put it, “You Gotta have Faith’.

This is where many people will differ with me.  Because, when you have Faith – real honest Faith – it is almost impossible to distinguish your Faith from Knowledge and Certainty.  It is in the very nature of Faith that, when you’ve got it, you’ve got it, and it is by its very nature quite unshakeable.  Knowledge is something which can be imparted from one person to another.  Faith, I believe, can not. 

I worry that I might be wrong on this point.  There is obviously much knowledge in the world which cannot be imparted to me.  Stuff like Quantum Physics and High Mathematics.  The knowledge is there, I’m just not smart enough to get it.  Perhaps religion is like that.  Maybe the people with faith are smarter in that way than I am, maybe it’s all there and I’m just not bright enough to know it.

I don’t really think this is the case but I accept it as a possibility.

I feel I can speak about faith like this because I had some of it once and now I don’t.  I think that qualifies me, at least a bit, to hold an opinion.

When I was young, I lived in a reasonably faith-full environment.  There was lots of well meaning conditioning and reaffirmation of the chosen credo.  It wasn’t brain-washing (I think) and it brought great benefits – a strong moral compass, a comfort in times of grief, a community to exist within.

When we learned about the Bible, the Apostle Thomas often came across as a figure of faint disdain.  When Jesus came back from the dead, Thomas was the one who wouldn’t believe a bloody word of it.

“Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-29).

Doubting Thomas was a bit of an eejit, as far as our teachers were concerned.  He couldn’t just have faith, he couldn’t just believe.  He had to be shown, he had to have proof.  And, lucky old Doubting Thomas, ‘cos, in that particular story, he got his proof.  If I got a bit of the proof that Doubting Thomas got, I’d have to change my way of thinking, wouldn’t I?

So that’s me, that is.  ‘Doubting Kenneth’… well, ‘Disbelieving Kenneth’ if we want to be straight about it.  I have no faith except the tattered remnants of the implants of my youth and, God knows, I can envy people who do have faith.  So long as they don’t let it twist them and make them feel aloof, it’s a wonderful thing to have.  And I mean that, I really do.

Finally, on this, I think that faith is a choice we can make, to a certain extent.  If you want to have it, then you simply have to decide to have it.  Nobody showing up at your door can give it to you, or take it away for that matter.  So maybe someday I will have faith again.  Most likely somebody will die and I will adopt faith as a tool to enable me to believe I will see them again some fine day.  Although… you can see how bloody cynical I am so perhaps the possibility of faith has now passed from me altogether.

I guess I’ll shuffle on as I am, Doubting Kenneth.  If you come to my door and tell me what you believe, I’ll give you a few minutes of my time.

Just don’t try to tell me what you know.

Don’t do that.


hope said...

I often feel torn about this: I do have faith, yet I don't trust organized religion any more. Churches have grown to believe they ARE God and that's just not my humble opinion. The thing is, my faith is just that...mine. I don't preach to anyone, which by organized religion standards, makes me not as good as I should be.


I no longer open my door to Jehovah's Witnesses because of a simply exchange that had me stating, "If I believe in God, what difference does it make if I talk to Him my way instead of yours?" They told me I was just wrong. And that's why Doubting People are born.

I have faith based on the Golden Rule and by that rule alone, I think you're a fine gentleman. (I'd add and a scholar but we both seem to suffer from the same educational lack of skills..math, yuck!) :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Dick Jones has had the Witnesses at his door again and, a lot like you and I, he gives them the time of day – let’s face it, it’s a soul-destroying job knocking on people’s doors and trying to sell them religion – but I was interested in something one of them said to him before they left: “How do manage to live from day to day without belief?” It’s a fair question and here’s what I said in my comment:

I found belief – or at least trying to believe – took so much effort that when I stopped I felt unburdened. The Bible talks about us each having to shoulder our own loads but that we nevertheless can still help with the burden of others but I never found that ‘the Truth’, to use the Witnesses’ own euphemism for their faith, set me free. All religions – even the Witnesses – are based on fear. Their own translation of the bible says, "The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom." (Psalm 111:10) Yes, it is a respectful fear, but fear is still fear whatever way you look at it. I have a similar poem to yours:


     The distance
     between belief
     and disbelief
     is not great;
     they could almost
     be mistaken
     for the same place.

     The journey
     can take a while
     and most will stand
     at the border
     afraid to cross
     over for an

     Me? I sit
     on the fence and
     watch the traffic
     go to and fro
     day in, day out.
     I suppose it's
     the cat in me.

     15 January 2003

Now, as much as it can be irritating to get that knock on the door you do have to respect the courage of their convictions but what puzzles me is why I’m not getting knocks on the doors from all the other denominations and sects. I’ve had Mormons and Baptists (once) and that’s it. If I read a good book I tell people about it. I don’t see any difference with the good book. There can only be one truth and, again, I don’t get why all other religions don’t talk about being ‘in the truth’ (another Witness euphemism) and wanting to share that truth.

As far as I’m concerned – and as far as the Witnesses are concerned – Doubting Thomas had the right idea. They’re big on proof which is why they back everything up with a scripture since they believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and the more they study it the more solid the bedrock of their faith becomes. All Thomas was looking for was tangible evidence. Once he got it he believed. And in that respect someone knocking at your door can change your views on the world. Apart from those born to Witness parents the majority of Witnesses received a knock on their door, accepted a free bible study and acquired faith.

The name of my blog, along with its tag line, is actually a philosophical stance, not just a cool title. I don’t believe any of us are capable of accurately communicating the truth – assuming we have it – to any other person. I lie constantly. I’m lying just now. I tell my wife I love her and she assumes one thing when I mean something else. I accept that. I don’t fret about trying to ensure that my definition of love and her interpretation of love line up. She gets the idea.

I don’t argue with the Witnesses as far as doctrine goes because I’ve seen them prove their points and frankly I don’t care. The whole point of them coming to my door is to present me with an opportunity. They’ve proved their faith by works, my blood is not on their hands. I could ask them not to call again – they’ll do that if you ask, make a note of your address – but that will only reduce the number of visits because they’ll still check on you periodically to see if you’ve changed your mind or perhaps moved.

Art Durkee said...

Are you sure that you know what you know? I'd never try to get you to share my beliefs, because my beliefs don't require anyone to share them.

When the evangelistas come to my door, I smile politely and firmly and tell them, "No thank you, I'm Buddhist." They smile and politely go away, and don't come back. In other words, I leave them no room for entry, no hint of possible conversion, so they don't waste my time and I don't waste theirs.

Not to be picky, and theologians and psychologists (and I) disagree with you on your fundamental assumptions: unshakeable faith is actually a sign of psychosis, or fanaticism. (cf. Eric Hoffer, "The True Believer")

Real faith is tested, and sometimes goes dark, and then might be renewed on a deeper level. Faith only means something if one passes through doubt, and finds a way to renew faith despite the doubts. The doubts don't go away, but to have faith means to acknowledge doubt and yet not be ruined by it. Real faith is NOT utter certainty, but clarity despite being mired in doubts.

Furthermore, "knowing" and "believing" and "having faith" are not the same thing. Most people think they are, but then most people think "faith" is something other than what it really is. Belief is more mental and intellectual than visceral; faith tends to be more visceral than intellectual, because it's been won by passage through experience. Knowing, which you ascribe here to science rather than to religion, which to be honest is a classic error, is knowledge based on experiment and fact.

If for example you were to ask most tribal shaman what they knew and what they believed, most would say they believed nothing but that their direct experience in spiritual matters means that they know certain things to be utterly true. Shamans tend to know things the way psychologists know things: through observation, experience, and interaction. Shamans don't have "faith," they don't "believe in" anything, they just know what they know, and don't worry about the rest. Shamanism is practical spiritual technology. (cf. Mircea Eliade, "Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy," and Joan Halifax, "The Fruitful Darkness")

The deepest faith is often the result of a "dark night of the soul" experience. (cf. St. John of the Cross, not to mention many of the other mystics) The dark night is when it feels like everything you had faith in, everything you believe in, has been taken away, and you feel completely cut off and isolated from the Divine (by whatever name you use for that), and abandoned. When you emerge from the dark night, you don't suddenly have a conversion experience and collapse into normative ideas about faith, religion, and the false dichotomy between those and science. You don't take on the old ideas. You tend to start over from scratch, and base your beliefs and your faith on whatever experience you had in the dark night. This is called the via negativa, the negative way, and is well known to yield up people who emerge from the dark night with quiet, deeply-held knowing and faith, who have abandoned most of what they were taught to believe. (cf. Matthew Fox, "Original Blessing")

I could go on, speaking from my own experience, and citing more resources, but one thing I've noticed is that unbelievers have as strong a sense of faith in their unbelief as do believers. Indeed, I've met as many atheists who've tried to convert me to their beliefs as I have faith-holding evangelistas. The psychological parallels are often quite compelling.

William Gallagher said...

I've knocked on doors: I once sold encyclopaedias door to door. But when I mean once, I mean once: I did it for a day as part of a feature on the (then) move to encyclopaedias on CD-ROM.

So maybe it's that, but when I get Witnesses at the door I'm cheery and appreciative of what it takes to knock. They have zero chance of even beginning to convert me when years of school and family failed to get Catholicism to set, but I'm so friendly they seem to go away happy even though they know I am going to hell.


I did have faith at school, though I find it very hard to admit that to myself now. I think I lost my faith - and you notice I automatically say I lost that rather than I gained something else - when I went to college and there were all these people with all these ideas. I'm into people, I'm not into gods.

But speaking of religion and faith and Ken Armstrong writing stuff, have you seen this?

I got a bit bored: it's not as well-written a piece but the coincidence of the writer and the topic and being published this weekend caught my eye.

Acadia said...

It must suck to try to help people who don't want to be helped. Like, I'm not saying it would BE help. I have no idea. But they think it is. And they keep failing.

I think I should hire them for sales!

Sharon Longworth said...

My first visit to your blog, and it was great to get caught up in a properly thought-provoking piece.
I spent years going to church, taking my children every week, going through all the rituals, but I never had, nor found, faith and after a while it was the feeling of hypocrisy that stopped me going.
More lately I realise that what I got from going to church was a feeling of belonging, of being part of something, knowing the rituals, knowing what to do. Church makes that so much easier than general society.
I still sometimes wonder how many of the congregation felt as I did, I wonder what percentage would still attend if the priest told them it didn't matter about the god bit...

Laura Cousins said...

Like William said: "I'm into people, not gods."

Ken Armstrong said...

Hope: The Golden Rule is a very fine rule indeed. I think if we stick to that, we can't go too far wrong. If there's some malevolent god waiting at the end of my line, who required me to wave incense and knock on doors, then it was never really going to work out. :)

Jim: Interesting that the Witnesses have proved their points at the door. I don't think anybody has any tangible evidence outside of words. For someone who loves words as I do, I seem to put very little stock in them.

Art: You're better at this than I am, I can tell. :) I think your point about real faith being an uneven and rather variable thing. Perhaps I have a little more than I allow myself. These Shamans 'knowing what they know' are the root of the problem for me. I don't begrudge their knowing, which is hard-earned, but I don't believe it either, simply because I do not know, it's a cyclical quandary of sorts.

William: As Laura (below) has identified, your sentiment that you are into people and not into gods is succinct and very fine. Keep that one.

Acadia: My favorite religous discussions start with 'It must suck...' you are, as ever, the finger on the pulse.

Sharon: Welcome, and thanks. I veer from the trivial to the less trivial quite alarmingly. :) I think once only has to glance around at a typical congregation to see how many are present out of a sense of fear or duty rather than anything higher. I pity the priest/minister who has to look out on that sea of faces.

Laura: William is The Man. Perhaps we should follow him... :)

Claire Boyles said...


There are so many things that are going through my brain after reading this...

I have a deep faith, in that I believe there is a God, and I pray to that God.

I am not religious though, I haven't yet found a religion that fits with my experience of God & spirituality, in fact I have a suspicion that I might just create my own religion at some point.

But what is interesting is that I don't often talk about my faith. I am somewhat afraid to do so, because there is so much judgement against religion, and religious people.

It's similar about my drinking, or complete absence thereof- I don't drink alcohol, at all, yet when I do tell people that I invariably get judged. People categorise me into a box where I'm not trusted.

So here I am, saying out loud- I have a faith in a God, I seek to improve my conscious contact with that God because by doing so I connect to a deeper truth about myself, about what's right and healthy and loving for me, and when I do that, I hope I have a more positive influence on those around me.

Ken Armstrong said...

Hi Claire thank you for reflecting and coming back with this comment which is very valuable.

in the post above there's a link in the words 'envy people who have faith'. I think the story those words link to best describe my response to your words which could possibly be summarised as 'I envy you'.