Anne Lamott rather famously wrote, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty” (Plan B: Further thoughts on faith). I have liked this quote from my first encounter with it. It just seems right. (See “How can you be so certain?”)
Then this weekend, I watched a brief video on the Dunning Kruger Effect and began to understand that not only is doubt not the opposite of faith, it may be a sign of growth.
That’s an encouraging thought to any who have found themselves struggling with a faith about which they used to be so sure.
Dunning Kruger Effect
The Dunning Kruger Effect is the observation that people with low ability at a task tend to overestimate themselves. Think of those early American Idol episodes where very confident singers preform cringe-worthy auditions. When the judges tell the truth, they often are so blinded by Dunning Kruger that they defend their ability and question the judges ability to observe talent.
“How could they think they can sing?,” we ask from the couch. The answer: the Dunning Kruger Effect.
Certainty to doubt to mastery
The chart on the right, similar to the one on the video, offers a graphic representation of one’s confidence in relationship to their competence.
With little experience or knowledge of the skill/topic, our confidence is high. We tend to believe that our knowledge is all there is about the topic. We don’t know what we don’t know.
When we continue to study, we encounter the complexity of the topic or task. That can shake our confidence. The video reports that many people stop here. We give up.
If we keep studying, however, and gain a level of mastery of the topic/task, our confidence returns but in a different way. Our understanding of the complexity of the topic may cause us to answer with reservations—knowing there are others who may think differently or the ability to see the topic from a variety of angles.
Theological Dunning Kruger
Applying Dunning Kruger to our faith, we see that doubts are not necessarily a sign of a weak faith. Instead, they may be a sign that we are moving forward in competence of thought.
For example, when one begins to think deeply about faith, questions arise, and frankly, they can be frightening. We think things we’re afraid to say aloud:
- How does that work?
- Does that make sense?
- What about other people?
- I’m not sure I like that.
- I am sure I don’t understand that.
- … and more.
We don’t have immediate answers to those questions, and simple answers that used to satisfy, don’t anymore. Through study and reflection, we begin to know what we don’t know and our confidence in our understanding can be shaken.
But that lack of confidence may be a sign we’re growing. If we truly want to understand our faith, we must continue to confront the questions.
Don’t stop. Keep thinking, asking and growing. If we don’t give up, there may be better answers ahead.
Of course, there is a possibility I am experiencing a theological Dunning Kruger Effect and have had a simple sense of confidence throughout this writing.