The Light of Doubt

Shawn Dawson

The first time doubt came into my mind, it was like a light shining in a dark place where I had long since mistaken shadows for reality. I was fourteen, alone, and in my room. I had come home after school, and I was praying to God about my sins of the day, as I did every day. Confessing and weeping, deploring myself, I sought that feeling of bliss that I associated with forgiveness. It had always come, but sometimes not until after long periods of self-debasement.

On that particular day, it didn’t come. As I knelt on the floor, suddenly a thought came to me unbidden. What if this was all made up? What if this was all in my own mind and the feeling of forgiveness was something I was only giving to myself? A doubt crept in from somewhere into my carefully constructed world. What if I was just deceiving myself? I could not dismiss the thought. Nothing was the same afterward.

I made it through the next few years, pretending to be a good Christian—by my evangelical understanding, which I now see as rather narrow—but hiding private doubts. An older man came up to me one day after church when I was in grade twelve. He said to be careful when I went off to university lest I be corrupted by the world and lose my faith. I mumbled something polite in return, but a part of me did not agree. What was he so afraid of? Some part of me wanted to know things beyond this narrow church, this small town, these cloistered beliefs.
I came to the University of Regina that fall, a small-town kid in the (relatively) big city. I loved it. I was an undistinguished student in big lecture halls, but I was on my own. I was free to be me, to try new things, to think for myself. I just needed space to unfold.

I stumbled upon philosophy in my first year. I needed a humanities course to get a computer-science degree, my declared major about which I was having major misgivings after two classes. Philosophy 100, that crazy class with a syllabus both outrageous and somehow intriguing, caught my eye. I don’t think I managed more than a decent mark in my introductory philosophy class, but it made its mark on me. Soon I was majoring in it, practicality be damned.

Twenty-six years later, I feel I know myself, partly due to the liberating effects of philosophy and science (discovered later) on my dogma. I have shed those religious claims I used to believe were untouchable. I now regard them as either highly unlikely to be true or too unclear in meaning to tell (depending on the particular case). I’ve shed almost all the guilt, too.

My personal philosophy is fairly simple. I must be responsible to myself and to the people in my life and on this planet. Life is what we make of it, and our loves and friendships, work and commitments, hopes and dreams make all the difference. There is no afterlife—no heaven, hell, or reincarnation—to give us false hope or fill us with false fears. However, there is meaning in this finite life, just as there is beauty in flowers, even though they last only a short while. I hope to make my mark—however small—do my best, love and be loved, and enjoy it while it lasts.

Shawn Dawson

Shawn Dawson is a humanist living in Canada. He is a contributing author to the anthology Voices of Humanism (edited by Gary Bauslaugh) and has been published in periodicals such as Free Inquiry, Humanist Perspectives, and Skeptic.

Philosophy and science overcame the strictures of my small-town religion.

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