Braving the Borderlands: Crisis of Faith vs. Crisis of Belief

By D. Jeff Burton



Or right-click here to download the audio file: “Crisis of Faith vs. Crisis of Belief”



Articles, podcasts, blog posts, and books about the “faith crisis” phenomenon have abounded during the past few years, providing Borderlanders with a lot of interesting material to consider.1 Reading through these offerings, I’ve noticed how often we assume that everyone has similar understandings of terms such as faith, belief, doubt, knowing, and knowledge. However, these words can mean very different things in various contexts, which can lead to confusion when we try to talk about these issues. Do faith and belief mean the same thing? Is the opposite of faith really doubt? Most importantly, what does “crisis of faith” really mean? This column will address these questions.

Four books that have stood out to me most in the faith crisis genre are The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith, Terryl and Fiona Givens (Deseret Book, 2014; 168 pages); Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis: A Simple Developmental Map, Thomas Wirthlin McConkie (Sun Print Solutions, 2015; 161 pages); When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality of Life, Jon Ogden (CreateSpace, 2016; 170 pages); and Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, Patrick Q. Mason (Deseret Book, 2015; 215 pages).

The Crucible of Doubt is by a pair of writers and academics specializing in English literature. The book is well researched and replete with familiar quotations from poets, writers, and the scriptures. Published by Deseret Book, it contains apologetic and defensive approaches to various issues that trouble Mormons, but it also offers independent, thoughtful suggestions.

Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis will be understood most easily by readers who have some familiarity with the science and philosophy of adult development. A faculty member at Pacific Integral (an institution conducting research and developing theory on “Adult Stages of Development”), McConkie describes five potential stages of adult development, each of which presents different problems and solutions related to beliefs, doubts, and faith crises. The stages include Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Individualist, and Strategist. Each is explained in such as way that you will likely be able to identify yourself and others in one or more of them.

When Mormons Doubt, written by a BYU graduate in the field of “Methods of Civil Discourse,” suggests that a patient, structured, consistent search for Plato’s truth, beauty, and goodness can help alleviate problems associated with doubting. (Crucible suggests a similar approach.) Of the four books, this is the most personal, and my favorite.

Planted suggests managing a crisis of faith through various methods such as simplifying your personal religion, creatively working out problems, being anxiously engaged, creating spaces of inclusion, and determining what you value most.

So, what might these authors mean when they use terms such as faith, belief, disbelief, doubt, knowing, and knowledge? How does one even define a “crisis of faith”? Looking into how these words have been used historically and how they have evolved to the present day can help us use them more constructively—especially when considering this important subject.

For centuries, it has been common for English language scriptures, religious texts, and discussants to use the terms faith and belief somewhat interchangeably—both the natural result of learning spiritual truth. However, with the effect of scientific discourse on our language, these two terms have since come to have distinct, mutually exclusive meanings.2

Belief has come to mean a mental or intellectual state that tells us something is true because of experience, information, evidence, or authority. For example, if we flip a balanced coin fifty times and tabulate the number of times it comes down heads or tails, we are likely to come to believe from the evidence that each side will come up about equally. The evidence of 5000 flips will strengthen our belief to the point where we would be willing to say that they come up equally.

We modify, verify, strengthen, weaken, and test our beliefs using the day-by-day information our personal experiences supply. In fact, we can even measure the strength of various beliefs. Consider, for example, the scale below. It is calibrated from zero to ten. Five represents no belief, opinion, or knowledge; ten represents positive knowledge (“I’m sure it is correct.”); and zero represents negative knowledge (“I definitely know it is not correct.”) The numbers in between represent strengths of belief, disbelief, or doubt.

Take the test below. Where does your belief fall for each statement? Answers are provided at the end of the text.


Now take a look at the answers at the bottom of this post. Do any of them surprise you?

There are five lessons to be learned from this exercise. First, belief is not necessarily perfect knowledge. (It’s likely that not all of your answers were either zero or ten.) Second, you may not have sufficient experience, education, or information to have formed a belief about a particular matter or, at best, you can have only weak belief. (For example, could you answer question two?) Third, your beliefs may be in error. (Was your answer to question one correct?) Fourth, not all questions have concrete evidence or data sufficient to provide an intellectual answer. (See question four.) In this case, belief must be based on other forms of “evidence,” such as inspiration, intuition, and feelings. Fifth, some answers will rely on a combination of belief and faith even if you don’t realize it. For example, if you’re feeling a bit fuzzy about a calculus concept, you may have to decide to just trust (have faith in) your memory of it.

Faith. Though faith has many meanings (i.e. a synonym for religion or loyalty), in this context it is most constructively understood as a willingness to accept an idea in the absence of hard evidence. In other words, belief is learned from experience and evidence, but faith is a perception that there is evidence and experience yet to be gained. In this sense, faith can even be a motivator of scientific research. A scientist, grounded in the faith that nature is ordered in a rational and measureable way, may have additional faith that an untested hypothesis will turn out in a particular way, even if it flies in the face of current views. In pursuing confirming evidence, the scientist is expressing his or her faith in science generally.

Similarly, we may question aspects of our religion, but by doing so show our faith in the gospel generally. Having doubts in our minds in no way precludes having faith in our hearts. Having faith implies making a bridge between what we know (or believe) now and what we may know (or believe) in the future. For example, we may believe from personal experience (e.g., evidence) that following the teachings of the Book of Mormon has brought us closer to God, and this may lead us to have faith that the whole book is true.

Doubt and disbelief. The older, religious meanings of doubt are to distrust and to reject. It is associated with what religion considers the most negative of human traits—the rejection of God’s existence and goodness. However, in its modern, constructive sense, doubt means to be unsettled in belief or opinion, to be uncertain or undecided. It implies not antagonism toward a concept, but a simple lack of information or evidence upon which to base a belief. According to this usage, doubt is an inevitable consequence of a maturing, inquiring mind; thus doubt should not be denied, but managed, as it can be quite helpful in our search for truth. (The commandment to “doubt not” uses the older meaning of the term.)

Every LDS person is prone to occasional religious uncertainties, questions, and doubts of varying intensities. In some sad cases, those who try to repress these natural occurrences in order to maintain an image of certainty settle for the appearance of being a believer rather than for its actuality. We should avoid this outcome.

Questions. Questions are the delightful offspring of doubt. They reveal that you have a desire to expand the data base upon which your beliefs are built. They represent an opportunity to exercise faith, and, as long as they don’t become accusatory (i.e. “Why did you lie to me about Joseph Smith’s polygamy?”), they can be very constructive.

Knowledge and to know. In a modern, personal, and intellectual sense, “to know” is to apprehend something as a result of study, experience, reasoning, or evidence. It is based on familiarity with, or awareness of, facts and evidence. But remember that in this life nothing can be known perfectly—only with degrees of confidence. Though science has developed elaborate methods for testing, verifying, and strengthening the evidence upon which beliefs and knowledge are based, it does not claim perfect knowledge—and, when it’s being honest, neither does religion.

One source of “evidence” is the voice of authority, especially in religious settings. For example, if our math professor (the one with the Ph.D. in math) teaches that a number divided by zero is infinity, we likely believe him. And if our parents told us that God answers prayers, their authority would give us the motivation to try it. Then, when we prayed, we might receive evidence, however subjective, supporting their claims. Many of us may have come to “know” by this method that God answers prayers. In the Church we have “general authorities,” and many members take their pronouncements as “gospel.”

Depending on the person and the subject, it takes more or less evidence to graduate a belief to the status of “knowledge.” For example, most of us would be willing to say that we “know” Joseph Smith was born in 1805. The historical evidence is, after all, pretty solid. But was he a prophet? Did God appear to him? The evidence for these claims is of a subjective kind, built of inspiration, feelings, emotions, or trust in our leaders’ authority. Faith would point us in the direction of further investigating the claim, making room for different kinds of evidence.

Crisis is related to a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger necessitating difficult or important decisions. Synonyms could include: emergency, disaster, calamity, a crossroads, and a critical time.

Given this definitional background and context, what does “crisis of faith” mean?

We’ve already seen that “faith” is often used to mean both faith and belief, but we’ve disentangled these two words. So let’s analyze the phrase using one and then the other.

A crisis of belief would be a time when your beliefs obviously no longer make sense of current evidence. But since beliefs and evidence constantly mismatch in small ways, a “crisis” implies that the beliefs being challenged are foundational, perhaps affecting your behavior patterns, relationships, or life philosophy. For example, if the evidence seems to suggest that your belief in God is misguided, then you’ll likely assume that answers to prayer, healings, and divine assistance are no longer available to you. If these had been a large part of your life until this point, this could be the source of a crisis.

A crisis of faith would be much different—it means that you feel it is not even worth pursuing the questions a crisis of belief brings up. Your vision of the usefulness of any knowledge you might gain further down this particular path has disappeared. Along this same line, Boyd J. Petersen has suggested that a crisis of faith could also mean a crisis of confidence, or a crisis of credibility.3 Your hope that something good can be found has vanished. This may be what Proverbs 29:18 means when it says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A true crisis of faith is exponentially deeper than a crisis of belief—though a crisis of belief can lead to a crisis of faith.

It seems to me that the majority of “crises of faith” Mormons go through are in fact crises of belief—belief and data are not matching up. This kind of crisis may lead someone in any direction, including in to or out of the Church (certainly many conversion stories start with a missionary meeting someone who is having a crisis of belief), but these crises leave intact the feeling that pursuing a particular path will lead somewhere constructive. In other words, if you are encountering questions or periods of doubt, or if you find your degrees of belief fluctuating as new evidence and experience roll in, welcome to the club. Everyone in the Church experiences that. (Whether they’re willing to talk about it is another matter.)

“Crises of faith” seem to me to have little to do with modern belief. Even if someone leaves the Church over a crisis of belief, they still have faith that something good is out there somewhere, and they go looking for it. A crisis of faith seems a much more personal, and a much bleaker state, arising not from one’s belief or disbelief in doctrines but from one’s faith in the possibility of connection—to others or to the Divine. For example, gay Mormons who have committed suicide have likely undergone a true crisis of faith. Perhaps they started in a crisis of belief, wondering what their place in the Church might be. But it became a crisis of faith when their experience finally led them to believe that their worth to God and to the LDS community had evaporated, leaving them with no vision, no hope for anything better down life’s path.

A similar fear probably shadows anyone who enters a crisis of belief, “Will I still be acceptable if my beliefs seem different from those of other Church members? Will my shift in beliefs result in a shift of their love for me? Will I still be acceptable to God?” These are not abstract questions that can be answered with a scripture or a study manual. They are questions of connection, of relationship, of faith—that can only be answered by how we interact with one another.

And that is the reason it’s important to me that we define “crisis of faith” so precisely. At our core, most of us do not yearn for belief so much as we do faith. A crisis of belief isn’t difficult to handle if we know to our bones that we are loved and appreciated; even if we revise our deepest beliefs from time to time, we do so with faith that we will become a stronger, more unique part of a loving community. A crisis of faith often arises when we understand that our community values our beliefs more than our selves—in other words, when there is a dearth of love and appreciation in the community. As Carol Lynn Pearson points out, “We all know love when we see it and feel it. We can’t be tricked.”4

If Latter-day Saints are truly having crises of faith in unprecedented numbers, it is often because our love for each other is not “stronger than the cords of death.” Which should raise the question, “Is our community primarily about cultivating belief or faith?” The answer to this question is all-important—and regularly dependent upon how we love one another.


Answers to “Test of Intellectual Belief.” 1. True. The answer is not zero. 2. True, according to the common rules of integral calculus. 3. The evidence is quite good that 1805 was his birth year. 4. Your choice.




  1. My book For Those Who Wonder also addresses this topic and is available for free download, along with all the Borderlands columns, at
  2. For more information on this topic see Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Faith and Belief: The Difference Between Them (London: Oneworld Oxford, 1998).
  3. Boyd J. Petersen, “Landing Instructions: How to Navigate a Faith Crisis.” Paper presentation at the SLC Sunstone Symposium, 30 July 2016.
  4. Carol Lynn Pearson, “Why I Stay,” Sunstone 174: 28–31, (accessed 24 February 2017).