We’ll find the right answers only if we start asking questions again

Who can grudge anyone the desire to find some apparently secure port when life gets stormy? At moments of crisis, however, such certainties can be, quite literally, lethal. If I have no doubts at all about my own position, and you express doubts about it, you become a living offence to everything I stand for

DOUBT has had an undeservedly bad press down the centuries.

Two thousand years ago, the apostle Thomas got a dusty response from a very high authority because he demanded hard evidence for the resurrection. His name has been a by-word for wishy-washy unreliability ever since. Not a sound man, doubting Thomas.

I never realised just how low doubt rated on our standard scales of value until I went to talk to a group of people to whom, you would think, Thomas might have been a role model.

The occasion was a conference of Humanists (with a capital ‘H’). They had invited me to speak because I had written a column– a rant if I’m honest — against the abuses perpetrated in the name of the great religions. Without thinking too much about it, I had there described myself as a humanist (with a small ‘h’).

When I looked at some Humanist websites, however, I began to develop, well, doubts. For some people of this persuasion, militant atheism was a dogma as rock solid as the literal truth of the Book of Genesis for George Bush, or the doctrine of armed jihad for Osama bin Laden.

I found this absolute certainty that there is no God just as disturbing as ex cathedra declarations from the Vatican or the Bible Belt that there is. It reminded me that the penalties for expressions of doubt in atheist states like Stalin’s USSR or contemporary North Korea could be as savage, or worse, as the punishments prescribed for heretics by the Holy Inquisition, or the religious police in Iran.

So I decided to make the subject of my lecture an attempt to apply the principle of doubt to the dogma of atheism, to present a truly agnostic position even on agnosticism. Many of those present received what I had to say generously and graciously. A minority did not.

“You are in the wrong place here,” one man snarled at me afterwards. “You should become” — and he paused to dredge up his worst insult — “a professor of (expletive deleted) theology”.

This puzzled me, because I had made it clear throughout that I hold no religious beliefs. However, I had recognised that many religious people make great and unique contributions to our world, and that their accounts of a relationship with some divine force deserve our attention and respect.

I had also tried to distinguish dogmatic belief from faith, a very different animal altogether, in my limited understanding of such matters. The finest Christians I have met, from Jesuits to Presbyterians, have all told me that they test their faith daily with open and honest doubt.

For this man, however, there were only two boxes — upstanding rational atheists like him, and vile religious bigots. God help you, as it were, if he could place you in the latter category.

His dogmatic intolerance reminded me of a much earlier encounter, while in the process of joining a left-wing party in my youth.

Curiously, I remember quite clearly that the ideologue instructing us had the unnerving habit of slowly scorching an empty cigarette packet with the glowing tip of a John Players King Size while he spoke to us. At the time, I was concerned that this might reflect sadistic impulses. But maybe he was simply terrified of looking his audience in the eyes, and needed something bright to focus his attention.

His theme was our omnipresent enemies, which meant anyone who did swallow the whole party line. Some issues might seem complex, he said, but things were really all very simple: “If we are right,” he said, “then they must be wrong. And they have no right to be wrong.”

That is, of course, a classic position of those who have no doubts, whether they are dogmatic Methodists or dogmatic Marxists. It seems to answer a very deep-seated human need for some kind of certainty.

In an open society like contemporary Ireland’s, people are more or less free to latch on to any certainty that takes their fancy. Some people become serial believers, leaping promiscuously from Scientology to Tridentine Rite Catholicism or from anarchism to deep ecology.

Much of the time this may seem to do no great harm. Who can grudge anyone the desire to find some apparently secure port when life gets stormy? At moments of crisis, however, such certainties can be, quite literally, lethal.

If I have no doubts at all about my own position, and you express doubts about it, you become a living offence to everything I stand for.

It is all too easy, from that position, to take the step indicated by my erstwhile political commissar, and say that you, my friend, are not only wrong but that you have no right to be wrong.

And if you have no right to be wrong, and continue obstinately in your mistaken ways, I may no longer be able to tolerate your existence.

Why? Because your very existence — happily walking beneath the same sun and the same rain as me, but worshipping a different god or a different ideological project, or, worse still, none at all — shakes my sense of certainty to the core. Better by far to eliminate you from the picture, so that all right-thinking people like me can walk unshakeably and complacently in the light of the one true belief — whatever it happens to be.

That way lie pogroms, purges, and ethnic cleansing.

SOMETIMES the one true belief may appear to go back to the very beginning of recorded human history. Other beliefs may pop up overnight, and be no less compelling in their demand to wipe out those who dare to doubt the new dogma of the day, or those who have no choice but to be different, because of their ethnic origins. Think of the Nazis, think of Sarajevo.

We should not take our right to pick and choose beliefs, or to live with doubt if we can, for granted. It is the product, in Europe at least, of a long series of struggles against dogmatic authorities, from the Reformation through the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. (And these movements themselves froze into new dogmas frighteningly easily: think of Calvin, think of Robespierre).

Science, which is essentially an application of permanent and systematic doubt towards what we think we know, went hand-in-hand with this general movement towards freedom. You could fairly say that doubt gave us the jet engine, and antibiotics.

When economic, social and environmental systems are stable, there seems to be plenty of room for a plurality of beliefs. But we could always do with more doubting Thomases. If more of us had questioned the rush to deregulate the banking system, we might not be in the mess we are in today.

And in that mess, with an economic abyss before us, and the spectre of climate change challenging even the certainty of the sequence of the seasons, we must beware of those who will offer us dogmas, old or new, to lead us forward.

Let’s start a movement to make doubt a virtue, not a vice. As long as we don’t get too certain about it …



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