Thursday, September 01, 2011

Nothing to See Here, Move Along


Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry.

...A more astute contemporary thinker than Dawkins on the issue of agnosticism, in its broadest, existential sense, is the American playwright John Patrick Shanley. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt (also a film), he argues that “doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” While such questioning takes us past a point of comfort, he claims, it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things”, and thus represents “nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present”.

Hey, I'm not going to tell someone that they can't indulge their masochistic fetish for being suspended indefinitely on existential tenterhooks, but, yuh know, on that note, it seems to this observer that those of us who have serenely accepted the nonexistence of any God worthy of the name are the ones who have moved on to the more pressing concerns of how to live in this world with only our fellow fallible humans to rely on for love, support and justice, whereas it is this particular type of doubter who wants to encase religious questions in amber, leaving them incapable of being resolved to any practical satisfaction. It's people like Lane who dogmatically insist that anything less than 100% certain knowledge on this issue means we must remain open to the possibility that something like the Abrahamic religions just might be true after all. And I still say that if it weren't for the oppressive, overbearing presence of a jealous, vindictive God haunting our collective cultural memory, no one would think it such a big deal to consider the matter settled for all intents and purposes and get on with it.

What I found really funny, though, was seeing yet another essay using Dawkins as the prime example of strident, intolerant atheism... with a link in the sidebar to related articles, including an interview with Dawkins on the same site that totally belies the claim.