The end of “Doubt”

We wrap up JMH’s Doubt today in CoPhi. [Remember, STUDENTS, final report presentations begin Wednesday and Thursday.] She says we’d all be a lot clearer if we’d just

avoid using believer, agnostic, and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what’s out there.

Lots of different views are out there, along with the world they more-or-less accurately engage. But we should resist labeling them, or ourselves, even with better labels like sectarian, “one-of-many,” meaning and science spiritualist, Skeptic, perplexed, ritualist, science secularist, doubter.

Note, though, that to doubt is not necessarily to repudiate or excoriate. It’s simply to remain open to a new thought when it comes. But all labels aside, it seems clear enough after nearly 500 pages of Doubt that what we are is a species that has always had its doubters. Some of us embrace uncertainty, some shrink from it, all benefit in the long run from an honest and collaborative exchange of views. What’s out there is a big cosmos, and we’re in it. There’s room in it for all kinds, so long as we’re willing to share the space. But labels probably do serve more often to reinforce our worst exclusionary and judgmental tendencies, than to elicit a more expansive cosmopolitanism.

A story in yesterday’s Times about black atheists (which doesn’t quote Hubert Harrison) quotes Neil deGrasse Tyson echoing the point:

Am I an Atheist, you ask? Labels are mentally lazy ways by which people assert they know you without knowing you.

Right. But labels can be constructively clarifying and instigating, too. It’s easy to conform to a pattern to which you didn’t know there was an alternative. That’s why we’ve been reading JMH, to disabuse ourselves of that common error. Dozens of undeservedly obscure names (like Hubert Harrison’s) crop up again and again in the history of doubt, challenging the easy faith of those who entirely exclude the spirit of skepticism from their radar simply because they never read or heard a word about it.

According to the Pew Forum 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey, 88 percent of African-Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 71 percent of the total population.

Believing anything “with absolute certainty” just looks a lot shakier when you come to realize that thoughtful humans have always doubted and always will. How can it possibly be considered more acceptable to be a church-going drug dealer than to be an atheist? Only by not really being considered at all.

Consider a recent Tyson tweet:

Thanksgiving dinner, a few years ago, each in turn thanked God for food. I thanked scientists for improved farming. Got booed.

An appropriate response by Tyson at that moment, in the face of such uncomprehending  intolerance, might very well have included a bit of explanatory self-labeling. He wasn’t just being obtuse, he was representing a proud and ancient human tradition of alternative belief.

Wittgenstein might have reminded Tyson’s obdurate, intransigent cousins (and mine) that “reality does exist and limits the kinds of games that can be played.” The gratitude game “bewitches the intelligence” of those who won’t acknowledge its real sources in our shared experience. But he would also remind Tyson that science is not “the only approach to investigating the world,” and that “doubting, by its nature, is done within the realm of believing something.” Again, there’s room at the feast for all kinds.
“We inhabit a world of belief and cannot see out of it.” We cannot really doubt that we’re awake, when we think we are. That’s mostly a good thing, “belief is one of the best human muscles” (because it moves us to act) but it’s also the explanation of our intolerance. We need to work on that, but  is it really “crazy” for theists and non-theists alike to challenge one another’s arguments? We have to try harder to “see out of” our respective belief-bubbles and even to pop them when they prevent mutual understanding. If it’s true that “we can speak of the world only in our language game,” we need to develop a more inclusive language. The language of doubt, perhaps?
Sartre again. “There is no human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it.” That still just strikes me as a premature judgment, even for atheists. Why can’t the “blueprint” of our nature(s) be a work perpetually in progress? Why can’t human nature be fluid? And why, if you agreed with Sartre, would you also acknowledge “an intense command upon us to be moral”? An intense feeling of responsibility, sure. But is a feeling a command? Not usually.
So, by “hell is other people” maybe he means the others who don’t respond to the same felt “commands” we do. But in Sartre’s own terms isn’t there a whiff of “bad faith” here, if we objectify our mutual responsibilities as externally imposed commands rather than choices we’re always at risk of neglecting? Too bad we can’t cross the channel to settle that with the man himself.
Sartre said he settled the God question to his own satisfaction at age 12. His partner Simone de Beauvoir was 14 when she (with Balzac’s assistance) declared her own independence. Were they precocious, or premature? His command was her need: “in a godless universe there is a desperate need for each of us to be moral.” (The Second Sex 25 years later)
Albert Camus‘s great theme was the absurdity of living in a world of repetitive meaninglessness, only then to die. That’s Woody Allen‘s theme too. (“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children. I want to achieve it by not dying”…Prof. LevyNot dying is precisely the Sisyphean task Camus said should make us happy. “Acknowledging the absurdity of the human condition is what saves us, and ‘one does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.'” Or at least produce novels, plays, and films. “It’s our ballgame.”
For many of us, life was most emphatically shown to be in our hands by the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel‘s cri de coeur for the nocturnal silence of the death camps sums it up.
 …after another hanging, Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.
Viktor Frankl‘s amazing story and the message of his life was nicely summarized by a student once as both Nietzschean and Beatle-esque: we need meaning, and for that we need love. (quotes)
It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…And this is his salvation in  the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
The Cold War and Joe McCarthy put god on our currency and in our pledge in the 1950s. That mindset, the falsehood that “an atheist American is a contradiction in terms” and the preposterous proposal that “atheists should not be considered citizens or patriots” (Bush Sr.) is light-years removed from the transcendent Gaian sensibility of poet/statesman/Velvet revolutionary Vaclav Havel. More respect, for one another and for the “miracle of the universe,” is still (we may hope) the history of the future.
Is the evangelical atheism of the so-called New Atheists “harsh” and “coarse”? Or is it an inevitable backlash against religious bigotry? The vaunted Four Horsemen are Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens*, and Dan Dennett. But there are many more riders in their posse, some of whom have delivered riveting TED Talks. Don’t miss Julia Sweeney, my favorite New Atheist. (If you’re a Deepak Chopra fan, you might not like this.)
(Sweeney transcript… *Hitchens-Blair transcript)
So, to be clear: the end of Doubt, the point of doubting, is to live. Its purpose is to summon as much freedom and dignity as befits a questioning, questing, aspiring social species. “The only thing such doubters really need, that believers have, is a sense that people like themselves have always been around, that they are part of a grand history.” Point taken. May the conversation continue.
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