The redoubtable quiz that just won’t go away

The last two classes finally get their crack at Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt Quiz today, and an introduction to Doubt. JMH is an atheist of the friendly variety, noting that while belief-centered religion is parasitic on a culture of doubt and that doubt is in fact older than most faiths, “faith can be a wonderful thing.” You’ll not get that concession out of most of the so-called New Atheists, or their 19th century precursors (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche,…).

JMH, a first-rate historian/philosopher/poet (maybe the one and only to wear all those hats with flair, in our day) is a frequent contributor to the Best American Poetry blog. She did a terrific interview with Krista Tippett on the program formerly known as “Speaking of Faith” (which became Being in large part because the host was so impressed by Hecht’s presentation, and came to realize that there’s far more to be said of heaven and earth than is dreamt of by people of faith alone.

JMH discerns seven historically-salient categories of doubt: science, nontheistic religion (eg Buddhism), cosmopolitanism, morally indignant repudiation of the world’s suffering and injustices, “graceful-life philosophies” (eg Epicureanism-”we don’t need answers or stuff”), philosophical skepticism (whether contrived like Descartes’ or sincere like Montaigne’s and Socrates’), and finally “the doubt of the ardent believer” (like Jesus).

Now, about that quiz: There have already been several interesting comments about the exercise, and a few expressions of surprise and exasperation. One stumbling block I’ve noticed is the reluctance most of us have, admirably, to declaring an unequivocal response to questions about which nobody can know the absolute and incorrigibly correct answer. “Not sure” is sane and circumspect, but remember that the quiz is simply asking what you know about your own mind and heart at this very moment of reflection. You’re not required to claim omniscience or certainty about the universe.

Interpreted in that light, I find myself capable of declaring a solid yes or no to most of the questions, and of pretty much skipping the “not sure” category entirely. That is, I know what I think at this moment about these matters. I don’t know that I’m right. Neither do you, right?

People often demur, when asked if they consider themselves atheists, on the grounds that it sounds too confident and cocky to say they don’t believe in a transcendent/supernatural creator God… even if they really don’t. But why should it seem any more cocky to say “I don’t believe X” than to say “I do,” when it’s already been conceded all around  that nobody-but-nobody knows for sure? If we’re really flinging open the closet doors and inviting everyone into the fresh air and honest sunshine of truthfulness, it should not. No double-standards need apply.

So maybe it’s easier to take the quiz if you silently mouthe the qualifier “but I could be mistaken” after each  response? As an instinctive fallibilist (as opposed to either fideist or dogmatist) I always thought that went without saying, but say it if it helps.

Here’s a small unscientific sampling of what others have said about the quiz so far:

  • We collectively concluded that when it comes to religion, there will always be a range of opinions and beliefs regarding religion, and that one quiz could not necessarily determine where you stand with your religion.
  • The Doubt quiz told me that I’m either an agnostic or some hybrid atheist thing…I’m pretty sure I can decide for myself. We all agreed that the wording was tricky and that the quiz does not accurately determine what or how one doubts in entirety.
  • I heard a lot of talk about the quiz in class today and some different perspectives, some agreeing with and some disagreeing with the results of the quiz. For me, the quiz was simple. I’m a Christian, which led all of my answers to be a solid “yes.” Quite appropriately, the quiz labeled me “a Believer.”
  • The Doubt quiz says I’m agnostic. From what I’ve heard about it agnostics think that the knowledge of God is unobtainable and so we shouldn’t bother trying to figure it out. I don’t think any knowledge is unobtainable, we just haven’t found it yet, so I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic. I also wouldn’t call myself an atheist, though I used to be one. I don’t believe in any organized religion but I also don’t believe that reality just happened. Everything the way it is, especially as it is related to us, just seems too perfect to be totally random.
  • I also answered “No” to all the questions on the quiz. A few of them were very open to interpretation, like #10. Which reality are we talking about? The reality of how I feel about something, or the reality of the object that I have feelings about? And #13 was so loaded with junk that I answered “No” just on principle ;-)
  • 1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life? No. So far, none of the gods (way over 10,000 and counting) have ever demonstrated any credible evidence for their existence 
outside of human personal conviction or faith, both of which are plagued by inconsistency and incoherence. That fact, compounded by each and every religion’s exclusive, incompatible claims about the divine, makes accepting Pascal’s Wager the beginning of a more extensive problem—not the solution. (See all of D’s responses here… and see William James’s responses to his quiz, way back in the day, here.
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