The Wisdom of Doubt, Part I

There’s an excerpt from Glenn Greenwald’s new book (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, to be published June 26) in Salon today. Here’s just a snip:

One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness — who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil — is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. …

… Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.

Glenn’s point of view nicely tracks what’s been rattling around in my own head for the past few days. As I’ve mentioned I’m going to be part of a religion panel at the Yearly Kos convention in August. After I got the invitation I began to think about what I might say, and write it down, and I am up to about a three-hour sermon at this point. I suppose I might have to boil that down a little. But the primary point I hope to make is this: What the world needs now is doubt.

Yeah, I know the song goes “What the world needs now is love.” That, too. But I think we should work on the doubt first.

These days religious people want to be called “people of faith.” But I object to the practice of using the word faith as a synonym for religion. Faith is a component of religion, to one degree or another, but not religion itself.

Zen students are told that the path of Zen takes “great faith, great doubt, and great determination. I found a dharma talk about this by Sensei Sevan Ross, who is the director of the Chicago Zen Center, called “The Distance Between Faith and Doubt.” Here’s just a bit:

Great Faith and Great Doubt are two ends of a spiritual walking stick. We grip one end with the grasp given to us by our Great Determination. We poke into the underbrush in the dark on our spiritual journey. This act is real spiritual practice – gripping the Faith end and poking ahead with the Doubt end of the stick. If we have no Faith, we have no Doubt. If we have no Determination, we never pick up the stick in the first place.

Faith and doubt are supposed to be opposites, but the Sensei says “if we have no faith, we have no doubt.” I would say, also, that true faith requires true doubt; without doubt, faith is not faith. This is exactly the sort of paradox that permeates philosophical Taoism and its cousin, Zen Buddhism, but which is alien to the way most westerners understand faith and doubt.

Zennies are, I admit, not exactly in the mainstream of American religion. Zennies were never all that mainstream in Asian religion, for that matter. Even so, in the histories of the major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — you can find many great theologians, scholars, rabbis, contemplatives, and mystics whose religious understanding came from wrestling with their doubts.

I found an online Catholic encyclopedia that defined doubt as:

A state in which the mind is suspended between two contradictory propositions and unable to assent to either of them. … Doubt is opposed to certitude, or the adhesion of the mind to a proposition without misgiving as to its truth; and again to opinion, or a mental adhesion to a proposition together with such a misgiving.

I like that definition. To religious seekers and mystics, “A state in which the mind is suspended between two contradictory propositions and unable to assent to either of them” is a fertile place from which profound understanding may grow. Certainty, on other hand, is a sterile rock that grows nothing.

Unfortunately, religious institutions tend to be run by dogmatists, not seekers. And dogmatists don’t like doubt. This same attitude spills over into non-religious beliefs and ideologies. Some people (me, for example) enjoy diving into a nice, messy paradox or conundrum to get to the bottom of it. Others hate ambiguity and want easily digestible bumper-sticker answers for everything. We call the latter sort of people “conservatives.”

This Psychology Today article by Jay Dixit discusses the psychology of political opinion. Here’s a bit:

The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers–John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley–found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

The study’s authors also concluded that conservatives have less tolerance for ambiguity, a trait they say is exemplified when George Bush says things like, “Look, my job isn’t to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think,” and “I’m the decider.” Those who think the world is highly dangerous and those with the greatest fear of death are the most likely to be conservative.

Liberals, on the other hand, are “more likely to see gray areas and reconcile seemingly conflicting information,” says Jost. As a result, liberals like John Kerry, who see many sides to every issue, are portrayed as flip-floppers. “Whatever the cause, Bush and Kerry exemplify the cognitive styles we see in the research,” says Jack Glaser, one of the study’s authors, “Bush in appearing more rigid in his thinking and intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity, and Kerry in appearing more open to ambiguity and to considering alternative positions.”

I’m not sure I would have picked John Kerry as an example of a liberal truth-seeker, but I think the point is valid. Conservatives objected to this study, claiming that the authors are liberals and therefore biased in spite of their rigorous methodology. “Liberal bias” is, of course, one of the Right’s favorite bumper sticker answers to any fact that challenges their assumptions.

Our culture looks at doubt as something to overcome. Being without doubt is celebrated as a virtue, and if you do have doubts you are supposed to replace them with certainties as soon as possible. But I say the ideal is to have faith and doubt in balance. This includes faith in and doubt about yourself. Too much doubt is crippling, but so is not enough doubt, although in a different way.

Our President, for example, is a man without doubt. This may be the single biggest reason he’s a disaster at his job.

Recently Peter Birkenhead wrote a piece for Salon called “Better to Be Hamlet Than King George.” We have created a culture, he said, that confuses leadership with “an almost psychotic form of false optimism.” I’d leave out the “almost.” The Bush Administration, Birkenhead continued, is riddled with people who lack the wisdom of doubt, the grace of humility, and the simple ability to learn from mistakes.

Let’s face it, George Bush doesn’t have to doubt himself, any more than Donald Trump or Tom Cruise or Mitt Romney do. We live in a culture where they will never be forced to examine their prejudices or flaws. Of course, they have been denied the true confidence of people who are brave enough to face their doubts and who know there are worse things than feeling insecure. Like, say, feeling too secure. Pumped up by steroidic pseudo-confidence and anesthetized by doubt-free sentimentality, they are incapable of feeling anything authentic and experiencing the world. But that hasn’t stopped them, and won’t stop others, from succeeding in a society that is more enamored of a non-reality-based conception of leadership than previous generations were.

The neocons and others who surround President Bush ought to be rounded up by psychologists for intensive study. Truly, P.T. Barnum himself couldn’t have imagined these creatures. No matter how many times their predictions are proved wrong and their grand theories fall apart in the face of reality, their faith in themselves remains absolute. They, and only they, understand what’s wrong with the world and know how to fix it. They, and only they, are so perfect they are above the rule of law itself.

Although the neocons’ worldview is not thought of as religious, in fact it comes from the same pathological certainty that fueled the Inquisition and the destruction of the World Trade Center. Wisdom comes from facing not only one’s doubts but also the many ambiguities and paradoxes inherent in human life. People who refuse to walk that path are what we call “fools.”

Naturally I’m just getting wound up, but I think I’ll stop here for now. Am I making sense, so far?

Update: Glenn has a blog post up about the excerpt and responses to it so far. People are commenting that Bush doesn’t really believe the moral and religious shit he spouts. He just spouts this as part of his Evil Conspiracy to Take Over the World, they say. Glenn responds to this nicely. I only want to add that while no one can know what evil lurks in the heart of Bush, it’s plain as day that a big chunk of the American public has bought into this good-versus-evil, all-faith-all-the-time worldview, and you find it reflected in mass media day in and day out.