The Wisdom of Doubt, Part III

    1. “George Washington warned us never to `indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.’ ” —

Senator Joe Lieberman

* * *

    1. “The Eleventh Commandment should be ‘Thou shalt not bullshit thyself about thyself.'” —


Every time people say that without religion there’d be no morality, I want a giant hand to reach out of the sky to shake some sense into them. While I don’t subscribe to the Christopher Hitchens “religion is the root of all evil” school, an objective look at human history suggests that religion doesn’t always inspire good behavior. In fact, a large part of the mass atrocity being perpetrated in the world today has some connection to religion. I’d say it’s time religious people stopped mouthing platitudes and give some serious thought to why that might be true.

Here’s a clue. Shortly before he was named Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said,

Having a clear faith based on the creed of the Church is often labeled today as fundamentalism. Relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards… We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires.

In response Julian Baggini wrote in The Guardian (April 20, 2005):

We have known for a long time that orthodox religion has a preference for black-and-white certainties, but this crude dichotomy between the absolute moral truths of the church and the so-called laissez-faire relativism of the modern secular world is crassly simplistic. …

… The black-and-white choice Ratzinger offers us is, therefore, a bogus one. The absolute moral certainty he claims the church offers is hollow, and the valueless relativism he claims is the only alternative a caricature of non-absolutist ethics.

If I may be so bold, I say Julian Baggini nails it. Moral absolutism and “valueless relativism” are just mirror images of each other. Ego and desire inflame the religious and nonreligious alike, to much the same result. A person can wear his Jesus T-shirt and holler hallelujah a hundred times a day, and still be an egotistical, desire-driven wretch underneath. And an egotistical, desire-driven wretch with religion is likely to use religion as an excuse to gratify his ego and desires.

Let’s consider the opinion of another Important Catholic Guy, St. Augustine (354-430). After all these centuries people are still arguing about St. Augustine’s seventh homily on the First Epistle of John. Here’s a snip:

See what we are insisting upon; that the deeds of men are only discerned by the root of charity. For many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet proceed not from the root of charity. For thorns also have flowers: some actions truly seem rough, seem savage; howbeit they are done for discipline at the bidding of charity. Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good

Love, and do what you will. Wow, that sounds … relativist. But Augustine is talking about God’s love for man, and he is charging his listeners to manifest that love within themselves and let it dictate their dealings with others. It is that love, he says, that is the foundation of morality. A person who acts with love will do the right thing without having to consult the rules. Love, and do what you will.

Augustine continues,

Hear the Gospel: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” But let no man imagine God to himself according to the lust of his eyes. For so he makes unto himself either a huge form, or a certain incalculable magnitude which, like the light which he sees with the bodily eyes, he makes extend through all directions; field after field of space he gives it all the bigness he can; or, he represents to himself like as it were an old man of venerable form. None of these things do you imagine. There is something you may imagine, if you would see God; “God is love.” What sort of face has love? what form has it? what stature? what feet? what hands has it? no man can say. And yet it has feet, for these carry men to church: it has hands; for these reach forth to the poor: it has eyes; for thereby we consider the needy: “Blessed is the man,” it is said, “who considers the needy and the poor.”

Of course, people bullshit themselves about love, too. How many times have you heard a religious bigot say he hates the sin but loves the sinner? And how many of these people, do you think, really love the “sinner”?

For this reason I ask monotheists in particular to stop thinking of their religion primarily as a belief system — a “faith” — and instead think of it as a discipline or a practice. I may be a heathen, but I’ve read the Gospels. Jesus actually said very little about what people should believe. Mostly he talked about what they should do.

    1. Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. —


    (Matthew 5:43-48, American Standard Version)

I say that if Christians forgot every bit of doctrine or dogma they ever heard and just practiced that, the world would be a better place.

    1. If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. —

St Paul

    (1 Corinthians 13:1-2, New American Bible)

I’m seeing a pattern here.

Of course, people can’t flip a switch and love their enemies. It takes long, hard inner work. Once upon a time Christianity had strong contemplative and mystical traditions in which people worked to purify themselves of hate, ego, and pride — to become “poor in spirit.” That tradition seems to have mostly disappeared. What happened to it?

A few days ago I came across this essay by someone who claims to be a Christian pastor in Georgia.

I say the church should dominate. I say our church should dominate. If athletes work hard to chisel their body so they can dominate a court and cutthroat executives maneuver hard to dominate the boardroom, we should approach the mission of making disciples with the same intensity. There are no excuses.

Erwin McManus rightly points out that the Bible never teaches Christians not to be ambitious. It’s selfish ambition that we are to avoid. That’s the desire to get ahead so we can draw attention to ourselves, write a book or lead a conference. We’re not out to make a name for ourselves in this church thing–we’re out to make His name famous. We don’t want to dominate for our sake, we want to dominate for the sake of the mission.

Trust me; when people say “we’re doing this obnoxious thing not for ourselves, but for God” — they’re doing it for themselves. If not for material gain, it’s for ego gratification, or territorial marking, or something else selfish and ugly clanking about in their ids. They’re just bullshitting themselves about the God thing. Count on it.

I’ve said many times that Oak Leaf Church is not here to take people away from other churches. Our mission is not to grow by theft. We want to lead people that are far from God to follow Him with their entire lives. But can I be honest? What’s the point of a genuine Christ follower wasting away in a lame and lifeless church? A church that never challenges him? A church that never reaches people? A church that just exists for the sake of some pastor having a job?

This makes religion out to be something like a virus; it has no function except to infect the cells of other organisms and multiply. But what else could a church congregation possibly do except march around dominating the other churches? Like, maybe, work at perfecting the teachings of Christ? Nah, that’s lame.

Moral absolutism is hollow. It amounts to armoring oneself with some external moral authority. But if inside one is a swarming mess of issues and resentments and ego and self-bullshitting, that armor will be corrupted in no time. And the result is no more beneficial to mankind than ego-induced nonreligious bullshit. Believe me, I’ll trust an introspective atheist over a self-bullshitting “person of faith” any day.

“What is religion? Compassion for all things, which have life.” (Hitopadesa, Sanskrit fables)

The concept of “sin” is alien to Buddhism. Morality has its basis in Metta, “loving kindness,” as well as the teachings of Ahimsa, borrowed from Hindu. Metta and Ahimsa both call for the cultivation of sincere, selfless compassion for all living things. Going through the motions of charity aren’t good enough, although going through the motions might lead to the real thing eventually. I think Jesus, St. Paul, and St. Augustine were suggesting something along the lines of Metta. Pope Benedict seems to have missed that lesson.

A commenter to the first Wisdom of Doubt post, Ross T., provided a link to this essay by the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., about theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). It’s excellent, and deserves to be read all the way through. I’m going to quote some chunks —

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor – not much of a background for national innocence. “Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem,” Niebuhr wrote, “are insufferable in their human contacts.” The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).

What Glenn Greenwald said. Schlesinger continued:

Niebuhr brilliantly applied the tragic insights of Augustine and Calvin to moral and political issues. … In these and other works, Niebuhr emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature – creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history. This is what was known in the ancient vocabulary of Christianity as the doctrine of original sin. Niebuhr summed up his political argument in a single powerful sentence: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

“Original sin” does seem to have gone out of favor these days, and frankly, it’s not a doctrine I thought much about even when I was a Christian. But maybe there was some purpose for it after all.

I like this part (emphasis added):

He helped found Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal organization opposed to the two Joes, Stalin and McCarthy. He was tireless (until strokes slowed him up) in cautioning Americans not to succumb to the self-righteous delusions of innocence and infallibility. “From the earliest days of its history to the present moment,” Niebuhr wrote in 1952, “there is a deep layer of messianic consciousness in the mind of America. We never dreamed that we would have as much political power as we possess today; nor for that matter did we anticipate that the most powerful nation on earth would suffer such an ironic refutation of its dreams of mastering history.” For messianism – carrying on one man’s theory of God’s work – threatened to abolish the unfathomable distance between the Almighty and human sinners.

Niebuhr would have rejoiced at Mr. Dooley’s definition of a fanatic. According to the Irish bartender created by Finley Peter Dunne, a fanatic “does what he thinks th’ Lord wud do if He only knew th’ facts iv th’ case.” There is no greater human presumption than to read the mind of the Almighty, and no more dangerous individual than the one who has convinced himself that he is executing the Almighty’s will. “A democracy,” Niebuhr said, “cannot of course engage in an explicit preventive war,” and he lamented the “inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history.”

Original sin, by tainting all human perceptions, is the enemy of absolutes. Mortal man’s apprehension of truth is fitful, shadowy and imperfect; he sees through the glass darkly. Against absolutism Niebuhr insisted on the “relativity of all human perspectives,” as well as on the sinfulness of those who claimed divine sanction for their opinions. He declared himself “in broad agreement with the relativist position in the matter of freedom, as upon every other social and political right or principle.” In pointing to the dangers of what Justice Robert H. Jackson called “compulsory godliness,” Niebuhr argued that “religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.” Religion, he warned, could be a source of error as well as wisdom and light. Its role should be to inculcate, not a sense of infallibility, but a sense of humility. Indeed, “the worst corruption is a corrupt religion.”

This bring us around to the wisdom of doubt. In this sense, “doubt” is humility. It accepts not-knowing. For monotheists, it does not presume perfect understanding of God’s plans and our part in them. Thus, it is wise.

* * *
I want to note here that if I seem particularly hard on Christianity, it’s because I used to be Christian and I understand (I think) Christianity intimately. I am less comfortable criticizing Judaism and Islam, the other monotheisms, because I don’t know them as well and I fear I may misrepresent them. However, as Karen Armstrong says, all of the major religions have developed some form of fundamentalism in the past century or so. And many followers of religion other than Christianity have been seized by absolutes and literalisms and certainties and other religious pathologies, and are marching around the planet doing terrible things in the name of their religion. Widespread absolutist extremism has infected Islam in particular. The reasons for this are complex, but I think it’s way past time the major religions reined it in.

19 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Doubt, Part III

  1. In certitude, there is no doubt.
    Without doubt, people can have no faith.
    Without faith, how do people survive the day-to-day?
    Most of us take it on a day-to-day basis….

    How do “the certain” people survive?

    In “The Cave.” we all interpert the shadow’s from the light as our “clan’s” determine.

    This is why I am a spritiual person – not a religious one. Those shadows enlighten me, and at the same time, they they scare me.

    Prophet’s are often considered “Mad.” To follow them, to me, is madness…

    To me, Emerson tops Jesus… The “Oeversoul” makes much more sense than Angel’s, harp’s and sitting at any table with any “Lord.”

    If religion is the opiate of the masses, we, in America, have drunk it deep, and fast, like it was water to a thirsty person in the Sahara.

    Religion: Leave me out…

  2. Emerson may have borrowed the “over-soul” concept from the Hindu Paramatman. The idea is basic to most of the Asian religions, in one way or another. Zen has it too, although Zennies are advised to ditch the “over” part. And then they are advised to ditch the “soul” part. Otherwise, same thing. 🙂 See also Spinoza.

  3. Maha,
    Thanks for the refresher.
    I read a lot of Eastern and Western philosophy, but it was over 25 years ago.
    I don’t want to tell you what I’ve done since then to make me forget. It wasn’t all legal:-)

  4. People often forget that the Biblical phrase, “Money is the root of all evil” is actually, “LOVE of money is the root of all evil”. I think the same goes for religion. Religion is not evil, but exploiting religion is what damages it. And frankly, “evil” is in itself a Biblical entity.

    I was brought up in a Presbyterian, and therefore Christian household, but even as a young person I never felt like I belonged there. None of it made sense to me; the rituals, the sermons, the church asking me to believe so many things that didn’t make sense. I always felt hypocritical going to church, and eventually quit going. I’m still a good person, I play by the rules and I try to live a generous life.

    So it’s particularly galling to have any religion forced upon me. I am a firm believer in keeping religion out of government. When you get right down to it, religion is about money. Or the love of money…

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  6. From Episcopalian (childhood) to atheist to agnostic to the last 30 years a Roman, my progression which to this day I am unable to explain to myself let alone understand.

    Nor can I understand why the endless bickering, fault-finding, and just plain animosity continue between the religious and the non-religious, the ‘believers’ and the non-believers.

    I do remember my mother’s comment when I became a Roman – very upset she was – “I have lost you.” Perhaps in that simple statement lies a clue to the millenia of strife and suffering mankind (in the names of religions) has subjected itself to. To me, it’s much, more often than not tragic, ado about nothing,

  7. If you will permit some thoughts from an atheist… I haven’t read the Hitchens book but I do think religion poisons everything and has caused enormous harm and suffering throughout human history. When you get right down to it, religion really has nothing to do with morality and is all about tribalism. Also about growth for growth’s sake, which as Edward Abbey pointed out is the ideology of a cancer. (And yes, religion is in many ways a virus – I’m sure you’ve heard of memes.)

    But I make a distinction between religion and spirituality. I feel contempt for people who switch off their brains and blindly swallow a load of dogma from some external authority, and then think that they are virtuous people just because they believe unquestioningly in some ancient scroll. But I repect people who try to work out the answers for themselves, even if they come up with different answers than I do.

    In a nutshell, spirituality is about asking questions whereas religion (at least the kind I’m most familiar with) claims to have all the answers, and you’re not even allowed to ask questions. Religion stunts and enslaves the mind, and creates hatred and fear of anyone who believes a different ancient scroll than you do – which is why I hate it.

  8. As for your closing paragraph, particularly:

    “I want to note here that if I seem particularly hard on Christianity, it’s because I used to be Christian and I understand (I think) Christianity intimately.”

    I do think that it adequately disposes of the often leveled charges of America-hating and the hackneyed “they’re just as bad or worse” talking point, both of which deny accountability due to extenuating circumstance.

    What was the old cliche? …accept the things I cannot change, have courage to change the things I can and have the wisdom to know the difference…

    Introspection, self-examination, and humility are not characteristics that immediately come to mind when we consider the religiosity disproportionately popularized by the MSM or George Bush (whose own Methodist church encouragingly opposes the association of Southern Methodist University with his presidential library) for that matter.

  9. Wonderful post, Barbara, from another old Buddhist who fled Christianity for many of the same reasons you did.

  10. Maha,
    You explain so well the huge difference between people bullshitting themselves about God — which is so, so common — and the idea that God doesn’t exist or that religion, as such, is bad. Very few in the lefty blogosphere come anywhere near such discernment.

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  12. Hmmm… you have a lively crowd here, so I’m almost reluctant to wade in. But I thought I’d wave and say “hi, I’m another blog-author with an interest in addressing religious issues rather than brushing them under the carpet, and I’m delighted to find you and add you to my reader.”

    A few quick comments in respect of this piece…

    Firstly, it is certainly the case that we do not need religion in order to be good, but religion remains the best tool we have for maintaining our concepts of morality. (Would a secular system with the same role not become a form of religion…?) Any attempt to boil this issue down to “we don’t need religion for morality, so we don’t need religion” or its converse, is both naive and simplistic, as you correctly intimate.

    You note:

    “Jesus actually said very little about what people should believe. Mostly he talked about what they should do.”

    I’ve been making this point a lot; I don’t actually say it in this piece (hope you can accept html in comments!) but it’s implied.

    As for fundamentalisms and religions, let us not forget that nonreligions (secular ideologies) also fall prey. I frequently cite the Tamil Tigers (a Marxist-Leninist group) as they apparently employ more suicide bombers than any other group, which is a chilling indicator that the problems are not with religion, per se, but with humanity’s relationship to organised ideology, whether religious or otherwise.

    I really resonate with Greenwald’s line “There is no greater human presumption than to read the mind of the Almighty” – I will use this! It compares favourably to my catchphrase in respect of religious pluralism: No-one Understands The Mind Of God (NUTMOG). 😀

    Right, I have tarried long enough… Please accept my sincere best wishes, and keep up the good work!


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