The Wisdom of Doubt, Part IV

Christopher Hitchens published a book this year called God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Full disclosure: I have not read it. I have read excerpts from the book, and interviews of Hitchens describing his book, and reviews of the book. If someone gave me a free copy I might read it, but I’m not going to spend money on the thing.

I take it that Hitchens has decided religion is the root of all evil. Stephen Prothero wrote in the Washington Post:

Historian George Marsden once described fundamentalism as evangelicalism that is mad about something. If so, these evangelistic atheists have something in common with their fundamentalist foes, and Hitchens is the maddest of the lot. Protestant theologian John Calvin was “a sadist and torturer and killer,” Hitchens writes, and the Bible “contain[s] a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre.”

As should be obvious to any reasonable person — unlike Hitchens I do not exclude believers from this category — horrors and good deeds are performed by believers and non-believers alike. But in Hitchens’s Manichaean world, religion does little good and secularism hardly any evil. Indeed, Hitchens arrives at the conclusion that the secular murderousness of Stalin’s purges wasn’t really secular at all, since, as he quotes George Orwell, “a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy.” And in North Korea today, what has gone awry is not communism but Confucianism.

In other words, in order to prove his claim that religion is the cause of all evil, he defines all destructive mass movement of history as “religion.” See this about “moral clarity.”

Hitchens is not so forgiving when it comes to religion’s transgressions. He aims his poison pen at the Dalai Lama, St. Francis and Gandhi. Among religious leaders only the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes off well. But in the gospel according to Hitchens whatever good King did accrues to his humanism rather than his Christianity. In fact, King was not actually a Christian at all, argues Hitchens, since he rejected the sadism that characterizes the teachings of Jesus. “No supernatural force was required to make the case against racism” in postwar America, writes Hitchens. But he’s wrong. It was the prophetic faith of black believers that gave them the strength to stand up to the indignities of fire hoses and police dogs. As for those white liberals inspired by Paine, Mencken and Hitchens’s other secular heroes, well, they stood down. …

… What Hitchens gets wrong is religion itself.

Hitchens claims that some of his best friends are believers. If so, he doesn’t know much about his best friends. He writes about religious people the way northern racists used to talk about “Negroes” — with feigned knowing and a sneer. God Is Not Great assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery. But it is Hitchens who is the naïf. To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition, that ordinary Hindus view masturbation as an offense against Krishna, and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis. It is to believe that faith is always blind and rituals always empty — that there is no difference between taking communion and drinking the Kool-Aid (a beverage Hitchens feels compelled to mention no fewer than three times).

Hitchens sees himself as quite open minded, of course. This is an excerpt from the book:

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically. …

This is from a guy who still defends the invasion of Iraq, mind you. And get this from an interview:

[Interviewer]Your book discusses the problems with the Abrahamic faiths, but then says Eastern religion is not the answer. It seemed like your main criticism of Eastern religion wasn’t so much about its tenets so much as one sex abuse scandal at one ashram.

Oh, no. My objection was to the sign [at the entrance to one tent] saying, “Shoes and minds must be left at the gate.” It’s the idea that the whole effort of meditation is to try and dissolve your mind, which is the only thing you’ve got that’s unequivocally worth having.

In other words, this blockhead who says he stands for “free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake” dismissed centuries of philosophy from the entire continent of Asia because of a sign on a tent. If he’d checked, he’d have found that the sign doesn’t mean what he assumed it meant — Asian philosophy regarding the nature of mind would take a lifetime to learn — but I’ll leave that alone for now. In any event, IMO, Hitchens has a mind that were better left outside with the shoes.

I’m pointing to Hitchens because he exemplifies so nicely one of the real roots of all evil — I’m not saying it’s the only one — which is fanaticism. People can be fanatics about religion and non-religion alike, and even the most benign and innocuous human activity or belief becomes pernicious in the hands of fanatics.

Hitchens fancies himself to be an openminded man of logic and reason, but his intellectual dishonesty reveals him to be quite the opposite. In the last episode of The Wisdom of Doubt I argued that religion gets screwy when people use it to bullshit themselves about themselves. Here we see an atheist bullshitting himself about himself, to similar results.

Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer (1951):

Only the individual who has come to terms with his self can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world. Once the harmony with the self is upset, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, whole or self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or the other. …

… The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources — out of his rejected self — but finds it only in clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Though his single-minded dedication is a holding on for dear life, he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. … The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justice and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. …

… The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached. [Hoffer, The True Believer, HarperPerennial edition, pp. 84-86]

Hoffer goes on to say that fanatics of all stripes are more like each other than they are like moderates of the same stripe. “The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not,” he writes. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that atheism is a religion, but the point is that a fanatical atheist and a religious fanatic are more like each other than, say, a dispassionate guy who doesn’t believe in God but who doesn’t attach his ego to atheism. Or, for that matter, than a sincerely and deeply religious person who doesn’t attach his ego to his religion.

If you know much at all about Hitchens, you see how well Hoffer describes him. In his life he has swung from one ideology to another, embracing each with passion. He’s a classic fanatic.

I wrote awhile back about elective ignorance. People practicing elective ignorance start with a point of view and then admit into evidence only those facts that support their point of view. Those with a really bad case of elective ignorance become incapable of acknowledging facts that contradict their opinions. Thus, Christopher Hitchens came to the remarkable conclusion that Martin Luther King was not really Christian; acknowledging MLK’s Christianity contradicts his faith that religion is the root of all evil. If the facts don’t fit, change ’em.

Ideologies can be understood as a form of codified elective ignorance, or a strategy to make the world easier to understand by limiting one’s cognitive choices. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Since we all have finite cognitive resources, adopting an ideology is one way to obtain a workable understanding of issues without devoting the time and brain work required to become an expert. As long as a person appreciates that his understanding and knowledge are incomplete — if he has the wisdom of doubt, in other words — and he remains open to changing his views, he’s not a fanatic.

Fanatically attached to, ideologies become a substitute for thinking. When confronted by a new situation, instead of looking at it directly and seeing it as-it-is, the ideologue runs through the list of cognitive choices his ideology affords him and picks the one that seems to relate. No amount of empirical evidence that his choice is wrong will shake his faith in its correctness. The real world is hidden from him; the ideology is all he can see.

Hoffer writes that people become fanatical because they are estranged from themselves. This looks like a paradox — I’ve been talking about ego attachment, and also talking about alienation from the self. When the ego attaches to something, that something becomes a projection of the self. When ego attaches to a religion or a cause or an ideology, that religion, cause, etc. becomes inseparable from self-identity. It is no longer just an opinion or an interest or a practice. It becomes who you are. Fanatics cling to ridiculous positions because being wrong feels like an existential threat.

Now, some of you are probably thinking Hitchens is right and that religion is the root of all evil. Religion is, unfortunately, an easy thing to be fanatical about. Religion presents itself as a solution to our deepest pain and fears. It’s a perfect escape route for people running away from themselves. This is particularly true of dogmatic, authoritarian religions.

In Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm wrote that people who fear personal freedom, who are uncomfortable with their own autonomy, tend to escape into authoritarianism and conformity. Religion that combines passion with absolutism is the perfect medium for fanaticism. Let’s check back with Hoffer and The True Believer

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation. “Who knows Jesus knows the reason for all things.” The true doctrine is the master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together. [p. 82]

Hoffer goes on from there to quote from an official history of the Communist Party claiming that Marxist-Leninist theory answers all questions and even perfectly predicts the future. Fanaticism is not just found in religion.

History shows us that when authoritarian religion gets mixed up with political power, the results can be nasty. The Inquisition — which was as much about political authority as church authority — is a grand example. We should fear for the Middle East; whose residents seem determined to fold themselves into some kind of authoritarian Islamic theocracy. And we should fear for ourselves as long as fundamentalism is affecting the outcome of elections.

But religion is not always absolutist. In 1946 the liberal evangelical theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote an essay titled “Mystery and Meaning” in which he extolled the virtues of not-knowing —

It can not be denied … that this same Christian faith is frequently vulgarized and cheapened to the point where all mystery is banished. … a faith which measures the final dimension of existence, but dissipates all mystery in that dimension, may be only a little better or worse than a shallow creed which reduces human existence to the level of nature. …

… When we look into the future we see through a glass darkly. The important issue is whether we will be tempted by the incompleteness and frustration of life to despair, or whether we can, by faith, lay hold on the divine power and wisdom which completes what remains otherwise incomplete. A faith which resolves mystery too much denies the finiteness of all human knowledge, including the knowledge of faith. A faith which is overwhelmed by mystery denies the clues of divine meaning which shine through the perplexities of life. The proper combination of humility and trust is precisely defined when we affirm that we see, but admit that we see through a glass darkly. [Robert McAfee Brown, editor, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale, 1986), p. 248]

What Niebuhr is talking about here is the wisdom of doubt.

In this old post I wrote about Saint Anselm of Canterbury, a leading theologian of the 11th century.

Anselm’s motto is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). … Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. In fact, Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead.” … So “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” [Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

I admit that the word epistemic gives me a headache, but it has to do with the validity of knowledge and belief. So Anselm’s approach to faith is not about trying to get his belief system validated. Beliefs by themselves have no purpose. Faith is not an end in itself. Rather, Anselm says, faith is a means for seeking a deeper knowledge of God (or the Dharmakaya, or the Great Whatever). A religion that isn’t looking past the dogmas to a deeper truth is a dead religion. Conversely, a religion that is not absolutist, and which accepts the imperfection of understanding, is not necessarily a wishy-washy religion as some assume. It can be the deeper and more wholesome religion.

And in the first installment of The Wisdom of Truth I linked to a dharma talk by Sevan Ross, director of the Chicago Zen Center, called “The Distance Between Faith and Doubt.” In this talk, the sensei says “Doubt is what unseats the ego.” Doubt — accepting the limitations of one’s understanding — prevents ego-attachment. People without doubt mistake their own ego for the voice of God. This is what makes religion fanatical, and dangerous.

I cannot think of a better antidote to fanaticism than the Precepts of Engaged Buddhism of the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Here are the first three:

1 Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

2 Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

3 Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.

When dealing with fanatics it’s tempting to push back with equal and opposite fanaticism, but that doesn’t work. Fanaticism isn’t easily cured, but it’s best to deal with it as coolly and dispassionately as possible.

See also the Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng-Ts’an (the Third Patriarch of Zen; sixth century).

Update: See also “Not Knowing is Most Intimate,” a dharma talk by Zoketsu Norman Fischer.