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.

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.

The Wisdom of Doubt, Part II

Yesterday President Bush vetoed a bill that would have provided for federal funding of some embryonic stem cell research. John Amato writes,

He falsely asked for Congress to stop politicizing Stem Cell research, but that’s what he did today and took a ridiculous moral position. This is why we need separation of Church and State. Religion cannot dictate Science. Here’s the role call of the vote … Update: Fact Check Bush on Stem Cell via The Democratic Caucus’s Senate Journal. 68 percent support funding, in the latest ABC/Post poll to measure views on the issue, in April.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times,

“Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical,” Mr. Bush said during a brief ceremony in the East Room of the White House. He called America “a nation founded on the principle that all human life is sacred.”

Picking up where the last post left off … Our culture places a high value on certainty and considers not-knowing a flaw. And moral clarity is ballyhooed as the sine qua non of all that is Good and Righteous.

As I’ve written elsewhere, achieving moral clarity is remarkably easy.

First, take a firm and inflexible position on a moral question. Then, studiously ignore any factors that might call that opinion into question. If the factors refuse to go away, make up lies to neutralize them.

See? Nothin’ to it.

If you are foolish enough to take all facets of an issue into account, you risk not being clear. In fact, the more gut-level honest you are about a messy, unpleasant issue, the less clear you are likely to be. And this is a problem for conservatives, who by nature cannot stand ambiguity. One of the most basic traits of conservatives, in fact, is a compulsion to sort the world into rigid binary categories — right and wrong, good and evil, white and black. Any muddling of categories sends them into nervous fits. But once all things and all issues are properly sorted, they can relax and bask in their moral clarity.

The standard way to achieve moral clarity on the abortion issue, for example, is to completely disregard women. Examples of such “clear” moralizing include this op ed by Dean Barnett and this one by Michael Gerson. See also Digby:

This is not the first time I’ve heard this argument and it’s always quite compelling to hear a man make such a stark and simple logical argument about something which others seem to find so complicated. I suspect that is because there is one person involved in this great moral question who is rarely mentioned in such pieces. In fact, if you read the whole thing you will find that this man has managed to write an entire article about fetuses, pregnancy and abortion without even noting in passing the fully formed sentient human being involved so intimately in this that the whole argument takes place inside her body.

Abortion presents a painful choice, and although I oppose criminalization I understand why people agonize over this issue. But embryonic stem cell research? Particularly when there are boatloads of frozen embryos that will almost certainly be discarded anyway? You’re balancing the “rights” of a cluster of frozen cells against sentient children and adults suffering from terrible diseases. I see absolutely nothing “ethical” in Bush’s veto.

Weirdly, people who have “moral clarity” that embryonic stem cell research is bad often are compelled to lie — to us, to each other, to themselves — about the facts of the embryonic stem cell issue.

Satyam writes for Think Progress:

Faced with the opposition of nearly two-thirds of Americans, White House spokesperson Tony Snow today attempted to spin the veto as a positive development. Snow claimed that Bush has a “unique and unprecedented role” in supporting stem cell research, and attacked critics for “misstating” the administration’s policies, claiming that Bush was in fact “putting science before ideology.”

In an attempt to drum up support for less potent alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, Snow falsely characterized the science behind stem cell research, claiming scientists “are not even entirely sure about what the possible benefits of embryonic stem cells [are].” …

…Snow’s claim doesn’t pass the laugh test. Contrary to what Snow says, Bush has held a backwards and overly ideological perspective on scientific research. In 2001, Bush neutered the ability of scientists to engage in stem cell research by curbing funding for new embryonic lines. In 2006, he vetoed legislation lifting those restrictions. Even Bush’s top scientists have criticized him for these actions.

Currently, “not a single scientist who is pursuing research on any kind of cell has said that research involving embryonic stem cells should stop.” And scientists have seen potential treatments from embryonic stem cell research for a variety of ailments.

The only thing stopping federally-funded stem cell research from progressing is the White House’s insistence on putting right-wing ideology ahead of science.

UPDATE: More on the administration’s misinformation here and here.

As I said, whenever any messy facts get between you and moral clarity, just lie about them. That’s the ticket.

There is something self-evidently screwy about “ethics” that value frozen blastocysts above children and adults suffering and dying from terrible disease. But “moral clarity” on the stem cell issue — born of a stubborn refusal to look at all facets of the issue honestly — results in myriad unfortunate side effects. As explained here, for example, thanks to morally clear policies doctors performing in vitro fertilization cannot research ways to reduce multiple births. And multiple births increase the risks for both babies and mothers.

In other words, the rigid “right-to-life” policy is killing babies.

Essentially, “moral clarity” is about bullshitting yourself. It’s about not dealing honestly and compassionately with all aspects of a moral issue. Instead, the “morally clear” begin with the position they want to take and work backward to justify it, scamming themselves and others when necessary to achieve the desired outcome. This twisted way of achieving “clarity” is founded in the dualistic thinking Glenn Greenwald writes about. This dualism assumes one side of an issue must be “good” and the other must be “bad.” Thus, in much anti-choice literature embryos can talk and women who choose abortions are either ignored or assumed to have evil or selfish motivations. But real-world moral issues often involve multiple “good” sides. It is actually quite rare for people and facts to so neatly sort themselves into “good” and “bad” boxes as the morally clear want to sort them. And by achieving “clarity” based on lies and false assumptions, the “clarifiers” actually create more pain and complication.

Moral clarity takes inflexible positions based on rigid, narrow concepts of good and bad, life and death, self and other; see the “One Watch” series for further explanation of this. The morally clear like to talk about “standing firm.” The philosophical Taoists would tell you this is a bone-headed and disastrous way to approach morality. The Tao (way) is harmonious and does not take sides. Taoists call the Tao “soft,” and like water it naturally finds its best course without having to be forced. You understand it not by its actions but by its effects. The American Right is the Anti-Tao, always striving to impose their hard will on others and refusing to acknowledge how much harm they do and how much suffering they cause.

In John Wu’s translation of verse 38 of the Tao Teh Ching (Shambhala, 1989), I think the word ceremony can be read as either “organized religion” or “social convention.” I say that because other translations use ritual or etiquette instead of ceremony. Other than that, I think the verse applies as well to 21st century America as it did to China in 500 BCE.

High virtue is non-virtuous;
Therefore it has Virtue.
Low Virtue never frees itself from virtuousness;
Therefore it has no Virtue.

High Virtue makes no fuss and has no private ends to serve:
Low Virtue not only fusses but has private ends to serve.

High humanity fusses but has no private ends to serve:
High morality not only fusses but has private ends to serve.
High ceremony fusses but finds to response;
Then it tries to enforce itself with rolled-up sleeves.

Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue.
Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity.
Failing humanity, man resorts to morality.
Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony.
Now, ceremony is the merest husk of faith and loyalty;
It is the beginning of all confusion and disorder.

As to foreknowledge, it is only the flower of Tao,
And the beginning of folly.

Therefore, the full-grown man sets his heart upon the substance rather than the husk;
Upon the fruit rather than the flower.
Truly, he prefers what is within to what is without.

See also:Mr. Bush’s Stem Cell Diversion.” Click here for The Mahablog stem cell archives.

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.