Monday, August 06, 2007
Doubt vs. Atheism
A while ago I was listening to an episode of the NPR radio program Speaking of Faith (one of my new favorite podcasts) and it was an interview on the History of Doubt with Jennifer Michael Hecht. At one point the host, Krista Tippett, asks her about her own beliefs, and Hecht replies that while she's not religious, she is also uncomfortable with identifying herself as an atheist either because of the dogmatism and close-mindedness that she notices in those circles as well. Instead she rather identify herself as a "doubter". Here's part of her conversation on the subject:

Ms. Tippett: I have to ask you, do you consider yourself a religious person?

Ms. Hecht: No, I consider myself a doubter. I'm in a difficult position because, having read the documents that I read in order to write this book [Doubt: A History] and having thought them through and written the book, I find that the modern terms atheist, agnostic and believer are so wrong-headed, so misunderstood, and sort of calcifying sections of thought that really need not be calcified, that I really hesitate to align myself with any of them.

Ms. Tippett: OK, tell me what's gone wrong and what you would propose instead.

Ms. Hecht: Well, I like the conversation to be more fluid, and I'm willing to answer the question that you're getting at with more sort of piecemeal terms. I can say that I don't believe that there is any thinking to the universe. I don't believe that there's any overall force that created us, is watching us and gave us a text to follow. I don't think it's particularly useful either to talk about a force that's coursing through all nature and is somehow cohesive. I don't believe in an afterlife, though I can't imagine how anyone could get any evidence whatsoever on that question. So certainly that's one where you say, you know, the force of life and consciousness seems to be material.

On the other hand, I feel that religion has been such a crucial aspect of the human experience and that people who — that I won't align myself with any doctrine which entirely rejects it as, say, bunk or some mass hysteria, foolishness, childishness. Those aspects of atheists' discussion I think are reasonable if you point them at very specific types of religious beliefs, specific moments. But overall, you miss too much of what's really going on in those ways, and that's why I'm so careful about my terms.

Ms. Tippett: I copied down this longish quote from your book. It's just such a beautiful piece of writing and — all right. "That we love and that love, among other possibilities, brings forth life is very strange. The birth of a child can bring extraordinarily religious feelings because it is such a good thing but also because it makes no real sense. Where did this miniature human being come from? Technically, we made it out of nine months' worth of French toast, salad and lamb chops. Technically, our bodies hold tiny, little instructions for how to build human eyes, a language center in the brain, and a human spirit, fussy, joyful or otherwise. But how strange that such a thing as fussy exists and is created thusly." I mean, you're avoiding the word "mystery" there, but the word "strange" is a synonym for mysterious…

Ms. Hecht: Sure. I don't — I…

Ms. Tippett: …in that case, isn't it?

Ms. Hecht: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and it seems that if you have a doctrine, a version of rationalism or a version of atheism that makes it so that you have to be worried about using the word mystery, you've got yourself too constraining a doctrine. And so I think that that's what's been so wonderful about doubters throughout history. They haven't been an all-out turf war against religion. They haven't been afraid — you know, Epicurus says, you know, "It feels good to pray, you might as well." Now, that's an amazing statement for someone who says that there's no one listening, and the idea that we don't have to be against religion or against the idea of mystery. How can you really be against the idea of mystery and have your eyes open at the same time? It doesn't make sense to me.

But mystery, then, doesn't mean I've got to fill in the blanks with, you know, ideas of my own imagination. Though, when people say that they've spent, you know, years in the desert and they've had certain experiences, I think that it's perfectly reasonable to hold those experiences, those feelings. Or, you know, you don't have to go off into the desert, just the feeling of faith, that's an important thing. And I don't think it needs to be dismissed in the kind of panic of, "We've got to control the other side." You know, if we sort of can respect these ideas and say, "Yeah, life is mysterious. It is very strange." Just the fact that, you know, we are these animals who have these kind of thoughts, it's all pretty wondrous, and doubters have celebrated it. And that's the kind of doubt I want to bring into the conversation, because I think we've really backed ourselves into a couple of corners, and it's time to get out.

I wish more non-believers would talk about their lack of belief in these terms. I do know from recent experience that certainly not all atheists are as dogmatic or close minded as the ones she describes here, and yet at the same time, I also know from recent experience that very many are. There is a sense that one gets from some atheists (emphasis on some) that they really have no sensitivity at all to the strangeness and wonder and mystery and just sheer weirdness of human existence, and thus have no appreciation for the diversity of answers, religious or otherwise, that have been given to try and explain this mystery and wonder. To them, religious people are just foolish, deluded, unintelligent, or brainwashed.

I appreciate Hecht's response on the other hand. She seems to be saying "I can't accept belief in these things for myself, but I can understand why others would. The world is a strange place and there is room for all kinds of explanations - just as there is often reason to doubt many of these explanations as well." She seems to imply that both the beliefs and the doubts are good and normal parts of human existence. And I tend to agree with her. As a Christian theist, I have my beliefs - and yet I also have plenty of doubts about my beliefs. And I can see and appreciate why some would choose the atheist explanation instead - though I have just as many doubts and questions about that position as well. To me the sign of maturity is not to claim to have nailed down the one right answer for all people for all time, but rather it is to admit the limitations of one's own knowledge and yet also have the wisdom to choose a path anyway and live in it. We can't stay undecided forever - so we make a leap of faith one way or the other, and choose to get on with our lives according to the implications of which way we chose to leap. However, remaining open to doubt means that it will always be possible to revisit that leap and choose a different path if it becomes necessary. In the meantime however, we move forward as best we can.

More on this later when I finally get around to my review of Harry Potter...


posted by Mike Clawson at 1:07 AM | Permalink |


At 8/06/2007 08:09:00 AM, Blogger PrincessMax

The leaps you describe sounds like some sort of metaphysical Frogger. That could be fun.

Also, you say, "I wish more non-believers would talk about their lack of belief in these terms."

Heck, I wish more believers would talk about belief and doubt in these terms. How many people have thrown up their defenses against my heresies by claiming to have found the one, true path. Yuck.


At 8/06/2007 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Derek Berner

I believe in God but for all other intents and purposes I identify as agnostic, simply because at this stage in my life I am making an honest admission that I just don't know what I believe about a lot of things. This is a rather recent development, coming out of the previous stage in my life where my line of thinking was, pay lip service to the old faith just to be sure, but also keep an open mind and live your life however you want. Which came out of a rebellion against the restrictive brand of Christianity I was raised in.

I do believe that in general, matters of faith are arational or alogical, in that they lie outside the boundaries of what reason or logic can tell us; in my opinion, any atheist who tells you that the alogical is actually illogical is just as confused as the theist who tells you that the alogical is actually logical.

I believe that when in a larger sense, we can eschew our obsession with pigeonholing every proposition into either logical and illogical, and appreciate that there is so much about the world that is alogical, the lines between the "skeptics" and "believers" will start to blur and we will finally be able to make real, constructive dialog.


At 8/06/2007 03:59:00 PM, Blogger Steven Carr

As an atheist, I hope I have the humility to admit that I can learn something about the beauty and wonder of the world from a book written by ignorant barbarians who dreamed of the day they could smash the heads of their enemies babies against rocks.


At 8/09/2007 08:45:00 AM, Blogger olvlzl

a book written by ignorant barbarians who dreamed of the day they could smash the heads of their enemies babies against rocks

Almost sounds like Hitchens on cluster bombs. Who would have thought his world view would be influenced by the Psalms?

I've been trying to do some research on the late Marcello Truzzi. He wrote an article in which he pointed out that the only viewpoint that didn't logically require evidence presented to back up the claims were agnostic viewpoints. However fundamentalism holds itself above the standards of logic, nevermind the requirement of objective standards of evidence. Atheist fundamentalism has never held itself to those standards while requiring them of everyone else.

By the way,Truzzi's famous "Extraodinary claims require extraordinary evidence," which was so shamelessly stolen by Carl Sagan was something he later came to see was an error. I'm in the middle of writing a piece about it, which is a blogwhore but a small one.


At 3/11/2008 04:13:00 AM, Anonymous benjdm

Resurrecting an old post, I know...

There is a sense that one gets from some atheists (emphasis on some) that they really have no sensitivity at all to the strangeness and wonder and mystery and just sheer weirdness of human existence, and thus have no appreciation for the diversity of answers, religious or otherwise, that have been given to try and explain this mystery and wonder. To them, religious people are just foolish, deluded, unintelligent, or brainwashed.

I might be close to this stereotype, though I would modify the second statement. But, to turn it around to a theme I seem to harp on: I think we underestimate the cognitive differences between people. It probably is true that my experiences are fundamentally different from others.

It could very well be that I don't have 'religious experiences.' I would list a particularly enjoyable game of foosball during the middle of a submarine deployment (probably due to the contrast with the misery of the submarine deployment) and listening to Tarkus by ELP while delivering Pennysavers in the rain as religious experiences (plus one or two other music-listening occasions.) Each experience was a kind of super-joy.

When I was a little boy and played with toys or built models, they were almost always of things and things only. I wanted planes that did NOT have a pilot in them, etc. During my life I've managed to advance from completely socially incompetent to socially retarded, but I still don't like being in groups of more than two or three people. All in all, I tend to do very little anthropmorphizing compared to others.

To me, religion consists of scientific claims and ethical systems. To the extent that others are willing to categorize it differently, I might not have the referents to know what the heck they're talking about. Are you able to imagine yourself as one who perceives religion the way I do (and always have)? I know that trying to imagine myself as a religious follower is beyond my limits of empathy and / or imagination.

Assuming that natural atheists or hard atheists or whatever you want to call us have sufficiently different brains (for example, Dawkins was unaffected by Persinger's God Helmet and scored low on a temporal lobe sensitivity test), where do we go from there?


Heck, does what I'm saying make any sense to you?


Links to this post

Links to this post:

Create a Link