It's fitting that the editors of the Sunday Review section of The New York Times chose Easter Sunday to publish an op-ed column about the crucial importance of tempering religious faith with doubt. Easter, after all, is the holiday when the world's 2.2 billion Christians celebrate the bodily resurrection of a recently executed carpenter and itinerate preacher in ancient Judea who also happened to be the creator of the universe incarnated in human form.
Do you find that difficult to believe? Then the essay is for you.
Its author, philosopher William Irwin, stakes out the eminently reasonable position that all thoughts about God should be treated as uncertain. That goes for those who affirm his existence as much as for those who deny it. "Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all," Irwin writes. Likewise, "the believer should concede that she does not know with certainty that God exists." All we can know for sure is that "there should be no dogmatic belief" because "it is impossible to be certain about God."
I think that's largely correct, and it certainly governs the way I think about religion and its critics. It's why I am often sharply critical of those who show unreflective deference to religious traditions and ecclesiastical authorities, as well as to the most strident and incurious atheists.
But there's at least one dimension of reality missing from Irwin's analysis.
Like most people writing and thinking today about religion, politics, economics, and a range of other fields, Irwin tacitly assumes that his nuanced reflections on a complicated set of norms, practices, and beliefs are applicable to all people who take part in that set of norms, practices, and beliefs. In Irwin's case, he assumes that all people are equally capable of engaging in the thought-process that leads away from certainty about God and toward doubt. He also assumes that once this uncertainty is achieved, a person will persist in it going forward through life.
This is an egalitarian assumption, and it is flatly untrue.
Nothing about human history or the present world gives us reason to conclude that most people are thoughtful, inclined toward standing back and judging their beliefs in a detached and dispassionate way, living in doubt, and affirming a life dominated by questions rather than answers. On the contrary, human history and the present world teach a far more muddled and troubling lesson, which is that the vast majority of people who have ever lived find it perfectly possible and even downright appealing to affirm certainty about a range of issues, including the divine.
The natural condition of humanity, you might say, is relatively passive, dogmatic belief in whatever the political, moral, and religious authorities teach in a given time and place about right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust — and about God or the gods.
But is that really true in our own time? Don't the nations of the modern West teach critical thinking and affirm a skeptical pluralism instead?
Yes, they do — certainly more than the norm throughout most of human history. But that doesn't mean that the result is a world permeated by philosophic doubt. (If that were so, there would be no need at all for Irwin's op-ed.)
Life in modernity is actually far more complex, with a range of institutions putting unprecedented pressure on traditional moral and religious views — and new positions cropping up to strengthen traditional beliefs or serve as substitutes for them.
The process works like this:
Modernity unleashes a series of trends that further skepticism. It fosters pluralism that denies any one faith the power to organize the whole of social life. It teaches that public authorities must submit to the consent of those over whom they aspire to rule, thereby undermining the legitimacy of all forms of absolutism. It employs the systematic skepticism of the scientific method to settle important question of public import. And it encourages the growth of the capitalist marketplace, which unleashes human appetites and gives individuals the freedom to choose among an ever-expanded range of ways to satisfy them.
You might think that all of this would straightforwardly advance precisely the kind of skepticism that Irwin favors. And yet, that's not what we see.
Instead, we live in a world filled with non-traditional dogmas. There are various forms of fundamentalist religion, which is what faith becomes when it reacts to and recoils from doubt. Then there are a range of holistic political ideologies that began to arise in history just as modern forms of social life started to erode the old certainties. And then, finally, there is the dogmatic, incurious form of atheism that first appeared around the time of the French Revolution and today is peddled by such bestselling authors as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Any effort to get large numbers of people to affirm doubt and uncertainty in matters of religion needs to wrestle with this discouraging and sobering track record. Above all, it needs to confront the fact that skepticism isn't for everyone, or even for more than a few. Most people would prefer to enjoy the comfort of believing themselves to possess comprehensive answers to the deepest mysteries of human existence than to live with the spiritual turbulence that accompanies a life of continual, open-ended doubt.
Which is another way of saying that not everyone is cut out to be a philosopher.
That's something that even philosophers themselves sometimes need to be reminded of.