By Procrustes (procrustes.blogtownhall.com)
We begin, as all do, as squalling children demanding to be fed. And by the grace of God and our parents, they feed us both food and instruction, so that on the verge of adulthood we think we know right from wrong, truth from falsehood, justice from oppression. Then comes the Fall, when we or the world disappoint us. For most, it is the world, but for the sensitive, it is us. We would like to run away, to pretend to be a child again, to wish it all hadn’t happened, but we can’t. For we are confronted with a cognitive dissonance, an insoluble dilemma that involves us, and wherever we flee, there we are. So we have several options: we can conclude that the facts are falsified, we can conclude that rules aren’t valid, or that we misunderstood the application of the rule to the facts. That is, we can reject a syllogism by denying the major premise (the rule), the minor premise (the facts) or the conclusion (the logic).
So we discover that when our world is shaken and the symmetry destroyed, we find release in doubt. Doubt that the facts are as they get reported, doubt that the rules are as rigid as we were taught, doubt that we can properly understand causation. Doubt is our friend, and like a child frightened by a horror movie, we leave the theater laughing at our naive fears, but holding tightly to the hand of our new mentor, Doubt. The skeptic becomes the captain of kickball, the king of the mountain, the one who can laugh at calamity and disaster. Ubi dubium ibi libertas, “where there is doubt, there is freedom”.
And what freedom it is! When we fail an exam at school, we can doubt that the grades were fair, or doubt that the material was useful, or doubt that the teacher appreciated our genius. When we fail in personal relationships, we can doubt that the other was rational or human, or even that relationships are worthy of our tears. When we fail in morality, … And on it goes, doubt becomes the magic key that releases us from the jail of guilt, of shame, of cognitive dissonance. We can get out of any jam with Doubt.
Doubt always lets us out, but it never lets us in. Doubt leaves us king of the mountain, when all the others have gone back to class. Doubt leaves us outside, looking back through the brightly lit windows and the laughing conversations that we can’t follow. Doubt gives us the street with hurrying figures who will not look up for company. And we find that having been booted out of many doors and climbed out of many windows, there isn’t a place left to call home. We live in the streets and the alleys, like wild dogs, snuffling among the garbage cans for a meal, curling up by the door for heat, disdaining those that live in houses, telling ourselves that leftovers are a varied diet, that outdoor air brings good health.
Wait. Look at the hand you are holding. Look at the wrist, the arm, the shoulder, yes look at the chin and especially the eyes. Can he hold your gaze? Why is it that Doubt takes you out of many places, but you never doubted where he led? Whose hand does Doubt hold, with the one that is not gripping yours? Will he tell you if you ask? Could you not have found a better friend?
“Your problem, Pro, is that you believe in your beliefs”. I paused, long enough to consider whether this was another Russian-English translation problem from my erstwhile friend, so he repeated it, with a slight condescending tone. “But isn’t that why they are called beliefs?” I asked. “No, no”, he insisted, “holding beliefs too rigidly is what causes so many problems, like your Inquisition. You think you are closer to the truth than they are.” I shifted gears. “You only say that because you were brought up in Russia,” I reply, “you are homo sovieticus, you don’t understand.” I had touched a nerve. “You have never been there, and you want to tell me what homo sovieticus is? I have seen it, I have lived it, what can you know about it?” “So you believe that you understand homo sovieticus better than I?”, I persisted, “You are closer to the truth than I am?” He reflected, and reformed his argument. “Facts are one thing, religion is another.”
This was just one more volley in a long-standing argument. Religion for him was something distant, something theoretical, something unprovable. It was Kant’s “noumena”, existing in the thought and minds of men, yet without substance, without proof, without “phenomena”. And religion, as he was fond of reminding me, had caused the death of thousands during the religious wars that wracked Europe, even wars between flavors of the same religion, between Catholics and Protestants. Wasn’t this all due, he would argue, to a rigidity, a dogmatism, a belief in beliefs? And wasn’t the modern understanding (post WWII no doubt), of diversity, of tolerance, all due to a modern skepticism of dogmatism, a disbelief in beliefs?
This Myth is so pervasive, so prevalent that I despair of ever chopping off it’s hydra-like heads. Here is a random sampler of sword blows, not intended to be comprehensive or even guaranteed to work.
a) Medieval man was far more violent with a sword, in a vivisection sort of way, than Modern man. The slightest insult would often end in a deadly duel. And attributing this to “dogmatically held beliefs” misunderstands the deep significance the Medieval man put on words, on honor, on the fragility of life. We moderns who claim to value life so much, also have an unfounded belief in the power of science to prolong life well into the 80’s, so that a man dying at 60 is now considered a tragic early death. But when a life span rarely went beyond 45, when life was fragile and brief, then what better way to finish it, but in a blaze of glory? If this is dogmatic belief, then it was not theological, but anthropological belief.
b) Pascal said that all men have a god-shaped vacuum in their souls, that they must and will fill with something. Bob Dylan used to sing, “you gotta serve somebody”. So the question isn’t whether one holds a belief, whether one has a god, but which god you hold. In the 20th century alone, the god of science, the god of Modernity, the god of Immanuel Kant, produced the Russian civil war, the Chinese civil war, two world wars, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the Cambodian civil war, and numerous smaller conflicts in places like Peru and Nepal. The death toll from atheist wars is well over 100 million souls, and if we include the famines that came from the chaos of these wars, it is well over 200 million. In other words, there were more people killed for the atheist god in the 20th century than all the wars that have been fought in the name of Christianity in the previous 19. This is probably still true if one counted deaths as a fraction of the world population. Both absolutely and relatively, there has been no god more voracious than atheism.
c) Finally, in an age when Islam is ascendant, and Iran is attempting to get the bomb, from a president who refers to Israel as “a one-bomb state”, are we more or less safe from genocide? We no longer kill individually, as crazed Rwandans with machetes, but rather we kill clinically, scientifically, with one touch of a button. Even suicide bombers, who give the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs, are killing indiscriminately, anonymously, without even looking in the eyes of their victims. “Oh, but isn’t that a perfectly clear case of holding your beliefs too firmly?” No, absolutely not. These are people who are depressed, discouraged, desperate, and easily manipulated by the dogs of war, by the psychological Eichmann’s of Islam, who are the heirs of the Assassins, and will likewise vanish like them. It is not that suicide bombers value their faith over their life, but rather they despair to their death over their faith. Despair is not a firm foundation to build a religion on. And had these pitiful wretches had more faith, they would have had less despair. Chesterton addresses this difference between martyrdom and suicide in Orthodoxy, and it is well worth the read.
There is just no part of the Myth that holds up under scrutiny, but perhaps it is the last hope for a dying faith. For as the Modernist watches the dogs of war, the proliferation of the bomb, the religious unrest boiling to the surface in Europe, in Asia, in the world, he can cling to the belief that he alone has the moral superiority not to believe his own creed too much.
If only, if only he would be a little more doubtful about doubt.