The Importance of Doubt


I found a link in Simon Barrow's "Faith in Society" blog to an interesting column by John Cornwell about Richard Dawkins that was recently published in the Guardian. I particularly liked the following quote from that article:

Dawkins is as reluctant as any evangelical fundamentalist to recognise the importance of an element of doubt, or doubt of doubt, in religious faith, or to accept that much of the content of religious faith is metaphorical, poetic and symbolic rather than factual in a scientific sense. He is convinced that faith is in all circumstances absolute, seamless, literal. This implausible understanding of what it means to believe gives his case against religion its sensationalist, emotive edge; by the same token it robs his solution - what do we do about extremism? - of any feasibility.

Dawkins nourishes a disturbing contempt for religious believers. Here are some of the descriptions he applies to them: "malevolent ... vicious, sadomasochistic and repellent ... dodgy, perniciously delusional ... sanctimoniously hypocritical ... cockeyed ... " At the heart of his book, he makes a distinction between what he calls "mild religion" and "extreme religion". But both, he maintains, are equally capable of prompting acts of extremism, such as suicide bombing, in religion's name. "The take-home message," he writes, "is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism - as if there were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion." Then he asserts: "I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called 'extremist' faith. The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism."

Through the excited syntax he is declaring that if you go to church, synagogue, mosque or temple only once a year, you are just as liable to perpetrate fanatical deeds on the basis of faith as an al-Qaida terrorist. Faith, mild or extreme, is a mental state, Dawkins argues, that involves an open invitation to hatred and violence.

While religious belief may be sufficient to explain some extreme acts, it does not explain all extreme acts. Fundamentalism is as likely to be found in the qualitative conclusions of science as in religion. Under Hitler, it was the science-based ideology of racial hygiene that led to the first concentration camps - based on the recommendation that certain groups were in need of quarantine. Stalin's ideology saw the implementation of socio-biological principles based on Lamarck - the inheritance of acquired characteristics - legitimising strategies of enforced collectivisation of agricultural labour, and ruinous systems of agricultural production. Biologists who refused to believe in the inheritance of acquired characteristics landed in jail. It is not religion alone and of itself that leads to fundamentalism and its social consequences, but an insistence from any ideological source that only one set of convictions should prevail.


JP said...


If forgot how good your blog was. Enjoying shifting through the archives.

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks, JP, and welcome back to my blog.