October 16, 2007

Certainty is a luxury none of us has

What is God, and does It exist? What is the meaning and purpose of human life? What is the ultimate source of morality? These are unanswerable questions; you can put ten of the smartest people in the world in a room and ask them to answer them, and you might well receive ten different responses. And yet the world is full of intelligent people who reply to these questions with authority and believe that they, and only they, know the correct answers


It is tempting for students and scholars, decorated with degrees and titles and ensconced in elite universities, to forget that their small corner of knowledge and understanding is infinitely outweighed by questions they can never fully comprehend—questions about ultimate meaning, conflict and peace, justice and mercy, among others.

For better or worse, the discussions that fill classrooms and dining halls often take the form of intellectual combat, in which each party digs in and becomes wedded to a given perspective. We may repeat a line of argument so many times that our conviction takes the form of certainty, and we begin to suspect that those who disagree simply haven’t thought hard enough.

Certainty is good for business: Witness the worldwide growth in religious fundamentalism over the past few decades, on the one hand, and the recent trend of aggressively atheist bestsellers such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion on the other. The proponents of both extremes wear their false certainty like blinders; they crusade about and trample on the beliefs of others, have no time for shades of gray and uncertainty, and are sure that they have nothing to learn from the opposing side.

In fact, priests, poets, philosophers, businessmen, and scientists alike are plagued by the same doubt and the same inability to understand and believe, and no degree we receive will give us the gift, if it is a gift, of certainty. Doubt is fundamental to the human experience; we should be very skeptical of all prophets and creeds claiming to overcome it. Doubt is not something that is overcome, but rather pushed beneath the surface.

It is tempting to think of education as something that can give us the ability to speak confidently about the most difficult and oldest questions about the human situation. The reality, however, is that it can only help us ask the same basic questions in new ways. We can examine the questions from new angles, using new tools and insights. If we are fortunate, we may be able to find a path lighted well enough to guide our own lives and behavior, giving us a sense of purpose and direction.

It is true that the non-religious face a great deal of discrimination in America, and insofar as the work of Richard Dawkins and his colleagues helps to change that, their contribution to the debate about faith is welcome. And yet Dawkins—along with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, among others—goes far beyond promoting his own worldview and seems to take pleasure in ridiculing the worldviews of others. As Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote: “If there is no God, not everything is permitted to man. He is still his brother’s keeper, and he is not permitted to sadden his brother by saying there is no God.”

By waving their advanced degrees in people’s faces and advocating a narrow-minded, unimaginative materialism in the name of science, these polemicists highlight the human limitations of their own understanding. Most importantly, they give no thought to the possibility that they might be wrong. They engage in the same dogmatism they criticize in their religious counterparts.

Among Christians, too, doubt is a thing more often experienced than acknowledged. There is plenty of support for doubt in the Christian tradition, a fact contemporary Christians would do well to embrace. In his Introduction to Christianity, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) argues that believer and non-believer alike experience doubt and that neither has a monopoly on truth. Accordingly, doubt itself can serve as an avenue of communication between people with different beliefs.

“Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief,” Ratzinger wrote, “which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man.”

And this point applies also to atheists, humanists, and skeptics of every sort, who should be careful not to think of themselves as having transcended or “grown out of” faith. We all have faith in something and doubt something else, and none of us has all the answers. By recognizing the limits of our understanding, we can make room for tolerance and respect. Then, perhaps, we can stop seeing each other as heathens to be converted one way or the other and begin to see each other as fellow searchers and as equal contributors to a timeless debate.

Ryan McCarl, a member of the Maroon Editorial Board, is an M.A. student in international relations. His column appears every other Tuesday.