The Power of Doubt

Sunday is often a day to celebrate faith, but on this Sunday, I want to ask you to instead celebrate at least a measured amount of doubt. Bruce Gorton writes in The Times, a South African newspaper, about how faith has gotten us into so much trouble over the years.
Key quote:

It is as William Butler Yeats said in his oft-quoted poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

This is not because the best are weak. This is because in terms of the people you want to know, the people who don’t go around flying planes into buildings, it isn’t faith that fuels their good, it is doubt. Doubt that they are right, doubt that they are always good, doubt that makes them stop and consider things from another point of view.

The dubious, the doubtful, the people who do not know what they know but, rather, think there is a good likelihood for something, these are the people who take us forward.

Now he says in the article, and I want to emphasize, that this is not an attempt to position atheists against the religious. Although I think that he fails to make that point very strongly. Rather, the issue is simply about the implications of people who have faith so strong it occludes any doubt. To me, this does not preclude theists by any means. There are ample numbers of theists who have doubts about their goodness, who wonder what God’s message really means, and who spend much time agonizing over what is right. I would not say these people lack for faith, but it is mixed in with enough doubt to make them rational and capable of learning. I do think doubt is a prerequisite for learning.

On the flip, someone full of nothing but doubt would be dysfunctional in their own right. At some point in any decision process comes some element which is best described as a leap of faith. Even science, where data and rationality are paramount, progress often happens because someone took a small leap of faith.

As with most things, the danger lies at the extremes. I think we’d all agree that someone so full of doubt they couldn’t act without absolute proof would be pretty useless and pitiable. But somehow, in many pockets of society, we’ve gone so far as to admire a person who is so full of faith that they think they are right regardless of evidence to the contrary. These people are pretty much incapable of learning, because any reality contradicting their faith-based position is ridiculed or ignored. And while it is true that these faith extremists are highly likely to also be religious, I don’t take that to mean that religion is a gateway to this extreme. Just that those extremists are naturally drawn to religion.

Looking backwards not so very far, we elected one of these faith extremists as President, for cryin’ in yer beer—twice. Perhaps we can make more rational choices of leaders going forward. But I have my doubts. I’d like my leaders to have doubts too. I don’t want them to have all the answers going into the job, or think that there won’t be a learning curve for them when they get there. I’d like them to demonstrate that they are broadly knowledgable, thoughtful, and capable of learning. A talented leader is one who recognizes that he or she has all the responsibilities, but they cannot possibly have all the answers, or even make correct decisions 100% of the time.

So maybe, just maybe… be a little cautious of the guy who says he already knows how to win wars, catch bin Laden, solve our dependency on foreign oil, and fix the economy. And certainly be wary of his running mate who never blinked—and probably never will.

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