In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic, by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld, is an ambitious work aiming to alleviate some of the hostility between differing world views. As odd as the title may sound, it provides some ways of understanding how doubt is not always a bad thing. But while offering some helpful ideas, it fails to lay a foundation that transcends the very problems it critiques (more on that at the end).
The book begins by noting the role of reason and science in eroding faith over the past 250 years. Voltaire’s writings and the French Revolution ( which actually enthroned the goddess of Reason in a church in Paris) serve as iconic markers for the beginning of the Enlightenment. Auguste Comte soon paved the way for a very influential empiricist science, as seen in the later philosophies of Mark, Durkheim, and Weber. The modern path to secularization seemed inevitable. When Neitzsche finally declared God was dead, many believed this would be the final nail in the religious coffin.
But “secularization theory” turned out to be just that – a theory. Two World Wars brought about a disillusionment in the ability of science and reason to bring about a better world. A global explosion of religious movements revealed a world that was not so enamored by the promises of a godless Enlightenment as had been expected.The rise of the technology and a rapidly expanding communication network exposed people to a tremendous range of worldviews. Modernity did not, in fact, secularize the world. Modernity pluralized the world.
Modernity has also heightened the desire for choice. As people learned that life offered a buffet in the realm of ideas, ideologies, religion, and personal values, they increasingly rejected the power of tradition and institutions and began to find their own way through life. This kind of shift does not happen without consequence. German social philosopher Arnold Gehlen explained how this modern shift toward choice changed the West:.
“The area of life in which choices are allowed Gehlen called the foreground, while the area in which choices are preempted he called the background. Both areas are anthropologically necessary.”
Modernity moves the background to the foreground. In other words, it takes what we accept as normative and makes it subjective. Berger and Zijderveld go on to note:
“A society consisting of foreground only, with every issue a matter of individual choice, couldn’t sustain itself for any length of time; it would lapse into chaos….a society consisting of background only wouldn’t be a human society at all, but a collectivity of robots…”
Before, people went about their daily routine without too much reflection (self-aware choice), as the background institutions in society brought predictability and normalized structure to their lives. Since modernity has brought about an increasing amount of foreground reflection, we increasingly reject the power of institutions and embrace what Gehlen called secondary institutions, which “offer entire packages of beliefs, norms, and identities to individuals.”
On the one hand, this seems compelling way. There are times in American and church history when the background was not something people should have just absorbed. On the other hand, too much foreground can bring paradoxically tyrannical choice. The Paradox of Choice has noted that more choice does not equal more happiness. Too many choices may, in fact, lead to a restlessness and unhappiness that is perhaps unique to modernity in the history of the world. Here’s how it works in the realm of ideas:
“Because [institutions] are chosen, not given or taken for granted, the memory of the choice will persist in the individual’s mind – and with it the awareness, though dim, that sometime in the future this choice could be reversed and replaced by a different choice.”
This dynamic of reversal and replacement results in fewer “cognitive and normative definitions – that is, assertions as to what the world is, and what the world should be.” Modernization first pluralized, the deinstitutionalized, then relativized. As the authors note:
“Relativism…is an invitation to nihilism…the norms of society have been hollowed out, have become illusionary and likely risable, and (most importantly) have undermined the trust that other people will behave in accordance with collectively shared norms.”
If you would like to read more about how this has impacted our society, as well as the authors’ proposed solution, you can go here to read more details. (The book looks at the rise of fundamentalism and explains why a healthy doubt offers a means to alleviate some cultural hostility between fundamentalism and modernism. It’s an intriguing discussion, but not the point of this particular review).
The authors conclude with a section entitled, “How can we arrive at moral certainty?” They note four ways by which moral certainty has traditionally been found: divine commandment, natural law, sociological functionality, and biological functionality. The authors dismiss all four as insufficient:
- Divine Command: If it is true, it can be too easily misunderstood and distorted. Multiple religions claim incongruous messages from God.
- Natural Law: It is hard find confidence here because of the many different ways cultures and eras have defined and understood this term and its application.
- Sociological functionality: It merely says norms are necessary for cultural stability. That is hardly groundbreaking.
- Biological functionality: It might tell us what “is,” but not what ought to “be.”
The authors do not believe there has been an empirically demonstrable ethical progress throughout human history. However, there has been specific progress at certain times and in certain places because of a built-in reciprocity we all have that allows us to engage within boundaries in our societies. In the end, they prescribe a solution they believe generates a moral certainty that allows for healthy doubt without caving in to relativism or fundamentalism:
“The meaning of the dignity of humankind comes to be perceived at certain moments of history; however, once perceived, it transcends these moments and is assumed to be intrinsic to human beings always and everywhere.”
As much as I found the book thought provoking, I was frustrated at the end.
First, if the authors are correct that there has been no empirically demonstrable ethical progress throughout human history, I wonder what the point is of working toward moral betterment? Sure, there have been pockets of success, but that’s like going for cancer treatments and taking solace in the fact that my biceps and calves are growing. There is an apparent sickness in the world, an inability of the human race to pull itself up by its own bootstraps and actually get somewhere better. That’s a problem. And I don’t see this book offering a true solution.
Here’s why: the authors’ principle of reciprocity limits itself to the cultures in which the reciprocity occurs. Though they claim that a morality for us all, their context for reciprocal ethics is merely cultural, and they provide no mechanism with which to make a local ethic a universal one. That’s relativism. That’s moving basic moral principles from global background to global foreground.
In addition, they begin with pockets of success and culturally contextualized reciprocity and end with something intrinsic to human beings always and everywhere. Now, I agree that there are transcendent ethical norms for all people, but there reasoning process is not solid. One cannot (or should not) move from a particular claim (“Here is something right for but limited to these people in this area at this time”) to a universal one (“So…everybody should do it!). The conclusion simply does not follow.
The authors left at least one option for moral certainty off their list: ethical essentialism. The Christian claim is that the Good is that which aligns itself with God’s character. God does not simply will it or choose it; ethics flow from His very nature. It transcends sociology and biology, and is the foundation from which Natural Law can be understood. I see no other consistent way for individual or cultural ethics to become global and normative.
The authors want an ever present doubt to keep us humble and open to new ideas. The idea is that if we all agree to not believe anything too strongly, we can get along. While peace and humility are noble goals, attaining them at the expense of a certain truth is not. When people clash over ideology, truth is not the culprit, and universal doubt is not a savior. As G.K Chesterton once said, “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”