I'm an ardent worshipper of Amazon, because it brings me so much inspiration. My current object of literary worship is a compelling little (204 pages) book by Lesley Hazleton, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto.
Now, I don't see much difference between atheism and agnosticism, but Hazleton does, so I'm good with that. I'd still argue that at times she views atheism as excessively certain God doesn't exist, because every atheist I know (including myself) would be pleased to acknowledge the existence of God if there was good reason to do so.
Which, there isn't.
But this is a minor quibble with the book. So far I've read three of the eight chapters and I'm liking it a lot. Hazleton is an excellent writer. And I agree with almost everything she says about the need to embrace mystery and the unknown, not a rigid fundamentalism marked by rigid conviction that the Truth about the cosmos already is known.
Here's some passages from the "In Doubt We Trust" chapter I read this morning. In the passage below Hazleton addresses why people are so fond of belief and so distrustful of uncertainty.
Sociobiologists have argued that humans have an innate bias toward belief as a matter of physical survival. A prehistoric hunter would have been wiser to take a rustling in the forest as ominous than to blithely trust it was not. Or, in more familiar terms, better safe than sorry. If this theory means that I would not have lasted long in a prehistoric forest, I can live with that.
But it may also go some way toward explaining why so many people long for certainty: why they experience uncertainty as an unpleasant state of being, as though a saber-toothed tiger were waiting to pounce, and why, despite the occasional criticism of someone as credulous and thus liable to believe anything at all, the idea that belief is good seems built into the way we think.
Someone may be praised as being true to his beliefs, for instance, as though the act of belief were a value in itself, a moral stance, no matter the content of the belief in question. In matters of religion, belief can even develop into something of a full-time occupation -- a profession, in both senses of the word.
You don't simply believe; you become a believer. You are defined by living in the state of belief, both in the eyes of others and in your own.
Belief can then develop into an impassioned state of being where the act of believing is more important than its content, which is why the most ardent fundamentalists can turn into the most vehement atheists, flaming red socialists into deep-blue conservatives, hedonists into ascetics (and all, by the same token, potentially vice versa).
Conviction is deadening, in Hazleton's view. No one should be certain of their convictions, because there's a reason "conviction" and "convict" are so similar. Rigid convictions keep us confined in a mental jail of fundamentalist self-righteousness.
The more firmly I hold a belief (and note that word hold, that sense of possession, of its being mine), the more liable it is to fossilize into conviction, as tightly constricted as that army cot, or as a convict in his cell. And when my belief is so adamantly held that it becomes central to my identity, your disbelief then undermines not only the assumed truth of what I believe, but me.
This is no mere schoolyard "I am right and you are wrong."
Instead, it is "I am right and you are wrong, and your wrongness is a threat to my identity." Or even to my existence. As Samuel Johnson put it in rather more elegant terms: "Every man who attacks my belief diminishes in some degree my confidence in it, and therefore makes me uneasy; and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy."
To be secure in one's convictions is thus to be absurdly oxymoronic, since conviction is really a state of insecurity. If you know something for a fact, you have no need to believe in it or to be convinced of it. You need belief only when you are not sure. Belief is thus the product not of knowledge, but of uncertainty. It contains within itself the possibility of disbelief.
If I gird myself in the psychic armor of righteousness, it is precisely because on some level, conscious or not, I am aware of my vulnerability. Why else would I need any kind of armor?
As with the stiff gait of an elderly arthritic person, the tenacious rigidity of conviction indicates not strength, but frailty. Or perhaps it is an evasion of a deeper, more complex, and far more challenging response to uncertainty, which is to embrace it.
For Hazleton (as for Alan Watts), faith is an open-minded pursuit of understanding and knowledge that has no guarantee of success. Thus faith is founded on doubt, on unknowing, because without doubt there is no fuel to power the engine of faith.
Those I know of deepest faith are not convinced. "Perfect faith" is a cruel and absurd oxymoron so far as they are concerned. Their minds are not made up, and their faith offers anything but smug self-satisfaction. Indeed they have faith not only despite their doubts, but precisely because of them.
They have made a commitment to faith, not in the assurance that they are right and that they have found or possess the truth -- the consumerist approach to religion -- but in the acknowledgment of how much cannot be known, and how presumptuous it is to imagine that everything can be.
They do not claim to have all the answers, or worse, the answer. Instead, they have a deep sense of unknowability, of the ineffable mystery of existence referred to in metaphysical shorthand as God.
Here Hazleton says that doubt is what makes religion, or any other aspect of life, human. Indeed, people who lack doubt generally are insufferable: self-righteous, full of themselves, lacking in humility. The #1 criterion of spirituality is the willingness to honestly say, both to oneself and others, "I could be wrong."
As Graham Greene indicated in his novels of those struggling with faith, doubt is the heart of the matter. It is what keeps religion human, because when doubt is banished, faith is rendered moot. Abolish all doubt, and what's left is not faith but absolute, heartless conviction, a blind and blinding refuge from both thought and humanity.
You are certain that you possess "the Truth" -- inevitably offered with that that uppercase T -- and this certainty easily devolves into dogmatism and righteousness: a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so very right. You occupy this assumed truth, stake it out as your exclusive territory, and see all who live beyond its borders as a threat.
Then you add insult to injury by loudly insisting that in this, you and you alone are, as fundamentalists say, "the faithful."
...But faith -- and the vulnerability and humility that come with it -- is the most important thing lacking in fundamentalists of all religious stripes. Indeed, their absolutism is the opposite of faith, and this makes them the real infidels. By insisting on absolute belief, they have found the perfect antidote to thought, and the ideal refuge from the hard demands of faith.
They don't have to struggle with it like Jacob wrestling through the night with the angel, or like Jesus in his forty days and nights in the wilderness, or like Muhammad -- not only that night on the mountain but throughout his years as a prophet, with the Quran constantly urging him not to despair, and condemning those who most loudly proclaim that they know everything there is to know, and that they and they alone are right.
Terrified of what existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously called "the leap of faith," fundamentalists cling to conviction.