The publishers gave In Praise Of Doubt the subtitle
how to have convictions without becoming a fanatic. I am a skeptic at heart, so I purchased the book thinking it would explain approaches to blending doubt and conviction. It’s not that, unfortunately. The back cover copy claims the book will explain why religion, politics and culture need doubt to survive. But it doesn’t do that either.
The first chapter explains the authors’ theory that the defining feature of modernism is pluralism rather than secularism. In other words, we’re not becoming more secular, we’re just sticking people of different faiths in closer proximity. On the latter, that’s a big duh. On the former, while I agree with the authors that secularism isn’t the driving force that pundits predicted it would be, it’s pretty hard to extrapolate that kind of trend very far into the future. One thing about sociological predictions: they rarely hold up in the long term. Our cultural direction is Brownian motion on the surface of the Earth.
The second chapter divides responses to plurality into three camps: exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist. Roughly, that translates into those who admit no quarter to the possibility they may be wrong and some who allow that they may be wrong about everything. The pluralist group divides their positions into those that are fundamental those which are not core. Basically, they are exclusivist about some things and inclusivist about others. In other words, people apply the buffet rule of religion; they take what they like and leave the rest. Though some people retreat in the face of so many choices to the comfort of absolutism.
Chapter number three covers the problems with relativism. The big one being that pure relativism denies any kind of facts. Which, duh.
Chapter number four covers the problems of fundamentalism. They differentiate fundamentalism from traditionalism. The latter is simply a rebuttable assumption that tradition should be followed. Fundamentalism is, in their words:
an attempt to restore the taken-for-grantedness of a tradition, typically understood as a return to a (real or imagined) pristine past of the tradition.
The only way this works are forms of authoritarianism. Either society-wide, which causes culture wars. Or by getting people to voluntarily commit to groups of believers. The latter method requires self-reinforcement, frequently through shaming and cutting off outsiders. The problems with both should be obvious.
Certainty And Doubt is a soliloquy on just what those two things are, combined with some lengthy disquisition on what Calvin thought they were. If this were a football game, now’s the time to go get a snack and use the restroom.
Then they take on the limitations on doubting. But we need some way to agree on basic rules, they argue! Our options, according to them: divine commandment, natural law, sociological order, and biological survivability. Or, they propose a new way: when a sufficient number of people develop the perception that something is universal. Which is pretty much what we do, and their subsequent discussion throws up it’s hands and says that it doesn’t resolve serious disagreements like those over abortion. Because this method doesn’t allow us to apply rules we all agree one.
Which brings us the final chapter, in which the authors call for a politics of moderation. What is that? I’m not sure they say. It involves human freedom generally. And something about an ethic of responsibility as opposed to an ethic of attitude. Neither of which it defines except by examples of capital punishment and immigration. And that moderation is somewhere in the middle.
Short of too complicated parsing of pseudo-intellectual bullshit, the authors end up with a call for people to be more in the middle of current controversies rather than on the edge.
I felt really cheated by this book. There’s no how here. The why that was promised on the back never materializes here either, other than that the authors think relativism and absolutism is a bad thing. But you know, the world has survived a lot of absolutism, though very little of relativism being in charge. Why we won’t continue to survive is never addressed. Why we need moderation, particularly the politics of moderation they never define, is never clear.
Basically, this book is a lot of blather.