Put your trust in doubt

There’s nothing more cutting edge than fundamentalism. The women swathed in veils in Picadilly Circus, the “facts on the ground” settlers in Jerusalem, the values voters who never give an inch. They wrap themselves in tradition and rage at the godlessness of modernity, but ultimately they are products of the very modernity they hate.

Not that long ago it was the secularists who thought they were ahead of the curve, in the vanguard of progress. They wrapped themselves in the illusion that modernity would eradicate religion. But, as we all know by now, it did nothing of the sort. Indeed, it had the exact opposite effect.

That’s because modernity, with its technologies that move people easily across the Earth and effortlessly send ideas into cyberspace, encourages diversity. Diversity creates choices. Choices create doubt. Too much doubt can lead to desperation. (In German, the words “doubt” -- Zweifel -- and “desperation” -- Verzweiflung -- both have zwei -- “two” -- as their linguistic stems, suggesting mutually exclusive options.) Desperation can lead to the search for certainty. And voila -- embracing certainty is the cornerstone of fundamentalism.

If political ideology was the scourge of the 20th century, religious fundamentalism could be the greatest threat in the 21st. But how do we fight it? And is there any way to get beyond the narrow struggle between the true believers and the true nonbelievers? Is there a place in this battle for the majority of humans who are decidedly in between?

Those are some of the questions that sociologists Peter L. Berger and Anton C. Zijderveld ask in their new book, “In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic.” This is not yet another polemic arguing that religion is the source of all evil. Nor is it a simplistic homage to all-powerful reason. Rather, it’s a serious attempt to explain how to find middle ground between conviction -- religious and otherwise -- and doubt.


It’s not easy. Too much anti-fundamentalist rhetoric spreads the type of relativism that breeds more fundamentalists. That is, challenging tradition softens absolutes, which is the beginning of relativism. That’s liberating, until it isn’t. If you no longer accept what was once taken for granted, you are burdened with the need to think it all through and come up with new or at least individual answers. And that burden can send people straight back to the absolutes.

On top of that, while a modicum of uncertainty is healthy, the authors warn against “an excess of doubt,” which can lead to paralysis. Even worse, to embrace the notion that all truth is relative, the authors argue, takes us close to schizophrenia, a condition characterized by the inability to decipher fantasy from reality.

The answer, according to Berger and Zijderveld, is yet another icon of modernity: balance. Paradoxically, you must have conviction and uncertainty simultaneously in order to ward off fundamentalism. Beliefs are necessary; they help “locate” individuals in the world and inform their responses to the challenges of life. At the same, uncertainty and doubt serve as a source of tolerance toward others’ firm convictions.

But how can you be firm in your convictions while allowing others to be firm in theirs? Berger and Zijderveld advocate for moderation, which makes a distinction between “core certainties” and more negotiable articles of any kind of faith -- religious, political, cultural. For example, Christian theologians generally define the resurrection of Christ as a core belief. But the virgin birth or the story of Lazarus rising from the dead? Not so much. Citing the controversy over Islam in Europe, the authors suggest that objections to such traditional practices as genital mutilations or stonings are absolutely nonnegotiable, while the wearing of hijabs -- kerchiefs -- is.

The most important core certainty, and one found in most belief systems, is “do unto others ...” -- the Golden Rule. It leaves enough wiggle room for your beliefs, my beliefs and their beliefs to coexist. And what makes it all work is the same thing that burdened us all to begin with: doubt. Berger and Zijderveld believe that doubt can serve as a type of psychic cushion between all our different certainties.

It turns out that liberal democracy -- with its protections of individual rights -- is the strongest guarantor of doubt. In fact, Berger and Zijderveld argue that doubt -- especially as expressed in the idea of a loyal opposition -- is at the heart of a democratic system.

That means that, in the end, President George W. Bush was right when he said that what the fundamentalists of Al Qaeda hate most about us is our freedom. It also means that our democratic freedoms are our best weapons to fight back.