Crusading Doubt

To shorten my time in Purgatory I recently watched Bill Maher’s silly little anti-religious “documentary” Religulous.  The documentary contains an interview with Fr. George Coyne, SJ, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory.  Fr. Coyne does the Society proud in the film, proving himself both more intelligent and funnier than Maher.

Unfortunately, Fr. Coyne is only on screen for a few minutes because Maher, like the other “neo-atheists,” is interested only in religion’s most absurd expressions.  Their strategy is something like attempting to discredit democracy as a system of government by interviewing only members of the Blagojevich administration.

As one might expect, most of the movie presents fundamentalists, whose interviews Maher has spliced together to make them look ridiculous.  (Thus the clever title).  The last ten minutes or so of the film, however, is given over to Maher’s sermon against the evils and dangers of faith—which he defines as “making a virtue out of not thinking”—and proposing, as an alternative ideal, Doubt.

Maher’s apotheosis of Doubt interested me because it was not the first time I had heard the quality so praised.  Doubt has come to be treated as a virtue even by those who profess to be believers.  The obscure, little-followed speech President Obama delivered at my alma mater last spring contained what I thought at the time was a rather curious encomium to doubt.  Doubt, the President claimed, tempers the passions and prevents self-righteousness; it encourages reason and leads ultimately to “good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.”

Not just humility, but doubt.

To be fair to the President and to Maher (or, perhaps, fair to the President and over-generous to Maher), there are different kinds of doubt that function in different ways in the spiritual and intellectual life.  The writings of Mother Teresa in Come Be My Light reveal a particular kind of purifying doubt experienced by the saints leading them into an experience of Christ’s suffering.  But Mother Teresa’s type of mystical “doubt” might better be described as the experience of absence, rather than agnosticism.

Karl Barth speaks of the humility of faith, even of its insecurity, but he distinguishes between temptation and doubt.  Temptation is a divine work, he says, which God uses to destroy our inadequate faith in order to rebuild it; Barth distinguishes the temptation of John the Baptist and Peter from the doubt of Judas Iscariot (Church Dogmatics §27.2).  God tests our faith, Barth claims, but man doubts it—and the difference between those two acts is the difference between resurrection and despair.

Perhaps the President had something more akin to Barth’s testing in mind when he praised doubt at Notre Dame, but the problem is that there are several varieties of doubt operating in the world and not all of them are so conducive to charity and kindness.  Doubt doesn’t encourage us to engage in reasonable discussion, as the President claimed, when it causes us to take refuge in relativism, which closes off rational argument.

Doubt doesn’t help to create a more just order when it bleeds into moral cowardice, when it contributes to a world in which, to borrow Yeats’ phrase, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Doubt doesn’t serve the common good when it becomes an excuse for moral incoherence.  Sometimes “doubt” seems to mean that believers claim to accept what their faith teaches (in private) but then act as if those teachings don’t matter in public.

There is, of course, a world of difference between the Mother Teresa type of “doubt” and this latter “Mario Cuomo doctrine” variety.  In my experience the latter hardly excludes self-righteousness nor does it guarantee a better world; all it does is ensure that religious attitudes and beliefs will be excluded from the public square.  An attitude that says I will continue to tell myself the old religious stories while living as if they are no more true than Hansel and Gretel is, truly, religulous.

We should not confuse Maher’s Doubt with humility because Maher’s doubt is on a crusade.  Maher shows precious little doubt himself when he declares “there are no gods actually talking to us” and religion is a “neurological disorder” which will lead to global destruction.  “Key decisions,” he warns, are being “made by religious people” whose reasoning abilities are no more sophisticated than “reading the entrails of a chicken.”  Fortunately for us, Maher has identified the way of salvation:  “The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt.”  And won’t we all be able to sleep a little easier when Bill Maher has saved us from arrogant certitude?  And thank God—or, thank Doubt?—that he has finally, after all these centuries, indentified the only appropriate attitude toward the big questions.

Maher advocates Doubt rather than humility because there is no tolerance in his Doubt.  Maher’s Doubt means a firm belief in practical atheism:  we must act as if atheism is true, beyond any doubt, to the point, apparently, of excluding believers from “key decisions.”  Maher gives lip service to agnosticism because agnosticism sounds more moderate, but Maher’s Doubt is the type of creed that vandalizes Mormon churches because Mormons are not sufficiently tolerant; it is the type of creed that thrives on apocalyptic fear-mongering; it is the type of creed that admits no doubt.


18 Responses to Crusading Doubt

  1. Henry says:

    Anthony – ha, ha, ha, ha, I love the way you started your insightful and hilarious post: “To shorten my time in Purgatory…”

    Perhaps we should send this extract from a talk my friend Msgr. Albacte (who is quoting from Introduction to Christianity by J. Ratzinger) gave to Mr. Maher:

    An adherent of the Enlightenment [writes Buber], a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him too and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith. When he entered the Rabbi’s room he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, wrapped in thought. The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly and said “But perhaps it is true after all.” The scholar tried in vain to collect himself his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear. But Rabbi Levi Jizchak now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly: My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and nor can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true. The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible perhaps which echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance.

    And then Ratzinger comments: Here we have, I believe in however strange a guise a very precise description of the situation of man confronted with the question of God. [This story, according to Ratzinger, offers us a very precise description of where we are when we raise the question of God.] No one can lay God and His Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel itself thereby justified it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words “Yet perhaps it is true.” The perhaps is the unavoidable temptation which it cannot elude, the temptation in which it too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide away from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt, for the other through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication.

    And we should include this question with the extract: Does your faith leave room for the “perhaps”?

  2. Stephanie says:

    Henry, that’s a really beautiful story, and one that strikes a chord with me. I went through a long period of doubt, well, maybe more anger at God masquerading as doubt, after a tragedy in my teens and that “perhaps” is exactly what eventually led me home a decade later.

    Tony, very well written article.

    “Their strategy is something like attempting to discredit democracy as a system of government by interviewing only members of the Blagojevich administration.”

    This cracked me up. This is exactly why I don’t bother talking much about my faith to my atheist friends and family. They really want to discuss a fictional version of Christianity they’ve made up in their heads. How do you defend against that?

    I’m impressed that you were able to make it through the whole movie. Bill Maher bugs the snot out of me.

    • Henry says:

      Wow, Stephanie, thanks for sharing that!!!

      I was laughing so hard when I read your last sentence – “Bill Maher bugs the snot out of me.” – that I almost fell out of my chair!!! I hope you don’t mind but I am going to plagiarize your phrase “bugs the snot out of me” going forward. It’s such as great and visual phrase – I love it.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Stephanie, Henry, Virgilijus, thanks for your great replies. I think Stephanie correctly identifies the dominant neo-atheist (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc) strategy when she says “they want to discuss a fictional version of Christianity they’ve made up in their heads.” I believe it was the late Richard Neuhaus who quipped in response to the neo-atheists, “I don’t believe in the God they don’t believe in either.”

      Part of the response to them has to be, then, simply pointing out how their “straw man” does not match up with our experience of the faith. We have to be able to articulate a vision of Christianity which is intellectually robust and credible. Jesuits in particular have a responsibility in this regard because we were asked to do so explicitly by Paul VI. As a side note, part of the reason we need to do this is not necessarily because we expect to convince the Mahers of the world themselves–it’s because if we don’t speak up the Mahers are more likely to convince those with little understanding of religion (but not necessarily hostility to it) that theirs is the only view. We have to argue with Maher, in other words, in order to convince those who are on the fence.

      At the same time, as Virgilijus starts to get into and as Pope Benedict has pointed out many times, Christianity is not primarily about intellectual assent to belief in God, though this is certainly necessary. Rather it is about a living encounter with God. So no atheist will really ever be convinced without grace, which is why our prayers for the conversion of atheists are even more important than our arguments. It may sound pious and old-fashioned to make a statement like that, but sometimes pious and old-fashioned statements are true!

      One final note, in arguing with atheists or agnostics, I have found no silver bullet, but I have often found that the most successful strategy is to ask questions. The well-timed question can go a long way toward eliciting that disturbing “perhaps” Ratzinger writes about in the story Henry so helpfully shared.

  3. Tony: you’ve merely written “Part-1” now please
    continue this excellent probe into a multi-part
    venture, since after all we are a Pilgrim Church,
    on the move. We don’t stand around at the Bar,
    although I will admit that even the Apostles did:
    in the Upper Room, chatting non sense; until the
    Holy Spirit used a flame thrower to kick them out:
    it was after-hours and time to go back to work (!)

    For myself, I’ve matured beyond the immaturity of
    the Maher’s of history: these types will never go
    away. All they do is externalize their inner fight
    against God, by the pride of reason!

    At least a Mensa friend of mine, with home years
    ago at the inception of our exploratory friendship,
    I timidly let “be a Maher,” admitted after
    years of growth-based dialogue that he didn’t
    want to admit religion into his Jewish blood:
    because it would mean he has to be ethical (and no
    longer freely chase women!)!

    Since anthropology evidences that every unearthed
    civilization “had a religion” the question for
    our more enlightened Age is, truly, today, irrelevant!

    What is relevant is that we have relatively matured
    the function of logic, within our reason, and even
    discovered subjectivity -the unconsicious aspects
    of ongoing mental processing of reality that
    transpires outside the domain of will by human
    consciousness- wherein the active presence of the
    Divine acts!

    A “Part-2” could explore the many Christian authors
    and in our own times the genius of Kierkegaard
    to silence ignorant atheistic attempts at
    commentary on the topic of theism and assert the
    vast wisdom of established contributions to the
    articulation of Divine action in and on the
    human subconscious, via the root of the many
    dysfunctional aspects that initiate adulthood
    within the human, and launches it onto a path
    of growth towards maturity and ultimate freedom,
    leaving behind pathology, to find even intimacy
    with the Divine, that many and not just a few,
    find, experience, and even write about!

    For Kierkegaard, life’s starting point, are 4
    different types of Anxiety, and not just one!
    While for Origen, as well as, for Clement of
    Alexandria, not to mention even Augustine, our
    Christianity is not a philosophy, idea, or assertion
    but an Event: that silenced Greek Philosophy’s
    attempt to be a Maher in their time!

    To believe, is to have faith, which is
    to know we are not alone!!!

    • Henry says:

      “We don’t stand around at the bar…” “the Holy Spirit used a flame thrower to kick them out…”

      Your poetic genius is shining through and I love it!

      Great thoughts that I want to comment on but, alas, I am pressed for time today my friend. I hope to do so when I get back.



  4. Henry says:

    Virgilijus – I saw the movie and I want to discuss it with you. I am going on a business trip tonight and so I won’t have net access for about a week and a half but when I come back we’ll have to figure out a way to have the discussion.

    Let’s remember each other in prayer today!



  5. Jay Hooks says:

    I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who’s worn out with the straw man fallacy. Not to mention the tired argument that seeks to dethrone belief but really ends up begging the question: “We can be certain that we must doubt everything… except our certainty… that we must doubt…” et cetera.

    Thanks for mentioning, Anthony, the fundamental characteristic of our faith as an encounter with God. Right on. I’m reminded also that the early Christians referred to their faith as The Way (Acts 9:2). It’s the kind of thing that is best known by walking; it speaks most genuinely to and out of our experience. It is a dynamic, lived relationship with God and the world that, ideally, helps to orient my life. As such, it should be of no surprise that choosing to walk the Christian Way influences how we think, vote, recreate, love, and face death. It is not a day job. It is not a hobby.

    Rhetorical fencing aside, I think folks are much more helped when they’re invited to experience the Christian life first-hand. A lot of doubts resolve themselves in the light of such experience. Maher’s posture is a dead end – faith requires grace, but it also calls for a gesture on the part of the doubter, at least in being open to the idea of faith. Forgive me for waxing Scriptural, but I think of the Blind Bartimaeus in Mark’s Gospel, who starts out “by” the road. At Jesus’ invitation, he throws aside his cloak (the old life?) and of his own volition “springs up” to run to Jesus. He receives his sight; his faith saves him, and he then follows Christ “on” the road.

  6. Ryan says:

    Father Lusvardi,
    I feel that you are missing the point of Religulous – it is satire. Maher is not using the absurd beliefs of fundamentalists to suggest that all religion is worthless. Rather, he is cautioning against the dangers of blind faith. This is the crucial point – faith is justifiable, and some might say necessary, but blind faith is almost always problematic. Radical, fundamentalist religious views result in unconscionable behavior, from acts of violence and terrorism from extremists in Al-Qaeda to the hateful bigotry of the Westboro Baptist Church (the focus of the BBC documentary The Most Hated Family in America).
    Your arguments against doubt all go both ways – while it was Judas’ doubt that allowed him to betray Jesus, it was the faith of the Jewish people that caused them to execute someone who radically challenged their religion. If relativism is an undesirable philosophy, strict deontological rules brought on by religion are no more helpful when they come into conflict (the classic “trolley dilemma” exemplifies this). Faith fails to serve the common good when it results in incoherent philosophies protected only by claims of religious certainty (young earth creationists are a good example here). If “doubt” can mean denying a faith in public, then “faith” can (and does, to some) mean publicly professing a belief, but, in private, ignoring it. We are left with an interesting set of circumstances – either both unquestioning faith and intolerant “doubt” are acceptable, or neither is and the only acceptable view would be belief (or lack thereof) tempered with the frank realization that you could be wrong.
    Doubt and humility is a fundamental part of Christianity, so it surprises me to see a Jesuit arguing so strongly against it. Jesus begged God to spare him from his death on the cross, asking if it was truly necessary, if there was truly no alternative. He cried out upon his crucifixion, asking why his God had forsaken him. The entirety of Christ’s teachings was designed to challenge the obsession with honor and power that plagued society at the time (and today). If doubt is a sin, why was Thomas forgiven for not believing in the Resurrection?
    To criticize Maher for being too unrelenting in his philosophy of doubt while extolling the virtues of faith is to be disingenuous in the extreme. Faith is just as, if not more, guilty as doubt for falling to the extremes and causing problems with it. If Maher comes off too strong, remember that this is likely because he is responding in like to the fundamentalism he criticizes – the film is satire, after all. He is simply trying to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously, and that includes religion.
    Take this, like all else, with a grain of salt, and remember – it’s just religion. Don’t worry so much.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:


      Thanks for your comments and for pointing out what may be some of the “ambiguities” of my posting–as to whether they are “mistakes,” we might disagree.

      Yes, “Religulous” is certainly satire and the cold Chicago winter has not so weakened my powers of deduction that I mistook Maher’s film for a serious philosophical argument. However, not all satire is created equal, and I think it fair enough to treat bad satire critically. Perhaps even satirically. Some satire after all can be fairly serious–think of George Orwell–while still being amusing.

      You seem to have a different read of the movie than I do because you say “Maher is not using the absurd beliefs of fundamentalists to suggest that all religion is worthless.” Actually, I think that’s exactly what he’s doing. That’s why in the film he lumps together fundamentalists and terrorists with his own rather disappointing–but certainly not fundamentalistic–Catholic upbringing. That’s why he attacks the Gospels themselves as absurd rather than only the most literalistic interpretations of Scripture. That’s why the last ten minutes of the film move away from satire to Maher pontificating while apocalyptic imagery flashes across the screen. Nowhere in Maher’s rant does he seriously–or even satirically–attempt to distinguish extremism from whatever for him would be a more palatable version of “neurological disorder.”

      Maher’s precise intentions may not be the fundamental issue at stake here, and I’ll deal with some of the issues you and others bring up in a Part II, as Virgilijus suggests, but, for the moment, I do want to clarify that I am pro-humility. (Others may disagree over how humble I actually am, but at least theoretically I think humility is a good thing.) The point I was trying to make in this post, perhaps without adequate clarity, was that humility and doubt are not the same things. Doubt does not necessarily lead to humility. This point needs more space to flesh out, so I hope you’ll keep reading–and contributing to–our blog.

      And, since we’re on the subject of humility, I should add that I won’t yet be “Father Lusvardi” for another 7+ years (God willing), so for now it’s just Tony.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  7. George says:

    In this article, it is made clear that Bill Maher’s attack on religions, through his film Religulous, is premature and not well thought out. Anthony quickly discredits him by showing how Maher’s teachings are hypocritical and contradictory. Anthony says that by putting down the ‘arrogantly certain’ teachings of the church with an arrogant certitude of his own, and then proclaiming that religions’ teachings are wrong because of the arrogant certitude of them, Maher is in fact attacking his own views. It is similar to the puzzle of absolute truth. Saying there is no absolute truth is in itself contradictory, because you have just uttered an absolute truth, i.e. there is no absolute truth. Therefore that statement, like Maher’s, is wrong because in and of itself it is contradictory.
    Personally, I dislike the idea of Doubt as the answer to the big questions. Would Doubt be able to comfort someone who is dealing with the loss of a loved one? Can Doubt help us live better and more fulfilled lives? Does Doubt encourage us to selflessly help others and make the world a better place? I think not, and this is why I like to believe in God. God can help someone cope, strive to live a fulfilling life and become a contributor to the well being of another. There is so much good done by religions world wide, that it is a shame someone would want to degrade them, or even offer something insufficient in their stead.

  8. David says:

    I was naturally attracted to this post because of the Bill Maher reference. I can’t stand the man and I have yet to hear someone with a religious background comment on him. Although I laughed at your first line, I was a little worried you were serious and almost didn’t read your entire post.
    I agree with your opinion of Maher and his neo-atheism, however I disagree with some of your arguments about doubt (or maybe just misunderstand them). I agree that doubt may be necessary in religion; the question however, is what to doubt. To doubt the existence of a God is just plain ignorant. It may be necessary to ask one’s self, “why do I believe in God?” or “why do I believe in the God I believe in?” but that should only be used to reaffirm your beliefs.
    I think doubt’s best use in religion is to doubt or challenge how God wants us to act. Jesus obviously lived in a completely different culture and thus, it’s hard to know how we should act in certain present-day situations that Jesus never faced. Let’s say someone decides that they are going to live out their faith according to the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. If they never doubt this way of living out their faith, they can never improve upon it. But let’s say they reflect upon it and doubt that that’s the best way to follow Jesus’ way in our current society. They may reevaluate and come up with a better way to live out their faith. And I think that’s the challenge. Not to doubt the existence of God, but rather, doubt the way we live out our faith in God.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:


      You make a helpful distinction here, which I didn’t really address in my post. One of the points I was trying to make was, of course, that when people use the word “doubt” they sometimes mean very different things. Some forms of doubt can certainly be harmful to the spiritual life (not to mention society) but other forms of “doubt” I think can be helpful. Perhaps in the end, we will be able to think of a better terminology for them than “doubt.” In the post I mention Teresa of Calcutta, and the “dark night of the soul” experienced by the great mystics such as St. John of the Cross also comes to mind. These experiences can bring someone closer to God, though they might seem troubling at the time.

      You mention, however, that we need to be careful as to the object of doubt. Are we doubting God or doubting ourselves? This is a crucial distinction. If doubt is supposed to produce humility, as Maher and President Obama seem to indicate in the examples I gave, then it seems more likely to me that doubting oneself (rather than God) will lead to humility. Simply not believing in God certainly does not make one humble, and history is full of dangerously arrogant atheists. On the other hand recognizing that we–fallible human beings–make mistakes seems closer to humility to me.

      I’ll write a bit more about this in a future post, so I hope you’ll keep reading the blog!

  9. Luis says:

    First off I just want to say, Great article. This is exactly what the world needs today, a criticism of a criticism. I feel that the movie was just another attempt on swaying the faith of many believers. Although I am not a catholic I believe that the attacks that Maher made on Christianity in general, were unrealistic and simply put together out of context. I really enjoyed how you explored the element of doubt using Maher’s own words and the words of other icons in the United States. It just goes to show that people would do anything to shame religion or try to find different ways around it. Maher says doubt is the best substitute for faith, yet it is doubt that keeps us from actually having faith.
    All in all, I think this article was very well prepared with knowledge and understanding. It shows people of the faith that although atheists will attack we must stand strong in what we believe in. I feel that in today’s society where everything influences us, we must have a steady ground to stand on and know the facts. From media to people you interact with everyday, the way you view life can be changed. It is a priority that once we are in the faith we must stay true to it because straying from it is a dangerous thing.

  10. Sean says:

    Tony: Nice Blago shoutout! It reminds me of 😉

  11. Agustin Maes says:

    Excellent piece!

  12. […] known to be friendly to religious faith.  See, for example, my posts on Bill Maher’s Religulous (here and here).  Michael Moore pioneered this type of documentary—NOVA meets Saturday Night […]

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