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.