I've written a few times, about faith and why it's a vice, not the virtue that religions promote it as (most notably here). I'd like to discuss the opposite now, Gentle Reader, and consider the idea that doubt is a virtue, rather than the vice which religion portrays it as. And I'll start with a short digression about the killjoy who 'tried to ban Christmas' and yada yada, Oliver Cromwell.
From bits and bobs I've read over the years, I get the impression that Cromwell has been somewhat maligned in regards to his willingness to foist his brand of Puritanism on the general population. Not that he's unique in this, mind; history being written by the winners and all that. Just look what the Tudor propagandists, including William Shakespeare, did to poor old Richard III, whose name still, six hundred-odd years later, more easily conjures up the mentally and physically twisted Shakespearian villain than the real man, who seems to have been a fairly decent chap, as medieval kings go. Anyway, Cromwell…
Though by all accounts Cromwell was certainly very much the puritan in an age of puritanical religion, I've gathered the impression (though I may be wrong, which is kinda the point of this whole essay) that many of the puritanical laws and edicts he gets blamed for were actually enacted by parliament in spite of his objections, rather than by him. Whatever his personal views, he seems to have been well aware that certainty in the face of, as we would say today, not enough data, is a trap best avoided. All of which brings us to the point of this digression; possibly his second-most famous utterance, after his coining of the term 'warts and all':
I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.
Of course he, as a religious man, would say that he was referring to the sin of hubris, of claiming to know and interpret the mind and wishes of God. And certainly I wouldn't disagree with him there. If there is, despite my opinion, a god who created the universe, then for a person or organisation to claim to know the slightest smidgeon of that god's thoughts, desires or wishes is certainly the height of self-aggrandisation. Apart from the hubris aspect, though, I think that doubt is a much more general virtue.
The more fundamentalist religionists, in particular, tend to view Science (they always capitalise it) as an edifice, a body of ideas which come tumbling down if even the slightest one of them can be shown to be false. They’re wrong. It isn't. Science is, at base, an outlook, a way of looking at the world; and at its heart is a very simple idea. Doubt. Doubt your own ideas, doubt others' ideas, and always test them against the real world so that you can be sure you're not just building a beautiful castle in the air which bears no resemblance to reality. Above all, take nothing on authority. Don't believe it because Darwin said it, or Einstein or whoever. If the evidence doesn't support it, it's hypothetical (the lay-person definition of 'theory' ) at best. If the evidence goes against it, it's false. It doesn't matter a jot how beautiful it is, or how much time, money and effort you've spent on it. If something happens which your hypothesis says can't happen, your hypothesis is wrong. (Mind you, research into why it's wrong will probably be even more productive than a mere confirmation of your initial idea would have been. That's the thing with science: any result is a useful result.)
But the 'scientific' world-view isn't confined to science. The scientific community has merely codified doubt and tried to ensure that it's always applied with rigour. In a more general and sloppy sense, we all, scientists or not, use it. We call it scepticism. If a stranger asks us to lend them a large amount of money, with promise of a hefty recompense when their lottery winnings clear into their bank account 'later this week,' we either just say no or at least want some very strong evidence that the lottery win is real and that they can be trusted not to disappear over the horizon before paying us back. The bigger the favour—the more we risk, or the more dubious the curcumstances—the more and stronger evidence we want to see.
On a more everyday level, a religious person may claim to have faith that their god will save them, but they don't just step out into the road and assume that drivers will spot them and have time to stop or swerve. They check the road is empty first or the that the 'walk' light is lit. If they want their car fixed, they get out the spanners and crawl under the bonnet or they take it to a mechanic. They don't just assume that the Lord will provide, without them having to do the work themselves or pay someone to do it. If they're ill, they see a doctor (well, apart from a few extremely idiotic fundamentalists).
They may have faith in an afterlife and a judgement of some sort, but the only time faith gets applied to the current, Earthly, life, it seems, is when they want to tell other people how to live. They have faith that homosexuality is sinful, even though they've no more evidence for that than they have that their god will save them from being hit by a car. They have faith, against all the evidence, that human beings are a special creation of their god and not related to the rest of the animal kingdom at all—even though that goes against all the evidence which plays a large part in the biological theories used by the people who produce the life-saving drugs their doctor will proscribe them when they fall ill. They have such strong faith in these things that they'll shout and scream that their opinions should be forced by law on people who disagree with them, while not having the courage of their conviction when the fan-belt breaks on their car.
Doubt is a very useful thing. Doubt makes us think again before doing something that may be dangerous. All people apply such doubt to personal situations, but less often, it seems, to other people's lives or to less immediate threats to ourselves or our children's future.
I'd hate to think how many times I've heard religious folk pose the question 'What if you're wrong?' to atheists. Meaning, of course, 'You're going to be in trouble if you're wrong,' (which kinda presupposes that any god which might exist is both judgemental and judges on the criteria they assume it does, but I digress). They see no problem asking us to doubt, but if they start to doubt things like the existence of their god or the meaning of their scriptures, then it becomes an emotional disaster. They struggle with such doubts, and think it the greatest accolade to say that someone has overcome them. Why? Why on Earth should questioning the world around us or our own assumptions about it be problematical? If, as Cromwell might have said, we never admit the possibility that we may be wrong, then the only thing an observer could be certain of is that we'll be certain about everything, but seldom correct about anything.
But I'd like to ask religious readers (if any) now, what if you're wrong?
What if young homosexuals are committing suicide as a result of religiously-rooted shunning and bullying, and you're not even right that it's a sin or that the god who proclaimed it a sin even exists?
What if women are being forced to carry unwanted babies to term, or in more extreme cases, being forced to risk death rather than abort, or to carry the child of their rapist, or even to marry their rapists rather than suffer the apparently worse ignominy of being an unwed mother? (And don't tell me that it's a way of making sure the rapist takes care of his child. If you can entertain such idiotic, misogynistic and barbarous ideas, don't even bother commenting. Just fuck off.) What if women are suffering these things because of your politicised religious promotion of your interpretation of scripture and your idea of God's wishes, and you're wrong?
What if human-caused climate change is real, and your combination of moneyed interests and religious conviction that 'God wouldn't let that happen' is wrong? What if any existing god is a deist's god, who'd just sit back and let us poison our planet, possibly with a resigned sigh? What if no god exists? What if, as the saying goes, the Lord helps those who help themselves? If we act as if no interventionist god exists, we spend a lot of effort and money on a possibly useless exercise as we try to combat climate change, granted. If we don't spend that money and effort, though, and no saviour-god exists, we ruin the planet; possibly killing off the human species or driving it into barbarism in the process. So, should we act as if you're right or as if you're wrong? Are you so certain in your faith in your interventionist god that you'll step out into this road, in front of this speeding car?
My list of variations on the question could go on for much longer. The point is, though, that the only thing we should be certain of is that certainty can be fatal, while doubt and enquiry make our Earthly lives—the only lives we can be certain, on the evidence, of having—better, safer and more comfortable. And it just might save us from self-extinction.
Legend has it that Roman generals, during victory parades, were accompanied by a servant who whispered to them, 'Memento mori,' 'Remember you are mortal.' This in order to remind the general not to let the adulation go to his head.
I propose a simialr idea:
The words 'I might be wrong' should be inscribed on the door of every parliament, council chamber and senate in the world, and printed, like a tobacco health-warning, on the flyleaf of every politcal and religious book, pamphlet and tract. 'I might be wrong' is the cornerstone of justice, the keystone of democracy and the very foundation of the principal of free speech for all.
The hardest thing to doubt is our own strong conviction that we're right. The most important thing to doubt is our own strong conviction that we're right.