In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanaticby Peter Berger, Anton Zijderveld
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Modernity was supposed to usher in a rational secular world where religion was marginalized. Some even predicted it would disappear. But religion has not only survived—it is growing and thriving in the modern world. Defying predictions, we live today in a world of plurality where diverse groups live under conditions of civic peace and in social interaction. However, this arrangement is not without tensions. How do we handle moral issues, such as abortion or homosexuality, when different groups have strongly held but opposing viewpoints? And how does culture maintain its harmony when confronted with the challenge of an aggressive fundamentalism?
The answer, according to world-renowned sociologists Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld, is doubt. Not the stupefying doubt of relativism where we become incapable of any decision because we are overwhelmed by options, but a virtuous use of doubt that allows us to move forward boldly with strong moral convictions without caving in to the fanatic's temptation of seeing everyone who disagrees with you as the enemy. How we as individuals and as a society can find this ideal balance is the subject of this deceptively simple but revolutionary work.
In Praise of Doubt takes the reader on an exciting whirlwind tour of the history of modernity, religion, the rise of psychology, Marxism, and the intellectual challenge of relativism, the failure of totalitarianism, fundamentalism as a modern invention, and the startling conclusion explaining why truth, even religious truth, needs doubt to survive and thrive.
Sociologists Berger (The Social Construction of Reality) and Zijderveld (The Abstract Society) inveigh against the dogma of "isms" that replace humor with certainty and thoughtfulness with blind action. Between the extremes of fundamentalism and moral relativism sits the doubter, perched on liberal democracy, which the authors describe as a three-legged stool, balanced on the state, civil society and the market economy to promote debate and dissent. Berger and Zijderveld illustrate the obvious perils of extremism, but are less adept at navigating moderation. They apply their "doubt" premise to abortion, capital punishment and immigration policy, and come to inoffensively moderate political positions, but their tepid recommendations lack appeal; as the authors admit, "The agnostic position is by definition a weak one." What recommends doubt as a concept is that it defies stringent characterization. Yet in both style and approach, the authors belie the vigorousness of their position-and an important position it is. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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In Praise of Doubt
How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic
The Many Gods of Modernity
Just before the dawn of the twentieth century, in tones of passionate conviction, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. Today, a little over a hundred years later, this prophecy hardly seems plausible. Whether God does or does not exist in cosmic reality is another question. And this question cannot be answered by the empirical sciences: God cannot be the object of an experiment. But in the empirically accessible reality of human life today, there is a veritable plenitude of gods competing for the attention and allegiance of people. Nietzsche thought that he stood at the beginning of an age of atheism. Right now it seems that the twenty-first century is marked instead by polytheism. It looks as if the many gods of antiquity have returned with a vengeance.
The more radical thinkers of the Enlightenment, particularly in France, anticipated the demise of religion in a spirit of gleeful anticipation. Religion was perceived as a grand illusion, one that had given birth not only to a multitude of superstitions but to the most monstrous atrocities. The wars of religion that followed the Protestant schism in Europe certainly gave credence to this view. Thus Voltaire's cry, "Destroy the infamy!" applied not only to the Catholic Church-in his experience, the mother of all atrocities-but to religion in general. Protestants continued to execute heretics and burn witches with all the enthusiasm of their Catholic adversaries. Nor could one find more appealing religious traditions outside divided Christendom.
The instrumentthat was to destroy religion was, of course, reason. In reason's cool light, the illusions of religion would evaporate. This expectation was dramatically symbolized when the French revolutionaries enthroned the goddess of reason in the Church of the Madeleine in Paris. This Enlightenment faith did not end with the French Revolution. Indeed, in different versions it has continued to this day. In the nineteenth century that faith was particularly invested in science. Reason, it was thought, would find an inerrant methodology to understand the world and, ultimately, to construct a morally superior social order. In other words, Enlightenment philosophy had morphed into empiricist science. The prophet of that mutation was Auguste Comte, whose ideology of positivism had an immense influence on the progressive intelligentsia of Europe and beyond (notably in Latin America, where the Brazilian flag is still emblazoned with the Comtean slogan "order and progress"). It was Comte, not so incidentally, who invented the new science of sociology.
As that science developed, it bore less and less resemblance to what Comte had had in mind. It increasingly saw itself not as a system of philosophy, but as a science based on empirical evidence and subject to empirical falsification. Three thinkers are commonly seen as the founders of modern sociology-Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. There were great differences among these three. But when it came to religion, each one, albeit for different reasons, believed that modernity was bringing about a steady decline. Marx and Durkheim, both children of the Enlightenment, welcomed this alleged development. Weber, on the other hand, contemplated it with melancholy resignation.
In the sociology of religion, as it developed in the twentieth century, this association of modernity with a decline of religion came to be known as "secularization theory." This theory proposed that modernity, both because of the spread of scientific knowledge and because modern institutions undermined the social bases of religious faith, necessarily led to secularization (understood as the progressive decline of religion in society and in the minds of individuals). This view was not based on some philosophical rejection of religion, but on various empirical data that seemed to support the view. (Significantly, many of these data came from Europe.) It should be emphasized that this theory was "value-free" (to use a Weberian term). That is, it could be held both by those who welcomed it and by those who deplored it. Thus there were any number of twentieth century Christian theologians who were far from happy about this alleged process of secularization, but who took it as scientifically established fact with which both churches and individual believers had to come to terms. A few theologians found ways of actually embracing it (such as the proponents of the briefly fashionable "death of God theology" in the 1960s-a wonderful case of "man bites dog").
What Is the Current State of Secularization in the World?
It's fair to say that secularization theory has been massively falsified by the events of the decades since World War II (which, of course, is why most sociologists of religion, with a very few holdouts, have changed their mind about the theory). As one looks over the contemporary world, it's not secularization that one sees, but an enormous explosion of passionate religious movements. For obvious reasons, most attention has been given to the resurgence of Islam. But the militant advocates of holy war, who are causing the attention, are only a small (though very worrisome) component of a much larger phenomenon. Throughout the vast Muslim world-from North Africa to Southeast Asia, as well as in the Muslim diaspora in the West-millions of people are looking to Islam to give meaning and direction to their lives. And most of this phenomenon has little to do with politics.
Arguably an even more spectacular development is the global expansion of Evangelical Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal version. In 1906 a revival took place in Los Angeles-the so-called Azusa Street Revival-led by a charismatic black preacher whose fiery sermons rapidly built an interracial congregation. Soon members of that congregation began to "speak in tongues" (the defining marker of Pentecostalism). As missionaries from Azusa spread out across the United States and abroad, Pentecostalism gave birth to a number of growing American denominations. But the most dramatic explosion of global Pentecostalism occurred after World War II-in Latin America, in Africa, and in various parts of Asia. Today it's estimated that there are about 400 million Pentecostals worldwide. This is surely the most rapid growth of any religious movement in history. In addition to the growth of Pentecostal churches proper, there's also what has been called "Pentecostalization"-that is, the growth of charismatic "speaking in tongues," healing, and other "gifts of the spirit" in various Protestant and even Catholic churches. Nor is Pentecostalism the only form of Evangelical Protestantism that has been spreading globally. It's been estimated that there are about 100,000 Evangelical missionaries active worldwide-many from the United States, but others from Latin America, Africa, South Korea, and elsewhere in the world. There's also the broader category of "popular Protestantism"-that is, groups that aren't commonly perceived as Protestant, but whose religious and social characteristics have a Protestant flavor. The most successful of these are the Mormons, who have also grown rapidly in many developing societies around the world.In Praise of Doubt
How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic. Copyright (c) by Peter Berger . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Peter L. Berger is an internationally renowned sociologist and faculty member at Boston University, where in 1985 he founded its Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs. He is the author of The Social Construction of Reality, The Homeless Mind, and Questions of Faith.
Anton C. Zijderveld holds doctorates in both sociology and philosophy. He is on the faculty of Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Among his many books are The Abstract Society, On Clichés, and Reality in a Looking Glass.
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