Wednesday, 7 March 2012

In defence of uncertainty

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Richard Holloway
As the debate over gay marriage continues to rage, one thing that has characterised the religious statements against a change in the law, particularly the remarks of Cardinal Keith O'Brien at the weekend, is a sense of absolute certitude as to the wrongs that same-sex unions would represent.

Writing on the Guardian's Comment is Free, the former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway, who has since become agnostic on matters of faith, suggests religious leaders could elicit more public sympathy by allowing a little doubt into their pronouncements:
"It is striking that when these otherwise kindly and even-tempered men clap on their mitres to address the nation, they lose not only their sense of humour, but all sense of proportion. This is one reason why many decent-minded people are turned off religion in our society, being so blinded by its exaggerated prejudices that they fail to recognise its many virtues."
There is, of course, plenty that non-religious observers will dispute in that statement (it's hard to picture Keith O'Brien as "kindly and even-tempered", for example), but for my own part I would agree that it would be refreshing to hear some doubt in the religious contributions to the big debates. Reading Holloway's piece, I was reminded of an article we published last year by Christopher Lane, which argued that atheists, along with the religious, should not be afraid of being uncertain:
"Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry."
Again, plenty to take issue with there, but nevertheless something to bear in mind amid the increasingly polarised public debates involving religion.
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