Benefit of the Doubt, Part II

Sunday night, Doubt by John Patrick Shanley won four Tony’s, including best play and best actress. The play, about a possible case of child sexual abuse in a Catholic school in the sixties, is really about how

you, like the characters, deal with a situation that can’t be fully understood because it cannot be interpreted in only one way.

In other words, Doubt, like most art, raises more questions than it answers. This is such an integral part of great art that it is rare to see art that has survived over the centuries that does not lead to speculation or open itself to a breadth of interpretation.

This is no accident. The strength of our secular humanist or liberal tradition is that it encourages us to face uncertainty not simply as a puzzle to be solved, but as one of the core elements of being. As, in fact, one of the beauties of existence.

In the sciences, it is doubt that has allowed for progress—even for the development of the scientific method, a process for narrowing doubt through reproducibility (for one thing). Recognition of doubt leads to care and precision in the laboratory. One of the greatest mathematical proofs of the 20th Century, Kurt Godel’s Proof, establishes that doubt must remain, even within the most rigorously-constructed system.

Paradoxically, doubt and the challenging of belief has even been one of the greatest pillars of faith. Those who believe, but have the wisdom to doubt, are able to sharpen their faith and deepen it. It is the willingness to doubt that allows faith to mature.

Yet, today, when faced by vigorous and growing fundamentalist movements based on certainties of belief, many of us whose philosophies incorporate the necessity for doubt and the beauty of doubt try to hide this value. It is as though we have become ashamed of it and want to prove that we, too, base our lives on rock-solid “truths.”

It’s as though we have entered a land of people with no teeth. Though we have retained our own, we pretend that we are like the others, that our food must come to us as pap. We like to chew, however, and can’t survive without something to sink our teeth into. The others, watching us pretending to ingest the goo they eat, recognize that we aren’t happy and even guess that we are hiding something. Finally, they decide, if we are hiding something, it must be bad. Teeth, then, become bad; anyone developing them is singled out and the teeth removed.

Wouldn’t it be better to show the value of teeth? To demonstrate how much more varied and healthy our diet is with teeth than theirs without? Wouldn’t it be better, even, to show that teeth can be replaced, that they don’t have to stay in their gums-only state?

The fundamentalist right has had us on the run for some years now, partly by taking advantage of our inclination to refuse absolutes, to consider, to question. They have been hitting us about the head with their certainly. We have been running away with our tails between our legs, stopping only now and again to look at them, to admire their success and wonder how we can imitate it.

Thing is, we can’t imitate it. Over the long haul, our system based on doubt has been much more successful than theirs. So, rather than seeking a certainty to counter theirs (which can only be a second-rate version of them), we should be accenting the system of careful and caring doubt that (for one thing) built this country.

Let me give an example: the right trumpets how the United States is built on religion, and pulls us into a debate on that. We end up arguing on their ground. Instead, we should be showing how the United States is really based on the question of authority that began even amongst the religious communities that first came from England. We need to argue for the success of doubt instead of, as we have been doing, arguing against certainty.

Let’s have some pride, folks, in what we have accomplished. Let’s stop hiding in face of the onslaught.

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