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.)
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July 31, 2009
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