punishing doubt | religious condemnation of thought [cc]


Doubt is an inevitable part of life for every
one of us. We experience doubts about ourselves, about other people and about the ever-changing world around us. Some doubts are easily resolved; with others,
resolution might seem unattainable. Some doubts point to significant personal
implications for us; with others, the implications seem more abstract. In some cases, we might shy away
from investigating our doubts for fear of uncovering realities that seem unbearable. But generally, we at least feel free to choose
whether or not to investigate. But sometimes, other people attempt to block
that freedom, condemning the exercise of doubt as dangerous, destructive and disloyal. This practice is observed
in dogmatic, authoritarian ideologies. Prime examples are found in the realm of religion. Some Muslim apologists have described doubt
as ‘a disease of the heart’ and cite passages in their primary text — the Qur’an — stating that true believers have no doubts. Some Christian apologists have denounced doubt
as a ‘a tool of Satan’ and cite passages in their primary text — the Bible — stating that those who doubt should
expect nothing from their god Yahweh. Of course, some theists will protest that
they’re completely free to doubt and always have armfuls of questions. Some make themselves out to be
quite the irreverent rebel. And if they are genuinely free, good for them. But look closer and you’ll find that many
of these folks aren’t as bold as they like to think. In fact their questions fit very comfortably
within a tacitly approved list of commonly voiced complaints that the
major religions have all developed stock responses for — however inadequate or platitudinous
those responses might be. It’s when you depart from the approved list — and the patience and compassion of those around you turn to disapproval and condemnation — that the fog begins to clear and the limits imposed
on your freedom become apparent. Investigating your religious doubts, in the face of prohibition, can feel like walking an intimidating path. A steep path that might challenge your most deep-rooted preconceptions, your integrity, your stamina. A rocky path, along which you might experience
criticism, obstruction and abuse from others. An open-ended path that may — or may not
— seem to offer resolution. So why take such a path? That’s what I want to address. I want to explore this religious condemnation of doubt, exposing some of the double-standards behind it and the absurdities they lead to, examining the emotional blackmail that leaves some feeling guilty or disloyal for entertaining doubts, and explaining the very real dangers involved
when faith is unrestrained by doubt. When Abraham said: ‘Show me, Lord, how you
will raise the dead,’ He replied: ‘Have you no faith?’ He said ‘Yes, but just to reassure my heart.’ Allah said, ‘Take four birds, draw them
to you, and cut their bodies to pieces. ‘Scatter them over the mountain-tops, then
call them back. ‘They will come swiftly to you. Know that Allah is mighty, wise.’ This strange encounter, described in surah
2, verse 260 of the Qur’an, illustrates a common religious double standard. Whether it be major world religions like Islam
and Christianity, or pocket-sized doomsday groups
claiming to channel aliens from distant planets, we see the same old division. There are the chosen ones, deemed worthy of
supernatural proof, and the undeserving hoi polloi, the common masses who are simultaneously
denied knowledge but commanded not to doubt — a double-bind that produces
acute psychological tensions. Let’s pick apart some of the layers of problems
with this elitist system. In ‘Towards Understanding the Qur’an’, Islamic scholar Abul Ala Maududi defends Abraham’s request for a divine demonstration, explaining that Abraham is looking for the ‘inner peace that one attains as a result of direct personal observation’. This is a striking acknowledgement of the
inadequacy of faith. Think of it. Here we have Abraham, a religious character so iconic that Islam, Christianity and Judiasm are collected
under his name as the Abrahamic religions; a figure who, according to this story,
even converses directly with Allah. And still he needs the kind of reassurance that could only come from a demonstration of divine power. So, why is he granted the peace of mind
that’s denied to ordinary believers? Maududi’s answer is that: ‘…. the kind of function
that ordinary believers are required to perform ‘requires of them no more than believing in certain truths without perceiving them through their senses. ‘The function entrusted by [Allah] to the Prophets ‘is such that they ought to have
direct knowledge of the truths.’ Maududi argues that the prophets had to tell
the world they spoke from direct experience, possessing reliable information that set them apart from others who employed conjecture, fancy and imagination. The problem is, even if their experience was genuine, it would do precisely nothing
to set them apart. Imagine six prophets who each claim
they’ve been given a guided tour of hell. These could be the hells of established religions
like Greek religion, Buddhism, Zoroastrianiasm, or hells as yet unimagined. For argument’s sake, let’s imagine
one of them speaks from direct experience. How would you determine which one that was? This is a supernatural realm we’re talking about. By definition, it defies all of our experience
and frameworks of reference. The fact is we have no criteria for assessing
the reliability of this information. Direct experience doesn’t set people apart because the act of recounting a direct experience transforms it into another currency. It now becomes a story, an unsubstantiated claim. This instantly nullifies its evidential value.
Nothing is proved by an unsubstantiated claim. To restore its value, substantiation is required. But that’s the very thing denied to the common people. Obviously, if you want to play dirty you can get the common people
to accept your revelation claims by manipulation rather than substantiation. You just drill it into them, from birth if
possible, that your religion is perfect while others are corrupt. You fill their minds with visions of dreamy rewards
and nightmarish punishments. And you make doubt a thought-crime. The end result is generally a pleasingly compliant devotee who’ll swallow all your unsubstantiated claims while scoffing at those of other religions. The problem is while you’re busy manipulating
people into your religion other folks are manipulating people into theirs creating followers who’ll favour their revelation stories and become impervious to yours. Which leads us to a deeper problem. Divine characters like Allah and Yahweh are
conceptualised as all-knowing. If they existed, they’d know that people
indoctrinated into other religions are generally immune to all but
their own religion’s revelation stories. They would therefore also know that to get
through to those people in other religions, a much more powerful method of persuasion
was needed than revelation stories — ie proof that has the power to transcend
all religious biases and barriers. Proof that has the power to reach every individual. For all the centuries of lip-flapping
about all-powerful gods not one single religion has produced the goods. By an astounding coincidence every single one of them has instead required
their followers to take their word for it. So, in the absence of proof, what do we have? Here we come the biggest problem so far. Taking just Islam and Christianity, in both cases we have a divine character who’s
content to do nothing while millions of human beings,
through no fault or desire of their own are indoctrinated into other faiths. It knows that this indoctrination will create
powerful biases in those humans immunising them against its religion. It then watches as these humans descend
to unspeakable torment in hell as punishment for not believing. What we’re talking about is a holocaust bystander. To describe this behaviour as ‘callous’
limboes beneath understatement. But what I want to highlight is its sheer stupidity. Imagine the following situation.
You’re a night security guard for an apartment block. You’re stationed in a small hut attached to the block with CCTV screens and speaker access to all areas. There’s a fire in the building that forces
everyone down to a basement area where they find a red door and a yellow door. They debate which one to take. They can hear traffic noises behind the yellow door. But then someone sees the faded word ‘EXIT’
above the red door. The group becomes sharply divided
into Reds and Yellows each rejecting the arguments of the other. You watch all of this on your CCTV screen, knowing that the red door leads to freedom while the yellow door leads
to a dead-end and certain death. There’s a vent next to your desk
connected to a vent in the basement. You can see that one of the Reds is standing near it. If you shout down the vent ‘Take the red door’ she’ll just about hear you and she’ll report
receiving advice from a disembodied voice. You know the Reds are already predisposed to believe her. But you also know the Yellows will easily
dismiss this ridiculous ghostly message. Alternatively, you could use
the public address system at your disposal to give an announcement over the basement speakers that’ll be clearly heard by everyone identifying yourself as the guard from the security hut and telling them to take the red door. So, do you choose the vent or the PA system? Allah and Yahweh chose the vent. I’ve said it before. All-knowing gods should be geniuses. But the ill-conceived system of private revelation employed by prophet-based religions has the grubby fingerprints
of limited human thinking all over it. If you want to overcome the doubts of serious thinkers you seriously need to up your game. Many religious people suffer with
tremendous guilt about their doubts. — guilt that’s often inspired and reinforced by others In his book ‘God in the dark: The assurance
of faith beyond a shadow of doubt’, Christian author Os Guinness identifies nine kinds of doubt that he suggests lead people out of faith all of which put the blame
squarely on the doubter. He talks about doubt from ingratitude,
from a faulty view of his god Yahweh, from weak foundations, from lack of commitment,
from lack of growth, from unruly emotion, from hidden conflicts, from inquisitiveness
and from impatience. The possibility that doubt could come from
inconsistencies is dogmatically dismissed. Scare-mongering imagery is used throughout the book. For example, a nameless doubt
is compared to a ‘waiting shark’ that ‘lurks below the conscious mind’ with ‘no limit to its shadowy potential for destruction’. Guinness warns that preoccupation with doubt
holds ‘much danger’ comparing it to preoccupation with sickness. But preoccupation in both these areas
can lead to positive outcomes. With sickness, preoccupation can lead to effective treatments. With doubt, preoccupation can expose deception,
expand our knowledge and free us from tyranny. Later on, I’ll be talking about
the dangers of not doubting and I won’t be resorting to hyperbole,
but offering real-life examples. All these criticisms of religious doubters
are ones many of us have heard before. The charge of ingratitude was levelled at me
when I expressed my own religious doubts as a child. I pled — and still plead — not guilty. It wasn’t that I became ungrateful.
I was just putting my gratitude where it belonged. For instance, after the recovery of loved
ones from life-threatening accidents or illness, while some folks have busied themselves telling
everyone about the thanks they gave to their god. you would’ve found me thanking
the doctors and nurses. You know? The folks who actually saved
those lives, with their knowledge and dedication. Sometimes a sense of gratitude can be experienced
without the need to direct it towards any agent real or imagined. When I’m filling the kettle or standing under the shower, I’m intensely mindful of the fact that access
to running water is a tremendous luxury unknown to vast numbers of humans. When I’m sprinting, either to make up time
or for the sheer joy of it I feel deep appreciation for the physical mobility I enjoy. And when I experience doubt — even crushing doubt — I treasure my fundamental freedom
to think for myself. For many folks, doubts about their religion
get stirred up by distressing life events involving illness, loss, injustice, death. At these times, when many cry out ‘Why, Oh Lord?’
and crave robust answers it seems all religions have to offer
is a welter of mimsy platitudes. People are told: ‘God doesn’t give us
anything we can’t handle.’ In rebuttal, one word: suicide. When people take their own lives to escape
some anguish whether that anguish comes from chronic pain, relentless bullying, insufferable loss or an inability to construct a future they have, by definition, been given more
than they could handle. People are told: ‘God doesn’t give you the people
you want. He gives you the people you need.’ In rebuttal, again one word: pedophile. Is anyone seriously going to argue that their god gave sexually-abused children the paedophiles they needed? Guinness characterises the question ‘Why, Oh Lord?’
as ‘doubt from impatient inquisitiveness’ and puts the doubter’s need to know
down to a lack of trust. A damning accusation. But does it stand up? Leaving gods aside, let’s consider
our real relationships with other humans specifically, with the people we most trust in the world. When we ask them questions
about their actions and intentions, does that mean that we’re impatiently inquisitive,
or that we lack trust in them? Of course not. In fact, very often it’s when we trust people most deeply that we feel most confident about
approaching them with troubling inconsistencies. We trust that they’ll understand the genuine
concern behind our questions. We trust they’ll be able and willing to
clear things up. But most of all we trust that they won’t
respond with abuse and emotional blackmail, accusing us of lacking trust. In fact, it’s when people behave in these defensive
and attacking ways that alarms bells start ringing. The tragedy isn’t that Christian doubters
lack trust, but often that they have so much trust. Religious apologists might try to whip up
all kinds of scare-mongering rhetoric and emotional blackmail to make doubts seem shameful and dangerous. But doubt is a perfectly healthy response when we perceive problems
in the information we’re working with and there’s no reason to feel guilty
for wanting to address those problems. As for danger, that comes not when we start
to doubt, but when we stop doubting. HBO’s documentary ‘Mea Maxima Culpa
— Silence in the House of God’ showed how religious suppression
of doubt played several key roles in the perpetuation of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. For some victims, the status of the priest as a divine agent put his motives and actions beyond doubt. They therefore accepted the abuse,
figuring they must deserve it. Other victims who did seek help found it was the adults they confided in — from parents to police — who refused to doubt the ‘holy fathers’. It’s hard for some folks to grasp
the height of the pedestal on which the Catholic clergy
were placed in these cases. Ordained priests were considered
to be transformed into semi-divine humans. One victim of Roman Catholic priest Alexander Walsh reportedly believed he was being touched
by the hand of god. Priests are attributed with the divine power
of transubstantiation — the purported ability to turn wafers and wine into the body and blood of the Christian messiah Jesus. In some cases, consecrated wafers were reportedly
pressed against the genitals of victims. Priests are also attributed with the power
to grant absolution, the forgiveness of mortal sins. Some priests used absolution as divine justification for their crimes claiming they were taking
the children’s sins on themselves. Absolution could also be used in a more coercive
way, by being withheld if victims didn’t submit. The church’s aversion to doubt
also played a more far-reaching role. In a scandal that alienated countless Catholics, it was discovered that the Vatican had long
known about the endemic problem
of child sexual abuse within its ranks. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses a religious organisation that also sees itself
as above the reach of worldly laws and has maintained a secret database of known and suspected pedophiles within its membership, the Catholic church also had extensively documented knowledge of offenders which it concealed for years. Victims might be privately paid off, sworn
to secrecy even coerced into signing official apologies for
the true allegations made against their abusers under threat of excommunication. Why? To preserve unquestioning trust in the church. To suppress doubt. Some apologists assert that Yahweh has nothing
to do with this unholy mess; that these are human acts
for which he’s unaccountable. But Yahweh isn’t so easily absolved. We come back to elitism. According to the Bible, Jesus chose to spread his word not through an egalitarian system
of universal revelation to every individual, but through an elitist system of specially
appointed agents called disciples. The Catholic clergy — from priest to bishop
to pope — continues this legacy of discipleship. In Luke 10 verse 16, Jesus tells the disciples:
‘Whoever listens to you listens to me’. More pointedly he continues: ‘…. whoever
rejects you rejects me’. And just to really drive the point home, he
adds that whoever rejects him rejects Yahweh. So, cutting out the middle Messiah, reject
Yahweh’s disciples and you reject Yahweh. By introducing this system of elite disciples that the common people are directed to trust
as Yahweh’s representatives, Yahweh becomes implicated in any abuses
that result from the misuse of that trust. And as an all-knowing god, able to foresee every abuse that would result
from this elitist system he has no escape hatch. If he existed, he would absolutely be accountable. Child sexual abuse occurs in all kinds of institutions. But the religious suppression of doubt has given priests a level of immunity
other sexual predators could only dream of allowing some to prey
on hundreds of children over decades under the protection of a church more concerned with its holy reputation than the suffering of its victims. Guinness conceptualised
a nameless doubt as a ‘waiting shark’ with ‘no limit to its shadowy potential for destruction’. But doubt isn’t the shark. Doubt is what allows us
to spot the sharks around us: the deceivers, the manipulators and the abusers
who thrive in spaces that suppress doubt. Doubt can sometimes put us in a spin. But lack of doubt leaves us
vulnerable to the spin of others. The hollow metaphors, the deflections, the doublespeak and the emotional blackmail of those who wish
to forcibly confine us in their ideology rather than try to persuade us respectfully. Doubt is the the path out of that confinement. Ideologies that demand
their followers neither know nor doubt put those followers in
an impossible psychological position, denying them both certainty and uncertainty. Sadly, there are still many parts of the world where voicing doubts will attract officially condoned punishments up to and including execution. They might silence some of our mouths,
but we should never let them silence our minds. ‘To find yourself, think for yourself’ This quote, attributed to Socrates, reminds
us that when we allow others to think for us what we’ll find in our heads are their ideas,
their perceptions, their experiences, their beliefs in place of our own. To find ourselves, we need
to exercise our freedom to think and resist ideologies that try to block that freedom
by punishing doubt.

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