Cumberland Times-News

August 11, 2012

If nothing else, we can ease the tensions

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Doubt often is regarded as a weakness but is a needed feature of our pluralistic society.

Let me explain. A pluralistic society is one where there are groups with very different outlooks towards key issues, such as abortion and same sex unions.

In this mix, some aggressively express their absolutely certain convictions. Most of us want a civil society where people can interact peaceably.

Can we ever resolve the bitter differences? Not likely, but doubt can ease much of the tensions. This is the thesis of a remarkable 2009 book written by Peter Berger (American) and Anton Zijderveld (Dutch). Berger is a distinguished sociologist at Boston University while Zijderveld, with Doctorates in Sociology and Philosophy is a faculty member at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

The title is: “In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic”, published by Harper One with ISBN 978-0-06-177816-2.

In the 19th century, European intellectuals expected that science, not religion would be used to construct a moral society. For science is based on empirical evidence and subject to being disproven (the technical term is falsification).

Has our culture become secular as some prominent U.S. media figures charge? Berger and Zijderveld make a convincing case that since WWII, there have great been surges of religious fervor across the world.

There are 400 million Pentecostals worldwide, spreading to many Protestant and some Catholic churches. There are 100,000 Evangelical missionaries in Latin American, Africa and part of Asia. Only western Europe and central Europe have secular societies.

When one considers human history, most people have lived in gatherings where common views about morality, lifestyles, justice, the role of the sexes prevailed. But with modern media and mass education, we are exposed to many different outlooks.

The German philosopher Gehlen divided our existence into the background (outlooks, routines done without thinking) and the foreground (where we must choose our actions, words, beliefs). Our modern world has enlarged our foreground relative to the background.

Modernity (what we experience living in our contemporary society) tend to spread relativization (many outlooks being viewed relative to each other).

The opposite of relativization is absolutism (that one outlook is supreme and the other ways of viewing our world and existence are worthless).

Sociological research has shown that modernity has led to increasing amounts of tolerance. But there is a price to be paid. This is cognitive dissonance where people are exposed to information that contradicts their previously held views.

For instance, if one is very negative towards a certain religion and a devout member of that faith is shown to have done much good, this can cause cognitive dissonance.

To avoid the displeasure of cognitive dissonance, one might question the motives of that person or that he/she is not really motivated by that faith but influenced by other faiths or a desire to be admired, etc.

In dealing with one’s religion, the authors cite the three positions: exclusivist, pluralistic and inclusivist.

An exclusivist regards his/her faith as the only true one, with other faiths being false. An inclusivist sees all faiths as having important qualities to be respected. A pluralist has a preference for one faith but is willing to accept bits of other faiths, while their central faith core is intact.

In considering why many are drawn to movements where little or no choice is allowed, the authors see a “liberation” where individuals are released from the burden of individual decisions.

In a totalitarian society, an individual is indoctrinated with absolutes, eliminating all anxiety resulting from thinking on one’s own. Some religious communities may be regarded in the same way.

There are many more concepts discussed in “In Praise of Doubt,” including post modernism, the characteristics of fundamental groups, “true believers,” the distinction between sincere doubt and cynicism, and Calvin’s theocracy.

SKY SIGHTS THIS WEEK: Tomorrow morning, the crescent moon will be near the brilliant planet Venus in the eastern dawn. This week, the planet Mars passes between the bright star Spica and the planet Saturn in the southwestern sky.

On Aug. 17, the moon swings from the morning to the evening side of the sun (New Moon). The Cumberland Astronomy Club will have a public telescope session at the Frostburg Recreational Center on Aug. 18 after 9 p.m.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.