23 January 2013

Room for Doubt and Rule of Fear

A closed mind is a sign of hidden doubt.”
-Harold DeWolf

Doubt is an important subject to me, as I so often struggle with it. What I learned from my Mom from a young age was that I shouldn’t fear it, but explore it wisely. Well here is one attempt to do so:


It seems as though the phrase “close-minded” is more widely applied to those who are religious than those who are not. The stereotype, if not the fact, is that a person of faith clings to their doctrines without examining or analyzing them, and the secularists or humanists are open to all options. I do think this happens sometimes, but I think that the opposite can often be true, and either version of close-mindedness (secular or religious) can be deeply obstructive to truth’s riverways.

There is a current cultural claim of being open-minded that is decidedly not. The post-modern young secularist has decided what the world is—it is what they want and feel—and anyone who challenges that will be promptly labeled “close-minded’ and dismissed. I find this sad and ironic.

It would seem—again, via stereotype—that people are more accustomed to the very notion of religious close-mindedness than secular, post-modern, or humanistic close-mindedness. Religious close-mindedness is an easier sell in our culture. Religion offers very certain instruction on morals, beliefs and behaviors and does not allow a great deal of room to maneuver away from those things. Most forms of secularism, per current perception, allow morals, beliefs and behaviors to be more malleable. Redefinition and relativism replace constancy and conviction.

I think that many religious people also buy into this notion, and can sometimes be nervous about having their convictions pinned down by someone secular, for fear of being called close-minded. Of course, the difference between living close-minded and living with conviction is vast, but that is another matter, albeit one not sufficiently explored.

What genuinely concerns me are not those creeds which openly admit that they are fixed, but rather those that champion, and claim to be, one thing—open-minded or tolerant—while, in fact, being something else entirely. The source for this concern does not arise solely from my desire to defend a life of deep conviction—though I do so---but from a chance encounter with a certain literary discussion:


Room for Doubt, or Not:

I love reading reviews for Young Adult (YA) Literature novels. The YA author and reader community is vibrant, interactive, and extremely internet savvy. They offer some interesting analyses of the works themselves, but also provide perspective on the young adult literary zeitgeist.

You can get more information than you ever needed, and I find the debates over various Young Adult novel controversies very telling. Often the debates seem more interesting than the works themselves, although that may simply be the fact that I am inherently drawn to controversy, and NOT terribly interested in reading novel after novel of paranormal dystopian love triangles.

For example, one debate surrounded a sixteen-year-old female character that chose a “friends-with-benefits” scenario with her love interest, versus getting married or any form of commitment. Did that make her feminist and independent, or did that make her fearful, selfish and unfeeling towards said love interest? Gender and sexuality debates are some of the most common controversies in the YA community. It would appear that this has much to do with the visibly high quantity of female authors, readers, and reviewers in this community.

Which brings me to a review of a book called “The Knife of Never Letting Go.” I should state right up front that I have not read this book, nor is this post ABOUT this book. It was about a small controversy which stemmed from it, and about how that debate was conducted, and what troubles me therein.



In the book review and the discussion it spawned, one reviewer was offended by the fact that, in the novel, there is a certain germ or disease that affects the minds and bodies of males in a decidedly different way than it affects the minds and bodies of females. This reviewer took this to mean that the author asserts there to be something essentially, or “qualitatively” different between men and women. The reviewer was appalled at this claim. Debate ensues.

Well fairly soon, another commenter chimed in with the very viable argument that there are some inherent “biological/physiological/biochemical” differences, and the author was not being sexist to build upon that in his novel. This argument was not well received, and most of the other commenters continued to insist that this notion that men and women are somehow different by nature is archaic and will throw us back to the Stone Age or some such.

The following comment boggled my mind and represents the death of any real debate:

“a lot of time merely implying that there exists room for doubt about something is too great a compromise”

I don’t want to be brutally unfair, but the moment my eyes came across that sentence I copied and pasted it because I could scarcely believe it was said. Neither the removal nor the addition of context does the sentence any favors. The blatant claim here is that the mere implication of any room for doubt is an unacceptable compromise. Apply this logic across almost any debate and you run into serious trouble. Ultimately, in this particular discussion (link provided here), the Implication is that there are essential differences between men and women, particularly physiological differences, the Room For Doubt is the possibility that those differences are in any way essential or immutable, and the Too Great A Compromise would be allowing this idea to be given a seat at any debate table ever.

I understand why the commenter feels this way…he fears the confines of “gender essentialism” and how women have been ill-treated and restricted by it. But fear is the key word in that sentence. No matter how good your argument, nor how valid your concern, deciding not to acknowledge and explore doubt is generally a fear-driven decision. And this is coming from someone (me!) who believes that doubt can be deeply foolish, deeply wrong, and can kill you if mishandled.

So why do I conclude that exploration of doubt is necessary and that this rather secular, open-minded, tolerance-advocating commenter is giving poor advice despite their good intentions? Because, as a person of faith, if I tried to dismiss every doubt about God that frightened me or challenged my understanding of the world, that would be implying that the truths I know, proclaim, and try to live by aren’t strong enough to stand up against the doubts. And since I believe they ARE strong enough, I HAVE to face those doubts without fear. I can’t say it is always easy, but I can say that it is important and I hold a deep conviction that I must strive to do this.

“Faith keeps many doubts in her pay. If I could not doubt, I should not believe”
-Henry David Thoreau


The controversy regarding faith stems largely from the idea that it is blind…that the entire merit of faith is the very lack of evidence. If that is the case, doubt would be an understandable and frequent occurrence.

But I don’t think that’s the whole picture of faith. I referred to the siren metaphor once before on this blog because the tale of the sirens speaks to the importance of tying yourself to a conviction based on evidence—on genuine knowing—despite how the current sense, circumstance, or temptation tries to demolish that conviction. The knowing came first. Faith is the thing that keeps you from forgetting what you knew, when everything and everyone around you would have you do so.

As in C.S. Lewis’ “The Silver Chair,” faith is remembering that there is a sun when you haven’t seen it in a long time, and everyone else is telling you it never existed, that it is a product of your imagination, that it is mere wish-fulfillment. But you basked in it before, and, if nothing else, your remember that in your very blood-stream.


The trouble with fear-based analysis is that it’s “see no evil” in its worst sense; it’s failing to face the chinks, the failures, the confusions. Ultimately it’s failing to learn and grow. And faith is meant to grow.

Again, one thinks of the phrase “blind faith”, but I think that is something of a misnomer. Faith is not recklessly blind; it believes in what it knows but cannot see. There’s a difference. Doubt will occur…the difference is the manner in which the doubt is handled. Fearlessly, or fearfully? Moored or unmoored?


Advance or Withdrawal

A good pastor once said that when one experiences doubt, don’t ignore it. Take it up and bring it to God, not away from him. He stated that when we withdraw from Him—“to get perspective” we claim—we are not able to truly get free of other influences and prejudices. There is no such thing as neutral ground. To imagine that as possible is to make a great mistake. Nature abhors a vacuum, does it not?

The illustration he gave was of how we sometimes come to doubt the nature of a friend that we rarely see, until we get together with them. Then we are reminded of their qualities and our confidence in them is reestablished. Withdrawal from a person is not the way to prove our theories about them, whether positive or negative…we go to the subject of the theories and dive in. Then we discover if we are right or wrong. Never by withdrawal.

This applies to all fields of study: the field develops (be it physics, medicine, or the social sciences) when someone approaches the conventional wisdom with a doubt or a suspicion. If they are wrong, the exploration of their doubt will strengthen that which is correct already. If they are right, something wrong, insubstantial, or misapplied will fall away (i.e. those thing which are “but rules taught by men”). One can see this happening when Jesus challenged the Pharisees. The core of truth remained. It was only the religious frippery that was sloughed off.


Giving up the Rule of Fear

Returning to the debate regarding “room for doubt” and the issue of gender essentialism, one begins to see what happens when room for doubt is not allowed in debate. Truth is neglected on behalf of conventional wisdom. The truth here is that there are basic biological differences between men and women which influence certain parts of life, including physical capabilities, bodily functions, and (occasionally) actual behavior.

The prevailing post-modern conventional wisdom is that what you want and how you feel about what you are trumps all of that…or, more extreme still, that all of it is a product of “social construction.” Ironically, the voice of someone advocating a concrete, provable, scientific view is drowned out by the voices of those reacting emotionally, fearing the consequences of any hint of gender essentialism, even if that hint is borne by fact.

Doubt is hard, and can be very uncomfortable. But ought it not to be taken hold of and made into something useful? The difference between acknowledging or examining doubt, and succumbing to it is the difference between hearing someone out—really listening to what they have to say and considering it—and simply being batted back and forth by every single argument you encounter. The only reason to fear doubt is if you expect the latter to happen to you…which it needn’t. It all depends on where you take it.