Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In Praise of Doubt - Peter Berger & Anton Zijderveld

As political positions seem to become more and more polarized, I feel like people rarely spend time discussing issues with those who feel differently from them. And then, when those conversations do take place, rather than people honestly listening to each other and trying to understand where the other is coming from, it just turns into a shouting match where the loudest voice is apparently the winner. In the end, people walk around more angry than ever, and become more extreme in their positions, regardless of reason, logic, or in many circumstances, factual reality. The subtitle of In Praise of Doubt is "How to Have Convictions without becoming a Fanatic." I thought maybe it would present an argument for rational discussion - a tool for debate that would lead to actual understanding and the finding of a middle ground. And so, I picked it up with some hope. This book was not quite what I expected - but it was still worth reading and thinking about. The basic thesis of the book is that it is possible to maintain moral certainty about democratic values without resorting to either moral relativism or fundamentalist. The authors eschew the notion, embraced in the 1970s, that modernity leads to secularization. Rather, they argue, it leads to plurality - or the ability to choose among a variety of world views and religions. While this broadening of choice seems appealing at first, the authors argue that the fear of where choice leads opens societies up to dogmatic and absolutist doctrines. Too many ideas that might all be "right" - causes too much chaos and uncertainty in a culture. The trick is to understand the value in individual independence and to embrace the panoply of choices, while still maintaining "the values of liberal democracy". This book was a reminder to me (as if I needed one), that I am no philosopher, and I'm sure about 90% of it went way over my head. But, at the end of the day what I can agree with is the idea that having doubt is not a danger to society or morality in general. There are issues on which folks may never agree - but different belief systems may share common ground - and there is value in determining what that common ground is and figuring out a way to co-exist without shoving our own values down other people's throats.

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