DOUBT BUT IS NOT DOUBT
Victor Urecki is a rabbi. He was invited to a panel discussion at a Presbyterian church and he anticipated this question: “Why is there so much violence in this world caused by religious fanaticism?” He wrote that he had an answer all worked out but that when it came time for him to speak he didn’t say what he really thought. Instead, he said what he thought would be more acceptable to his audience. He labored long in his talk over a commandment from the Torah: “And you shall love the strangers in your midst because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” But what he really wanted to say and finally did say informally was: “We need religious leaders to have the courage to say something that is very hard to publicly say and for religious people to hear. I think the real reason why there is so much violence committed in the name of religion is because we religious leaders don’t do enough to encourage doubt in our believers.”
Wow! I couldn’t as a nonbeliever said it better. But Urecki didn’t leave it at that. He equivocated: “Don’t get me wrong. I believe with absolute certainty in G-d and I believe with absolute certainty that, as a Jewish believer, He gave us His law (the Torah) to guide our lives. But I have huge doubts about man in general and me in particular. I do not believe that we, as human beings, can ever really say with certainty that we always fully understand what G-d wants.”
He disappointed me. Doubt but is not doubt. I wanted him to say that the reason there is so much violence committed in the name of religion is that religionists of all faiths believe with certainty that their theology is rock bottom truth straight from the mouth of God and, in view of that premise and its basis of violence, that rabbis and preachers and priests should confess that they are not certain that there is a God, that He talked to Moses and other prophets in a language they understood and that the prophets inscribed God’s words in the Pentateuch and other holy books. Also, I wanted to hear him say that they should say not only that they are not certain but that anyone who has no vested interest in theological certainties and who takes the time and effort to read and think could come to no other conclusion but there is an ocean of doubt regarding the supernatural beliefs of any and all religions.
Suppose priests and preachers decided the truth was more important than their clerical sinecures and admitted to their congregations that they were not certain that there is an after life or a heaven and a hell or that there is a God. And then told them that the truth probably is that this life on earth is it and for them to make the most of it. And that one way of making the most of it is to learn the core of the teachings of Jesus and all moral teachers and to try to imitate their lives.
Further, suppose they admitted to the faithful that Christianity is no more valid or important than any other religion on earth and that to believe that it is more important and to teach that it is to children and to proselytize other people on the ground that it is—is as much the problem in the world as it is the solution, if not more so. Had the Moslems so taught their children over a period of a thousand years, there would be few of them, if any, who would volunteer to don a harness of bombs and to blow themselves to bits, believing blissfully that the bits would unite into the bomber’s earthly self in the Muslim heaven there to exist hereafter in the lap of luxury and sensuality.
Theological certainty has been the nemesis of the Jews. Arnold Toynbee, the great English historian, opined that the orthodox Judaic religion was a historical fossil; that is, it was in the 20th Century layered over with multi-levels of knowledge that gives the lie to its theology. Now there is a philosopher who writes what the Jews do not want to hear but what is probably nearer the truth than what orthodox rabbis teach, including Rabbi Urecki. Sam Harris in his book “The End of Faith” on the issue of theological certainty has this to say:
“The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. Prior to the rise of the church, Jews became the objects of suspicion and occasional persecution for their refusal to assimilate, for the insularity and professed superiority of their religious culture—that is, for the content of their own unreasonable, sectarian beliefs. The dogma of a ‘chosen people,’ while implicit in most faiths, achieved a stridence in Judaism that was unknown in the ancient world. Among cultures that worshiped a plurality of Gods, the later monotheism of the Jews proved indigestible. And while their explicit demonization as a people required the mad works of the Christian church, the ideology of Judaism remains a lightning rod for intolerance to this day.”
Thus, if Rabbi Urecki wants to teach doubt without a but in order to subvert certainty, which is the premise upon which all religious violence has sucked its initiative and justification, he should become a martyr and say to Presbyterians and all other denominations that he doubts that Jews are a chosen people, doubts that God dictated the Pentateuch to Moses and doubts that there’s a God. Period.
The Catholics believe that the Pope is infallible in his pronouncements on morals; they believe that the content of the Nicene Creed is the truth beyond question and that Mass is the taking of the body and blood of Christ. The Baptists believe in the inerrancy of the Bible; that is, that every word of it is literally true and they believe that belief and baptism are the ticket to Heaven. The Muslims are certain the real God is Allah and not Jehovah nor any other god. Also, they believe, of course, that the Koran is the word of Allah as delivered to Mohammad. And all religions with few exceptions believe that there is a heaven and hell and an after life, one place for the goats and another for the sheep.
Urecki is right: doubt is the answer and the path to peace. Doubting every certainty should be the only religion. It should be taught to children. They should be taught to doubt, to investigate, to read, to think, to immerse themselves in history and literature and then to believe that perhaps they had discovered a right way to go until it appeared that they had chosen the wrong route. But they should be taught to begin again and never in frustration to follow some voluble fellow preaching certainty. For religious certainty is the bane and blunder of mankind, the evidence of which is writ in torture and blood on the pages of history and on the pages of Iraqi journals today.