Friday, January 12, 2018

In Defense of Doubts

As 2017 ticked to a close, a 2004 Pentagon video was published that captured a UFO spotted by Navy fighter pilots. The video went viral among all the credulous citizens ready to believe the next unsubstantiated story about alien beings out to eat us for lunch.
Probably the most grounded wisdom during the heated commotion came from astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, as interviewed on CNN. His recommendation to viewers was to chill out until there was proof. He went on to explain that scientists are right at home with doubts. In his words, "Scientists live in mystery every day of our lives. There's the circle of knowledge that we have, and then beyond that circle is the unknown. As the area of that knowledge grows, so does the perimeter of our ignorance.... Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien. That's a different conversation."

Tyson nailed it. Sometimes less informed people think of ignorance as stupidity. That’s wrong. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. It suggests that one is uneducated on a particular issue. There is no crime in that. Scientists are not embarrassed about their ignorance. That’s why they are scientists: to increase their circle of knowledge, to solve—or at least get closer to solving—the mysteries of the universe.
On the other hand, true believers take a totally different stance. Although often ignorant, they live their lives in full confidence that they are guided by truth. If they ever had doubts, they have dismissed them as unimportant, misconceived, or, worse, evil.
Isn’t that strange? Imagine demonizing that which you don’t understand. In fact, that kind of thinking is medieval and replete with superstition. For example, in the 14th Century, the Black Death was thought to be the work of the devil. Today, we know it was an infectious disease, most likely caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria carried by rodents and the fleas that feed on them. The devil had nothing to do with it.
Lest you think such an example is archaic, keep in mind that today’s televangelists and thousands of their followers claim that the AIDS epidemic is evidence of “divine justice.” That too is medieval thinking.
In contrast, those who are knowledgeable are able to take comfort in what they know and puzzle over what they do not know. More importantly—and this is the main point of my discourse—they refuse to become an advocate, a true believer of that which is still a mystery or, at best, folklore.
On October 20, 1967, two ranchers, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, rode into Del Norte County, California in search of Sasquatch. (That should raise suspicions right away; anyone actually looking for Bigfoot should probably be held in contempt of reason, just as I would be skeptical of anyone looking to find and photograph an aging Elvis Presley—thank you very much.)
Lo and behold, the ranchers spotted a hairy seven-foot entity and filmed the creature as it gambled into the woods. That half-century old, 60-second piece of blurry, low-resolution film from a 16mm Cine Kodak camera is still the best evidence of the existence of the elusive Bigfoot. No one has ever gotten any closer, and no one knows if the hairy beast was authentic or just an NBA basketball center in a gorilla suit.  And, yet, if you like, you can purchase your own Sasquatch T-shirt at the next International Bigfoot Conference at a town near you—as many true believers do.
 Now, just to be clear, I would be happy to sport a Bigfoot T-shirt, but not until I can personally interview the fuzzy creature face-to-face. Otherwise, I’ll let the disciples believe what they will, while I live my incredulous life in the real world.
That takes me to a delicate subject: Religion. When I was a boy, I always admired the committed parishioners in our church—the people I knew and loved my entire young life. I was especially moved when they would stand at the Wednesday night prayer meetings and testify, “I know without a doubt that Jesus Christ is my Savior.”
How I wanted to be like them: to be sure. In fact, I wanted it so fiercely that, at first, I pretended to be a believer. But the pretense gnawed at me like a dog chomping at the morrow in a shank of bone. To this day, those doubts were more psychologically painful to me than anything I have ever experienced. My disbelief was excruciating, but to be a pretender was even more agonizing.
The more I studied, the more my dwindling faith became shrouded in doubt. During those days of incredulity, my believing friends and family would say, “Allen, don’t make it so complicated. Just take it on faith. Besides, the Bible says it’s so, and the Bible is the infallible word of God.”
So, I poured over the scriptures, only to be assaulted with more doubts. The words and deeds of Jesus Christ were not so much reassuring as they were troubling, even frightening. The qualities I saw in the Gospels did not draw me into the fold; they scared the hell out of me. For example:
·         Christ’s jealousy: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25)
·         Christ’s vindictiveness: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:15)
·         Christ’s sadism: “The Son of man will send his angles, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42)
·         Christ’s curious curse: The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14)
Increasingly, the loving God my family of believers exalted did not seem at all loving. Scripture might be a political manifesto, I decided, but certainly not the infallible word of a God who loved me beyond all comprehension.
Because I wanted to get it right—or as right as I could—my doubts led me to a scholarly study of the gospels and the historical Jesus Christ. Books that were particularly helpful included Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman, When Jesus Became God, by Richard E. Rubenstein, Zealot by Reza Aslan, and The Five Gospels by Robert W. Funk. Regarding Mormonism, the book that was most insightful—although, not surprisingly, reviled by the church—was entitled No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith by the historian, Fawn M. Brodie. All of these books taught me that there were too many discrepancies, too many questionable motives, and too many political schemes to warrant unequivocal devotion.
In the end, whether the subject is a mysterious UFO, an elusive Bigfoot, or a vindictive God, I will hold out for hard evidence before I commit my life to that which is otherwise pure speculation or wishful thinking. I will always be a doubter—in fact, I’m proud of that propensity—for it is through the careful examination of my doubts that I arrive closer to the truth.