Faith, Doubt, Mystery and Myth

Over at the New Statesman, Sholto Byrnes has posted a short piece on “The Importance of Myth.”  Byrnes was prompted to write after watching Howard Jacobsen’s program on “Creation,” which is part of a BBC series titled “The Bible: A History.”  Jacobsen, though not a believer, is moved by some aspects of religion and unhappy with militant atheism:

“Let’s confront the absolutists: those who absolutely believe, and those who don’t,” said Jacobson. “Blind faith is fatuous. So is blind doubt.” It was touching to hear the novelist and columnist, who is not a believer, admit that he still feels strongly drawn to the poetry and mystery of religion, both in its texts and in its practice. “There is something there that is not negligible,” he said. “I want to honour that.”

His strongest message, however, was that science is too reluctant to allow for any mystery about our existence and purpose.

Though I am not especially fond of militant atheism and its acerbic advocates, there is a fundamental difference between faith and doubt.  Faith, standing alone and as a guiding principle, can lead anywhere and everywhere.  All historians of religion and scholars of modern religions know that faith operates in precisely this way.

Over the course of human history, there have been thousands and thousands of revealed faiths.  Given this immense variety, how is one who follows the guiding light of faith supposed to decide between them or which one of them constitutes (or comes closest to) the Truth?  Surely the answer cannot depend on when and where a person was born (and what their parents believe), which 99% percent of the time determines which faith a particular person will avow.

Doubt, on the other hand, is a guiding principle that restricts the infinite range of possibilities created by faith.  It requires neither belief nor unbelief.  Some famous doubters, such as Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal, have been led to belief by their skepticism.  Other famous doubters, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell, have been led to unbelief by their skepticism.  Unlike the faithful of the previous paragraph, these doubters have arrived at their decision through a process that is at least principled.  For these believing and non-believing thinkers, neither faith nor doubt is “blind.”

This brings me to Jacobsen’s point about science, which Barnes characterizes as being too reluctant to allow for any mystery about our existence or purpose.  Just as there is no such thing as a singular “Christianity” or “Islam,” there is no such thing as an essentialized, hegemonic, and monolithic “science.”  There are many kinds of science and its borders are only vaguely defined and constantly contested.  Moreover, the most productive kinds of sciences are always guided by mysteries.  Hypotheses are generated by mysteries or the unknown.  They are then tested with whatever kinds of evidence or data are available at the time.

This latter phrase is critical — “at the time.”  It is pure hubris to assert that the evidence and data on hand today constitute the entirety of what can and will be known.  If all of us could come back to earth 100 years after our deaths, we surely would find that many of today’s mysteries have become tomorrow’s knowns.  We would also find there is a new set of mysteries.

My larger point here is that some people tolerate mystery, ambiguity, and the unknown (or even the unknowable) better than others.  Why this is, I cannot say.  It remains a mystery.   For those who cannot tolerate uncertainty, there is always myth and I suppose in this sense I agree with Sholto Byrnes: religious myths are important.  This does not, however, make them true.

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