Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Pew Poll and the Limits of Benign Skepticism

The Pew Research Center seems to be getting a lot of attention for its survey showing that non-believers tend to know more about religion than believers.  There are some fairly obvious plausible explanations for this phenom, a number of which have been amply ventilated elsewhere (see, e.g., link).  The dominant theme would be that knowledge is likely to be most extensive among those who find religion problematic, either because they doubt, or become doubters, or because they are converts, or because their chosen faith is in some sort of beleaguered minority position.  I suppose we see an overlap here with the (alleged) insight that people who watch Jon Stewart tend to be better informed about public affairs than those who follow mainstream news.

All fine so far, but I want to point out a threshold problem here.  That is: most of the commentators (this would include yours truly) probably come at this issue in a mode of what you might call "benign skepticism"--more than indifferent to matters of religion, insistent on the right to believe, without remotely committing themselves to anything like a formal system of belief.  It is the view perhaps most influentially articulated by William James in "The Will to Believe"--surely one of the most influential essays in American thought. 

James'' position has at least two virtues.  One, it differs from mere asocial indifference.  James' view allows, nay encourages, active curiosity about religion, and religions.  And two, it differs from aggressive empiricism--the notion that belief must not be allowed in the absence of "evidence," somehow defined.

But James' view harbors a telling limitation which he doesn't seem to notice.  That is: he appears never to countenance that one of these systems of belief that he is so eager to countenance might actually be true.  In the end, this is hardly surprising, because the system of benign skepticism that he seems to advocate is absolutely incompatible with the systems of belief that he encounters with tolerant reservation.--"incompatible," at least in the sense that those who embrace those other belief systems simply aren't interested in the mode of critical inquiry that James takes as central.

James' view, in other words, comes close to treating "belief" as a kind of "lifestyle choice," where it isn't so much of choice as a complex of commitments that precede choice--the same kind of commitment that is represented by James' own benign skepticism.  This is ultimately the paradox of what Stanley Fish calls "boutique multiculturalism"--because, as Fish says, "sooner or later  the culture whose core values you are tolerating will reveal itself to be intolerant in that same core."  As will, he might have added, your own.

This post adumbrates an argument set forth by James Seaton in his introduction to a new edition of  "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy" and Character and Opinion in the United States, by George Santayana.  The Fish essay is reprinted in The Trouble with Principle (1999).

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