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Talk Back 48
Keeping the Faith in My Doubt

by John Horgan

This article was originally published on the OP-Ed page of the New York Times, 12 December 2004. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author. John Horgan is a freelance journalist and author and a former senior writer at Scientific American (1986-1997.) He is the author of:

  • Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality (Houghton Mifflin 2003);
  • Where Was God on September 11? A Scientist Asks a Ground-Zero Pastor. With Reverend Frank Geer. Edited by Robert Hutchinson (Brown Trout 2002)
  • The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation (Free Press 1999); and,
  • The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Science in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (Broadway Books 1996);

For further information, visit his web site

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WITH the presidential election over and the holidays upon us - a religiously charged political season followed fast by the most religious time of the year in an overwhelmingly religious nation - unbelievers may be feeling a bit beleaguered. To cheer themselves up, they might visit the virtual home for a group called the United Universists.

Founded last year by a few brave souls in Birmingham, Ala., the Universism movement "denies the validity of revelation, faith and dogma" and upholds science as our most reliable source of truth. The Universists are asking atheists, agnostics and other infidels to join them in their effort to counter the influence of religious zealots in our culture. Since the recent election, the Universists have posed this question on their home page in large type: "Who will fight for the faithless?"

Good question. Obviously neither major political party wants to associate itself too closely with unbelievers - and understandably so, given polls showing that Americans are even less likely to vote for an atheist for president than for a homosexual. But as an areligious person myself, I'm intrigued by the notion of unbelievers banding together to increase their political clout, perhaps by speaking out on issues like sexual freedom, abortion, stem-cell and cloning research, and prayer in schools.

There are more of us heathens out there than you might guess. According to the Pluralism Project at Harvard, which tracks religious diversity in the United States, the number of people with no religious affiliation has grown sharply over the past decade, to as many as 39 million. That is about twice the number of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Episcopalians combined.

Not surprisingly, a slew of organizations - including older ones like the Council for Secular Humanism and the American Atheists and newer ones like the Universists and the so-called Brights - are competing for the devotion of the godless. The Universists, who claim to have enlisted 5,000 members so far, are especially feisty and shrewd at self-promotion. In September they took to the streets of Birmingham to protest Alabama's ban on the sale of sex toys, and last week they organized an online chat with Sam Harris, author of the anti-religion polemic "The End of Faith."

And yet I have no plans to sign up with the Universists or any other areligious group. First of all, I'm just not a joiner, more out of laziness than anything else; I avoid commitments that might jeopardize my sports- or sitcom-watching time. An organization for freethinkers - one of the Universists' self-definitions - also strikes me as oxymoronic, like an anarchist government. Isn't the point of being a freethinker eschewing categories like Satanist, Scientologist or Universist?

I'm also disturbed that these areligious groups have exhibited the same sectarian squabbling that they deplore in religious believers. When Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and director of the Skeptics Society, was invited to speak at an atheism convention in Florida last year, some organizers objected because he is agnostic - a mere doubter of God's existence rather than a denier. Mr. Shermer has likened this hair-splitting to the dispute between Baptists and Anabaptists over whether baptism should take place during infancy or adulthood.

At that same conference, two anti-religion educators also proposed that negative terms like "agnostic," "atheist," "unbeliever" and "skeptic" be replaced with the more upbeat "bright," which describes someone "whose worldview is naturalistic - free of supernatural and mystical elements." The term, which can serve as a noun or adjective, has been promoted by the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the biologist Richard Dawkins.

Members of some other groups have reacted with annoyance to the Bright movement, no doubt seeing it as an intrusion on their turf. Defenders of the old standbys "atheist," "agnostic" and "secular humanist" complain that "bright" is self-aggrandizing - and the implied antonym, "dim," a tad demeaning. Critics of the Brights include the Universists, whose Web site also distinguishes Universism from (and not-so-subtly asserts its superiority to) atheism, deism, humanism, pantheism, transcendentalism and Unitarian Universalism.

All this goes to show that even groups founded with the best of intentions - and what groups aren't? - usually become concerned above all with self-perpetuation, often at the expense of other groups with similar aims.

My main objection to all these anti-religion, pro-science groups is that they aren't addressing our basic problem, which is ideological self-righteousness of any kind. Obviously, not all faithful folk are intolerant bullies seeking to impose their views on others. Moreover, rejection of religion and adherence to a supposedly scientific worldview do not necessarily represent our route to salvation. We should never forget that two of the most vicious regimes in history, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, were inspired by pseudoscientific ideologies, eugenics and Marxism.

Opposing self-righteousness is easier said than done. How do you denounce dogmatism in others without succumbing to it yourself? No one embodied this pitfall more than the philosopher Karl Popper, who railed against certainty in science, philosophy, religion and politics and yet was notoriously dogmatic. I once asked Popper, who called his stance critical rationalism, about charges that he would not brook criticism of his ideas in his classroom. He replied indignantly that he welcomed students' criticism; only if they persisted after he pointed out their errors would he banish them from class.

OF course we all feel validated when others see the world as we do. But we should resist the need to insist or even imply that our views - or anti-views - are better than all others. In fact, we should all be more modest in how we talk about our faith or lack thereof.

For me, that isn't difficult, because I've never really viewed my doubt as an asset. Quite the contrary. I often envy religious friends, because I see how their faith comforts them. Sometimes I think of my skepticism as a disorder, like being colorblind or tone-deaf. Perhaps I'm missing what one geneticist has called "the God gene," an innate predilection for faith (although I'm skeptical of that theory, too). But skepticism has its pleasures; I like the feeling of traveling lightly through life, unencumbered by beliefs.

Instead of banding together, maybe we unbelievers should set an example by going in the opposite direction. We should renounce all "isms" - that claim to speak for our most profound personal beliefs. Or rather, since we seem to be headed in this direction anyway, each unbeliever could create his or her personal ism, perhaps with its own name. Since Universism is taken, I'll call mine "Horganism." You can revile it, admire it, or ignore it, but you can't join it.