Confession time. I am a cheerleader for doubt. I think it can be a wonderful, exhilarating thing to ask questions. But fundamentally, at my core, I really love certainty. I like answers and solutions and prefer a certain homeostasis to my life. I am extremely uncomfortable with flux and my first instinct is to come up with a solution and move on. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
I also think blanket skepticism can become obnoxious after a while. Asking question after question, doubting every single little thing can get annoying to those around us. In other words, doubt is great, holding strongly held beliefs loosely is important but the flip side of that is a persistent, badgering type of skepticism that can erode our relationships and even our ability to solve problems.
Interestingly, at the same time that our brain is seeking patterns, trying to close circuits and is rewarded with a dopamine surge when a prediction is made correctly, there is another part of our brain that is stimulated by novelty, activated by the unexpectedness of a stimulus. I think this is fantastic because it means we are fully capable of doubting strongly held beliefs while at the same time, allowing ourselves to rest in the things we know. And when we know this about ourselves, we can recognize when we’re reacting one way or another - questioning unnecessarily or holding too tightly to a belief.
We’re not alone in attempting to maintain this equilibrium, it’s not a new struggle. There seems to have always been a tension between the desire to know and the need to question. I really like how Jennifer Michael Hecht encapsulates this tension in her interview with Krista Tippett on a radio show (what was then) called Speaking of Faith.
It seems that if you have a doctrine, a version of rationalism or a version of atheism, that makes it so that you have to be worried about using the word mystery, you've got yourself too constraining a doctrine. And so, I think that that's what's been so wonderful about doubters throughout history...How can you really be against the idea of mystery and have your eyes open at the same time? It doesn't make sense to me. But mystery, then, doesn't mean I've got to fill in the blanks with, you know, ideas of my own imagination...”
I know that atheists can be generous, kind and compassionate human beings who acknowledge and even embrace mystery. I also believe we can be doubters - people who do not blindly accept things at face value, people who do not tightly grip our strongly held beliefs. I believe we can use our doubt to light a path toward greater knowledge, understanding and problem solving. What a fantastic thing!
Jennifer Michael Hecht’s interview