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The Age of Doubt (and The Day of Hope). Christopher Lane’s New Book on Agnosticism

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 7, 2011

Christopher Lane has recently released a book, The Age of Doubt, on doubt and agnosticism (surprise!). He’s adapted a chapter for New Humanist (UK), which I’ve excerpted below. But first, for those who saw my last post, an update on my sister, Carol.

Carol had her surgery yesterday, and the news post-op is much better than we thought. The colon tumor has been removed, and the ??? in her ovary was not, in fact, cancer. It was removed and her ovary is still intact. No other new signs of cancer were found, so that’s good news too.

She’s walking around a lot today, as that’s a requirement to aid the healing of the colon. Apparently it heals very fast, perhaps in 48 hours. In a couple of weeks she’ll be starting chemotherapy to get the small tumors in her liver. So all in all, the news is very positive.

That’s the hope. Here’s Christopher Lane on doubt:

Our culture has become impoverished by certainty. In our overheated climate of polarised public debate, we give less credence to uncertainty; yet the crises that preoccupy us – including religious extremism – demand that we tolerate increasing amounts of it.

Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry.

Ironically, it was the Victorians, often dismissed as prudish and uptight, who led the way to an open-mindedness and engagement with ambiguity that stands in stark contrast to the impoverishment of contemporary thinking about religious doubt and belief.

Fifteen years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the Scottish editor, writer, and publisher Robert Chambers anonymously brought out a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In it he argued that the progressive evolution of species was fully compatible with God-given laws. Vestiges reached a transatlantic and cross-European audience far larger than David Hume could secure with broadly compatible claims in the mid-18th century. Among Chambers’ fascinated, sometimes horrified, readers were Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Florence Nightingale, Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Darwin. The book became a widespread topic of conversation across Britain in particular.
[Interesting: Darwin wasn’t the first to have a concept of evolution, only one of the first to come up with a successful model of how it might work. Apart from Chambers, there was another chap who’s often regarded as a co-inventor of evolution, whose name escapes me. Can anyone remind me?]


[As a sociologist, I find Herbet Spencer’s inclusion illuminating:] One of the most prominent thinkers to advance [the agnostic] claim was Herbert Spencer. The polymath sociologist, philosopher and biologist argued in First Principles (1862) that religion and science must grapple with “the Unknowable”, a blind spot in human understanding that faith had once seemed to fill.

Despite his forceful defence of Darwin and agnosticism, however, [Thomas] Huxley did not embrace full-blown atheism. He acknowledged “a pretty strong conviction that the problem [of existence] was insoluble”, a position that asks doubt and intellectual inquiry to replace hedging, complacency and anything resembling easy acquiescence.

A more astute contemporary thinker than Dawkins on the issue of agnosticism, in its broadest, existential sense, is the American playwright John Patrick Shanley. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt (also a film), he argues that “doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” While such questioning takes us past a point of comfort, he claims, it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things”, and thus represents “nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present”.

Lane’s full essay is here and the book The Age of Doubt is at Amazon.

Even in the last day I’ve had new subscribers to this blog– thankyou. It really flatters me that forty-five people value my thoughts enough to want to be updated when there’s something new. If you haven’t yet subscribed, it’s easy, just enter your email in the box at the left.

Doubt, Hope; let me conclude with the trivial. Today we hired a car seat for the impending arrival of baby (7 weeks or so away), test played the new board game my son Master T is working on and I bought some new clothes. It’s strange how new clothes can make one feel so much better. Not that I was feeling bad, I’m refreshingly happy these days. (Note to self: Get new depression meds on Monday.) Sometimes maybe it’s best to ignore the big picture and enjoy the small things in life.

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5 Responses to “The Age of Doubt (and The Day of Hope). Christopher Lane’s New Book on Agnosticism”

  1. “Sometimes maybe it’s best to ignore the big picture and enjoy the small things in life.”
    that is THE secret to life, my friend. Glad to hear the post-op news was better than expected. Blessings for continued recovery.

  2. Anne said

    Thanks for the update on Carol and that is very good news! I’m thinking of her.

    Great treatise on doubt; it really gets to the heart of how I operate spiritually. [In our overheated climate of polarised public debate, we give less credence to uncertainty;] Yes, and what fuels my spirituality are questions, not answers.

    Especially enjoyed the Shanley quotes: “…conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” and, that he says it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things.” I say Yay to doubt!

    And loved your “Note to self.” I can relate!

  3. Juris said

    try wallace
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Russel_Wallace

    • Ahh! Thankyou. I did know the name, but was too lazy to look it up late last night.

      Some exerpts From Wikipedia:

      Alfred Russel Wallace, OM, FRS (8 January 1823 – 7 November 1913) was a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist. He is best known for independently proposing a theory of evolution due to natural selection that prompted Charles Darwin to publish his own theory.

      Unlike Darwin, Wallace began his career as a travelling naturalist already believing in the transmutation of species. The concept had been advocated by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Erasmus Darwin, and Robert Grant, among others. It was widely discussed, but not generally accepted by leading naturalists, and was considered to have radical, even revolutionary connotations.[45][46] Prominent anatomists and geologists such as Georges Cuvier, Richard Owen, Adam Sedgwick, and Charles Lyell attacked it vigorously.[47][48] It has been suggested that Wallace accepted the idea of the transmutation of species in part because he was always inclined to favour radical ideas in politics, religion and science,[45] and because he was unusually open to marginal, even fringe, ideas in science.[49]

      He was also profoundly influenced by Robert Chambers’ work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a highly controversial work of popular science published anonymously in 1844 that advocated an evolutionary origin for the solar system, the earth, and living things.

      In February 1855, while working in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, Wallace wrote “On the Law Which has Regulated the Introduction of Species”, a paper which was published in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History in September 1855.

      The paper shook Charles Lyell’s belief that species were immutable. Although his friend Charles Darwin had written to him in 1842 expressing support for transmutation, Lyell had continued to be strongly opposed to the idea. Around the start of 1856, he told Darwin about Wallace’s paper, as did Edward Blyth who thought it “Good! Upon the whole!… Wallace has, I think put the matter well; and according to his theory the various domestic races of animals have been fairly developed into species.” Despite this hint, Darwin mistook Wallace’s conclusion for the progressive creationism of the time and wrote that it was “nothing very new … Uses my simile of tree [but] it seems all creation with him.” Lyell was more impressed, and opened a notebook on species, in which he grappled with the consequences, particularly for human ancestry. Darwin had already shown his theory to their mutual friend Joseph Hooker and now, for the first time, he spelt out the full details of natural selection to Lyell. Although Lyell could not agree, he urged Darwin to publish to establish priority. Darwin demurred at first, then began writing up a species sketch of his continuing work in May 1856.[53]

      By February 1858, Wallace had been convinced by his biogeographical research in the Malay Archipelago of the reality of evolution.

      According to his autobiography, it was while he was in bed with a fever that Wallace thought about Thomas Malthus’s idea of positive checks on human population growth and came up with the idea of natural selection.

      Wallace had once briefly met Darwin, and was one of the correspondents whose observations Darwin used to support his own theories. Although Wallace’s first letters to Darwin have been lost, Wallace carefully kept the letters he received.[58] In the first letter, dated 1 May 1857, Darwin commented that Wallace’s letter of 10 October which he had recently received, as well as Wallace’s paper “On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species” of 1855, showed that they were both thinking alike and to some extent reaching similar conclusions, and said that he was preparing his own work for publication in about two years time.[59] The second letter, dated 22 December 1857, said how glad he was that Wallace was theorising about distribution, adding that “without speculation there is no good and original observation” while commenting that “I believe I go much further than you”.[60] Wallace trusted Darwin’s opinion on the matter and sent him his February 1858 essay, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type”, with the request that Darwin would review it and pass it on to Charles Lyell if he thought it worthwhile.

      Darwin’s social and scientific status was far greater than Wallace’s, and it was unlikely that, without Darwin, Wallace’s views on evolution would have been taken seriously. Lyell and Hooker’s arrangement relegated Wallace to the position of co-discoverer, and he was not the social equal of Darwin or the other prominent British natural scientists. However, the joint reading of their papers on natural selection associated Wallace with the more famous Darwin. This, combined with Darwin’s (as well as Hooker’s and Lyell’s) advocacy on his behalf, would give Wallace greater access to the highest levels of the scientific community.[64] The reaction to the public reading was muted, with the president of the Linnean Society remarking in May 1859 that the year had not been marked by any striking discoveries;[65] but, with Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species later in 1859, its significance became apparent.

      When Wallace returned to the UK, he met Darwin. Although some of Wallace’s iconoclastic opinions in the ensuing years would test Darwin’s patience, they remained on friendly terms for the rest of Darwin’s life.

      [What I take from this is that there was actually a general movement towards evolution in the 1800s, so that Darwin, while the most famous, is perhaps not quite the ‘out of the blue’ iconoclast I had previously thought.]

  4. bague or diamant…

    […]The Age of Doubt (and The Day of Hope). Christopher Lane’s New Book on Agnosticism « Spritzophrenia[…]…

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