Why Doubt is Truth's Best Friend

Peter Berger speaks with U.S. News about 'In Praise of Doubt' and the dangers of absolute certainty.

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One of the wonders of the modern era is that it provides so many choices. But those choices, sociologists Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld write in their book In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic, can have dangerous consequences—creating not only relativists but fundamentalists, too. Nourishing doubt, they say, is the only way society can counteract those extremes and bring about moderation. Berger, the founder of Boston University's Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, recently spoke with U.S. News about diversity, the culture wars, and how to move to the middle ground. Excerpts:

Why praise doubt?

Well, because of the subtitle—which is how can we have convictions without becoming fanatics, which I think is an important question religiously, morally, and, last but not least, politically.

Fanaticism is usually associated with fundamentalism, but you argue that relativism and fundamentalism are "two sides of the same coin." How so?

One usually thinks of these as opposites, and they are in some ways. But I think they're both a result of modernization. We argue that modernization almost inevitably undermines the taking-for-grantedness of people's convictions. It has to do with the fact that few people today live in communities where everyone agrees on basic values. And relativism is a position where one embraces this development and, in the end, nothing is certain anymore, truth doesn't mean anything, and anything goes. That's very destructive. On the other hand, fundamentalism—it's not just religious, you can have secular fundamentalism of various sorts—can be described as an attempt to restore the taking-for-grantedness of different beliefs and values, a sort of attitude of absolute certainty. And that's also very dangerous, because it tribalizes society. It makes compromise become impossible.

What's the solution?

One has to find a middle position. It's possible to find a middle position, and doubt is a very important part of it. Doubt is not the enemy of truth but a good friend.

As it becomes more diverse, is American society leaning toward one pole or the other?

No, I think what you have is a kind of interaction between the two. Every relativist is a potential fundamentalist, and vice versa. I think what happens in the future will depend a lot on developments in the world at large.

Like what?

Take a very negative scenario: if we have a very long-lasting economic depression, or if we have new wars, or environmental disaster. In those situations, people tend toward fundamentalism of one sort or another—fanaticism, political, religious, what have you. If that doesn't happen, I think we'll continue, and I hope so, to have the kind of interaction between those two poles. And finding a middle ground is every important.

As the recession persists, have you started to see any signs that people are tending toward extremism?

I don't think so. It hasn't lasted long enough, and it doesn't go deep enough. But if you go back to the Great Depression in the early '30s, there were terrible consequences. The rise of Nazism, for example, in central Europe, had much to do with masses of people feeling threatened, vulnerable, grasping for certainty. That was fertile ground for fanaticism.

Do you think the United States has found a way to operate from that "middle ground" of doubt?

I hope we can find a middle ground, and I think that one should not be too much impressed by people who shout at each other from opposite ends. Most people are still very much in the middle. And I think that if you talk about the search for a middle ground, we are not looking for something terribly strange or esoteric. Society is not as polarized as we might think.

So is the fact that most Americans are moderate reflected in today's debates?

You can see it very clearly. Take two very prominent debates: abortion and same-sex marriage. The majority of Americans don't particularly like abortion. They don't want to make it illegal again; they want to limit it with this or that, but they don't want to go back to the period before Roe v. Wade. And the activists on the two sides do not represent the majority. The same is true of same-sex marriage. Most Americans are heterosexual. They don't have great fondness for gays, but they don't want to persecute them. So, again, you get the middle position. That's, I think, a healthy situation for any democracy.