THE BLOG
06/20/2013 12:02 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

Seekers, Nones and the Age of Doubt?

There's been a lot of talk lately about the growing number of the Nones (those who list their religion as "none"). The great army of the unaffiliated is growing. Even many of those who go to a place of religious worship call themselves "seekers" rather than "believers." It's my hunch that there's something deeply important going on here. It's not just a matter of more and more of us swimming in an ocean of doubt. It's not so much that we doubt as that we have hit our heads against the brick wall of thinking that language has only one meaning. The trouble is that it's difficult to figure out what has happened to us. Colliding with a brick wall befuddles the mind. One clue as to what has happened to us is the squabbling among some believers and the new crop of atheists. The disputes often read like a mud-slinging match between two sets of fundamentalists. Faith is caricatured on one side as belief in things without any evidence. The other side, in an act of suicidal defeat, cannot give any reasons for their assertions. There's very little sense of faith being an act of trust, without which none of us can live.

I think the seekers and the nones are onto something deeply important. They've stumbled upon or recovered a problem with the triumph of univocal scientific language. They have an intuitive awareness that something could be true on one level and not true on another, that story-telling is integral to truth-telling. Believers have been suffering from "science-envy" for about 400 hundred years. In their lust for certainty, they wanted their dogmas to sound like scientific formulae. Both Catholics and Protestants declared and declare their doctrines as if they are literally true.

Not long ago the Pope did away with Limbo as if it were a literal place. In April of 2007 the Washington Post ran the headline: "Vatican Panel Discounts Limbo for Unbaptized." This came as a relief to some Roman Catholic parents. The article reported: "Ann Druge grew up in a Catholic family with eight children and the haunting knowledge that a ninth was stillborn. Because the baby, named Mary Ellen, had not been baptized, she was denied a Catholic burial. "When we would go to the cemetery... we'd always stop where they threw the dead flowers. That's where the little one was buried," said Druge, 80, of Storrs, Conn. "My mother and father were very upset every time. She was stillborn, so she couldn't be buried in the consecrated ground. We were told she was in limbo." No more. After three years of study, a Vatican-appointed panel of theologians has declared that limbo is a "problematic" concept that Catholics are free to reject. Why, one wonders, insist on its literal truth in the first place? And what other dogmas might bear looking at for some revision?

What do we do in such a circumstance when things are falling apart and the old certainties appear to be crumbling, and people are retreating into private arrangements with what they take to be reality? You can't blame those who fill in those forms with "none" and those, while sensing something important in religion, call themselves seekers rather than believers.

The rise of fundamentalism in religion and its twin in science (manifested in scientism) has produced a crisis in the way we talk about meaning. To put it crudely we not only need facts, we need stories and myths to connect the dots. We need to recover from our addiction to certainties and embrace what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called an never-ending conversation. He reminds us that a culture is made up of many voices -- and all the voices, without exception, are called to join "in a conversation -- an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all." But it takes a certain amount of maturity to be able to take differences in our stride and not be driven crazy by inconclusiveness. The narrative in which we choose to live our lives is of the utmost importance. It takes conviction and courage to keep the conversation respectful with regard to the fragility and mystery of others -- to keep the conversations "sacred" -- to know that our stories aren't the only ones.

What's to be done with generations of us who have been brought up on the myth that science is the privileged language -- and all the rest is froth - nice froth, even beautiful froth but froth all the same? Steven Weinberg affirms, "I personally believe that the teaching of modern science is corrosive of religious belief, and I'm all for that." Michael Ruse points out that among some scientists "there is dogmatism, a refusal to listen to others, a contempt for nonbelievers, a feeling that they have the truth... let us not mistake science for scientism, the belief that science and science alone has all the answers." And Freeman Dyson adds the corrective: "Children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries."

In 1790 the natural philosopher (the word "scientist" came later) Joseph Priestly told the Prince of Wales that the explosion of new scientific knowledge not only had the power "to expand the human mind" but also was able "to show the inconvenience attending all establishments, civil or religious, formed in times of ignorance, and urge the reformation of them." This was more than objective observance. It was a declaration of war of sorts on the very social and political fabric of the world -- a daring if foolhardy statement to the heir to the throne, given the events of the year before in Paris.

What Priestly's daring statement illustrates is the principle that there is no such thing as "knowledge" without context -- without the risk of someone making ill use of it. We do well to fear of the arrogance of science. Science, at its most distinguished, is driven by the Unknown, but science, as popularly understood, is thought to be a cornucopia of certainties, rivaling and contradicting those of religion. Even basic scientific information as to such things as the age of the earth and the theory of evolution is denied by a large segment of the population. Science and Religion then become rivals for people's allegiance in the battle for certainty. What is nearer the truth is that we are united together by our questions and divided by our answers.
The effort to make religion and science share a common language brings us to a dead end. The growing fundamentalist movements in the past as now in their claim to be "scientific", wanted religion to be as "certain" as science. This was a bad move and the consequences are still with us. Treating religious truths as if they are scientific ones gives the atheistic scientists the upper hand. No contest. The religionists backed the wrong horse. No wonder that scientific discourse came to be seen as privileged. "The cultured despisers" of religion won the day. Science slipped into becoming "Scientism" -- the materialist explanation, in principle, of everything. As it happens, another wrong horse, because as a vehicle of meaning science is a big loser.

The seekers and the nones have got it right. There's something fishy about the way we've reduced language to mean only one thing. The way forward is to stop clobbering each other with dogmas and start exchanging stories. And be unafraid of an open, endless conversation.