Spirituality and the virtue of doubt

I don’t get out much. I mean, I really don’t get out much. It’s not enough for me for a movie to make it to DVD– that means I need sooner or later to escort that movie back to a mailbox. No, I wait until a movie, milked of most of its immediate and secondary profit, filters all the way down to Netflix streaming video. So it was with delight that I opened the Netflix app the other day to find that a movie I had been waiting for was available: Bill Maher’s “Religulous”.

It may seem pretty religulou— er, ridiculous– that I had been looking forward to seeing the movie. But not only did I enjoy the movie, I agreed almost completely with its conclusion: that doubt, not faith, is the more authentic virtue. My only dispute with Maher is with his confusion of faith with spirituality.

In his defense, most persons who would describe themselves as “religious” or “spiritual” share his confusion. Real spirituality is hard work. It doesn’t take long for religion rooted in genuine inspiration to be watered down into mere parroting of the founders’ insights, rather than the hard work of following the founders’ guidance. Putting faith in an authoritative roadmap to guide me to an unfamiliar destination is appropriate and necessary.  If however my faith in the roadmap leads me to sit at home with the expectation that  someday my map will magically transport me to my desired destination, if only I believe hard enough, I’m a fool.

Ask most dabblers in religion (that category almost always includes religious hierarchy, once a religion is established enough for ambitious persons to covet the status and privilege of such positions). God wants, more than anything else, for his believers to do what they themselves hope to do– to not think.

But ask someone who takes spirituality seriously, and you get a different picture. Most accept on faith some portion of the advice of experts, some flavor of advice that a combination of prayer and meditation, self-examination, study, ritual, compassion, and service, will bring them closer to spirit (all spirituality regardless of flavor draws from that short list). They put faith in the means, the method, the way. This is a different concept of faith from the notion that all you need to do to know God (or at least, avoid condemnation by Him) is to stop using your brain on the big questions of life (presumably, He still permits His believers to employ their minds gainfully to obtain, say, Justin Bieber tickets).

Belief in the Magic Map is what Bill Maher deftly ridicules in Religulous. Surrounding the ridicule, and punctuating them from time to time, he reminds us that Magic Map faith isn’t just a barrel of laughs. It’s the raison d’être for violence on a vast scale.

Mysticism is about knowing the Divine in the present. Magic Mapism asserts that the Magic Map, which so clearly does nothing in the present, will deliver the goods at some point in the future, usually at death, for those with sufficient faith in the right Magic Map. More ominously, a majority of the world’s Magic Mappists believe the world will end in an orgy of bloodshed when their Magic Map destroys evil believers in all the other brands of Magic Map. Why don’t you kill yourself, Maher repeatedly asks believers, to which they have no response. And Bill Maher, standing in Meggido — the very “Armageddon” referenced in Revelations as the place where the world ends– asks us, might not believers, in their enthusiasm to bring about the End Times, someday kill us all?

I share his concern. But I don’t think religion alone is the problem. Humans are eager to substitute Magic Maps for actual movement. Most ideologically driven politics, for example, involves faith in a Magic Map, and political map-faiths have proven themselves to be just as dangerous. The Magic Map we call the free market, for example, powers the climate change denialism. On the flip side some deep ecology believers cannot restrain their joy over the prospect of mass human die off due to climate change. Magic Mappism is intellectual laziness taken to a recklessly immoral degree. It knows neither creed nor its absence.

Maher ends his film with a plea for the virtue of doubt over belief. Again, I concur with him. Doubt is better than belief, not simply because it is the foundation upon which one can understand the physical world, but because doubt, and not faith, is the true foundation of mysticism. The humblest possible position is “I don’t know”. A mystic, regardless of flavor, must aspire to become as humble as nothingness, so that they might be filled with Everythingness. This state of nothingness is fundamentally a state of doubt.