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I read this week's lead article in The New York Times Magazine with some skepticism and a pinch of admiration. Jack Miles, who recently became well-known for his award-winning book God: A Biography, sets out to prove that doubt is a good thing for religion and that religion in turn is a good thing for America. By distinguishing between religion and belief, Miles manages to treat the current religious upswing in a sophisticated fashion, as the title of the article "Religion Makes a Comeback. (Belief to Follow.)" makes clear. Unfortunately, for all his sophistication, Miles gets the human side of things wrong in his rushed characterization of doubt.
From Miles's own biography, you would think that he ought to be a very good judge of the nature of doubt. After all, he is a former Jesuit who went on the record this September professing the need for more agnosticism in religion. As the Orlando Sentinel Tribune reports it, Miles was asked over and over on his book tour for God: A Biography what he thought personally about God. At the time, he was not prepared to answer, so he would put off patrons with talk about the God of the scriptures, the God of the Jewish Bible. Some months later, he was asked by Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square and the Philadelphia Theological Institute to speak on the topic.
There, Miles declared himself a "pious agnostic." An agnostic in the usual sense, he thinks that we humans cannot know whether God exists or not, However, unlike most agnostics, he is a regular church-goer. Church attendance is good for society if not for the soul. Miles remarks in The Sentinel that he often leaves church "with gladness and singleness of heart' to love my neighbor as myself." Moreover, he explains, "It is not the saving knowledge I find there...but the admission I make there as nowhere else, that no knowledge saves."
In this week's Times Magazine, Miles recommends this attitude towards religion to America. We Americans, Miles argues, are both plagued and blessed by a strong individualism. Religion, and by this he means strictly church attendance and practice, is a healthy antidote to this trend. Like other associational activities, church-going strengthens communal ties and lends the individual a sense of group identity. Miles admits that there have been other correctives to American individualism, such as therapy and politics, but he feels that these alternatives are in a period of crisis.
Americans, then, are primed for a religious revival. Yet, Miles noticed on his book tour that they were not willing to believe just because they want the comforts of religion. Instead, these folk felt entitled to doubt God from inside the church or synagogue. Miles calls this new breed of religious unbeliever, "the doubter in the pew." Since Miles revealed himself several months earlier as such a doubter, we should not be too surprised that he champions these doubters as the face of current American religion.
Sadly, I think Miles, despite the best intentions, has done American religion a disservice. He makes it clear in the Times article that he thinks Americans can capture the social and personal benefits of religion without belief. Doubt, however, is not as problem-free as Miles makes it sound. Sitting in church may not be the best idea for every agnostic. Miles writes as if church attendance promises perfect calm and love for everyone, but for the skeptic, it may just introduce more big questions to worry about.
The question of God's existence may never bother an agnostic until he starts going to church. Miles writes as if doubt were experienced as a perfect withdrawal on the relevant question, as if we merely voided the topic of God's existence from our heads. We all know that this is not the case. We speak of "nagging doubt" because doubt is often an active force, an uncertainty that occupies our thoughts.
To some extent, Miles gets at an important feature of religion. One certainly does not need to believe in all of the tenets of the church to enjoy the beauty of the liturgy or to benefit from the companionship of the other church-goers. Still, I think it is unfair to represent religion, or pious agnosticism, as a ready-made answer to American individualism. Moreover, while church attendance may be good for society, it is unclear whether wide-scale doubt is equally good. Miles fails to show us what a kingdom of doubters would look like, if that is indeed where we are headed.
Noah I. Dauber's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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