Former priest argues against the know-it-all tide on religion

By staff writers
March 7, 2011

A former Church of England priest says that the immediacy of easily-available information in the world today has created an illusion that we have all the answers and don't want or feel the need to challenge or doubt our actions and the world around us.

In the first of a two-part BBC series, 'In Doubt We Trust', broadcast yesterday (Sunday 6 March 2011 - still available on iPlyer) at 13:30 on BBC Radio 4, and again next Sunday, philosopher Mark Vernon shows how doubt is a positive virtue demonstrating - ironically - faith in the future.

He came face-to-face with the issues having studied physics, been ordained in the Church of England, and then found himself questioning where he was and leaving the priesthood.

Vernon, who contributes to Ekklesia and many other media outlets and thinktanks, first moved from faith to atheism, but now sees himself as an "honest agnostic" questioning the growing tides of dogmatism among self-styled "true believers" (religious fundamentalists) and "true non-believers" (some of the 'new atheists').

In the two radio programmes Vernon looks at why some people develop a "lust for certainty" and are losing their important ability to doubt and question as well as to believe.

"Doubt has become a bad word. It's associated with fear and failure," he says. "But how have we arrived at this situation? Why do we feel uneasy if politicians or religious leaders express doubts in public?"

Among other things, Veron explores how this attitude has affected the worlds of politics and finance. He also tries to see whether a mistaken view of science and the way our brains work might give us answers.

Doubt is commonly thought of as a "problem" by modern religious believers. But in the past it has been seen as a virtue - an unwillingness to trust unconditionally in anything humanly made, and a signal of "a greater hope" - as US evangelical author and academic Os Guinness has suggested in his books Doubt: Faith in Two Minds and God in the Dark.

In the past, Christianity has also been shaped strongly by the via negativa of Thomas Aquinas and classic texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing.

"Both sceptics and believers often wrongly think of modern religious fundamentalism as the epitome of faith, and dogmatic anti-religion as the epitome of doubt" comments Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia.

"In fact, unwavering zealotry of both kinds is the opposite of the open, questioning and trust-generating attitude that necessarily characterises the quest for a truth larger than ourselves. It is also unfaithful to the diverse and questioning nature of foundational texts in the Bible, for example. Yet the contemporary media stereotype often suggests that fundamentalism is somehow more 'traditional' and 'authentic' as a religious expression. This couldn't be further from the truth, when you probe beneath the surface - as Mark Vernon is helpfully getting us to do," says Barrow.


The first episode of the 'In Doubt We Trust' programme can be heard on the BBC website here:

Mark Vernon has written 'Having faith in the importance of doubt' for Ekklesia here:

Also on Ekklesia: 'Facing up to fundamentalism' -


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