Exploring fanaticism, religious and secular

By Rich Barlow
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2009

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Today, according to Peter Berger, the eminent Boston University sociologist, and Anton Zijderveld, his Dutch colleague, “There’s a truly ecumenical community of fanatics of every persuasion, religious and secular.’’

The virus of fanaticism takes several forms, according to “In Praise of Doubt,’’ which targets two: fundamentalists, for whom modernity and tolerance are threats to a belief in the existence of pure and unassailable truth; and relativists, peddling the assertion that all assertions of fact and objectivity are compromised by gender, race, class, and desire for power and so cannot be trusted. Berger and Zijderveld deflate both of these theologies with darts of academic scholarship, prescribing “doubt as habit.’’

They compress some heavy intellectual and theological history into a compact and readable summary. Religious fundamentalism is the low-hanging fruit, easily dispatched. They cite the Roman Catholic Church as an exemplar of a smart institution that has realized most Catholics no longer take its teachings for granted (taking doctrine for granted being an essence of fundamentalism). The church has been forced to accommodate the laity more, the kicking and screaming of traditionalist Catholics and hierarchy, notwithstanding.

Relativism is trickier, as it is a part of modernity, which puts aside fundamentalist certainty to entertain various religions’ takes on truth. The problem arises when extreme relativists say there are no objective facts. The book relates an amusing anecdote in which a friend dared Samuel Johnson to disprove that the world around us is unreal. Johnson kicked a stone and declared, “Thus I disprove it!’’ Only a nut would deny the physical reality of a stone, Berger and Zijderveld write.

To demonstrate the failures of secular relativism, the authors detail the intellectual gymnastics Marxists frantically undertook as Marx’s relativistic premise - that the proletariat, made objectively clear-eyed by their oppression, would overthrow capitalism - wobbled in the face of a collective yawn from workers, who instead reformed capitalism with institutions such as unions.

There is precious little to argue with in this book. Yet “In Praise of Doubt’’ is no mere exercise in stating the obvious. Its scholarship is bracing, its prose mostly lay-friendly and seasoned with humor.

If Berger and Zijderveld stumble, it’s with an unwarranted harshness toward advocates of science. They write of creationists and believers in evolution as if both were equally fanatical. Yes, secularists can be fundamentalists. Militants like Richard Dawkins, the British biologist and atheist, speak as if religion were unnecessary in an age of science, as if lab coats alone could guide us to values and meaning.

But even Dawkins admits that evolution could be disproved if science discovered certain contrary evidence. It’s just that, in the 150 years since Darwin publicized his theory, no one has found that evidence. By contrast, religious fundamentalists who admit the possibility that they are wrong are no longer fundamentalists, but rather tumble into new religions or no religion.

Elsewhere, Berger and Zijderveld write, “Politically, atheists defended a strict separation of church . . . and state, but many of them would prefer to eliminate by force all traces of personal and institutional religion.’’ They offer no evidence except for a reference to Stalin. Even if you take into account other atheist tyrants of history, “many of them’’ remains an uncorroborated slur that is beneath two such otherwise sagacious authors.

Rich Barlow can be reached at

IN PRAISE OF DOUBT: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic By Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld

HarperOne, 192 pp., $23.99

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