Monday, 9 January 2006

Faith and False Scepticism

The great Jacob Burckhardt said that the world was suffused with false scepticism, and that of the true kind there could never be enough. The good professor also predicted the rise of the “terrible simplifiers” [1], those totalitarian social engineers and intellectual barbarians who have, in the words of H.L. Mencken, “an easy solution to every problem—neat, plausible, and wrong”. [2]
And so I see today a false sceptic and terrible simplifier in the letter-pages of The Guardian, the newspaper par excellence for intellectual barbarians:
Faith, which often divides the world into good and evil, can lead to violence. The antithesis of faith - free thought, scepticism and doubt - does not.
Francis King, Letter to The Guardian, 9th January 2006.
Such faith, simplicity, and false scepticism! For what reason on earth do we have to suppose that the antithesis of faith does not lead to violence in the same way that faith might? By way of an answer, we might even apply Mr King’s own suggestion that the division of the world into good and evil causes conflict and violence; and so we find in Mr King’s scheme, that faith is a root of the evil of violence, and is thus an evil itself, and scepticism is the goodly cure thereof, and thus a good itself, and thus the world is divided into good and evil.
That faith and its antithesis can lead to violence should go without saying; and it should be evident that all manner of differences can cause conflict. But so what? Is the solution then uniformity – but this sounds like the antithesis of free thought! It might be seen as a good thing that a man judgmentally divides the world into good and bad, right and wrong, for it is a sign that he has not cultivated for himself the moral and intellectual ambivalence of a par-boiled cabbage.
The tone of Mr King’s letter implies that an at least partial solution to the problem of violence is the removal of all faith – as the root of all evil. It would require a great faith, however, to believe that humanity thus stripped of its natural proclivities would be more peaceful. At least one ought to be sceptical about the prospect, but then I suspect that a faith that comes by the name of scepticism is the hardest to remove of them all, and does not take kindly to true scepticism.

[1] see The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, tr. and ed. By Alexander Dru (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001)
[2] H.L. Mencken, “The Divine Afflatus,” A Mencken Chrestomathy, (New York: Vintage, [1949] 1982), p. 443.

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