Thursday, October 8, 2009

In Praise of Doubt

In a recent article in the Nation magazine, Marielle Lindstrom, former coordinator for USAID, said this of a Christian Fundamentalist/Evangelical organization: “I’d much rather say that God tells me to do this [work]. It would be easier…” Lindstrom went on to express concern that “there’s no self-doubt.” We had eight years of a president who was confident God was giving him personal instruction. It was a disaster. Doubt, self-doubt, it seems to me, is undervalued in certain circles.

Freud, who is himself undervalued today, makes a simple distinction between neurosis and psychosis. According to one reading of his work, the goal of therapy is to help people come to terms with neurosis. Analysis rarely helps the psychotic. A neurotic can recognize inconsistencies in thought: a psychotic can’t see inconsistency. As a proud neurotic, I have many dark moments when I see the problems in my politics and world view. For instance, I am a theoretical vegetarian who wears a leather jacket. That’s inconsistent, and I know it. I believe in tolerance for all beliefs, but I am intolerant of people I consider closed-minded. If there is an afterlife, I am a universalist, but I believe that certain people, Hitler, Stalin, Bush, deserve to go to hell. I am inconsistent. I have trouble making up my mind, and this leads to paralysis of action.

Freud’s first case study was of a doctor he would later label “psychotic.” Dr. Schreiber believed he was gradually turning into a woman, and would give birth to the Messiah. Dr. Schreiber was a respected physician, who worked until very late in his illness. When the doctor looked in a mirror, he didn’t see a middle-aged man, but someone whose features were becoming ever more feminine. He believed he had been impregnated by the sun, and was with child. When I first read this case study, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Dr. Schreiber could not be talked out of his convictions. Everything he saw confirmed his belief. He eventually had to be hospitalized.

Doing research on America’s three hundred years of miscegenation laws, I was struck by the psychosis of this country’s racism. The term “mulatto” comes from the word “mule.” It was believed that offspring of an interracial couple could not procreate. This was used to buttress laws forbidding interracial marriage. Now, I can sort of understand “scientists” who believed that the earth was flat, and doctors who denied the germ theory of disease. These beliefs, while wrong, aren’t contradicted by the observation of the naked eye. Children of interracial couples certainly can reproduce; otherwise Jim Crows wouldn’t have become ever more hateful, and there would have been no Plessy vs. Ferguson. (In the 1890’s, the Supreme Court ruled that someone with 1/8 African blood could be legally discriminated against.) If those who signed miscegenation laws, using the reproductive argument, really believed children of interracial couples could not reproduce, no one could have had one great-grandparent who was black. Japanese-Americans with 1/16 Japanese blood wouldn’t have been interned. Hence, racism is psychotic, because reason and observation could not dissuade these genius legal minds.

What would it be like not to doubt? There are some, apparently, who never do. Freud had no problem labeling these religious zealots “psychotic.” If you turn on the a.m. radio, you will hear preachers who yell at you not to question. In other words, don’t be human, don’t use your mind, don’t trust your instincts. Aspire to psychosis. I hope to come to the place in my own life when I can accept the inconsistencies in my religious and political beliefs.

I believe that humans are perhaps graduating towards a better place. In spite of poverty, hunger, and illness, I believe society can work for the common good. I believe in a transcendent goodness I call “God” for lack of a better term. I am hopeful for the future of the planet and the human race. I might well be wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. S,
    All hail Doubt. Faith without doubt is fundamentalist gnosis. Without doubt, scientific advancement is stuck on current understandings. Lady Doubt is the mother of human love and accomplishment.
    -the radical homemaker-
    r a d m a k e r @ g m a i l .c o m