by John Coats, author of Original Sinners, Why Genesis Still Matters
Divinity of Doubt
by Vincent Bugliosi
Any editor can tell you tales about the effect of a book’s title. One of the more famous of these is of F. Scott Fitzgerald, how it took both his wife, Zelda, and Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Charles Scribner’s Son’s to talk him into using the title The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald preferred Under the Red, White and Blue, or Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires, or Trimalchio in West Egg. Whoever came up with the title The Divinity of Doubt, The God Question should run for President.
You see, I have an ancient, deep-in-the-bone weariness from forty years of being told that I’m going to hell for the sin of taking the Bible as metaphor, not history. Now, to my surprise, having published a thoroughly non-religious interpretation of Genesis, and in the same vein, written periodic blogs here and elsewhere, I find there to be others, as dogmatic, close-minded and as ready as their Bible-thumping nemeses to state opinion as fact and/or final word on the subject, who inform me that only a deluded fool could find anything of value in what is no more than a collection of fairy tales. While I admit to quiet pleasures taken from watching the scions of the New Atheism tear the religious right a new one, their see-it-our-way-or-you’re-an-idiot polemic that drops me and others like me into the same bucket with Pat Robertson, et al., smacks of the very sort of unfettered certainty they set out to oppose. Literalism, I suppose, will beget its opposite.
It’s the agnostic, the anti-know-it-all, with whom I’ve long felt the greatest kinship. Once considered to be the sign of the beginning of wisdom, doubt, as a species of expression and, I fear, of thought, has become all but extinct in the absolutist atmospheres of our national conversation. Which is why Bugliosi’s title, The Divinity of Doubt, The God Question, first intrigued me with its implied promise that here is a successful, obviously intelligent adult who’d been around the block more than a few times, who is willing to say I don’t know! His logic is simple: Just as you can’t know—that is, prove—that God does exist, you can’t know that God does not exist. And it succeeds.
Bugliosi first came to national attention with his prosecution of Charles Manson, and the national best selling Helter Skelter (co-authored with Curt Gentry). He has now authored some thirteen books, including Outrage, Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder; The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President; The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, and; Till Death Us Do Part: A True Murder Mystery. The preponderance of critical attention for his work has been positive: “Brilliant”, “Brutally candid”, “Authoritative”, along with admiration for his “Zealousness”, and “Conscientious”.
His current effort, quite a departure in subject matter, is three hundred twenty-four pages of closing argument by a prosecutor skilled at presenting evidence in the worst possible light. Not that I fault him for this; Bugliosi goes after both camps with equal ferocity. While I take exception to some of his characterizations—for instance, Joseph Campbell was not a “religious” writer or even religious in any traditional sense of the word; Augustine’s definition of love is broader than what is represented here—I found it useful to keep in mind that this is lawyer-speak on behalf of his client, which is not so much some larger truth as it is reason. He intends to build a case against those who claim absolute knowledge where there is none.
Religious pieties, put on a level playing field with reason, will fold under the pressure. From the Doctrine of Original Sin to the “remarkable beliefs” of the born-again Christians, to Billy Graham, to the buttoned-up dogmas of the “Great, Grand, and Silly” Roman Catholic church, to Intelligent Design and its parent doctrine, Creationism, each is treated to Bugliosi’s scorn. One theme which he hammers time and again is that of the all-powerful God who loves us and, for his own reasons (which we’re not to understand), allows and/or causes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, war, and genocide.
Nor does he spare the New Atheists, whose arguments he finds unconvincing. About Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, he writes, “You don’t defeat the existence of God by simply saying that you find such an entity too improbable to believe…It would seem that someone of even rather dull intelligence would know this. Since Dawkins is a man of high intelligence, this gives rise to the possibility that Dawkins, unable to produce common sense to support his position, decided to rely on the hope that his startlingly vapid argument would go over the heads of his readers without them feeling the breeze.” Ouch! He is no kinder to Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, nor to Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, How Religion Ruins Everything. As if to leave no one untouched, before arriving at his final chapter “The Sense and Morality of Agnosticism,” Bugliosi turns his attention to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus.
The Divinity of Doubt, The God Question, provides a voice for those looking neither to be saved by religion nor saved from it, who know that they don’t know, and suspect they will never know because there are things that we humans, with our all-too-human limitations, can’t know. My advice to anyone in that category is that you use this book as a starting point, read it carefully, then read for yourself the sources that he cites. Read, think, write, talk with people willing to ponder things deeper than celebrity gossip and reality television. In other words, make up your own mind, which, ironically, may insist on remaining unmade, in a perpetual state of wonder—and wondering. If I read the author’s intentions correctly, that is just what he would tell you.
John R. Coats, author of “Original Sinners, Why Genesis Still Matters” (Copyright © 2009), holds master’s degrees from Virginia Theological Seminary and Bennington College Writing Seminars. A former Episcopal priest, he was a principal speaker and seminar leader for the More To Life training program in the United States, Great Britain, and South Africa and an independent management consultant. He lives with his wife in Houston, Texas.