“One of the things going on in this country is that we’ve developed a culture of debate, of Crossfire and Hardball, of adults shouting each other down and not listening to each other. Our leaders are not allowed to show doubt, uncertainty, ambiguity. In our culture at this time, these things are perceived as signs of weakness. And I think that’s a big mistake.”
-John Patrick Shanley

I went to see Bill Maher’s editorial film, Religulous, last Friday. If you’re not familiar with it, that’s “Religulous” as in, religion + ridiculous. In the film, Maher interviews all kinds of deeply committed religious believers and pokes merciless fun at their faith. One of the central ideas, clashing ironically with Maher’s belligerent methods, is that we just can’t know.  Nobody can know her or his religious ideas are right, and nobody else (aside, apparently, from Maher) can know they’re wrong. Filmmaker’s hypocrisy aside, the agnosticism he professes is the basis for exactly the kind of attitude we, as individuals and a social collective, need to cultivate more widely. I’ve often found myself forced to admit that the only thing I can really believe, sadly paradoxically enough, is that I don’t know what to believe. Sure, I claim certain beliefs as mine, certain ideas as truth; we’ve all got to do that, to avoid utter paralysis if nothing more. But at the end of the day, I can never really say “I know.”

Consider conspiracy theories. The very word “conspiracy” is like code for “bullshit.” People hear an idea—any idea—that questions what they perceive to be the fundamentals of society or the world, and they roll their eyes. They close their ears, they laugh, they smirk. And yet, as far as I (your average non-connected non-conspirator) can tell, many of the claims made in conspiracy-theory literature are based on the same meticulous attention to evidence and logic as any legitimate mainstream material. There are references, primary sources and reasonable expressions of suspicion over conflicts-of-interest in powerfully-positioned people and groups. Admittedly, I haven’t fact-checked all the claims in the conspiracy theories I’ve read, and I haven’t run any kind of detailed check on their sources (though presumably the publishers have). But I haven’t done any of that for non-conspiracy literature either. I can’t. I’m one little person with the resources and connections of most other “one little persons” in the world. That’s my point: as an individual making my way through an endlessly complex, compartmentalized, interconnected, and hierarchical modern society, I have virtually no way of knowing shit about the true legitimacy of all the sources of information I encounter along the way. That is the crux of radical doubt at its horrible finest, and it’s something conspiracy theories can go a long way in showing everyone regardless of the theories’ actual proximity to the truth (which proximity is precisely what we can never know).

Let’s put it this way: you don’t have to believe that the American government had a hand in bringing down the Twin Towers on 9/11 to recognize how very much could be going on behind closed doors, beyond the reach of most citizens’ knowledge—beyond, even, our wildest dreams. In fact, it doesn’t even take a conspiracy theory to illuminate the extent of the secrets in high-up places; hundreds of formerly-unknown dealings and lies (NSA wire-tapping, WMD, the list goes on) make it clear that there are power structures of which we are simply unaware acting upon us and shaping our lives.

So what I think we need to do is first recognize our uncertainty and then embrace it. Embrace it enough to listen—really listen, and really listen closely—to one another. Then maybe we can start really conversing too, not just firing off the litanies of talking points we’ve all become so accustomed to hearing and employing.

I would have liked to interview some of the religious leaders Bill Maher met with in his film. I’d have liked to ask them some questions I consider more interesting, more telling, about what exactly they believe and where those beliefs come from. Maybe I could find some reasonable underpinnings to their beliefs—or, hey you never know, even potential points of reconciliation. A friend of mine has been known to say, when asked about her religious views, “I’d rather have a mind opened by wonder than closed by belief.” There’s an element of surprise in wonder, and we can’t have either if we don’t allow ourselves to explore the unfamiliar.

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