IN PRAISE OF DOUBT (subtitled HOW TO HAVE CONVICTIONS WITHOUT BECOMING A FANATIC) by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld is a book you wish everyone with intractable opinions about everything would read with an open mind. But that, of course, is like asking barracudas to consider minding their water table manners. We don’t need no stinkin’ manners!!!

The authors, both sociologists, put it more elegantly (on page 32): “Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the very useful concept of “cognitive dissonance” – meaning information that contradicts previously held views – or, more precisely, previously held views in which we have a stake. (It obviously doesn’t matter to us if new information contradicts previous opinions that are of little or no significance to us – say, about the name of the capital of Papua New Guinea.) What Festinger found out shouldn’t surprise us: People try to avoid cognitive dissonance. The only way to avoid it, however, is to avoid the “carriers” of dissonance, both non-human and human. Thus individuals who hold political position X will avoid reading newspaper articles that tend to support position Y. By the same token, these individuals will avoid conversation with Y-ists but seek out X-ists as conversation partners. When people have a strong personal investment in a particular definition of reality….they will go to great lengths to set up both behavioral and cognitive defenses.”

Absent those readers who would benefit most from this book, the rest of us can still find much to mull. Take, for example, the issue of capital punishment, which the authors cite as “an example of a democratically endorsed barbarity” which is never justified (a stated certitude at odds with the authors’ own theme, which can be summarized by the headline on the back of the dust cover: WHY RELIGION, POLITICS, AND CULTURE – AND EVEN TRUTH – NEED DOUBT TO SURVIVE). One may well question whether the authors’ absolute capital punishment prohibition comports with need for doubt.

This is not meant to suggest that the book is a mass of contradictions….but then, you will have to read it to see what I mean. I highly recommend it, not least for its admirably brief 166 pages (index excluded). I have no doubt you will agree.


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