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Is Doubt Essential To Faith?

Nov 22, 2013
Originally published on December 16, 2015 1:44 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Believers and Doubters.

About Lesley Hazleton's TEDTalk

Writer Lesley Hazleton calls for a new appreciation of doubt and questioning as the foundation of faith — and an end to fundamentalism of all kinds.

About Lesley Hazleton

Writer Lesley Hazleton is the author of The First Muslim, a new look at the life of Muhammad. A psychologist by training and Middle East reporter by experience, Hazleton has spent the last 10 years exploring the vast arena in which politics and religion, past and present, intersect. She's written about the history of the Sunni/Shia split, as well as books on two female figures from the Bible: Mary and Jezebel.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today, believers and doubters. Why some people believe, why some don't, and then there are those who are somewhere in between, like Lesley Hazleton. What do you believe? What do you believe in?

LESLEY HAZLETON: I don't believe in. To believe in doesn't really make too much sense to me.

RAZ: Lesley Hazleton writes about the people and the prophets who shape the things many people believe.

HAZLETON: I am a very, very firm agnostic, by which I mean that I am not faithless, but I put my faith in inquiry. And I know this sounds strange, but I do have a very deep sense of mystery. What might be called religious mystery.

RAZ: And it was that sense of mystery, of religious mystery, that prompted Lesley - who, by the way, is an agnostic Jew - that prompted her to spend five years of her life researching and writing a biography about the Prophet Muhammad. And it all started with one question - one question that kept nagging her. Here she is on the TED stage.


HAZLETON: I found myself waking each morning in misty Seattle to what I knew was an impossible question - what actually happened one desert night half the world and almost half of history away? What happened, that is, on the night in the year 610 when Muhammad received the first revelation of the Quran on a mountain just outside Mecca? This is the core mystical moment of Islam. And as such, of course, it defies empirical analysis, which might be why when I looked at the earliest accounts we have of that night, what struck me even more than what happened was what did not happen. Muhammad did not come floating off the mountain as though walking on air. He did not run down shouting hallelujah and bless the Lord. There were no choirs of angels, no music of the spheres, no elation, no ecstasy, no golden aura surrounding him, no sense of an absolute, fore-ordained role as the messenger of God. Quite the contrary. In his own reported words, he was convinced at first that what had happened couldn't have been real.

RAZ: So tell me, what did happen?

HAZLETON: He was terrified. He was in fear for his life. He thought this angelic apparition, this voice was going to smother him, was going to just literally squeeze the life out of his chest. He thought he was going to die. And when he didn't, his first reaction was that he had to have been mad. He had to have been insane. This had to have been a delusion and he was terrified lest other people say this of him.


HAZLETON: In fact, he was so sure that he could only be majnun - possessed by a jinn - that when he found himself still alive, his first impulse was to finish the job himself, to leap off the highest cliff and escape the terror of what he'd experienced by putting an end to all experience. So the man who fled down the mountain that night trembled not with joy, but with a stark primordial fear. He was overwhelmed not with conviction, but by doubt.

RAZ: He was a doubter.

HAZLETON: I think the best of us are. The worst of us are those who never doubt, who are so sure that we possess the absolute truth that we become less human. What struck me about Muhammad, the deeper I went into his life, was how extraordinarily human he was and his ability to acknowledge his own fallibility. We see it there, by the way, in the very last words of Jesus - Father, why have you forsaken me? Wonderful, exquisite, agonizing moment of doubt. Muhammad is not the pope of Islam. He's the prophet. And prophets, too, can doubt. This is what makes him human.


HAZLETON: Too human for some, like conservative Muslim theologians who maintained that the account of his wanting to kill himself shouldn't even be mentioned despite the fact that it's in the earliest Islamic biographies. They insist that he never doubted for even a single moment, let alone despair. Demanding perfection, they refused to tolerate human imperfection. Yet, what exactly is imperfect about doubt? Abolish all doubts and what's left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction.

RAZ: So doubt is essential.

HAZLETON: I think it's part of us that we need to cherish. We have this idea that doubt is somehow imperfect, that there's something wrong with doubt. It's this desire for certainty that I see is so dangerous, and the desire for perfectibility. Let's just let go of perfection. Let's just accept that we're human. We're imperfect. That's what makes us interesting. That's what makes the world interesting. If we were all perfect and we were all alike, we would die of boredom.

RAZ: Where does, like - where does faith end and conviction begin?

HAZLETON: I think they're in two separate spheres. The people I know of deepest faith are not convinced. They have faith despite their doubts, in fact, because of their doubts. It's a dance, and they're very, very aware of this. And it goes beyond belief in. They know that this is not rational and yet, they commit themselves. And it's that act of commitment, that existential act of commitment that I so admire. And that very, very deep sense that religion is, in a sense, not even about God. It's about humans. It's about making ourselves better people.

RAZ: Lesley Hazleton. She's the author of "The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad." You can see her entire talk at TED.NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.