Sociologists Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld answered this question in their book In praise of doubt- How to have convictions without becoming a fanatic (2009). The answer they provide is a nice mix of doubt, humour and routine. And what is interesting and is an act, a way of ‘doing knowledge’: try to find an ‘of course statement’ in your environments.

This is a slightly updated and translated, very short review article from my social sciences journalist’s archive. The review appeared in Dutch in NRC Handelsblad – Science & Education, August 2009 under the title ‘Twijfel ongetwijfeld’: ‘Doubt undoubtedly’.

The disappearance of isolated culture is one of the most striking features of modern society. According to American sociologist Peter Berger and Dutch sociologist Anton Zijderveld in their book In praise of doubt. At the same time, diversity is extensive, as is the bandwidth of convictions.

Doing knowledge

This is well illustrated by ‘of course statements’. In the 1920s and 1930s, American sociologists asked citizens such statements as ‘Is this your only husband? To which the American citizens looked at the sociologist in amazement and answered: ‘Of course! But the answer to such questions is now much less resolute.

People experience the world as less and less self-evident. What grip do people still have? Anton Zijderveld, in earlier works, argued for more appreciation of institutions such as family, marriage and state. They offer self-evident routines which limits freedom, but create social stability and lasting institutions. This is different from the ‘DIY-moral portfolio’ in which one takes a piece of Catholic tradition, combines it with a touch of reincarnation and mixes it with some humanism. This leads to relativism, which makes the fight against fundamentalists who know everything for sure very difficult.

Pluriform society as an antidote

How do you find a balance between fundamentalism and relativism? Berger and Zijderveld propose revaluing doubt. Doubters constantly ask themselves whether something is reliable, credible or meaningful. This attitude is desperately needed in our pluriform society. Zijderveld sets himself up as the advocate of doubt and, in doing so, takes up arms against Dutch politician Wilders. An antidote to both fundamentalism and complete relativism.

Would it work? Citizens find themselves in a split between being more doubtful and being too cautious with the old institutions. Perhaps humour, which these sociologists also recommend, will help them. But for politicians, the application of the recommended doubt is a near guarantee towards political suicide. Fortunately, however, for scientists, doubt is a necessary professional deformation. They are allowed to ask impossible questions, as Berger and Zijderveld do, when they wonder to what extent doubt itself should be questioned.

Here you find the original article in Dutch.

And one day I will find the time:) to publish PdFs and/or a collection of articles.