Empires of Belief: Why We Need More Scepticism And Doubt In The Twenty-First Century

Both these books deal with contemporary themes, one with the rise of a variety
of fundamentalisms in the modern world, the other with issues stemming from
the growth of identity politics – the politics of recognition. Both are well-written
and have illuminating things to say. Sim’s book is very much a cri de coeur in the
face of the gathering darkness of many forms of fundamentalism that threaten to
undermine the Enlightenment project, and is a rallying call for those influenced by
post-structuralism to embrace Derrida’s ‘New Enlightenment.’ The book is strong
in identifying different forms of fundamentalism, and Sim quite rightly points out
that the ‘Enlightened’ West in producing its home-grown fundamentalisms, such
as market fundamentalism or Creationism, has little to feel superior about vis-àvis
Eastern religious fundamentalism. Sim briefly explores the philosophical roots
of scepticism, from the ancients through the Enlightenment to the post-moderns,
including an interesting discussion of scepticism in Islamic and classical Indian
philosophy. He then surveys fundamentalism in many of its modern guises, as
well as identifying the good and bad uses of scepticism. Thus, he deals with the
sceptical ploys of scientists over the human causes of global warming, creationists
sceptical of Darwinism and Eurosceptics – each either serving vested interests or
concealing their own fundamentalism. He also wants to argue that scepticism
has its limits in the form of ‘super-scepticism’ – it can veer into the relativism and
potential nihilism of the post-moderns. Hence he favours a ‘Pyrrhonist scepticism’
that at least admits to the possibility of knowledge, but has a questioning attitude.
Following Chantal Mouffe he champions an ‘agonistic politics,’ where ‘enemies’ are
treated as legitimate adversaries, and calls for a scepticism that keeps politics on its
‘toes,’ that disrupts oppressive consensuses without destroying the fabric of political
life. And he favours Lyotard’s injunction to pursue ‘little narratives,’ or ‘Rainbow
coalitions,’ thereby avoiding the supposed totalitarian implications of ‘grand
narratives.’ He wants an ‘engaged scepticism,’ or ‘sceptical anti-authoritarianism
within all cultures,’ which promotes less belief and more doubt, ‘acting on behalf of
all humanity’ (p. 4).

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