Religious Certainty is a Dangerous Weapon

May 25, 2010

People often enjoy the feeling of certainty. This pleasant emotional state is similar to other artificially induced euphorias. It can be addictive, and self-destructive. Worst of all, it can turn a person into a threat to the rest of society. 

When a person is floating in the enfolding warmth of certainty, it can feel like nothing can challenge you or harm you. You don't have to pay any attention to what is going on around you, or what other people are trying to tell you. It is very relaxing. Your mind just goes into neutral since no thinking is needed, just the pure contemplation of your inner certainty.

I've heard people say, "Why worry about it, when people high on certainty only affect themselves and their brains suffer no permanent damage." Maybe if only a few people did it then there's no problem. But what if vast numbers of people, millions or billions of people, were all doing it? And what if all this certainty affected their public behavior to the point where they try to tell others that they are wrong, and then they try to manipulate and control other people's lives?

We don't have to speculate what would happen -- this situation is called "Religion."

Why would anyone who preferred world peace and harmony encourage any sort of certainty, including religious certainty?

Well-meaning pacifists are tempted to bend over backwards to accommodate whatever religious people want, including their certainty. We can read a recent essay by philosopher Andrew Pessin defending certainty . Pessin says that religious people should embrace a paradox, that one can feel certain about each professed belief of their faith, yet also admit that some may yet be wrong. Pessin thinks that it is just fine for religious people to enjoy the certainties of their faith. He also hopes that a vague confession of general fallibility (we are only human, after all) would take the edge off and make the world safer. He says,

"My ultimate hope, then, is that world peace will break out when enough people simply acknowledge the paradox."

Peacemakers are noble, yet people like Pessin are just enablers supporting the abuse of a dangerous drug. Embrace a paradox? Should we encourage religious people to be more irrational? Embracing paradoxes (rather than creatively resolving them or getting beyond them) is simply a refusal to think when faced with a logical problem. "Embrace the paradox" is precisely what theologies urge when they have no more answers, but demand blind faith in creeds all the same.

The core problem is that Passin is distorting the meaning of "certainty." And that's why he only confuses his real point: religions should embrace doubt and fallibility.

Certainty makes no room for any doubt or fallibility. See the Oxford English Dictionary on "certainty":

"The quality or state of being subjectively certain; assurance, confidence; absence of doubt or hesitation; as a matter of certainty, beyond doubt, assuredly."

Whatever psychological state Pessin is recommending, it is not certainty. Does this next paragraph from Pessin make any clear sense at all?

"You can simultaneously be certain that Christianity is true and everything conflicting with it is false, and yet acknowledge that you may be wrong without taking away your certainty. You can thus keep your certainties without having to claim that you are, in fact, and grossly implausibly, infallible."

If you feel utterly confused by this paragraph, why then, you just have to embrace the paradox!

We can agree that religions can start down the road of recovery by admitting doubt and fallibility. But that fresh start depends on first admitting that one has a problem with the drug of certainty. If religious people get to the point where Pessin wants them to be, they must surrender certainty. They can't be permitted to enjoy certainty over any of their creeds. The paradox cannot be embraced. There is no way around it -- you will not get more religious people to listen to you when you first bow down to their faith. You won't teach them anything. They already "know" that they are right, and they don't need you. And they won't stop killing.

There is a different paradox within religion that could help with world peace. Religions are fond of telling nonbelievers that God is very mysterious and beyond any empirical confirmation. God isn't standing around waiting to be discovered like a lost continent. Well, if God is so mysterious, how could anyone feel that they deserve complete certainty about God? This paradox of divine mystery and human knowledge can be surmounted: creatively embrace some vagueness and fallibility. The liberal religions and religious naturalisms go beyond this paradox in a thoughtful way, quitting certainty and going on a healthy diet of humility. Science made this step centuries ago, liberating itself from rationalistic metaphysics and dogmatic theology. More religions can do it to, if we all demand a change.

Certainty has been a loaded gun to the head of humanity for millennia. It is not a "safe" drug. We are in the middle of a vast social experiment with a dangerous psychological pathology. We need more embracing of doubt, fallibility, and skepticism. Telling drug-addicted people that they don't really have a problem only makes the world a more dangerous place.


#1 Lyndon (Guest) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 at 10:23am

Enjoyed the post as always, John.

I have a little trouble, though, with whether a degree of certainty is necessary for many of the actions which we all use daily, and also when taking other non-refundable actions (whether to have an abortion, for example). I guess, in some sense, all actions are non-refundable, of course, most of do not have enough power to thoroughly alter our lives without being cancelled out by our consecutive (non-refundable) actions.

A great deal of our certainty, even for religious people, comes from intersubjective and empirical trials, including help from scientific practices and theories.

Perhaps I struggle with why we should strongly separate our daily use of “certainty” to carry out actions from a deeper “certainty” of ontological and metaphysical claims, that you seem to be addressing in your post.

I think the scepticism of Naturalism is a good thing, an appropriate step. But in the end it seems that our actions, and especially important actions (abortion, how to organize a family, how to organize society, e.g.), are going to have to be performed and chosen by accepting “certainty” in one set of beliefs over another. I, obviously believe we have good reasons for choosing the more naturalistic guidelines, but in the end we will act from a stance of certainty (?). Again, Naturalism’s acceptance that these beliefs are empirical and open to testing and reformulation is Naturalism’s strength, but there is, to me, at least some degree upon which we claim “certainty” to act, at least in many of our everyday decisions, ones that we do not question with much vigor.

For example, hailing from Texas, what we decide to include or not to include in textbooks for children are going to necessitate that we make a non-refundable choice. It seems such a choice must be made with a degree of “certainty,” either way. Encouraging students to begin to understand the limits of epistemological certainty and the usefulness of empirical and intersubjective knowledge seems like a good stance, certainly.

#2 Lyndon (Guest) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 at 10:55am

Sorry editing.

The last sentence of that first paragraph should read:

I guess, in some sense, all actions are non-refundable, of course, most of those actions do not have enough power to thoroughly alter our lives without being able to be cancelled out or mitigated by consecutive actions.

#3 Salty (Guest) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 at 2:11pm

I have always wanted to ask someone who believes that there are no certainties, “You say that there are no certainties—are you certain?”

#4 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 at 7:35pm

Religions are fond of telling nonbelievers that God is very mysterious and beyond any empirical confirmation. God isn’t standing around waiting to be discovered like a lost continent. Well, if God is so mysterious, how could anyone feel that they deserve complete certainty about God?  John Shook

As always, you turn a very large number of different beliefs about God, into something absurdly simplistic in order to dispose of the God you’ve created.

Large numbers of religious believers would say that an assertion by a human being that they have complete certainty about God is deluded or lying or that their god isn’t mysterious and could hardly be the all powerful, all knowing, eternal and supernatural God that most religious traditions assert is the real God. 

Human hubris isn’t a disproof of the existence of God, it’s proof of the limitation of human capacity and of our weakness and ignorance. 

Considering our discussion about the idea that human capacity is the measure of the physical universe and all that is really there, this is a rather odd thing for you to follow it up with.

#5 Steven Spruill (Guest) on Wednesday May 26, 2010 at 3:56pm

If only there was a way to effectively make something required reading.  Were I king of the world, I’d wave my magic wand and cause this essay to be absorbed and thought about by everyone who feels certain about his beliefs—and anyone who feels there’s no reason to challenge such certainty.

#6 diana smithson (Guest) on Thursday May 27, 2010 at 2:50pm

I am a cousin of Steven Spruill,we share many of the same thoughts,,even as kids!  I am interested in reading more.  Diana

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