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.