This month TIME essayist Charles Krauthammer wrote a piece called “In Defense of Certainty.” Well, I’m certain that Krauthammer is wrong. He thinks that it’s entirely appropriate to publicly advocate political views founded on religious belief.
Actually, it’s entirely inappropriate to do this. Last year I wrote about why religious values have no place in politics, arguing that “you can’t debate with someone who doesn’t have a defensible reason for why they believe what they do. You can’t debate with someone who responds to a reasoned argument with ‘Because the Bible says so’ or ‘Jesus condemns sinners.’”
Religious belief is a conversation stopper. That’s why it is so injurious to political discourse. People who are absolutely certain that they are right aren’t interested in listening. All they want to do is talk. Preach. Proselytize. Pontificate. Since they can’t offer rational reasons for their political positions—faith isn’t rational—the simple question “Why?” is viewed as an attack.
More accurately, questions which follow the religious believer’s answer to the initial “Why?” are considered to be unseemly. For example, I ask a True Believer “Why do you think that gays shouldn’t be able to marry?” I am told, “Because homosexuality is a sin.” And that supposedly settles the matter.
Now, from my point of view that response doesn’t end our conversation; it’s just the beginning. I want to ask follow-up questions. Lots of them. “What do you mean by sin?” “Who decides what is sinful?” “How can you be sure that what you think is a sin, really is?” There are all kinds of directions our conversation could go. Naturally I’d be asked questions too and would have to defend my own answers.
Krauthammer completely misses the point when he says, “Instead of arguing the merits of any issue, secularists are trying to win the argument by default on the grounds that the other side displays unhealthy certainty or, even worse, unhealthy religiosity.” No, it is just the opposite: the religious believers are the ones trying to win political arguments by default, not the secularists.
When someone tells me, “I’m certain,” and he really means it, that’s the end of our discussion. I’m not going to waste my time trying to engage him in an open debate when his mind isn’t open. If he believes that everything written in the Bible or some other holy book is true, and no matter what facts I bring up he quotes scripture to me, I’ll walk away from this one-sided conversation. He doesn’t want to talk with me; he wants to preach to me.
Krauthammer sings the praises of moral certainty. Yet moral certainty only is a virtue when there are good reasons for holding an ethical position. Blind, thoughtless, unquestioning moral certainty is more likely to be a vice than a virtue, because ethics requires a delicate sensitive touch—not a ham-fisted slam on the table and the cry “Believe!”
I’ve never belonged to a genuine fundamentalist religion, thank God. But over the decades I’ve associated with many people who have treated the utterances of a guru in a fundamentalist fashion. That is, they accepted as gospel what the guru said even when it didn’t make sense. Now, I’ve got no problem with this display of blind faith when the supposed gospel truth is purely spiritual with no political implications.
However, every time I read this passage in “Quest for Light,” a book containing extracts from letters written by an Indian guru, Charan Singh, I’m reminded of how simple-minded fundamentalism is as likely to be found in Eastern mysticism as in Western religion. The guru wrote:
Please remember that anything that is against Nature is always improper and inadvisable. Nature has created the two sexes for the continuation of the species and for the satisfaction of the sex instinct within proper limits. If we go against it, it means we are doing something unnatural of which the laws of Nature do not approve. Homosexuality is contrary to all laws of Nature and no decent society approves it. The act is humiliating and degenerating not only in the eyes of others, but also in the eyes of those who are involved…There are no habits which we cannot break if we have the will and determination to do so.
There are many untruths and irrational conclusions in that paragraph. It makes no sense. Yet because the guru said those words, many (if not most) of his disciples took them seriously. Their desire for spiritual certainty led them to accept without question statements that should have been met with an emphatic, “What?!” Every sentence in the quotation above begs for deep questioning. And then, in my opinion, rejection.
I understand the appeal of certainty. I’ve fallen into the trap of the True Believer myself. I once thought that questioning the pronouncements of a guru would be detrimental to my spiritual progress, no matter how ridiculous those statements were when viewed in the lights of reason, compassion, and scientific facts.
Now, I’ve concluded that uncertainty is an always-open door. Uncertainty allows us to escape from the confines of rigid beliefs that have no basis in reality.
I’ve come to believe in the power of don’t know. When in doubt, doubt.