Are You Sure You’re Sure?
Ask any former fundamentalist Christian what was the hardest thing about giving up the faith, and many of them are likely to tell you that at least part of it was the loss of certainty: a fundamentalist knows, not believes, but knows, beyond all possibility of doubt or error, what the Truth is. Those who have never been tempted by fundamentalism are often mystified by this aspect of it, for nowhere else in human experience is this degree of certainty thought possible or even necessary. For them, this way of thinking is probably so alien as to be unable to be taken seriously as an option. We can all be wrong, about anything. Everybody knows that.
But not everybody. Certainty is near to the heart of most if not all fundamentalisms, and it’s intuitive appeal is not hard to see. To know for sure what is true about the world and where it is headed, and moreover, where oneself is headed, to know for sure one’s purpose in life, and to know with perfect knowledge that one is loved and adored and will be protected in perfect bliss forever – all this needs no apologist to make it appealing.
For those of us who leave fundamentalism, learning to deal with doubt and uncertainty – which suddenly and in a most unwelcome way take up permanent residence in our psyches – can be wrenching indeed. It is a much harder way to live. Why is it harder? Well, for one, it is not exactly galvanizing to raise up ones fist with a crusader’s fervency and chant: “We’re Not Sure!” But there is an even better answer, I think. Certainty is, I suggest, at the center of the fundamentalist psyche because it serves to ward off the primal dread, helplessness – the gut sense of human limitation and vulnerability that is our biological heritage as physically weak and therefore interdependent social primates. This anxiety, basic to life, is both ordinary and terrifying. We are frail creatures, really. Each of us knows this. What better way to prop up our flagging courage than telling ourselves extraordinary stories of Specialness and Rescue? And what good are the stories if they are mere stories, or, just as bad, if they are merely probable? When one is alone in the dark, the prospect of probable rescue doesn’t steel the nerve much. Only certainty can do that.
So how does one learn live with uncertainty about life? How do we make our peace with our vast limitations, individually and collectively, in what we can know, predict, accomplish, or ward off? How do we accept the horrifying and everpresent possibility of being wrong, even and especially about things that are important – our ethics, our meanings, our ultimate fate? These are the questions I want to explore here.
I have my own proposal for why certainty exists in fundamentalism. It has to do with the basic psychology that I think drives the fundamentalist psyche. This model is my own construction, though it is drawn together from various other (perhaps more reputable…) psychological sources. From what I can tell, no one really knows why such rigid and weird certainty is claimed by so many adherents of so many different religious fundamentalisms.
Its not epistemological, that much is clear. Certainty exists very infrequently within most accounts of knowledge. Generally speaking, it occurs only within what is formally known as deductive logic, the kind of logical reasoning wherein the conclusion is in a sense “contained” within the premises. For instance, consider the classic syllogism: “Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal.” If the first two statements are true, you know that the third, the conclusion, must be true. It is certain because it is essentially just a rearrangement of the premises.
The overwhelming majority of everyday and scientific reasoning is not like that. Most of the time we employ what is known as inductive reasoning, where the conclusion is supported by the premises, but not guaranteed by it. “The early bird usually gets the worm, here is an early bird, therefore he is likely to be well-fed” would be a (somewhat silly) example. The conclusions follows, but only probabilistically – not certainly – from the premises. Perhaps there have been no worms available recently.
Again, it is important to emphasize that virtually all scientific and historical theories overwhelmingly use inductive reasoning. Few scientific theories could ever be properly said to be certain, no matter how much evidence accrues in their support. Not even Newton’s Laws are certain – any honest scientist will tell you they are open to empirical revision if such data comes in.
Moreover, certainty has been claimed by many religious and ideological adherents, as well as every conspiracy theorist on the planet. Logically, they can’t all be right. Logically, in fact, it must be the case that the majority of people who claim perfect certainty in their conclusions, are in fact wrong, and their feeling of being certain must be just that – a feeling. A feeling, that does not feel like a feeling; that feels, rather, like an accurate assessment of the world.
So, it is not epistemological, it is a psychological. Believers have something going on inside their emotional and psychic lives that makes them feel so strikingly sure. But whatever it is, its not rational. In the next installment of this three part series, I’ll look at some possible explanations for this psychological curiosity.
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