I could not end this series without touching on these two topics for completion. As I pondered how to do that, even these parting topics had spinoffs, such as how do we find truth to start with (epistemology)? But I will let that go for now.
In most religious sects, certainty is not only considered honorable, but the goal of belief. It is true of Islam, many of the eastern sects that I’ve had contact with, and certainly it was true in the Christian evangelicalism that I knew. I heard many evangelicals tell me, (let me be honest and say bragged about), never having a second of doubt about God’s existence and not only Christianity being true, but their particular denomination of Christianity being the truest of them all. It is a subversion of their understanding of the word faith.
In the 1990s I was an elder of an evangelical church. It was at a time that I was just rethinking some things I had been taught in that sect. I remember a mother coming to our elder board and was very concerned about her sixteen-year-old son. Her tears flowed down her freckled cheek, as she padded them off with a pink Kleenex. Her son had voiced that he didn’t want to come to church anymore. That he doubted if God even existed. Sobs ensued.
A very conservative bearded head elder likewise seemed concerned. “It’s the devil! These kids play these video games and the devil gets into them. We need to pray hard. You need to get rid of all the video games, all the non-Christian books and other stuff . . . throw them in the garbage while there’s time to save what’s left of his soul!”
I heard a couple of other elders chime in with similar comments. I could not contain myself any longer and finally I spoke.
“I totally disagree! I am so happy that Jamie has doubts. That means he’s thinking. He’s not brain dead! I worry most about those kids that never doubt. I would love to lead a class for teens on the art of doubting boldly.”
The elders looked at me (this wasn’t the first time) like I had gone bonkers. But it was true. I worry about kids that follow in their parents religious footprints without missing a beat. The reason is, I’m afraid that it is often more of an issue of conformity, familial-peer pressure, than any deep conviction of their own. But I’ve said before, the path to truth begins with doubt. I thought about writing another nonfiction book, The Gift of Doubt, but . . . it would be a lot of work . . . and no one would buy it.
The path to truth begins with doubt.
Here is the problem for all of us. We have been given, by God in my opinion, but some of you will say evolved (and that’s okay) the facilities for finding truth. Truth is essential for existence. If we didn’t believe in any truth, we couldn’t last a day without getting killed by something. Our facilities include our senses for detecting information about the world. Then we have cognitive reasoning that sorts out that information into meaningful patterns. Then we have the emotions or limbic system as a system for rewarding or punishing those thoughts (e.g. if you had a thought you wanted to arm wrestle a saber-toothed tiger, you emotion of fear would tell you, from experience, that would not be a good idea . . . fear being an emotional response).
However, that system is finite. It is not perfect. The honest Christian should agree because one of the major tenets of Christianity is that we are “fallen” or not perfect. So, it is impossible for a finite human being to find absolute truth. It does not matter if you considered that we are created this way, results of some cosmic fall, or evolution not being a perfect shaper of the human organism.
The scientific method is the mathematical process that we use to limit our vulnerability to error, but even it is not always perfect. But people think they can ride above this inability to arrive at certainty by injecting emotions and calling something else like intuition or God’s voice. God’s so-called voice has done a lot of evil in this world, people assuming that God told them something. Then I imagine the real God looking up, with a Robert De Niro-look, and saying, “Uh . . . you talking to me?”
The attitude of certainty is strongly linked to the attitude of intolerance. It goes like this. I am absolutely certain about belief x because my facilities are perfect in finding truth. Those facilities include my intelligence and morality or being so spiritual that God’s spirt sends me private messages inside my head.
I heard countless Baptist preachers growing up who said that atheists are going to hell because God has been clear that he existed, but only fools or idiots don’t see it. Or, if they see it, their immorality causes them to not believe in God. Usually, the story goes, the atheist can see God is obliviously there, but the atheist wants to have sex with his girlfriend without guilt, so he pretends that God is not there.
But I will take this further and link it back to what I said about the psychology of intolerance and go back to that example of the evangelical’s attitude toward gays. They believe that they are smart enough to see God, or moral enough to want to see God, but the gay isn’t. Therefore, the gay person is worthy of their hate . . . oh, and God’s hate.
So, with humility comes the opportunity for respect for those different from yourself . . . and to go as far as love. I have total respect for the atheists, because I spent years wrestling with atheism as a way out of evangelicalism. But I must add, some atheists have the same problem as the religious person. The only time I have not enjoyed being with a group of atheists was when they became just like the evangelical and condemning those who were not atheists because they were idiots or immoral (seeking to hide in religion).
The word agnosticism must conjure up many connotations in peoples’ minds, but I mean it in the most literal term, without knowledge. On one end of the spectrum, there or those who simply mean without certainty. Frank Schaeffer, the son of the late theologian Francis Schaeffer, calls himself an “Agnostic Christian.” This is what he means. But on the other end of the spectrum, people call themselves agnostic and they mean nihilism, meaning that they have lost all hope of finding anything that resembles truth . . . that they have given up.
While we must recognize the limits of our ability to find certainty, we are well-equipped for finding truth. We do this constantly in our daily lives. Simple things, like is my car safe on the highway? We use our senses, logic, and emotions in language, otherwise there would be no communications between people. We also use these gifts in searching for the answers to the big questions. Does God exist? Is Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism true? We make real headway in those quests. But faith is not magical certainty. It is not faking a belief in something that we know is not true. Faith is the act of living as if something is true, even though our facilities do not know it is true with absolute certainty. However, intellectual humility gives us the space in which to have tolerance and love towards those who are different.
One response to “Pluralism, Tolerance, and Relativity; Post Note on Certainty and Agnosticism”
“The phrase ‘God Told Me To’ should be approached with the same caution and forethought as the phrase ‘Please Castrate Me’.”