Saturday, June 09, 2007

Freedom from Certitude

What is it like to lose one's faith? That is an interesting question and one I have asked myself as I look back on my experience. There are a lot of aspects to it including gains and losses. In this post I want to describe one of my chief gains.

The main benefit I feel is one of intellectual freedom: freedom to pursue the evidence where ever it leads. There is no need to claim I know the truth if I'm unsure. There is no rush, no deadline, no evil consequences for doubt.

This contrasts sharply with what I felt as a Christian. My attitude was that not only were my central beliefs true, but they had to be true. While I may not have sufficient evidence at the moment, or I may encounter contrary evidence, I was certain that after all was said and done my beliefs would be vindicated.

This attitude of certitude is fostered and encouraged in evangelical circles, and at first blush does not sound so bad. It enables people to express themselves with great confidence. People say things like "God wants you to do such and such," or "If you don't believe this message you're going to hell." But now as I look back on this, I see this attitude of certitude in religious things as very harmful.

Firstly, very bold statements are made about things which to which we have no access to verify. The usual justification is that: if is says so in the Bible it must be so. This is a very strong dogma that is relied on extensively by preachers and missionaries as it allows them to speak with authority. But what is the justification for this? The Bible doesn't itself claim to have no errors, and even if it did that would be circular reasoning to use it to justify itself. The various arguments about divine inspiration fail to demonstrate this dogma; we simply cannot know who was inspired and what inspiration would imply about their words. For example, if God inspired fallible humans, it could be that even their inspired sayings or writings could have errors. Why not? There are lots of reasons for doubting the infallibility of the Bible, but I won't go into that now. Ultimately Christians seem to simply accept the dogma "on faith" and then apply it. Thus they begin their path of certitude.

Here are some of the unfortuate implications of this venture into certitude. It is like one is trying to solve a problem in a textbook, but one has looked up the answer in the back. So it doesn't really matter how one solves it, as long as one's explanation looks superficially okay (enough to fool the examiner) and gets the correct answer. There is an enormous temptation to jump to the conclusions that one "knows" must be right. One doesn't have to justify all the steps one takes or consider all the alternatives before one gives a definative answer. This is the route taken by appologetics books: they start from the answer, find plausible reasons for it and dismiss anything that doesn't agree with it.

Another unfortunate consequence is that evidence is devalued, both positive and negative. I realize that my attitude was that whatever evidence I found had got to support Christianity if it is properly interpreted. Conversely negative evidence must be apparent only and break down when properly understood. I could say that because I had already "seen the answer." Hence there is a tendency among Christians to be uncritical of evidence used to support one's beliefs and to disregard negative evidence. For example, I remember someone bringing up the problem of God ordering masacres in the Old Testament and asking how that was compatible with God being good. I didn't find it hard to simply claim that God was not bound by the constraints that bind us. I started with the assumption that my beliefs about God and his goodness must be true, and so any negative evidence like this must be wrong and so there was no need to treat it seriously. Only now do I see how careless I was towards knowing the truth.

Another common consequence of religious or biblical certitude is young-earth creationism, or the slightly more subtle old-earth but still anti-evolution beliefs. We know the answer in the Bible: the earth was created 6000 years ago, and all humans are decended from Adam and Eve who were created from dust and a rib, and so evolution must be wrong. It doesn't really matter what the evidence is, the scientific establishment must be wrong in its understanding. Christians don't need to study the evidence; as long as they find some appealing reasons why evolution can't be right in the creationist literature, they are happy to accept it. That is how I was when I was applying to universities. I remember being asked in an interview if science obviated the need for religion, and to counter this I pulled out a "fact" that disproved evolution (in this case it was that the dust on the moon was only a couple inches deep and if it were billions of years old it would be much deeper -- a long before disproven reasoning that was still being published by creationist literature). Or I could have used the complexity of the eye to "disprove" evolution without the need to study the genetic and other evidences for how the eye has evolved.

The field of ethics is often short-circuited by certitude. People start with quotes from the Bible, (often ones that confirm their own prejudices) and then don't feel the need to reason why these should be morally binding on us. For example, the gay marriage debate is skewed by people who base their views on ancient views enshrined in the Bible. Is it really harmful to anyone else if gays can marry each other? How will it harm your marriage? Isn't that better than their not marrying?

My main problem with this type of certitude of faith is that it is an intellectual cocoon. One lives in a protected environment where one can disregard anything that would upset one's beliefs. And there is no need for real justification of one's beliefs; one can simply quote a verse or two from the Bible and it is settled. It is a comfortable place to live: away from the moral and epistemological uncertainties of this world. I see my loss of faith as an emergence from this cocoon into the wide world of truth seeking.


  1. I think everyone lives in an intellectual cocoon of one form or the other. Our cocoons could be built around religion, or a political party, a nationality, a regional way of thinking, an idealism, etc. It is very hard to remain entirely "pure" of such influences. The problem is that we are the last ones who would realize that we ARE in a cocoon.

    But your post hasn't convinced me that intellectual cocoons are a bad thing. We can't think of everything independently all the time. We have to take shortcuts by necessity, and if likeminded individuals have already thought things through, then it can save our energy to adopt some of their thoughts as our own.

  2. Are you really free from certitude? From your post, it seems as if you are certain that human verification is the only way to reach truth. That seems like a certitude to me, and just as limiting (actually, more limiting, in my view) as taking God's word by faith. If man's discoveries were infallible why is science always getting rewritten?

    And aside from that, is freedom from certitude really such a valuable freedom? Is it a higher freedom than, say, freedom from self-absorption or freedom from having to prove oneself which the Christian can claim (though practically speaking, this comes gradually and doesn't reach its perfect state in this life)? Given freedom from certitude, will a man who has a deep hunger in his soul ever find rest for it?

  3. Tanya,

    That's a good point that I should have clarified in my post. I didn't mean we shouldn't have certainty. Rather, our certainty should be in proportion to the evidence for something. So, for example, we can be certain that established physical laws provide very good descriptions of reality in so far as they have been tested. They are often approximations, however, and so may need revision as new evidence becomes available. It is not really that Newton's Laws are wrong; it is just that they are a (very good) approximation of General Relativity for almost everything we observe. So I have extremely high confidence in Newton's Laws for almost everything I will do except perhaps certain space travel or building a nano-particle microscope. And General Relativity is itself another approximation that is closer to the truth.

    But contrast this with religious claims. On what basis can we say religious claims are true? Usually there isn't any evidence or the evidence is weak. But nevertheless people speak with what I'm calling certitude; that is, certainty without evidence. Some examples of these religious claims include life after death, heaven and hell, a non-physical soul, and so on. Why do people speak of these things with certitude? There are good reasons for doubting them, and no evidence I am aware of for them.

    I agree that there are other good freedoms to pursue and different freedoms are more important to others.

    For me a central motivation it is hunger for the truth. Deceiving myself is probably the greatest danger I face in that regard, and so it is crucial for me to periodically reassess my beliefs and their bases. Certitude is what would keep me from this, and so I seek to overcome it. And so far I have found great reward simply in the process of seeking the truth. It can be hard and painful, but I believe I am a better man for it.


  4. You comment on circular reasoning and the Bible needs to be rethought. The Bible was written over a 1500 year period and consists of 66 separate documents written by some 40 seperate authors. It certainly can't be circular reasonsing to use John to verify Paul or to use Isaiah to verify Daniel. I don't have time at the moment to go into more detail but suffice it to say that I have also looked at the scientific evidence and my conclusion is that design and intelligence in that design is everywhere and obvious. It's not a battle between science and religion it's a battle between good science and bad science. Between good faith and unreasonable faith.

  5. Joe that's a good point about reasonable and unreasonable faith. Especially someone saying "God told me that you should (fill in the blank)," Unless God has told you the same as he told the person in question, I would reconsider the person's message especially the "or you'll go to hell" part. That sounds like using God's name in vain to validate an opinion.

  6. Joe,

    Before defending the Bible, please read the book by Joseph Wheless: "Forgery in Christianity: A Documented Record of the Foundations of the Christian Religion". (See: Becoming familiar with how the New Testament came about will help dispell the myth of the unity and uniqueness of the biblical books.