Why there is nothing wrong with being certain in your beliefs

Posted on 05/16/11 34 Comments

These days one often encounters the idea that being certain about a belief — i.e. having unshakeable conviction in its truth — is somehow worriesome, dangerous, or otherwise threatening.

 This is how Richard Dawkins puts it:  “religion causes wars by generating certainty.”(Cited in Avalos, Fighting Words, 177). 

Second, in Does the Bible justify violence? John J. Collins asserts that “God-like certainty that stops all discussion” is “the most basic connection between the Bible and violence.” (32)

Finally, our very own Walter said this in my blog just this morning:

“From my point of view, the danger is when people become dogmatic in their beliefs and refuse to accept that they might actually be wrong. This problem extends far beyond just religion.

“I do not fear religion, I fear dogmatism.”

Now Walter’s comment is a little different. He refers not to “certainty” but rather to “dogmatism”. I take it that he is following common useage here where “dogmatic” entails both certainty and intransigence. I have no quibble with the intransigence part. But what about the issue of certainty? Is unshakeable conviction to be feared? Does it lead to violence? Does it start wars?

Clearly not. The problem is not certainty at all. There are many beliefs that we want people to have unshakeable convictions about. Consider the following two daycares:

Little Lambs Daycare: The “religious” staff at Little Lambs have an unshakeable conviction that peace, love and nurture should be extended to all creatures and that violence is never justified under any circumstance.

Shining Stars Daycare: The “secular” staff at Shining Stars tentatively believe that it is best not to harm infants and small children but they continue to reflect on the matter and are open to new evidence that might change their very tentative opinions.

Where would you rather leave your kids? With the dogmatic religious people or the tentative secularists?

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  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

    Well, the problem is that Dawkins et al are not setting “dogmatism” in opposition to “tentativeness”. That would be ridiculous. Instead, they contrast “dogmatism” with “a reasoned position based on facts”, then assert that everything they disagree with is dogmatism, and anything religious cannot be a reasoned position based on facts.

    I humbly submit that Randal’s strawman is the less egregious of the two. It’s certainly the funnier of the two.

    • randal

      Well at least I’m funny.

      But the quotes from both Dawkins and Collins were not citing “dogmatism” per se. Only Walter did that. And I noted that dogmatism includes “intransigence” which would be a refusal to engage the facts.

      Dawkins and Collins both objected to “certainty”. And I was pointing out that there is nothing wrong per se with being certain. It all matters what it is you are certain of.

      So I don’t believe I offered a strawman at all.

  • Walter

    In that scenario, I would have to go with the dogmatists, because I would share the same values as the religious dogmatists–at least when it comes to not harming the little ones. I would want others to be intransigent on that belief. Is “never harm children” in the same category as “Jesus was murdered so that I could have bliss in the afterlife”? I don’t think so. Even so, I don’t much care what another person believes as long as it does not present a threat to the health and happiness of my family.

    I don’t have a problem with certainty. I’m reasonably certain that trinitarian Christianity is a load of bunk, but I can admit that I might well be mistaken (although I doubt it). I can tolerate different beliefs on theology because I know that I am a fallible human, prone to error. Many Christian believers do not think that they are fallible in matters of theology; they believe that the infallible Holy Spirit has regenerated their fallen minds and made them into infallible interpreters of an inerrant set of “divine” texts. I care nothing about interacting with that kind of smug believer, and it is why I find Christians like Randal, Thom Stark, and Dr. James McGrath to be a breath of fresh air in the Christian blogosphere.

    • randal

      ” I don’t much care what another person believes as long as it does not present a threat to the health and happiness of my family.”

      I hope you’re referring to your human family! Otherwise that would seem a rather narrow sphere of moral concern.

      • Walter

        I hope you’re referring to your human family! Otherwise that would seem a rather narrow sphere of moral concern.

        I believe in the brotherhood of man, but I would be lying if I did not state that I personally value some people over others. Most people would claim that it is moral to kill one person to save ten, but what if that one person is your spouse or child? Say goodbye to those other ten people.

        • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

          See, that bothers me a bit. “Most people would claim that it is moral to kill one person to save ten.” I should hope not. Most people would claim is is moral to let one person die in order to save ten, but for the majority of human beings there is a pretty big distinction between killing someone and choosing to let them die in order to save someone else.

          That distinction is troubling. From an evolutionary standpoint, there should be no moral difference between letting someone die and killing them outright. Sure, there might be some innate distaste born from empathy, but there’s no way to justify any moral imperative that says killing someone is worse than letting them die.

        • randal

          That’s the funny thing with ultilitarian ethics. When they say things like “each should count for one and not more than one” and then treat the starving African child with the same ethical interest as their own child, it appears fundementally off kilter.

          But that is different from your original statement which seemed to give virtually no moral interest to those beyond your immediate family.

          • Walter

            But that is different from your original statement which seemed to give virtually no moral interest to those beyond your immediate family.

            You’re being overly pedantic again. :-)

            The point that I was making was that many of us pay lip service to the notion that we care for all mankind equally, but the reality is that all of us have love ones in our lives that we value more dearly than we do a stranger living in an alien culture on the other side of the world.

            • randal

              Yes, I am pedantic. If you visit my house and say “I’m going to the bathroom” I’ll say “There’s no bath in that room. The bath is upstairs.” Then you say “Okay, I’ll go to the powder room” to which I’ll reply “No powder in there either.” Finally, exasperated, you’ll say “I’m taking a dump” to which I’ll reply “I don’t think there’s one in there to take. But you could leave one if you like.”

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Walter’s comment is worthy of repeating and I second it: I don’t have a problem with certainty. I’m reasonably certain that trinitarian Christianity is a load of bunk, but I can admit that I might well be mistaken (although I doubt it). I can tolerate different beliefs on theology because I know that I am a fallible human, prone to error. Many Christian believers do not think that they are fallible in matters of theology; they believe that the infallible Holy Spirit has regenerated their fallen minds and made them into infallible interpreters of an inerrant set of “divine” texts.

    For a prime example of the infallible approach, listen to William Lane Craig: “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa”. [Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), p. 36.]

    Sorry if I have posted that quote here before but it is one of my all-time favorites.

    • randal

      In one sense Craig’s statement is obviously true because if a conflict arises between what an omniscient and omnibenevolent deity says and what the evidence before us seems to say, we surely ought to go with the former. But the whole problem with his statement (as you know) is in telling when a given belief has been testified to by an omniscient and omnibenevolent being.

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      Note: thanks to TAM for turning me on to this blog. I’m finding it very interesting.

      Here’s the bit that I’m not so sure about (and I’m not sure that the Craig quote represents): “Many Christian believers do not think that they are fallible in matters of theology; they believe that the infallible Holy Spirit has regenerated their fallen minds and made them into infallible interpreters of an inerrant set of ‘divine’ texts.”

      I can’t say that the majority of Christians I’ve met fall into this group. Sure, there are some such extremists, and they are easily identified as such: the Phelpses, Harold Camping, David Koresh, et al. In fact, the one greatest mark of a cult is the avowed certainty that some individual or group has exclusive authority to interpret Scripture.

      I don’t know of any legitimate Christian who considers himself to have infallible interpretive powers. On the contrary, Scripture and history are replete with examples Christians who strove for accuracy and were well aware that they could be mistaken on any theological point. A few:

      Paul to Timothy:
      “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.”

      St. Augustine:
      “In matters far beyond our vision, even in the Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. We should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

      Charles H. Spurgeon:
      “Even when grace has renewed his nature, [man's] judgment is so fallible that it is a great mistake for him to attempt to direct his own way.”

      Bernard Ramm:
      “It is very difficult for any person to approach the Holy Scriptures free from prejudices and assumptions which distort the text.”

      So I really don’t know where we are getting the idea that the vast majority of Christians think themselves inerrant arbiters of truth. The only way to derive that conclusion is by looking at the extremists, which we all agree do not represent orthodoxy.

      It’s significant that groups without any “exclusive infallible interpretive authority” claim also happen to be the groups that all agree on what basic orthodoxy looks like.

      • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

        Crap, I bulloxed up the italics. Sorry about that.

      • randal

        Good list. You could add Randal Rauser just after Bernard Ramm:

        “I’m a Christian and I could be wrong.”

      • Walter

        Most every Christian that I come across here in Alabama must fall into the category of extremists then, since nearly all of them claim that they know themselves to be right because the HS has spoken directly to their heart, and surely their gut feelings can’t be wrong–since they come from the Holy Spirit, no less.

        I have run into this mentality quite frequently out in the Christian blogosphere as well.

        • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

          You’re stuck down here in Alabama too? Dear mother of Michael Pearl! I pity you. It sucks, doesn’t it? No good beer, no good sushi, no nothing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could just sit down with a good beer and chill with a couple of vegans and a Buddhist. But, alas, no….here, you’re either a Christian or a pagan idol-worshiping beer-swilling atheist Jew; no middle ground at all.

          “Knowing myself to be right because the Spirit has spoken to my heart” is the signature finishing move of the Mormons. It always depresses me when I hear a self-proclaimed Christian using her subjective experiences as evidence to “prove” something to someone else.

          The two southern denominations most rife with this idiocy are the Churches of Christ and the Independent or Freewill Baptists. Both are also far from orthodoxy.

          I try to ask, “Would God really want me to base my eternal destiny on your subjective experience?” If they still insist, I write them off.

          • Walter

            Dang! You pegged that one.

            Funny thing is that I was brought up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church, then switched to a Church of Christ for a few years before my own conversion to atheism that lasted for a year or so.

            • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

              Wow! That’s like getting your introduction to physics by spending a few years studying homeopathy and then switching to ufology for half a decade.

              • Walter

                Luckily, I have since been exposed to the teachings of real Christianity (insert your sectarian beliefs here). ;-)

                • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                  Aye, that you have, since I’ve already mentioned my only sectarian belief in this comment thread. I wonder if you noticed it. The cool thing is, it’s empirically verifiable.

                  • Walter

                    Every Christian is convinced that his Christianity is the purest and truest form of the faith, so I have been exposed to “true” Christianity again and again and again. Problem is that all these “true” Christians don’t agree with each other, leaving us outsiders scratching our heads as to which group is the real deal. I’ve read passionate, well-written apologetic arguments coming from believers of dozens of diverse denominational backgrounds. Agnostics, atheists, and skeptics get most of our ammunition from intramural polemics between different groups of “true” Christians. Christians excel at debunking each other.

                    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                      This is getting pretty thoroughly nested now, so we probably shouldn’t make things worse….at least not for a little while. But your insistence intrigues me, so I’ll bite. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I’m fairly certain you missed my “sectarian” belief earlier. What’s more, I’m guessing from your last post that you haven’t seen it before. I’m interested what you think, considering your background. It was at the end of my first reply to TAM.

      • Jason

        @ davidstarlingm “So I really don’t know where we are getting the idea that the vast majority of Christians think themselves inerrant arbiters of truth. The only way to derive that conclusion is by looking at the extremists, which we all agree do not represent orthodoxy.”

        Perhaps the concern is not so much that Christians see themselves as ‘inerrant arbiters of truth’ but rather our (over) confidence in understanding what the bible says or how it should be interpreted. For example, the Calvinist understanding of Hebrews 6:4-8 would state that this portion of Scripture explains someone who was never a part of the elect, because if he/she was, they would continue in the faith (by God’s grace, of course). Often in our passion to articulate what we believe a portion of scripture teaches we end up sounding like there is only one interpretive truth, and as it so often happens, it generally is the one we’re espousing.

        • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

          It’s always unfortunate when people who really ought to know better jump to a particular explanation of an otherwise puzzling text without any contextual information or justification. Calvinists, feeling that they have graduated from all the lesser squabbles, leap headlong into a pre-existing interpretive motif but are horrendously bad at providing an explanation for why they chose it, leading the audience to the faulty (but probably well-deserved) conclusion that the text is being bent to the individual’s whim, rather than being explained in the light of other, simpler Scriptures.

          As far as Hebrews 6:4-8 is concerned, it’s definitely ripe ground for dogmatic assertions and fierce arguments. Personally, though I in no way agree with any aspect of paedobaptism, I think that the Reformed Presbyterians are closer to the truth on this one and that our modern concept of sanctification is probably too narrow.

  • Stoo

    Well there’ a difference between certainty in a very commonly held moral value, and in a supernatural being. (even more so, certainty in one religion being the sole and only truth).

    • Stoo

      hm, not that I want to get into declaring that strong belief automatically leads to war and strife. Clearly A: it can lead to good things (charity) and B: non-religious certainties can bring strife too (communism).

      But you are going to have problems if the certainty contradicts observed reality (see: creationists). Or if people wish to impose something based on that certainty on others, when they cannot provide rational reasons to agree with them.

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      Well there’ a difference between certainty in a very commonly held moral value, and in a supernatural being.

      A curious distinction to make. See, certainty in the existence of a supernatural being has never ever affected anyone but the believer; it is certainty in a given moral value (that jihad is justified, or that whites are better than blacks, or that Jews are evil, or that communism is a better goal than the preservation of innocent life) that causes war and strife and bloodshed and slavery. Theological certainty is fairly safe; moral certainty is a powerful force for good or for evil.

      That’s not to say that theological certainties don’t inform moral certainties. Usually, however, the greatest evils happen when actors operate based on a moral imperative without a theological basis. That’s the opposite of what you seem to think is ideal.

      But you are going to have problems if the certainty contradicts observed reality (see: creationists).

      As long as we’re discussing the causes of strife and bloodshed, I hardly imagine that questioning a couple natural history models based on lingering (if overzealous) skepticism is really hurting anybody. Unless, of course, someone has the moral certainty that all teachers of evolution are demons and ought to be shot….but I don’t know of anybody like that. It’s not like creationists are incapable of practicing science or performing research; they aren’t holding back the progress of scientific inquiry or anything like that.

      Or if people wish to impose something based on that certainty on others, when they cannot provide rational reasons to agree with them.

      I only take exception to your use of the term “rational reasons” because it’s far too easily redefined. What counts as a “rational reason” and who decides? The Allies decided to attack Hitler based partly on the certainty that mass genocide is fundamentally wrong; this was based at least partly on the predominant theological certainty of the intrinsic value of human life. Personally, I find belief in God to be perfectly rational, as the result of inductive reasoning and past performance. However, if you don’t consider any theological imperatives to be “rational” enough to justify imposing them, then we have a problem. Nazism spent a great deal of time explaining all the rational reasons why sterilizing and euthanizing us Jews would benefit the Third Reich. Were the Allies wrong to “impose” their “certainty” on the Nazis without giving “rational reasons”?

      • Stoo

        ack! quote marks and point-for-point. Guess i asked for it.

        Sure there was a theological justification for opposing hitler. But non-theological justifications could be made too.

        You say you find belief in god rational. I don’t think there are sound rational arguments for any one religion’s god being the true interpretation, or any religion being the “correct” one. So if you feel I should be doing something, try making a case for it that doesn’t require following your religion.

        What if two people’s theological imperatives clash? My god says X, their god says do Y. Now what?

        • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

          Sorry; I didn’t mean to make that seem point-for-point. There were just three separate things I wanted to ask about.

          You’re packing a lot of terms into a very small space; it looks like it’s getting a bit cramped. Laying aside the question of “any one religion’s god being the true interpretation [of what?]” (whew, that’s a mouthful), here’s the operative question: do you think certainty about the existence and identity of God is necessarily irrational? Or can it be a rational position? If you are certain that there’s no way that certainty about God’s identity can be a rational position, then I must ask you what rational reasons you have for that certainty.

          There really are no such things as theological imperatives (although I admit I used the term before in a slightly different context). There are theological beliefs, and there are moral imperatives. Moral imperatives may derive from theological beliefs, but that doesn’t give them any special footing. We evaluate other people’s moral imperatives based on our own moral imperatives, regardless of what theological beliefs the other people may be basing their morality on.

          • Stoo

            I probably throw terms around a bit loosely. I have no background in theology or philosophy!

            Anyway to try and answer: when assessing a statement like “god exists” I prefer to ask what people mean by god in the first place. (I am wary of assuming too much). But certainty of the identity of some personal supernatural being? Yeah I have to go with irrational, due to lack of evidence. I don’t see how certainty is justified.

            • http://twitter.com davidstarlingm

              How do you justify your certainty that no evidence for the identity of a supernatural being is possible?

              Or do you accept the possibility of such evidence? In that case, how do you justify your certainty that no Christian has enough evidence to make their certainty rational?

  • Stoo

    “How do you justify your certainty that no evidence for the identity of a supernatural being is possible”

    I don’t have to because I’m not asserting that right now. But also I don’t acknowledge that such evidence has been presented.

    “how do you justify your certainty that no Christian has enough evidence to make their certainty rational”

    I don’t have certainty. I doubt their certainty.

    With respect, I would probably answer various other are-you-certain-based gotchas similarly.

    • http://twitter.com davidstarlingm

      Sorry. I generally try to avoid “gotcha”-style questions, not because I dislike snark, but because they rarely accomplish anything besides making me look like a jerk. However, in this case, the question accomplished exactly what I wanted: your precise definition of how you feel about the issue.

      “I don’t have certainty. I doubt their certainty.”

      Excellent! Now we have something concrete to work with.

      The question, then, is whether doubt of the rationality/legitimacy of another individual’s certainty automatically justifies censure, as Dawkins seems to insist. I’d submit that just because I don’t know why someone is certain about something doesn’t mean that they don’t have good reasons.

      • Stoo

        Eh I probably should have defined my position better in the first place.

        I don’t think a certainty with an irrational-looking source should automatically be censured. Religious beliefs frequently look irrational to me but I’m happy enough for people to keep them as long a they don’t tell me I’m supposed to join in! Or cause social harm or screw with science class or whatever.

        So I guess, getting back to “is there something wrong with being certain” I was floating a bit between defining wrong as in “intellectually lacking” or “causing some kind of harm”. I’d agree re: judging moral imperatives based on our own moral imperatives.