Quest for Certitude

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Religion

Excellent article at TomDispatch — this is a point I tried to make in the Wisdom of Doubt series. Quoting Ira Chernus:

Candidates increasingly keep their talk about religion separate from specific campaign issues. They promote faith as something important and valuable in and of itself in the election process. They invariably avow the deep roots of their religious faith and link it not with issues, but with certitude itself….

… When religious language enters the political arena in this way, as an end in itself, it always sends the same symbolic message: Yes, Virginia (or Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina) there are absolute values, universal truths that can never change. You are not adrift in a sea of moral chaos. Elect me and you’re sure to have a fixed mooring to hold you and your community fast forever. …

…In itself, faith in politics poses no great danger to democracy as long as the debates are really about policies — and religious values are translated into political values, articulated in ways that can be rationally debated by people who don’t share them. The challenge is not to get religion out of politics. It’s to get the quest for certitude out of politics.

Somehow, we got the idea that Certitude Is All. Certitude is better than competence or smarts or even facts. As Peter Birkenhead wrote, a major hallmark of the Bush Administration is an almost psychotic (I’d leave out the “almost”) false optimism and self-confidence that whatever Bushies do is Good. President Bush speaks of doubt as if it were a venereal disease. Right-wingers cling to their grab bag of ideological myths — tax cuts, guns and free markets fix everything –and no amount of reason or empirical evidence can shake them. Even questioning their beliefs is disloyalty to the tribe. Certitude is the ultimate virtue.

Voters reward faith talk because they want candidates to offer them symbols of immutable moral order. The root of the problem lies in the underlying insecurities of voters, in a sense of powerlessness that makes change seem so frightening, and control — especially of others — so necessary.

The only way to alter that condition is to transform our society so that voters will feel empowered enough to take the risks, and tolerate the freedom that democracy requires. That would be genuine change. It’s a political problem with a political solution. Until that solution begins to emerge, there is no way to take the conservative symbolic message of faith talk out of American politics.

” … transform our society so that voters will feel empowered enough to take the risks, and tolerate the freedom that democracy requires.” Elsewhere Chernus writes,

The essence of our system is that we, the people, get to choose our values. We don’t discover them inscribed in the cosmos. So everything must be open to question, to debate, and therefore to change. In a democracy, there should be no fixed truth except that everyone has the right to offer a new view — and to change his or her mind. It’s a process whose outcome should never be predictable, a process without end. A claim to absolute truth — any absolute truth — stops that process.

The right-wing extremists who have dominated our national political discussion for years have done a great job of stopping the process. As a nation, we can’t even engage in rational debate on issue after issue, because the Right shouts down anything that doesn’t conform to their phantasm of an ideology. Too many Americans don’t seem to understand that government is even supposed to be responding to our will to solve problems. We’ve forgotten the most basic premise on which our nation was founded.

I have argued elsewhere that certitude has a similar effect on religion. The monotheistic religions rest on some basic doctrines — that there is a God, Jesus died for our sins, etc. — and through the centuries true believers have tormented each other over their beliefs. But for mystics — people like Teresa of Avila and Meister Eckhart — those doctrines were only the beginning of a quest for deeper understanding. When religion degenerates into nothing but tribal loyalty to dogma, the spiritual quest has been stopped.

People cling to certitude because it gives them comfort, but certitude really is a big impediment — to progress, to understanding, to everything.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. k  •  Jan 15, 2008 @1:53 am

    transform our society so that voters will feel empowered enough to take the risks, and tolerate the freedom that democracy requires.”

    What it reallysays is ” brainwash our society so that voters( ie individuals)
    will feel ( not be) empowered to take risks and tolerate the risk( not freedom) that Capitalism(not democracy) requires

    Just a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down….

  2. maha  •  Jan 15, 2008 @7:37 am

    What it reallysays is ” brainwash our society so that voters( ie individuals)
    will feel ( not be) empowered to take risks and tolerate the risk( not freedom) that Capitalism(not democracy) requires

    No, I think Chernus is talking about citizens having the courage to demand the government do something bold and different to solve problems, like the New Deal. Or, dare I say it, national single-payer health care.

  3. James  •  Jan 15, 2008 @12:00 pm

    I read that article too, and thought “that has already been addressed on The Mahablog”.

    I wonder, are you open to broadening your discussion of this general idea in future postings? For instance, you mention in this posting that religious mystics are in search of deeper understanding. Even though you have so far chosen over the course of your blog to stick to analysis/commentary on religious and political-economic dogmatism, what do you think about the other ways that humans search for deeper understanding(eg Romanticism, or other artistic/emotional inspirations) that both Rationalists and religious dogmatics disregard or undervalue? Pascal’s maxim “The Heart knows reasons that Reason knows nothing of” reminds us that the Rationalism can be contrasted to other passions besides Religion.

  4. James  •  Jan 15, 2008 @12:29 pm

    I hit the submit button too fast. I forgot to add in my last comment that Religion can be contrasted to(against?) other passions than Rationalism.

    Does this inspire any thoughts for future postings in this series?

  5. paradoctor  •  Jan 15, 2008 @5:02 pm

    Pascal said that the heart knows reasons that reason does not know. I retort that reason has feelings that the heart does not feel.

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