Unconventional Wisdom

Religion is not always about certainty

This flawed assumption informs how we talk about religion in public life.
Unconventional Wisdom

Religion is not always about certainty

This flawed assumption informs how we talk about religion in public life.

I am certain of a few things. I am certain that the climate is warming, that my neighbor’s cute dog is wasted on my neighbor, and that Donald Trump has never extended genuine kindness to a child. I am not certain of the words I say every Sunday in church. I try to believe them, to act as though I reside in a world where they are true. Amid doubt and weariness, I live my way into them.

I don’t relate at all to the motive that is most commonly assigned to religious belief and practice: that faith cultivates a sense of certainty in a complex world. Some people are crude enough to say this to your face; every religious person will recognize Dorothy Fortenberry’s description of the “kind, patronizing” people who say to believers, “I wish I could have that certainty.” More often, though, the assumption is simply baked in to the way we talk about religion in public life. Think, for example, of the journalistic commonplace that people turn to religion during times of social instability. (Are there times of social stability?)

The problem with the statement “Religion offers people certainty” begins with the subject. The word “religion” is like America’s power grid: buggy, incoherent, unavoidable. If we look at the textbook “world religions” — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism — we find them doing different jobs, posing different questions. Some stress ritual and practice; some require assent to creeds. Some transcend place; others name a long loyalty to a place or culture. They conceive time and history differently. Buddhism is a beautiful transcendence of human misery, Christianity a beautiful rupture in it.

We cannot define religion — as so many peddlers of this platitude do — in Whig History style, as the vague bit of territory not yet fallen to science’s explanatory empire. Science, at its most useful, is a set of methods, not a worldview. It can tell us that a particular section of an MRI lights up when we watch a video of people being nice, but not whether Jesus was right when he said that it’s better to give than to receive. When scientists address philosophical and metaphysical questions they become pundits, often bad ones. One need only look to poor, doddering Richard Dawkins, everywhere beset by Muslims, and women who prefer not to be harassed at conferences, and nefarious agents of the state out to confiscate his honey, to concede that the scientific method hasn’t cracked the question of how to live.

Buddhism is a beautiful transcendence of human misery, Christianity a beautiful rupture in it.

One of the foremost contemporary thinkers on comparative whatever-all-this-stuff-is, the anthropologist Talal Asad, suggests that the very category “religion,” when treated as an essential thing that shows up in different places and times under different guises, is implicitly imperialist, because that category originally arose as a way to talk about the proliferation of sects within a rapidly secularizing Europe, and it doesn’t apply equally well everywhere. During the Enlightenment, according to Asad, you start to see arguments — unintelligible in other parts of the world, or in Europe a century earlier — that take for granted a separate, private, optional sphere of meaning and belief; “religion,” which exists outside of, or has little relationship to, politics or the economy or sociability. But this category doesn’t work in other times and places, or for every way of believing. Given Asad’s argument, perhaps it’s no surprise that the “religion” we tend to mean when we say that religion confers certainty is one of the monotheisms with which Europeans were already familiar. Nobody looks at their Buddhist friends and says, “I wish I had their certainty” — though Buddhists, like all of us, take some things as axiomatic for the purposes of thinking. They don’t tell you why you should want to bore yourself silly becoming “mindful”; their discourse just assumes it.

Indeed, a long philosophical tradition links believing in a single God with violent fanaticism. This idea goes back at least to those Roman aristocrats who didn’t understand why the Israelites didn’t love being conquered and extends through Enlightenment philosophes to contemporary intellectuals like Egyptologist Jan Assmann and biblical scholar Mark Smith. (Unfortunately not this Mark Smith.) The argument usually boils down to: polytheism leaves room for the universe to be messy and multiple; monotheists insist on enforcing a single truth; thus, violence. History’s verdict on this thesis is mixed. The ancient world was rough enough before anyone heard of Moses, and the scariest people in modern America get weirdly excited about Norse gods. The Enlightenment philosophes who adopted these ideas in recoil from the so-called “Wars of Religion” were themselves complicit in the violence of empire. Nor is the logical link obvious: a universe of personified forces locked or “balanced” in eternal contention sounds like a perfectly good pretext for war, mostly because it is war. In my experience, fanaticism can happen anywhere, about anything.

“Ah,” I can hear you saying, “but what about fundamentalists? They seem pretty damn certain.” Indeed they do. But the things that unite the huge, loose, often mutually-opposed groups we call fundamentalists aren’t always religious  doctrine. When it comes to Hindu fundamentalism, for instance, we’re really talking about a political movement. As for American Christian evangelicals, fundamentalists, and pentecostals (not the same categories, though they overlap), they can look like a hypnotized mass to outsiders. But if you’ve been inside — I was raised in, and in my teens quite devoted to, the fundamentalist General Association of Regular Baptist Churches — you know that that sense of confidence is embattled and must be continually renewed. When well-meaning atheists express a wistful envy about the certainty of faith, what they are imagining is that it imparts some comfort or peace. But the loudest American fundamentalists seem also among the least comfortable and most aggrieved people in our political landscape. And the less loud ones — the people I still remember fondly, who had horrible politics but who came through, more than once, when my dad was out of work — have all had that moment in which they ask the pastor earnestly why God let grandpa get cancer, or wondered aloud, in Sunday school, how those fossils got there.

When well-meaning atheists express a wistful envy about the certainty of faith, what they are imagining is that it imparts some comfort or peace.

The fact that I eventually left my denomination also illustrates that religious people experience coming to our beliefs no differently than other people do. Some religions teach that we learn to share their tenets through divine action, but I’m talking about how it feels getting there. You arrived at your deep belief in human rights, in class struggle, in I Fucking Love Science memes, more or less the same way I arrived at my left-of-center Christianity: sloppily. We all muddle through life with pieces of a thousand incompatible discourses wedged in our skulls. They come from upbringing, education, friends, popular culture; they are forced on us, malignantly or benignly, by corporate or state or family power; we are drawn to them by disposition or by experience or by the fascination of what’s difficult. Gradually, from a combination of happenstance and persuasion, we discover our deepest commitments.

Sometimes we meet someone who is living out something so much more interesting than what we’re doing that it infects us, gradually or all at once; this is conversion. (It’s also organizing.) And however much of ourselves we gamble on a single worldview, we hear whispers of ambivalence in the background. If Christianity is true, I’ll someday learn that my ability to persist past that ambivalence was divinely willed. If not, I’ll just be dead.

As a religious person, I’m assumed by some of my acquaintances to be in denial of that inevitability. It’s the thing I’m supposedly wielding my little switchblade of certainty against. Even I once worried this was true. When I was in college, with death a speck on my horizon, I’d earnestly ask myself whether it was okay to grant myself the comfort of belief in a resurrection. I needn’t have worried. I’m 40 now, and death, having swallowed several friends, a beloved aunt, Prince, Bowie, and a very sweet ex-girlfriend whom I wish I’d loved better, seems vast and unconquerable. Sometimes I stare at my wife’s sleeping face, thinking what a miracle it is that two people get along this well, wondering whether I should ever let myself sleep given the vanishingly small amount of time I may have to know or look at her; when I feel myself nodding off, I curse my weakness. I’m denied the comfort of the resurrection just when I’m starting to need it.

Why bother being religious at all, then? Well, in life, you pays your money and you takes your chance. I don’t want to abandon Christ because he occasionally fails to act as my personal Mood Improver. And my tradition tells me that there are things I can know about God by enduring through these dry periods. It’d be nice to find out whether that’s true. I can’t do that without staking the one life I have that it is.

Maybe you’re staking your life on something different. That’s okay. If I’m right, you are loved for far more than your ability to be right about stuff. If I’m wrong, maybe you’ll be right. But we’re both, so far as we know, down here in the dark, making little leaps of faith in every direction. It turns out that’s the only sort of motion we can make.

Phil Christman lives in Ann Arbor. He is currently writing a book about the actual and imagined future of the Midwest.