The Corner

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Certain Belief


My column the other day generated a lot of nice mail and a lot of angry email. Here’s one of the latter:

Mr. Goldberg, You must assume a very low level of mental acumen in your audience to even conceive, much less put to paper such a steaming pile of smelly nonsense such as “Are You Certain About That?” This less than flattering assessment of the cerebral acuity of your readers must be due to the general company you keep. You equate the idea of being skeptical of a total submission to a faith based belief system with being totally against the concept of certainty. The problem progressives/liberals/secularists/ have is with “certainty” based on faith… unprovable, unscientific, superstitious faith. Faith… which is based on …what?… a two thousand year old book of fairy tales? God is Santa for adults. There is no quarrel with “certainty” per se from the non-religious. For instance, there is no doubt you are disingenuous in your twisting of distaste for “belief” into a rejection of absolutes. I am certain of what you are. I have no doubt. You are an absolute.

Me: Compared to most of the angry mail this ranks as quite civil and thoughtful. The problem is that it’s not very sharp. Yes, many in the anti-certainty crowd are primarily concerned with religious dogmatism. But many are not. Chait isn’t. The Conservative Soul concentrates on religious certainty, but its indictment is on certainty in general.

Moreover, whatever your view of religious leaps of faith, it is hardly the case that liberalism is immune to similar leaps. Many progressives take many things on faith: the brotherhood of man, the ability of government to relieve man’s estate, capitalism’s incompatibility with the environment, the cognitive homogeneity between genders, the inhumanity of the fetus, the ability for “understanding” to bring peace, etc etc. Now, my point is not to say that all of these leaps of faith are either bad or wrong. Those are different and case-by-case arguments. My point is that many progresives make these, and other, leaps of faith and are then often immune to evidence to the contrary. While I’m a big believer in persuasion and argument, I’m not condemning this tendency out of hand because, as I suggested, it’s sometimes necessary and valuable. What bothers me is the idea that progressives are immune to this very human tendency and therefore free to denounce it in others without paying heed to the context, consequences or intent. Perhaps even worse, at least the religious are usually honest and clear-headed about the fact they are making a leap of faith. Many progressives don’t even realize — refuse to realize? — they’ve done likewise.