What’s Bad About Moral Certitude?

By: Robert E. Meyer

Several days ago, I received an E-mail from a fellow who had read my recent series on atheism. His response started out rather promising, but unfortunately our dialogue degenerated into a progressively less civil exchange.

This gentleman didn’t specifically take issue with any of my arguments made in the editorials, but rebuked me for my tone of certitude and arrogance. Let’s face it; a humbling chastisement is a healthy experience for all of us at times.

Because this fellow had a personal testimony that paralleled that of Dan Barker, the Christian Pastor who became an atheist apologist, and functionary for The Freedom From Religion Foundation, I decided to search him out on the internet. Sure enough! Among a litany of book reviews was a five-star rating he wrote for a book Barker authored about raising children as “freethinkers.” As Gomer Pyle might have said: “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”

Further investigation revealed what I think prompted his response and inspired the topic for this column. I located a post he wrote several years ago on the evils of moral certitude. To his credit, he suggested that it was wrong to blame religion exclusively for violence and atrocities in the world. He is certainly correct in that respect. I think this response was based on his honest assessment of the Christian faith he once took part in. Undoubtedly, he knew many sweet folks who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and decided that gratuitous hyperbole extolling the “blame Christianity for everything bad” genre, was a bit out of order. That canard about religious genocide is one of the weakest trump cards atheists play in the senseless rhetorical war of belittling the other guy over his belief system, particularly when we survey the horrendous deeds done by those with non-theistic objectives.

The real problem, he exclaimed, was moral certitude, regardless of the stripe of its ideological motivation or origin. Religious and non-religious totalitarians alike, will ultimately slaughter others to forge a certain ideal. History is replete with examples of this from the Spanish inquisition to Stalin’s purges. Lenin himself declared that one must be willing to crack a few eggs in order to make an omelet, and Stalin became the short-order cook. Likewise, “heretics” were tortured to death in the Spanish inquisition so that the Roman Catholic Church could be “purified.”

But his line of reasoning is only partially correct. The idea that moral certitude, in and of itself, causes senseless killing, is an over simplistic plank in the moral relativism manifesto. It ready depends on the direction and specificity of the moral certitude itself.

Take certain examples; would someone like Mother Theresa be a good candidate to be a mass killer? Undoubtedly, she was a woman of great and unwavering moral certitude. What about someone with a dogmatic profession of faith, that includes the belief that all human life is created in the image of God, and thus deserves special reverence and dignity? This conviction could be held with great moral certitude, yet never result in an application where anything at all may be done in the name of the cause. Again, the direction of the moral certitude is the key.

People want to make oversimplified and blatantly erroneous substitutions when adjudicating this issue. For example, the word “fundamentalist” has taken on a generic and negative connotation. If the Islamic Fundamentalism can be described as inherently violent, then anything that smacks of “religious fundamental” is lumped into the same category without qualification. If Islamic Fundamentalists are deemed dangerous, than so is any Christian who can be described as a fundamentalist. No consideration is given to the particular proscriptions of their respective tenets of faith.

Actually, an aversion to moral certitude is self-contradictory. The person who eschews the whole idea of certainty, must himself be certain that his position is correct, in order to have a basis for objecting to those professing moral certainty. The short version of a rather illustrative anecdote is one of a student and his professor. The professor lecturing the class says that there are no moral absolutes. The brave student cleverly asks the professor if he is certain of the statement he has just made. The professor answers “absolutely,” never perceiving the logical dilemma he is impaled on. We have all heard the adage that he who doesn’t stand for something, will fall for anything. The great English statesman Edmund Burke observed, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” How does one act decisively when he is perpetually uncertain?

One might easily argue from the above premise that it is moral ambiguity which is far more dangerous. Unqualified tolerance will permit admittance of the very ideological virus that ultimately destroys the utopia of ambivalence.

If nothing is certain, there is nothing really worth standing up for.

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