Monday, March 14, 2011

Confidence vs Certainty

This is another note springing from my reflections on the conversation between Alistair McGrath and Richard Dawkins. One of the things Dawkins kept complaining about, was that many religious people are not willing to consider that they are wrong. This breeds a kind of contempt for others, a contempt that finds its expression in an extreme case in homicide bombers or in religious persecution. Religious faith, it seems, breeds arrogance, and arrogance breeds persecution. So religion (in Dawkins' eyes) is a very bad thing, the root of all evil.

A few preliminary remarks. First, getting rid of religion (which is what Dawkins wants to do) is not the answer to getting rid of persecution. McGrath rightly pointed out that the 20th century should keep us from that conclusion: the Soviet union, for example, was an atheist state that tried to eradicate religion by means of the gulags and other methods of torture and persecution. And atheism was not just "coincidental" to the Soviet program, as Dawkins wants to believe - atheism is the foundation for the Marxist program! Other examples could be adduced. What McGrath pointed out was that persecution is not something tied only to religion or religious faith, rather it is something rooted in human nature. In the French Revolution, when Madame Roland was about to be guillotined, she looked at the statue personifying liberty in the Place de la Revolution and said, "Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name." In other words, human nature can take any cause (even the cause of liberty) and use it as a pretense for committing criminal acts.

But then Dawkins is in a sense right. Religious faith can breed an arrogance that leads to persecution. There is no need to debate this fact. History is replete even to the present day with examples. Of course, that does not mean religion is in itself bad; just as Roland's words are not meant to revile the true cause of freedom and liberty. But Dawkins' point is taken: as religious folks, we need to be careful lest we carry with us a mindset of superiority and pride - a mindset which can have very deleterious effects.

But what I want to take issue with is the idea that this pride springs from certainty. Dawkins thinks that they only way to avoid this is to live with doubt. Of course, Dawkins is confident that he is right (otherwise he wouldn't debate and write books like The God Delusion!), as are other atheists. And even the most spineless relativist is confident in his/her relativism. (Which is kinda strange, if you ask me.) So they are okay with confidence but really down and out on certainty.

Does certainty then necessarily lead to a persecuting spirit? No. Especially not the certainty tied to the Christian faith. If I am certain that I am saved by grace - if I am certain that my sins are forgiven not because of anything I have done but solely through the atonement of Jesus Christ - if I am certain that God loved me before I loved him - then there is no room for pride or arrogance let alone a persecuting spirit. And even though a Christian believes that unbelievers are under the wrath of God, this should not lead us to persecute them but to love them and to pray as the apostle Paul prayed, "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved" (Rom 10:1). Paul's attitude towards unbelieving Jews should be duplicated in our own attitudes towards those around us who do not believe. There is no contradiction between being certain and being loving. And so-called Christians who persecute others have never really themselves understood the gospel.

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