Can you stand one more meditation about religion and the need for certainty ?
We talk a lot these days about fear–fear of terrorism, fear of change, fear of modernity. But when you come right down to it, the basis of all of these threats to subjective well-being is an overwhelming fear of ambiguity.
We humans evidently have a primal need for bright lines, eternal truths—for non-negotiable and non-relative Truth with a capital T.
The political danger presented by that need for certainty was obvious to the nation’s founders, who intended the Bill of Rights to prevent the “passions of the mob” from extinguishing the rights of those holding nonconforming beliefs.
The deep desire for easy answers in a complicated world explains many of the more troubling aspects of our political environment. Consider the current “Trump phenomenon.” According to a study referenced in a recent article in the Washington Post,
Interviews with psychologists and other experts suggest one explanation for the candidate’s success — and for the collective failure to anticipate it: The political elite hasn’t confronted a few fundamental, universal and uncomfortable facts about the human mind.
We like people who talk big.
We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren’t.
And we don’t like people who don’t look like us.
Much of Trump’s appeal–and the appeal of the many demagogues who preceded him–boils down to this need to simplify, to draw bright lines, to chase away the demons of ambiguity.
Hibbing of the University of Nebraska says this need for clarity is important to understanding Trump’s support.
“People like the idea that deep down, the world is simple; that they can grasp it and that politicians can’t,” Hibbing said. “That’s certainly a message that I think Trump is radiating.
Much the same psychology is on display by the religious conservatives fighting for (their version of) religious rights. (Sometimes, aided and abetted by people who surely know better. Yes, Justice Scalia, I’m looking at you.)
Most of us look at Christian Americans and see people who have been highly privileged by a culture that has long been dominated by Christians. But these religious warriors see themselves under attack, not by a rival theological perspective, but by secularism.
Christian conservatives who are battling for the right to promote their faith in public or official settings see themselves locked in an epic contest with a rival religion. But that rival isn’t Islam. It’s secularism.
However one defines secularism, it represents a diminished influence of religion and religious authority—the blurring of previously “bright” lines.
Secularism terrifies people who need those bright lines, who need concrete authority to obey and whose worldviews are rendered entirely in black and white.
What terrifies me are people who fear ambiguity, who see no shades of gray, and who reject the exercise of moral autonomy.
And those people aren’t all in ISIL.