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Grieving The Loss Of Religious Certainty


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Following the federal court decision that rhetoric favoring the intelligent design of life is just religion, a few anti-evolution letters to the editor appeared in my local newspaper. The writers had the familiar certainty that as they alone are such truth-seekers, they see the situation more clearly than judges, teachers, or scientists do. The letters explained how evolution is just an atheistic religion, unproven, how evolutionists follow Darwin the way Christians follow Jesus. It’s amazing how judges and scientists keep missing that they are pawns in an atheistic conspiracy when such men see it so clearly.


I have the same immediate reaction to reading such things as I’ve always had. I think about how best one could counter the worst of what they write. I’ve tried that at times. It’s pointless. This is not about a lack of information. There are plenty of popular books explaining why evolution is a fact, especially since molecular genetics became part of the evidence for evolution, some written by theists such as Kenneth Miller or Robert Pennock. Fundamentalists don’t accept them as believers in their God, but still there is plenty written about how evolution doesn’t do away with God and only conflicts with the most literal reading of the Bible. Somehow that isn’t relevant for fundamentalists.


My fellow liberals often speak as if it is just fundamentalists who are so narrow minded. In fact everyone gets defensive about beliefs, from atheists to fundamentalists, including everyone in between. Some of it involves the sacredness of one’s belief, explicit when fundamentalists defend “The Holy Bible” given to them by God, the Word of God, but implicit when atheists defend beliefs that have served to free them from religious oppression and even connect them with the TRUTH in a manner that is sacred in its way.


Strife over beliefs is about more than just sacredness, of course. People’s personalities matter. It matters what sort of forums exist, whether they allow excuses to commit genocide, facilitate polite discussion or anything in between. In recent years, something else has occurred to me. Many have written about modern challenges to religion, by a world made smaller through commerce and travel, by ideas of the Enlightenment, by the success of the scientific revolution. Despite the fact that religious strife continues to be as contentious as ever, it seems to me that there is doubt in the process that wasn’t there a thousand years ago, because of such influences, even when people deny them.


Anyone who denies doubt has to wear blinders like creationists do about evolution, like atheists do about the reasons to believe in spirituality, like liberals do about the possibilities of fundamentalists or atheists being right, among many other things. I used to see this as mere stubbornness, but in recent years I’ve come to see this as denial that is the first stage in grief over the loss of religious certainty in the modern world. Whether one senses that more from religious diversity, the Enlightenment or the scientific revolution, people are sensing this. This is on top of our natural desire for certainty, which drives us in many ways. After I get through marveling at how anyone can be so ignorant and arrogant as the authors of the letters in my newspaper, it hits me now what this is. This is the denial of grief. They’re imagining the referee was bad instead of grieving that they lost the game fair and square. People tell stories all the time to make some better version of reality. It’s more often denial of the true reality than anything else.


Knowing this has limited utility. No one in denial over the loss of religious certainty is open to being confronted about that, fundamentalist, atheist or anything in between. Those who are angry or depressed about it are somewhat more open, but the place I find this most helpful to me is regarding those who seem to be in the bargaining stage of grief over the loss of religious certainty, including me.


For years it has irritated me at times how wishy-washy and accepting of contradiction those attending church with me could be in their liberal faith. My sister holds the Bible in higher esteem than I do. She has some handles that let her do that, such as the phrase, “a day is as a thousand years”, which to her means Genesis can mean just about anything and still be from God. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate how different biology is from what the Bible describes. She is an immunologist teaching at a university, just as much a person of science as I am. Like perhaps all liberals, she has struck a bargain with God about those things in which she wants to have some sense of certainty, in spite of reasons not to be certain. Her Bible is one of those places.


For me God is more in prayer and daily relying on God as 12 steps teach. My bargain with God allows Him to be that personal for me and allows Jesus Christ to be my Lord and my Savior in a liberal way, even though I know how to argue that this is surely not a Christian universe, how there is no sacred and no profane apart from our perceptions of them, how the Judeo-Christian story of sin ruining the world makes no sense. Of course I could be wrong in all of that.


I didn’t come to that as if I were bargaining with God. I prayed for God to lead me. That wasn’t answered very explicitly, but things happened that led my faith to be what it is. I reacted to both fundamentalists and atheists attacking my faith. Were they right? No, they don’t recognize the obvious deficiencies in their arguments. Are there deficiencies in mine? I’m glad I can get straight answers now from questions I ask myself, even if I still don’t know how to pin down everyone else.


Going along that way has given me my faith, a faith from God for those who believe in a spiritually active God, a faith from some other process for those who must believe otherwise. I think there was a bargain. I think God let me hang on to being Christian, either because it’s good for me or because that’s where I drew a line regarding moving away from the teaching of my youth, which God let me do. Does He hold others back from that or is faith all up to the individual? I feel comfortable with my faith, but I know there is this lack of certainty about it, both because there is no book that describes it and because there are concepts like God and faith that no words do justice. Also I do get this sense of it being a compromise with what God would have me believe if I had no needs that push my beliefs elsewhere, even if that is only a matter of my being more vigilant about faith than God would have me be. Those fundamentalists can be so scary about disagreeing with them. I think I have scars from that God can’t heal, not in this life. So maybe I need a crutch I wouldn’t have needed in some other life.


Where is there acceptance of the loss of religious certainty, the last stage of grief? Everyone in denial about it would say it’s in their faith, even atheists. They miss the point that anyone claiming certainty is missing the part of the picture that argues against them. Nowadays there is a good argument against almost anything. I don’t think I’ve missed exploring any form of religious thought. It is a wasteland, full of fantasies, full of false premises and poorly defined terms, lacking in a reality that confirms the truth of such thought. Show me how your people live lives to end poverty. Show me how they live lives to end conflict. Show me the reality that you think is even better than living to end poverty and/or conflict.


I don’t know what it would take to end poverty or conflict, but I know how to live in that direction, despite how my biology resists that. Those who would sell me their faith would have to do even better. I don’t find anyone coming close.


So I don’t think acceptance means some perfect faith that I have yet to find or giving up faith altogether. We all believe in something.


Do I already have my acceptance? Maybe it’s impossible to live in this world without some sense of compromise, so the best one can do is have a place of acceptance within oneself. I have tried to pull things out of that place, but they don’t play well for others. I’ve mentioned here before that I am devoted to God, whoever and whatever God is. Every time I’ve used that phrase on the internet, someone has responded as if it is a statement of ignorance. It is not. It is a statement of acceptance of uncertainty. It is the opposite from the sort of Bible-believing Christians who insist or fret that they would reject God completely if a substantial part of the Bible proved to be false to them. And they call that faith? Again it is people in denial of the loss of any legitimate way to have certainty about God who object to such acceptance that the truth is uncertain. Yet to point that out to them is surely pointless, because of their denial.


What a strange life it is. Things are not what they seem to be, yet simultaneously they are just that. It is in the eye of the beholder, but it is also what it is in its own right. It’s not 50% of one, 50% of the other. It’s not quantifiable at all. We just move closer and closer to becoming the glove to fit on someone’s hand. Then we die before we ever reach such perfection. So what is it God wants? Is it a dresser full of gloves or just one good one, or two that are mirror images? Is it many different spiritual products from this life? Answer me that one, anyone who thinks you’re so advanced. Only someone in denial of religious uncertainty would say there’s just one answer or that God can’t be like this. And it’s a different sort of denial to say there’s no answer, to say uncertainty means we shouldn’t play the game. I accept the answer God gave me, which is somewhat different from the choices above. I accept the uncertainty in the answer, in God, and in me, though far from perfectly. Label such a process however you will. To me it’s faith and acceptance of what faith is in a real world. It’s as fuzzy as any subatomic particle, which I find reassuringly realistic. Other things I still bargain about.

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Lot's of good commentary here. I would add that acceptance of uncertainty (tolerance of ambiguity) is frequently considered a positive attribute of individual, moral, and spiritual development. Some have gone so far as to claim that variations of all major religions have stressed this point for at least several thousand years (sometimes referred to as type "B" religious sects). Unfortunately, these seem to have always been a minority.



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Agreed. The passion being displayed by the anti-theist/anti-diests Atheists/Humaists and their hysterics against the I.D. concept surely displays the extreme intolerant left's answer to the religious right. They, like their far religious right foes, want to force 'their' beloved mythos, aka evalution..upon the public...and in my opinion what BOTh extreme sides lack in understanding...is..that is the perents job..nOT the school system to teach beliefs about the possible roots of life and I neither NEITHER evulation NOR ID should be pushed upon our kids or anyone. American society has come to this point where they have come to expect the school systems to raise their children for them..and that's not their job..their job is to teach kids to read and write.....scholastics.

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I was exploring websites about religion and science, both pro-science and anti-science. One of the anti-science ones was from the Chabad sect of Judaism:




It was subtle in attacking science, expressing hope that science someday will confirm the truth of the Torah, which the author believes to be eternal and absolute. He did not seem malicious. He was obviously educated, though obviously not in science, which did not stop him from judging science, saying that such a speculative theory as evolution “can have no place in the arsenal of empirical science”. Says who?


From beginning to end, this article is a gross distortion of what science is, and its implications beyond mere data. One might just say that it is typical of political or religious propaganda, where partisanship causes people to leave out half the story, at best. Yet I don’t think that’s enough explanation. The author here chides Jews who try to make the Torah less than absolute truth in order to accommodate science. He knows there is a problem, but he denies it, and sees both science and the Torah in the only ways that allow him to deny any uncertainty in the Torah.


Anyone can read this for oneself. The description of science is wrong in many ways. How it’s wrong is straightforward, though tedious, including how it is that non-physicists are forever confused by the uncertainty principle because they don’t know it’s an equation, not something that can be understood just because one speaks English. Why it’s wrong is what interests me. Let anyone make a list of relevant factors, but I am more and more convinced that denial of the loss of religious certainty is a huge factor among all people who have a holy text. It’s not that the text definitely didn’t come from God, though I surely would lean that way. It’s that there’s no way one can be certain about that. Even if one feels a God-given faith that a text is the Word of God, it’s possible one is deceived, by oneself, by one’s community, or by some deceptive spirit. The only way to escape such a reality of uncertainty is through denial. Learning to adapt to the uncertainty makes much more sense to me. I find God helps me do that.


If you see a wave coming, a naïve person braces himself or herself and hopes it’s not that bad a crash. Someone used to normal surf knows better and dives through the heart of the wave before it breaks, accepting and adapting to it. If it’s a tsunami, that’s not the best thing to do. A tsunami has such a longer wavelength than normal surf one cannot dive through it. One even has to be flexible in how one adapts to marginally different things.


There’s something to be said for the saying that ignorance is bliss, but my experience is that looking at the big picture, flexibility and acceptance beats denial everyday. I am God’s water, not His rock, metaphorically speaking. Most things change over time. Few do not, if any. Still so many people want to cling to something eternal, even though we are in no position to judge the timelessness of anything. It is better to become ever-changing water than the rock that was thought to be timeless, but is being eroded, sometimes quickly. It is better to be part of the many things that must adapt to survive than to be steadfastly wrong about who God is. Anyone unsure who God is can ask Him. The answers I’ve gotten from doing that are not simple. Those who claim that the answer is as simple as their holy book, or that there is no God, or that there is any single key to understanding look to me as someone braced for a wave to crash on them. Hmmm, I wonder how their faith or lack thereof will survive this next illness, some other tragedy, even death itself. It’s not the best way.

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There is this idea from Ken Wilber that works for me:


“But the proper response to scientific materialism, he (Wilber) said, is not to transform science into a pseudospiritual philosophy, as books such as The Tao of Physics try to do, or to call for a ‘new paradigm’ of science that permits supernatural phenomena. One should simply accept that science addresses the material world and mysticism the world of spirit. You cannot understand the mystical realm by studying physics, psychology, philosophy, or any other intellectual discipline; you can gain entrance to that realm only by engaging in a spiritual practice that transforms your consciousness. Spirituality ‘is not just thinking about the world differently,’ Wilber said. ‘It’s changing the thinker.’ ” (John Horgan, Rational Mysticism, p. 60, 2003, Houghton Mifflin)


One can refuse to be changed, secure that one’s worldview is correct, and live a life of contentment, if circumstances allow, but how much experience one misses that way, how much life is wasted, and how much spirit is obstructed in oneself and in others. How often someone sweetly sings, “Spirit flow through me …” and then is upset when She does. Fortunately God is often gentle about such change.

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Another quote from Ken Wilber I like:


“ ‘You get this experience: ‘Oh my God! I am one with God! Oh, this is amazing! Nobody’s ever had this experience in the entire history of the universe!’’ But ‘the personality that you had before you got your satori is the personality you’re stuck with. If you’re a geeky little toad, then you’re gonna be a geeky little toad that thinks he’s God. And then it’s going to be really hard to get rid of your geeky toadness,’ Wilber added, ‘because nobody can tell God what to do.’” (John Horgan, Rational Mysticism, p. 61, 2003, Houghton Mifflin)


Another factor in denial is when one thinks one is God or holds one’s God in one’s hands and doesn’t need to listen to anything else.

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