The Religious Right’s reaction to Phil Robertson’s suspension is not only what Jesus expected out of his followers, but it has got me thinking once again about the politics of certainty.
I was reading this morning an article in The Atlantic, Our God-Given Constitutional Right to a Television Show detailing the “heart warming collection of affectionate and supportive notes sent by loving Christians” to writer Josh Barro “to save him from his sinful and murderous ways.” Josh Barro had the temerity to pen an article for Business Insider critical of Phil Robertson.
You will note, first of all, that First Amendment rights of free speech do not extend to anyone who is not a Christian. Robertson can say whatever he wants, however bigoted and hateful, about anyone, and receive nothing but approbation. But if anyone criticizes Robertson they suddenly have no right to say anything.
Here is a sampling of Barro’s loving Christian email by folks who obviously haven’t read the Bible in awhile, or who aren’t paying attention to sermons:
Here’s what I know, after having read your column: you’re an ignorant, hateful, hate-filled, ill-informed, bigoted, racist heterophobic bully.
Just to be sure, let me repeat that for you: you’re an ignorant, hateful, hate-filled, ill-informed, bigoted, racist, heterophobic bully.
Just like the executives at A&E. Just like Bull Connor. Just like Al Sharpton. Just like Barack Hussein Obama. Just like Adolph Hitler.
Barro writes that (rather than turn the other cheek) one wants to slap him: “Not so hard that it would harm you. Just insult you.”
That’s the spirit!
After all, we all remember what happened to that poor Salvation Army woman who said “Happy Holidays” to one of these loving Christians. As Americans Against the Tea Party described it:
Salvation Army bell-ringer Kristina Vindiola was standing by her kettle outside of a Walmart in Phoenix, Arizona when she wished a woman entering the store “happy holidays.” The woman approached her and struck her.
“I thought she was going to put money in the kettle. She came up to me and said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And she says, ‘You’re supposed to say merry Christmas,’ and that’s when she hit me,” said Vindiola.
But certainty…chilling certainty is the ghost of Christmases past in this piece.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a wonderful response to this hate at The Atlantic, and I think she hit at the core of the problem: certainty.
We will be called bigots for saying this. But we know that it is the unloving Secular-Shinto-Marxist-Islamo-Kenyan-Liberal-Fascist-Socialists who are the real bigots. We are but the bearers of traditional values and Judeo-Christian heritage, which means we need never be truthful, curious, nor particularly well-informed.
Words mean what God says they mean. How do you know what God says? Ask us. Here is what God says: God says we are right. God says we are love. God says that no one may criticize us without criticizing America. God says we are America. God says we should be on TV.
One of my favorite figures out of history, George Gordon Byron – Lord Byron – said, “If I am fool, it is, at least, a doubting one; and I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom. ” But Byron was not alone. Some very intelligent men have understood the dangers of certainty: Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one.” Bertrand Russell went so far as to call it an “intellectual vice.”
Russell might well have been speaking of the Religious Right when he said, “What men want is not knowledge, but certainty.” Their monstrous and bastardized version of Christianity gives them the certainty to buttress their pre-existing bigotry, whether it be targeted at gays or blacks or Muslims or Latinos or some other ethnic or religious minority.
Socrates said (Apology 38a), “The unexamined life is not worth living.” These people seem to live by the credo that the opposite is true. Why examine when you already know? And they know Robertson is right because God tells them they’re right, even when, if put to the test, it would turn out that God said no such thing, not, at least, the God they pretend to follow.
To learn, one must first doubt. Socrates knew this: “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” Robertson fans would not like burly old soldier Socrates, for he was not in the business of providing certainty, but rather in tearing it down.
We might call Socrates the first figure of the Enlightenment, for it was this drive to question perceived and received knowledge that drove the Enlightenment.
Look at Descartes, who wrote at a time when the Church was still burning those who questioned at the stake, also knew this; and he stripped away all certainties save one, in order to being his quest for knowledge: “I think, therefore I am.”
In his earlier years, Descartes had written, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Francis Bacon said it as well: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts: but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Historian and philosopher Will Durant noted this tendency as well: “Inquiry is fatal to certainty.”
Which tells you why the Religious Right fears the government-supported universal public education the Enlightenment championed.
As Bacon said, Descartes had obviously moved beyond that early certainty, but those now supporting Phil Robertson and demonizing his critics, never will. They have no need to, because they have certainty they are right.
The problem with certainty is that it’s not infallible, or as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “certainty generally is illusion” (“The Path of Law” 10 Harvard Law Review 457 (1897). Holmes also helpfully pointed out that “certitude is not the test of certainty” (“Natural Law”, 32 Harvard Law Review 40, 41 (1918).
Look at poor Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600. The Inquisitors had certainty that they and the Pope were right about Copernican cosmology being wrong. But Copernicus was right the earth does revolve around the sun – and we know that now because men continued to question whatever the dangers posed by a frightened and reactionary Church.
Science has already shown that much of what the Religious Right – and Robertson’s supporters – claim about the “unhealthy gay lifestyle” is false but because they are in possession of divinely inspired certainty, they will refuse to see it. They will continue to believe that if you disagree with them you have put yourself in opposition to God – even though a little inquiry (or self-awareness) would demonstrate that their reaction is about as contrary to Jesus’ will as can be imagined.
Stunted in growth, they will chase certainty to the grave, while we go on, and with the promise of the Enlightenment before us, continue to grow and question and learn, and, hopefully, improve ourselves.
Meanwhile, maybe we can have a TV show where Religious Right bigots are beat about the head and shoulders with sticks. We have a right to it, after all.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.