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Certainty is a Counterfeit Salvation

In a world that can be frightening and unstable, certain conviction can bring a measure of tangible comfort, whether or not it’s actually true.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where people decided what to believe based on their honest assessment of what was most likely true. Sadly, we do not live in that world. People pick and choose their beliefs for a wide variety of reasons, and almost none of them have to do with truth.

There’s one major exception. For the category of beliefs where there is an immediate, objective outcome then—in that case—what people believe and what is true will fall quickly into general correspondence. It’s very expensive to have fanciful, bizarre beliefs about everyday things like which side of the road you should drive on, or what happens if you spill boiling water on yourself, or how the people in your day-to-day life are going to react to your behavior. From everyday physics to our mental models of other human beings, practical beliefs are constrained by feedback to be relatively accurate.

But there is a vast range of beliefs that don’t have any obvious and direct consequences for us. Do people still discipline their beliefs in these categories to conform to reason and evidence? No, they most certainly do not.

Walker Wright covered this in his series of posts on voter ignorance. He summarized the economic literature that explains not only the basic fact that voters are astoundingly ignorant on topics ranging from economics to the basic workings of the American government, but also explained why this is so. In a nutshell: learning is expensive (in time and effort even if not in money) and the statistical value of casting a single informed vote is very low. So, according to the basic assumption of rational self-interest, why bother studying to try and learn the truth? By and large, most Americans don’t.

In the second piece of the series, Wright cited Bryan Caplan who said, “Since delusional political beliefs are free, the voter consumes until he reaches his “satiation point,” believing whatever makes him feel best.” What Caplan means by “free” in this context is that there’s no penalty to being wrong about your political beliefs. 

Beliefs are tools. You use them to get something.  

If you’re fundamentally mistaken in your belief about how gravity works (in a practical, everyday sense) you’re going to hurt yourself. Delusional practical beliefs are expensive. But if you’re fundamentally mistaken in your belief about politics (or religion, or history, or science if you’re not a scientist, etc.), nobody is going to make you suffer for it. In that sense, the belief is free.

Wright also cited Arthur Brooks, who explicitly tied the American penchant for extreme (and ignorant) political beliefs to religion. “Not real religion,” Brooks clarified, “but rather, a secular substitute in which they believe with perfect certainty in the correctness of their political dogmas. People want to hold the truth; questioning is uncomfortable.”

The assertion that “questioning is uncomfortable” is a common one. It’s also an empirically verified one. In 2006, researchers at NYU’s Center for Experimental Social Sciences conducted a subtle experiment to prove that people crave certainty . . . even when that certainty provides no practical benefit whatsoever. 

In the experiment, participants got to take home twenty dollars if they picked which of two boxes held the money. They were told that one specific box was either 60% or 100% likely to contain the money (which meant they should obviously pick that box, since in either case it was more likely to have the money in it).

However, before making their choice, they could pay a small fee to be told exactly how much more likely that particular box was to hold the money—e.g., whether it was 60% or 100% likely. Since the best choice was already obvious, this extra information wouldn’t—or shouldn’t—be influential or decisive, but about 80% of the participants paid the fee anyway.

Various permutations of the experiment were conducted to try and rule out alternative explanations, such as participants failing to really grasp the irrelevance of the knowledge or minimizing the effort of thinking through the problem. In the end, the researchers were left with the same conclusion Brooks and so many others have drawn. In their words, people just like “to feel confident.”

So we have two important insights into how and why humans form beliefs. 

First, beliefs are instrumental. That is, beliefs are tools. You use them to get something. One common way beliefs are used is to build an accurate picture of the world around us. That use—something we often take for granted as the sole purpose of belief—is actually just one among many. Especially when we move outside of simple, straight-forward practical scenarios, correspondence with reality is no longer as useful and people are free to seek other uses from their beliefs. 

What does this look like in practice? What use can you get out of beliefs that are fanciful or even delusional? Well, adopting the beliefs of the people around you—no matter what they are—is a great way to fit in socially. Beliefs become a kind of social glue to hold cliques together. They’re also a kind of social signal, not just to find and solidify your ties with like-minded individuals, but to broadcast high status. Unnecessarily complex beliefs with layer upon layer of nuance are the intellectual equivalent of peacock feathers: they tell everyone that you have the kind of higher education that is a proxy for elite social status in America.

You’re also free to adopt beliefs that paint yourself and your friends in the best light possible. For instance, you can adopt a narrative where you’re the enlightened, brave heroes standing for justice and truth against forces of evil and ignorance. Who cares if it’s an accurate self-image when it’s such a flattering one? 

Or, to spin things around, you can believe things about the outside world that comfort you. Now, the term “conspiracy theory” is becoming controversial, since it’s useful to label unpopular beliefs that way to discredit them, but when it comes to the classic idea that mysterious forces are suppressing knowledge that the Earth is flat or the Moon landings were faked or the like—you might wonder what aspect of conspiracy theories is comforting. The idea of unstoppable, hidden forces pulling the strings behind the scenes sounds like the opposite of comforting, right?

But there is one major aspect to these theories that is indeed comforting: they entail a vision of the world that is ordered and comprehensible. For many people, the pessimism of conspiracy theories is more than offset by the comfort of believing in a world that is predictably ordered instead of chaotic. What’s more, conspiracy theorists often believe that they have privileged insight into how everything really works. 

Even the impotent fatalism of most conspiracy theories has a benefit. Since there’s typically little you can do to effectively fight “them” you don’t actually have to do anything about the bad things happening around you. Conspiracy theories thus offer an ordered universe, special understanding, and little responsibility. Of course people believe them.

So the first of our two insights is that whenever they can get away with it, people will adopt self-deceiving beliefs that paint a flattering picture of themselves and a comforting picture of the world around them.

The second insight is that, having chosen their comforting beliefs, people will go on to invest these oh-so-very-useful beliefs with manufactured certainty. They won’t believe these fairy tales a little; they will believe them a lot. When beliefs are about abstract or theoretical subjects where there is no direct, undeniable feedback for error and overconfidence, people unconsciously gravitate towards a set of beliefs that are comfortable and a degree of certainty in those beliefs that is absolute.  

This explanation—as far as I’ve laid it out so far—is actually a little too powerful. If things were really this bad, then every country in the world would be mired in paralyzing, toxic partisanship all the time. And yet we have a sense, as Americans, that things are worse now than they were ten or twenty or thirty years ago. That partisanship and tribalism, while perennial aspects of the human experience, are getting notably worse now than they have been at other times. What gives? I have a theory.

As we noted earlier, instrumental beliefs play a key role in the formation of tightly knit social cliques defined by their common adherence to a set of ideological orthodoxies. The unanimity of the group on a narrow range of issues creates an illusion of greater, universal unity. Everyone seems to be of “one heart and one mind.” Presto: you have an imitation Zion community.

Within this knockoff Zion, no one needs to worry about being wrong anymore. The mutually reinforcing certainty creates freedom from doubt and second-guessing. Everyone in the group proceeds directly past faith to perfect knowledge, and—once your knowledge is perfect—”your faith is dormant.” (Alma 32:34) This is convenient since faith requires constant effort and attention. Perfect knowledge is easier.

  Secularism and skepticism have proven much better at tearing down the old beliefs and conventions and traditions that went before than they have at erecting anything to take their place.

There’s more, however. The members of these groups often consider themselves to be anxiously engaged in important, vital work. Fighting injustice, standing for liberty, etc. This, too, fits with our conception of salvation: you have entered a rest from doubt or care, but there is still much work to do that is fulfilling and meaningful. 

Of course, in reality, the “work” these groups are engaged in is not real. It’s just slacktivism. Barney Frank summed this dynamic up in an interview for The New Yorker

I have a rule that I have tried to propagate among my friends on the Left. If you care deeply about a cause and you are then engaged on behalf of that cause in an activity that makes you feel very good and very brave and you’re really in solidarity with all your friends, and you’re enjoying it, you’re probably not advancing the cause very much, because you’re spending all your time with people you agree with cheering each other on and not engaging.

This is what you get for your instrumental beliefs: dogmatically unified cliques where everyone is free from error and all are involved in rewarding, heroic struggles for righteous causes. It’s not the real salvation promised by Christianity, but it’s clearly an imitation of it. 

This explains why this particular set of dysfunctions—always latent in any society—is surging in America here and now. Secularism and skepticism have proven much better at tearing down the old beliefs and conventions and traditions that went before than they have at erecting anything to take their place. As traditional religions decline, they leave in their wake a host of unmet needs that are still shaped and conditioned by the expectations and promises of the now-receding faiths.

What’s worse, these unmet needs are no longer situated in a context of hope that fosters patience. Within a Christian context, expectations for certain knowledge and perfect unity were understood to be a part of a long-unfolding process that would inevitably reach fulfillment both personally and communally, but not necessarily right now. 

Paul provided an example of this in his first Epistle to the Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” So Christianity gave both the expectations that define our conception of salvation, and the hope for their eventual fulfillment. In the wake of Christianity the expectation remains, but not the hope. And if the hope departs, then so too must the patience. 

That is the context in which so many have decided to stop waiting and hoping for the real thing (they no longer believe in it anyway) and instead settle for an imitation that, for all its flaws, they can have today.  

Why wait if there’s nothing to wait for? Accept some particular man-made philosophy as the absolute truth now, and you can enter into a reassuring rest with your fellow counterfeit saints. You won’t actually accomplish anything, of course, but it will feel great.

In the coming essays, I will explore how the brittle fragility of counterfeit salvation leads to extremism, warps and weakens even faith in things that are true, and differs dramatically from genuine conviction.

About the author

Nathaniel Givens

Nathaniel Givens is a writer and blogger. In addition to Public Square, he has written for Meridian, Real Clear Religion, First Things, and Square Two. He blogs at Nauvoo Neighbor, Times and Seasons, and his own blog: Difficult Run.
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