“Certainty is dangerous; it makes people do terrible things to each other.” I’ve heard this view in the learned discourse of scholars and in the rough-and-tumble commentary of day laborers; it comes up in academic journals, at the local book club, and in the social media. Everywhere it is brought forth as something obvious: People who doubt their convictions cannot go to war or kill people for disagreeing. We need to doubt even our sincerest convictions, for the sake of civilization.
The claim appeals in part because it contains a grain of truth: certainty in and of itself leads to action, while doubt in and of itself leads to inaction. As a result, certainty brings the advantages and disadvantages of action, while doubt brings the advantages and disadvantages of inaction. Consider:
- Did slavery in America end because people came to doubt whether the black man was inferior? Or did it slavery in America end because people became certain that the black man was equal?
- Did the push for women’s rights draw strength from uncertainty about whether women should have a different status from men, or did it draw strength from a growing conviction that they should have the same status as men?
- Does an addict kick his habit because he has come to doubt whether he should keep it, or does he kick his habit because he has become convinced that he should drop it?
When we need the courage of conviction, doubt paralyzes heroic deeds. And yet doubt is at best a flimsy barrier against criminal action. If we are unsure of our religious beliefs, then we are in fact less likely to go to war over religion. But if we are also unsure whether killing innocent people is bad, then we may cave in to a desire for wealth and go to war after all. If we are unsure whether babies are really human, then we may decide to kill them because it’s more convenient. The one who is unsure of his path takes the path of least resistance.
To prevent people from doing terrible things to each other, we have to make them more active in doing good things. Don’t make them doubt whether people have any worth; make them certain that human beings are children of God. Don’t make people economic agnostics; convince them that anything done to the poor is done to Jesus. Fill their hands with deeds of mercy, and they will find less room for strife. Every time history seems to show people doing terrible things because of their convictions, look more closely and you’ll discover that they were not convinced enough of certain crucial truths.