Embrace doubt, reject certitude, and move past moral smugness

Noah Millman has a post up at The American Conservative, What Has Christianity To Do With Human Rights? He is responding to a conversation at the heart of which is Ross Douthat, who is making singular claims for the grounding of the presuppositions which Western liberals hold dear in Christian theology. I pretty much agree with Noah on the major salient points. As someone who is not a religious believer, and have never been a religious believer, one issue that I have whenever I’ve had to engage with religious believers is that there are a particular set of arguments where the believers have a very difficult time stepping out of the circularity of their own position. But similarly, as a non-liberal I have had a difficult time trying to get liberals to acknowledge that the stance that “certain things are obvious and self-evident in their truth to all progressive people” is a strongly historically contingent statement as well.

As an empirical matter I think Ross, and Christians more generally, over-read the causal role of their faith in Western history. Though the Christian religion certainly effected some change, it is important to note that its emergence and rise to prominence was coincident with a whole host of other changes in the world of antiquity. And more importantly, Christianity itself has turned out to be incredibly adept as justifying nearly every political and social perspective under heaven. The metaphystical coherency of Christianity, or any other “system of thought,” founders on the reality that human action is fundamentally disjointed, incoherent, and a slap-dash constellation of innate reflexes and historically contingent norms.

The idea that human beings, animals just risen to sentience, can hold in their minds’ eye a ethical and political system of coherency to rival anything like mathematics is a childish conceit, best set aside in serious conversation. And yet the conceit will persist and rear its head in all discussion, because it is a natural outgrowth of the false perception that we are dominated by our reason and not our passions.

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