Religion and the Wisdom of Uncertainty

An incredulous gasp followed by “You don’t go to church?!” is the response I received after giving my answer to the question of where I pray. “Why don’t you go to church?” Demanded the follow up question. “Because I don’t believe in that god they speak about in your church” I provocatively replied. “Oh so then your Muslim!” was the response, as if it were all that simple. “No, I actually don’t believe in that god either” I replied. By this point in our street-side conversation people began condescendingly snickering as if saying, “Ha look at this fool foreigner, and he clearly knows nothing about the world”. The follow up question was “well what DO you believe in then?” And here is where the biggest shock of all came, and the point of this essay, in my concise yet world-shattering reply of “I don’t know”.

For a bit of background, this conversation with the villagers about religion has repeated itself so many times and unfolds in such a predictable pattern that I honestly don’t even bother having it anymore. The ubiquitous Christian bible banter has so thoroughly infiltrated itself into the culture of southern Mozambique that to not go to church is to live a moral life on par with stray dogs. I came here with the expectations of learning about indigenous cosmologies and traditional beliefs and have been sorely disappointed. I have encountered many traditional beliefs about witchcraft and spell casting, but even these have generally been subsumed under the domain of “demons” and “spirits” that have their origins in the references to Satan and the bible. I have questioned many people, trying to get a glimpse of a traditional African cosmology, usually with the simple question of “How was the world created?”, and the results are always a recitation of the biblical story. The biblical influence must go so far back into the history of this culture that most people I’ve questioned have never even conceived of the idea of cosmologies that existed in Africa before the arrival of European influences. The world is as explained in the bible, and it was always that way. The people who admit to the existence of pre-colonial traditional beliefs usually rationalize these beliefs as ignorance before the true word of god and the bible arrived with the colonizers. It always interests me how the ultimate truth about man’s purpose and the origins of the universe seem to coincidentally go hand in hand with mass economic and social exploitation.

The conversation continued; “What do you mean you don’t know? You have to believe in some sort of religion!” the villagers said, as a crowd formed around us in the street. I replied “No actually I don’t, and I think that it is all this certainty in the world that is a major problem.” Paradoxically, I prepared my pulpit, climbed up and began to preach to the masses. “Do you want to know the truth?” I asked, being extremely dramatic. Eyes widened, “yes! Tell us the truth!” and so as theatrically and drawn out as possible I informed the people, “The truth is…. (Drumroll)….there is no truth! Nobody knows the truth or the origins or the purpose of the Universe! Not the pastor, nor the rabbi, not the scientist, nor the mullah; Nobody knows!”

The villagers stood dumbstruck, mouths agape, as if I had just told them that corn porridge was the worst thing in the world. An unsettled chatter rippled through group and I was surprised to see that I now had the villager’s attentions, so I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to expand some minds and I actually did physically climb up onto an overturned plastic crate where I then broke out into the following monologue:

“Dear citizens of Manjacaze, I am here to inform you that you have been lied to by the powers that be! In my opinion, strict adherence to religious dogma and the corresponding certainty of belief is an epistemologically dangerous position, and here is why: First of all, certainty is a completely indefensible position. There are always going to be counter perspectives, evidence and facts that contradict the certain position. Even the most fact oriented “certainties” of the sciences are consistently being contradicted and updated when new information becomes available. I don’t even need to specifically mention any of the dubious stories and sanctioned gossip of most religious scripture to show the indefensibility of those positions. Two thousand year old hear-say is not verifiable and therefore ultimately indefensible.

Certainty is a closed box; a pre-fabricated, pre-packaged cosmology that can be sold and spread easily amongst a population of willing certainty seekers. Certainty is a necessary and self-imposed limitation (although usually not consciously) on the human imagination. “You want to know why the world is like this?” Certainty asks, “Well just read this little passage in this book that was written by some divinely inspired men (always men by the way, never women) and you will find the answers to all your questions”. Certainty is hierarchical and reliant upon outside influence and experience to bring truth, purpose and meaning to the lives of the believer. Certainty demands obedience and does not tolerate even the most well intentioned questioning. Certainty does not deal well with new information; certainty tries to rationalize new information within the framework of its dogma and is a constant victim of the confirmation bias. Certainty is a simplistic and static framework for reality; and completely antithetical to subjective reality as a complex, evolving, unfolding experience. Certainty imposes itself upon the believer and spreads itself out of its own righteous indignation.”

A large woman at the front of the crowd began….”but in the bible it says that….” Already anticipating her robotic response, I immediately cut her off and asked her “why are you so certain that the stories in the bible are true?” She began “well, the stories in the bible are true because the bible says they are true”. I nodded in disappointment. “I am sorry dear woman, but in your certainty of the bibles truth you have committed a logical error. In an argument, self-reference does not prove validity. I am going to give you some homework to think about. I am going to say two statements to you. Are you ready?” She said yes. “This statement is true. The previous statement is false.” She stared at me. “So go home and think about this and tell me which statement is true.”

Regaining my balance on the soda crate I continued to pontificate: “A friend and mentor of mine once used the phrase “the wisdom of uncertainty” to describe his cosmology and I am going to shamelessly borrow it, because there really does exist wisdom in uncertainty. I have been accused by religious people of taking the “cop-out” position of agnosticism as a defensive position and of being afraid of commitment. However my position in uncertainty is based on the fact that I still haven’t found and cannot hope to find a pre-packaged cosmology that can properly explain and do justice to the felt experience of reality. Uncertainty is dynamic and evolves when new information is presented, and not just within a pre-existing framework but opens the possibility of radical change. Uncertainty does not impose, but instead reposes, waiting for the inevitable and patient unfolding of experience. Uncertainty is creative and open ended, spontaneous, curious and empirical. Uncertainty is in essence ego-less and the opposite of dogmatic.

It’s all fun and games to talk about the theory behind religious and moral certainty, but we don’t live in the world of theory and philosophy, we live and function in the world of practice. And as the history of man demonstrates, Certainty has had terrible consequences in the practical world. When talking about the most egregious acts against humanity, the holocausts, genocides, environmental disasters etc, I have heard people question, “how can people do those things to other human beings or to the Earth?” A full answer is not possible, as we will never know what was going on in the masterminds of these atrocities, however one common thread can be drawn; the people behind these acts were absolutely certain of their ideals being the one right way to live. Hitler was absolutely certain that the German culture was a superior people. The American colonizers were absolutely certain of their racial and “civilized” superiority to the Native American tribes and therefore could justify their extermination. The Christian man is certain that he is outside of the rules of ecology that govern the rest of the natural world, and that Man is superior and has dominion over other life forms. Man’s (specifically not Women’s) divinely appointed right is to rule and control the Earth and if the vengeful, wrathful and fickle patriarchic deity is appeased during his or her lifetime, heavenly paradise awaits him in the afterlife; therefore we see concentrated animal feedlot operations, the subjugation of women and minority groups and massive ecosystem destruction in the name of resource extraction. The Earth is essentially a dirty dish towel to be thrown away in anticipation of the real posthumous reward of certain belief in the dogma. This idea of the danger of certainty came to me after a discussion I recently had with a Christian missionary; after explaining how I derive purpose in life from my position of uncertainty, he said “If you think there is purpose and meaning in uncertainty, just imagine the things you could do if you had certainty!” And he was right! If I were absolutely certain in my cosmology I could go out and proselytize, homogenizing the world in the process, in order to save the uncertain people from their tragic ignorant fate, just like he was doing. In contrast, uncertainty is accepting of differences and diversity, because it admits and celebrates that at the end of the day, or at the end of a life, the Universe really is a mystery.”

A teenage boy in the crowd shouted out: “Well if the Universe really is a mystery and the truth is that nobody knows, why do so many people go to church and believe in god? Is it really possible that all those people could be wrong?”

“Thank you my young friend for bringing us to our next topic. So why are people so attracted to certainty? Because it conveniently gives meaning and purpose to people’s lives that in the absence of this certainty would be a gaping existential void. Certainty is easy when the dogma is handed down from the authorities. Uncertainty is difficult because it relies on the self. Uncertainty depends on a certain level of introspection and imagination in order to derive values, meaning and purpose in life. Certainty is packaged to appeal to and answer the most profound question that any self-reflecting human being can ask themself, which is “why am I here?” Certainty in contradictory and “faith” dependent religions is a fear-inspired reaction by people that need to have closure on this fundamental question. Faith is not something to be applauded and aspired to; quite simply it is the surrender of reason to certitude. Uncertainty does not provide this comfortable closure, but instead leaves the mystery intact and ever present, which to most people, is way too scary a position and so they mostly unconsciously choose certainty, and go about their business of ritual recitation and myth making. Where certainty depends on the immanence or know-ability of a cosmological truth, uncertainty is rooted in a transcendent quality of experience that lies outside the limits of human knowledge and comprehension.”

The crowd was clearly agitated as I had pulled the rug out from under their comfortable sense of purpose and certainty. I quickly realized that maybe my approach had been too harsh, I had ripped the Band-Aid off too quickly and the gaping void of existential despair was too much for the people to bear in their current cultural mindset. The people clearly needed to believe in something to give their lives purpose and fulfillment. Fearing of inciting either a riot or an all-day affair of binge drinking, I called attention to the agitated and humming crowd:

“So if I were to go about consciously designing the ideal cosmology and theory of reality what are some of the characteristics that I would want this framework to have? Most importantly I would throw out the idea of absolute truth. Would you stop and ask a termite about the ultimate purpose and truth of the Universe? No? Then why would you ask a talking ape? In my opinion, to think that human beings have any grasp on the profundity of the mystery of the Universe is preposterous. So really what we are seeking is a cosmology that is true-enough. True enough for the circumstances of being incarnated in flesh and living in complex social proximity to other incarnate beings (both plant and animal). Secondly, this cosmology would be commensurate with the subjective felt experience of reality by being adaptable to the influx of new information. I commend science for in principle its open-endedness and reliance on observation and method to discover new things about our world. Our cosmology must be able to adapt to new information in a constantly evolving world.

Thirdly, this cosmology must promote ideas that are in line with the ecological reality of the planet. This means that humans must see themselves embedded in and completely dependent upon a complex web of relationships between plants, animals, and the non-living materials of this planet. Humans are not superior to any other organisms and do not live outside the ecological rules that govern biological systems. Proper action in the world would naturally follow from this belief and humans would live within their means and with respect for the health of the planetary ecology.

The idea of how our cosmology would derive practical guidance for living a moral life is more complicated because it would ideally stem from personal responsibility and conscious awareness of action. Do as to others as you would want done unto yourself would be the governing morality and right action would follow from right belief. This cosmology would recognize the innate worth of each individual human being and life form and celebrate diversity rather than ostracize and judge people into strained conformity. If this cosmology is beginning to sound utopian and unrealistic, it is only those things to the extent of the lack of Human consciousness and imagination. The state of the world today and all of its problems are the physical manifestations of certain cultural, institutionalized and individual belief systems about what the world is and what Humanities purpose is. The world is what we collectively and individually decide that it is. If we collectively (or at least the unconscious majority) see the world as a limitless source of raw materials and human labor power to be exploited at the cost of ecological health and cultural sustainability then our world will look like it does today. Or if we collectively see the world as an earthen paradise to be protected and cared for with the purpose of life being to spread as much love and good will as possible, then this is what the world will become. If we want to see real change and actually realize a sane, livable and long-term sustainable global culture we must awaken as each individual mind to the wisdom of uncertainty.”

With a triumphant emphasis on the last word I leapt off the soda crate and stood eagerly waiting for the clouds to part and the muddy waters from last night’s rains to instantly turn to wine. Clearly after hearing my soap-box speech the villagers would fall over themselves in ecstatic enlightenment. It was not to be however as the villagers shrieked in laughter, shook their heads in pity and continued on their way to church, clutching their bibles and wearing their funny little hats. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and continue on my way, clutching my Kindle loaded with Heidegger, Husserl and Jean Paul Sartre; an incommensurable gulf of mutual incomprehensibility left gaping open in the street.

Photos: Food: Squash lentils, Green papaya coconut soup, best papaya ever and random shot with friend and Norwegian Heavy Metal band comes to Manjacaze!