Moral certainty in religious and secular culture

By devin, 26 March, 2019

I have to start this post with some self-reflection. It's easy to believe that only stupid people get swept up in cults. I heard a few years ago, however, that in fact intelligent people are in fact more likely to join a cult (article, reference).

As a practising Christian, I've therefore spent a lot of time considering whether I'm just another naive cult member.

Something I've noticed about myself is that I'm very committed to ideas and principles, sometimes at the expense of my relationships. I love programming, which is full of counterintuitive wisdom (examples here). It's easy for me to get into a debate without even realizing I'm debating. I think I"m communicating some incontrovertible law of the universe, and I have to take a step back and realize that these principles are not as obvious to everyone else.

For example, at my previous job I zealously enforced a coding style guide using rubocop. One of its rules was "prefer early returns from a function", and it gave reasons why this was the superior choice. When I arrived at my new job, I assumed that early returns were preferable to the alternatives. I got in multiple debates before finding out that in fact our new style guide had a rule of "avoid early returns". After digging into the research, I found that there was only limited evidence to support the value of early returns and that it was in fact preference.

Out of this experience and others, I came to realize that by my nature I was loyal to principles and ideas over people. That's helped me understand my personality and the mistakes I make that much better.

But more interesting, of course, is that others like me must feel the same. I'm a logical, nerdy type, and I know that I meet people all the time (some not even apparently nerdy) who share this approach to the world.


I began to notice a related phenomenon while living in Seattle for the past few years. I see three relevant groups of people to my argument:

  1. Morally certain secular folks, mostly progressive. I'm talking about the 10% of people I refer to in this post.
  2. Morally certain Christians (in the minority in Seattle, though definitely prevalent).
  3. Morally flexible Christians

I hope I fall firmly in category #3. I am firmly committed to the morals that come from God and the Bible (and many progressive values, if I'm honest), but I recognize the fallibility of human knowledge and try to remain as intellectually humble as possible (at least when I think to do so!).

I can't stand moral certainty. I've talked with many people in my life who are similarly sick of morally certain Christians, many of them from Catholic schools in Ontario. Part of the problem seems to be people trying to control other people, but part of it is just the smugness that comes with certainty.

What I've noticed these days is that progressives on the Internet are acting just as bad, hence my inclusion of category #1 in the list above. For a striking example, watch this documentary about Evergreen State College's day of absence. I find it interesting that the trend is moving this way. I'm not sure if Seattle is truly representative of the direction of our culture, but if it is, it could end up that Christians become the morally flexible ones and secular atheists become the morally certain authoritarians.  This is a wild idea to me and I'm not totally sure how I feel about it yet.

This hasn't happened yet though. For now I'm trying to work on both groups to communicate that not everything is so certain as they hope, and we'll see what happens in the future.

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