One thing motivating my desire to transform American political discourse is what political philosopher John Rawls called the “fact of reasonable pluralism”. In regular terms, this just means that free people, left to explore ideas and think for themselves, will endorse different world views. A doctrine may dominate an area for a while, but over time people will naturally drift towards different religious beliefs, have different takes on moral problems, develop different outlooks on the ultimate meaning of life, etc.
Wrapped up in our own world views as convicted Christians, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, Mormons, atheists, Hindus, Buddhists and the like, sometimes we forget that the next guy is just as convinced that he’s right as we are. Confident in our monopoly on capital-T Truth, and sheltered by like-minded friends and family, we scorn, look down on, pity, scoff at, and generally think less of those who don’t think like us.
It’s worth reminding everyone that very, very little is certain. As far as I can tell, the only thing anyone can be absolutely certain of is that activity occurs. That’s it. There’s no reliable way to know for sure that we’re not prisoners of the Matrix. And not even Descartes’ famous philosophical quip, “I think, therfore I am” survives extreme skepticism, since what I experience as the thought of a distinct individual could very well be the confused dream of many (or at least not the thought of “I”). What I can’t question, however, is that something happens—there’s no doubt that something’s going on—therefore we can all be certain that activity occurs. Not much to hang your hat on, I know!
But we don’t have to be radical skeptics or solipsists (people who question whether anyone exists but themselves—maybe I’m asleep and everyone is just a character in my ginormous dream) to admit that our world views are far from certain. We want to believe our faiths rest on the solid rock, but in the end, they’re called “faiths” for a reason. And don’t you secular reasoners feel all high and mighty either. In virtually every area of philosophy, earnest, intelligent people put forth equally compelling but incompatible answers to life’s big questions. We could conclude that everyone is wrong but us, but I think it’s more likely that the limits of human knowledge simply prevent us from knowing much of anything for sure, at least when it comes to the really important questions about where we’re from, where we’re going, and what we should be doing while we’re here.
Some say humility is a mark of intellectual maturity. Maybe so, but at any rate, I think it’s a virtue of a good democratic citizen. Until we can admit to ourselves that our world views might be wrong, we can’t take seriously the views, desires and interests of nonbelievers.
So take a moment to entertain a little doubt—it’ll be good for you. Really, it’s got to be intellectually healthier than continuing to kid yourself into a false sense of certainty. And there’s nothing to be afraid of—there’s no need to go all the way and completely denounce your most cherished beliefs, those that comfort you when you think about death or when your loved ones are ill. Just recognize that the beliefs we have faith in are by definition a little uncertain.
And keep that in mind the next time someone of a different faith or world view has something to say in the public forum (or anywhere, really). The fact of reasonable pluralism is a fact for a reason. If we can muster the courage to admit it, and if we can remember to be humble, we’re bound to be a little healthier upstairs, and a little better as a nation.