Ask any former fundamentalist Christian what was the hardest thing about giving up the faith, and many of them are likely to tell you that at least part of it was the loss of certainty: a fundamentalist knows, not believes, but knows, beyond all possibility of doubt or error, what the Truth is. Those who have never been tempted by fundamentalism are often mystified by this aspect of it, for nowhere else in human experience is this degree of certainty thought possible or even necessary. For them, this way of thinking is probably so alien as to be unable to be taken seriously as an option. We can all be wrong, about anything. Everybody knows that.
But not everybody. Certainty is near to the heart of most if not all fundamentalisms, and it’s intuitive appeal is not hard to see. To know for sure what is true about the world and where it is headed, and moreover, where oneself is headed, to know for sure one’s purpose in life, and to know with perfect knowledge that one is loved and adored and will be protected in perfect bliss forever – all this needs no apologist to make it appealing.
For those of us who leave fundamentalism, learning to deal with doubt and uncertainty – which suddenly and in a most unwelcome way take up permanent residence in our psyches – can be wrenching indeed. It is a much harder way to live. Why is it harder? Well, for one, it is not exactly galvanizing to raise up ones fist with a crusader’s fervency and chant: “We’re Not Sure!” But there is an even better answer, I think. Certainty is, I suggest, at the center of the fundamentalist psyche because it serves to ward off the primal dread, helplessness – the gut sense of human limitation and vulnerability that is our biological heritage as physically weak and therefore interdependent social primates. This anxiety, basic to life, is both ordinary and terrifying. We are frail creatures, really. Each of us knows this. What better way to prop up our flagging courage than telling ourselves extraordinary stories of Specialness and Rescue? And what good are the stories if they are mere stories, or, just as bad, if they are merely probable? When one is alone in the dark, the prospect of probable rescue doesn’t steel the nerve much. Only certainty can do that.