To many, there is little that feels as fulfilling or righteous as a sense of certainty. To know beyond any shadow of a doubt that the “truths” or “answers” one possesses are above reproach and serve as the solution to often deep or complex questions can very often come to define a person, whether those answers are themselves correct or not. More often than not, many of those who hold the most devout or even militant certainties in mind as they navigate through life are the very same whose certainties are the most dubious.
Beyond a given ideology’s often limited total perspective, it is the certainty and absence of doubt themselves which should, to the perhaps impartial observer, stand out as the most glaring evidence of its questionable nature. This being due in part to the routine attempts to silence dissent whenever and however possible, offering up the first real peek at the cracks in the foundation upon which everything sits. Whether it be a matter of twisting words and dismissing arguments based on their source (ie; feminist/BLM/SJW claims that “white male” opinions are not worth listening to,) or more aggressive efforts, such as religious fundamentalists threatening any apostates, agnostics or atheists with death for simply thinking in terms of doubt, these attempts to insulate ways of thought from the threat of criticism demonstrates perfectly the desperate need for certainty that true believers of one form or another maintain.
This, I believe is largely what lies at the root of ideology and extremism. Though such is by no stretch of the imagination new to society, we do have for the purpose of this consideration, some rather ready examples on hand that can be said to be relevant to our modern day and age. Of them, perhaps the most evident and apparent example comes to us in the form of militant Islam.
In the realm of ideology and ideological certainty, little can really inspire and demand conformity better than religion. Beyond merely seeking to address societal or political matters, religion goes further in making the astounding claim to provide final answers to all questions, leaving those which wind up ill-defined as being simply part of the grand and mysterious will of their chosen god. Though an atheist myself, I confess to at least understanding the social utility of religion, even if I reject the mythologies themselves outright. However in this understanding, that being that religion once served as something of a placeholder for scientific inquiry and understanding in a time when great questions ranging from the purpose of life to what illuminated the night sky required quick and unfalsifiable answers, I see from my perspective, the roots of certainty which have led us to today.
Within the circles of Islamist and Jihadist militancy, everything from sectarian warfare within the Islamic world to the Jihadi terror attacks elsewhere, matters of historical geo-political grievance often seem to either take a back seat to, or are ignored entirely in favor of outright religiously motivated violence and atrocity. Even to consider the evolution of Islamic terror over the past fifteen years, we in the west can observe a shift from the days of Al Quaeda citing American and Russian actions in places such as Algeria, Chechnia and the Phillipines in addition to their religious motivations being used to justify their violence to our new era in which the Islamic State and their operatives and inspired attackers cite simply the presumed justness of their god’s will. Be it Paris, San Bernadino, Orlando, Brussels, Nice or simply any grounds captured or contested by ISIS throughout the middle east, less is said these days in respect to political or historical grievances than is preached simply as being the inviolable will of Allah.
What it could take to bring an otherwise ordinary individual from a place where they perhaps merely hold a devout belief in a god above to such a place where decapitating a stranger with a hunting knife, smiling the entire time with the assumption that god is on one’s side as they do such, is generally referred to as radicalizing. However to examine this a step deeper, in a direction perhaps that many in more public spheres may not be comfortable doing, I would go as far as to say that this “radicalizing” is in some respects simply an unavoidable next step in the chain that is orthodoxy, ideology and certainty. In this, while religion or ideology themselves do not automatically lead to universal radicalism, they do in turn lend themselves to such rather perfectly.
Whether rooted in part or even primarily in political grievances such as western military and intelligence interventions throughout the Islamic world, it ultimately works out that religion and “gods will” is most frequently the motivating factor that shines through. Should, or can it be surprising then that as the legitimacy of the underlying orthodoxy itself goes largely unchallenged, that the extremes to which its adherents go in support of such seem to become increasingly aggressive with each turn? Certainly it must at the very least seem apropos, given both the doctrinal commands to violence as well as ceaseless perpetuation of hostilities in general which seem to continue along unabated.
However to lay such radical, malevolent and violent acts and their motivations purely at the feet of religion falls well short of the point. To look now to the regressive left, who serve as Islamism’s primary apologists in the west, we see various levels and degrees of a similar outward spiraling radical certainty which increasingly becomes used as justification for all kinds of bad actions. Though the standard flagbearers for the various and overlapping identity politics movements (both left and right) can almost all in their own rights be observed to be culturing and acculturating grievances, dogma and rhetoric within and between them, it is perhaps the new developments within the Black Lives Matter movement which serve as the best and most relevant example of this.
Rooted in something of a complex web of legitimate historical injustice, modern day community plights, spurious academic theories regarding the nature of race and race relations and of course, a media that more than eager to sow seeds of deeper division through sensationalist reporting of police violence, the evolution of Black Lives Matter is one which, as of these recent few weeks has been found to have inspired, if not outright cultivated some truly heinous violence, done in the name of what was believed to be right.
Absent a deeper exploration of how such untampered and unmanaged popular rage does discussion about the underlying issues at hand a disservice (a piece for another time, I promise,) it is in this shift from unruly albeit peaceful demonstrations and marches to shootings, murder and violence that the crazed and sycophantic nature of ideological certainty becomes most apparent. Where it not for the collectively adopted notion within the movement that (in this case) white people as a race bear responsibility for the state of black America and this notion taking such deep root that doubt never entered the minds of shooters deeply enough to prevent them from attacking, it could be said that such a movement would be headed towards broader conversation instead of conflict. Yet if the history of ideology as a concept is any indication, it may be fair to say we are still only just beginning to see the violence which will occur.
This does of course pale in comparison to the sorts of racial strife and violence the United States has seen in the past. From the hangings, murders and fire bombings which led straight up into the 20th century under what was in fact widespread and systemic white supremacy, up through the reactionary militancy of groups such as the Black Panthers, The New Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam, acts of violence against individuals done in the name of collective good are standard, especially with such deep rooted identitarian ideologies being at their cores. While this could in theory be but a matter of this newest wave of violence and ideological mania being still in its infancy, within each successive cycle, the same patterns of unquestioning and undoubting certainty permeate each movement as they slide towards violence.
However thus far we’ve only taken the time to examine two respective areas from which collective violence in the name of righteous certainty have stemmed and to be sure, many times many more exist. Of them, perhaps the most obvious and inevitable is that of nationalistic ideals. A favorite go-to example for the faithful when engaged with an atheist in debate, the models set out by Nazi Germany, the USSR and Maoist China, not to mention North Korea all leap out to many a theist as an example of godless violence and madness, as they rightly should to anyone.
But be they the brown shirts or concentration camp executioners of the Nazi regime, the political purges carried out in order to advance the cause of a Soviet workers paradise, or the wholesale butchery of entire towns, cities and villages of people at the hands of Maoists and more modernly, the Kim dynasty of North Korea, the absence of critical reasoning is as present as it is in the previous examples given. To take a page from the late Christopher Hitchens, the fanaticism and butchery carried out by the soldiers, officers and devotees of what can often be regarded as cults of state reflect themselves less a rejection of dogmatism and the other tenants of faith often criticized by atheists, as much as a swapping of a heavenly deity for one made of flesh and bone here on Earth. In lieu of worship for a god or prophets, people instead lined up to pledge themselves unquestioningly to a dear leader and cadre of political elites.
In this too however we find blind devotion and unquestioning certainty being largely the motivation to collective violence. Whether one’s cause be that of god, god’s chosen spokesman, one’s racial or ethnic identity, one’s clan, tribe, party or nation, such dedicated absolutism to rejecting a critical self-inquiry in respect to beliefs and crusades, while not itself outright creating violence, most certainly fuels it. Perhaps this is yet another reason then, to stack upon an already towering pile of reasons that this age, as all others which came before, desperately needs skepticism, both in concept as well as practice.