Have you heard the news? Belief is bad.
Pick up an eggheady book review, an essay in Time magazine or listen to a thumb-suck session on National Public Radio for very long and you'll soon hear someone explain that real conviction - dogmatism! - is dangerous. Andrew Sullivan, in his new book "The Conservative Soul," declares a jihad on certainty, by which he means the certainty of fundamentalist "Christianists" - the allusion to Islamists is deliberate. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait proclaims that liberalism is the anti-dogmatic ideology. Sam Harris, a leading proselytizer for atheism, has declared a one-man crusade on religious certainty. Intellectual historian J.P. Diggins writes in the latest issue of The American Interest that there's a war afoot for "the soul of the American Republic" between the forces of skepticism and infallibility. And so on.
Much of this stems from the popularity of Bush hatred these days. Bush's alleged "messianic certainty" - to use Sen. Barack Obama's words - is dangerous and evil in the eyes of supposedly meek and nuanced liberals.
The rot, not surprisingly, has reached Hollywood. For example, in "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," George Lucas caved to the fashionable anti-absolutism that comes with Bush hatred by having a young Obi-Wan Kenobi proclaim, "Only a Sith lord deals in absolutes!" Translation: Only evil people see the world as black-and-white. This signaled that Lucas's descent into hackery was complete, since it was Lucas himself who originally explained that the entire universe is divided into light and dark sides.
Longtime New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis captured the thought nicely a few years ago when he said that a primary lesson of his entire career was that "certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft."
Whenever I hear people say such things, I like to ask them, "Are you sure about that?" When they say yes, which they always do, I follow up by asking, "No, no: Are you really, really certain that certainty is bad?" At some point even the irony-deficient get the joke.