Close but no paddlefish
Derbyshire at NRO is discussing
the essential difference between believers and non-believers. ... He wants certitude; and anything that is not a hundred percent certain seems wrong to him. Scientific truths, which are always relative and provisional, leave a bad taste in this guy’s mouth.
In a lot of other people’s, too. There are people who yearn for certitude, and who believe they have found it in sacred books. To people with this cast of mind, the relativism of science is abhorrent. Contrariwise, there are others to whom the questing, testing, curious, provisional approach of scientific inquiry, is very fascinating and exciting. To this company, the certitude of believers is disturbing and presumptuous.
I think Derb is carving this turkey from the wrong angle. Nobody really likes looseness. The real difference is not between certitude and provisionality, but between two locations or styles of certitude. Some people are "formulaic", and need certainty in the form of verbatim agreement or orthodoxy. Others are experiential, and need certainty in the form of a predictable relationship or connection between actions.
I first noticed this when I was teaching electronics. I'm strongly experiential; I learn by making a mess or by observing how things happen, and not by hearing stories or lectures. I can't remember a story or joke to save my life. So my teaching was strongly experiential: try this circuit, see how this works, now can we turn this into math? Some of my students were "formulaic". They wanted the math first, so they could remember the formula and plug it into their calculators. I eventually gave in to their needs, but I didn't like it much.
Neither side is relativistic or tentative; neither side is comfortable with leaving things unsolved or undecided. But each side sees the other as sloppy or imprecise. The experiencer asks: How can you just memorize the formula without feeling
the underlying mechanism? The formulizer asks: How can you try to remember a series of things that just sort of happen?
Most people who reach the heights of science are experiential, so it's understandable that they see the more orthodox religionists as shallow and rigid. What Derb and Hitch miss is that religion includes both styles of thinking. There are plenty of Christians who focus solely on memorizing scripture and plugging the exact formulas into the liturgical "calculator", and there are plenty of Christians who focus on learning - as directly and experimentally as possible - how God works. Rome has specific slots for both types: priests are expected to be accurate liturgical keypunchers, but highest honor goes to saints who experience or work in the spirit.