How certain do we have to be?

All of us say that we believe that certain things are true. But probably none of us always acts in ways that are fully consistent with the beliefs that we claim to hold. Sometimes this may not matter too much as some beliefs may not relate to matters of any great consequence. Other times though such inconsistency may have very serious implications.

There are a number of factors that influence the likelihood of whether we choose to live consistently with our beliefs or not. These factors include: how important the consequences are that may be derived from a belief; what the costs are to our self for remaining true to a belief*; and, how certain we are that the belief we hold is actually true.

For example, a person may say they believe that they have received a warning message from an alien spacecraft which is located on the far side of the moon. Before going public with such a claim, a prudent person would weigh up the following: how important the alleged alien message is; what cost there might be to their reputation, etc, for stating they believed this was true; and in particular, how certain they are that the message was really from aliens and not just a product of a bad dream.

That latter factor – the relationship between the certainty of our beliefs and our associated behaviour – will be the focus of this article.

It is probably reasonable to say that the more certain a person is that a belief which they profess to hold is definitely true, the more likely it is that that person will act in ways that are in accord with that belief. This is especially so if the belief relates to something that is regarded as being of vital importance.

Pro-lifers adamantly state that they believe that every abortion takes the life of a child, and that that is something which is terribly wrong. Yet, do we really believe this to be true?

An objective, dispassionate assessment, based on our actual behaviour, would, I believe, suggest otherwise. This is not to say that we do not believe at all what we profess to believe about abortion. Rather, it seems to me that deep down there can be a struggle along the lines of, “Oh yes, I definitely believe that abortion takes the life of a child and that is terribly wrong, … I think.”

I believe that for most (all?) of us there is an element of doubt or uncertainty in what we believe, at least at times, that contributes significantly to the lack of consistency between our professed beliefs and our actions. That there may be some uncertainty should not be too surprising though.

After all, ranged against us are the strident pro-abortionists loudly proclaiming that we are outright wrong. But probably far more challenging for us is that the large bulk of the population, through its virtual silence and apparent indifference, is sending us the message that they think that abortion is no big deal.

On the one hand we are saying that the greatest destruction of innocent human life in history is going on openly around us, while on the other hand our society is effectively giving a collective shrug of the shoulders and saying, “So what?” And what makes it particularly difficult for us is that a large proportion of the Christian community seems to be just as indifferent as the wider community.

But it is not only the external pressures which we face that we may have struggles with. In quiet moments it can sometimes be hard to feel absolutely certain that a shapeless zygote the size of a full stop, or even the oddly shaped and still tiny entity a few weeks older, are really as fully human and as worthy of respect
and protection as is the more-developed human life.

Those who are Christians can find themselves thinking how much easier it would be if the Bible explicitly stated that life before birth is absolutely valuable and that therefore abortion is completely unacceptable.

No, it is not hard to understand that those who profess to be pro-life may yet have battles with doubt and uncertainty and that that in turn may inhibit them from engaging in action that could be considered consistent with such a professed belief.

The really important question then is, how certain do we need to be?

100% objective certainty about things would always be nice to have, but the reality of life is such that it is often not attainable. There are at least three aspects of the abortion issue about which it is possible to experience uncertainty. Is the entity that is present in the womb fully human throughout pregnancy? Is the entity in the womb equal in value and significance to human life outside the womb? Is it right to intervene directly to try and protect the entity in the womb?

There has been a great deal written over the years which provides a solid scientific answer in the affirmative to the first question. This is available in books (eg Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments, and Embryo: A defense of human life) and on the internet (eg http://www.sfuhl.org/, and http://www.justthefacts.org/clar.asp) and will not be repeated here. Yet some claim they are unconvinced by such biological evidence. This however does not mean that we are left with a simple stand-off.

There are very good grounds, even if disputed by some, for believing that a new, unique human life is generated at fertilisation. Given that we are discussing the most fundamental of issues, that of human life, prudence would demand then that any benefit of the doubt must be given in favour of giving recognition that a pregnant woman carries a living human being throughout the duration of her pregnancy. While universal acceptance of this is probably not achievable, neither is it necessary.

The second question is more challenging as questions of value are not scientifically answerable. Christians look to the Bible for answers. There it is stated that all human beings are, uniquely amongst created beings, made in the image of God. More astonishing still it is also recounted that God in the person of Jesus became a human being and was carried and developed in the womb of his mother in just the same way as are all other human beings. Such revelations, along with the death and resurrection of Jesus, are taken by (most) Christians as providing very strong affirmations of the inestimable worth of human life both before and after birth.

As noted, not even all who profess to be Christian conclude that preborn human life is of absolute value and certainly that is true of significant numbers of non-Christians. For those Christians however who, after careful examination of the Scriptures, do determine that God values all human life at every stage of development, that should be sufficient, regardless of the doubts of others.

While most pro-lifers usually have little doubt about the full humanity and value of the preborn child, many may be less certain about the rightness and necessity to directly intervene to try and protect them from death by abortion. However if we have a high level of confidence that a pregnant woman is carrying a living human being, and one that is of the same value as any born human being, it is surely reasonable to be confident that acting to try and save that child’s life from imminent death is valid.

Nevertheless, some uncertainty is likely to remain. This probably just has to be lived with to some extent and should not be allowed to freeze us into inaction.

At the very least, should there be areas where we genuinely have serious uncertainty we ought to be conscientiously working through these problem areas until we have established clearly for ourselves what it is we do believe. This is too important a matter to try and brush aside by saying, I don’t know what I think.