Dialogue on religion and truth

A: It never crossed my mind that we could have so much in common and still disagree about this. Can we talk this through from the beginning? I’m spiritual, but not religious, and…

B: I’m religious but not spiritual.

A: Right. How is this even possible?

B: What’s so strange about it? I love going to services, being with fellow seekers, having a common belief, taking time to collect oneself and connect oneself… I look forward to it all week.

A: Yeah… but you’re an atheist, right?

B: I suppose so, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything. That’s a philosophical or scientific dispute. To be honest, I don’t see how anyone could ever do anything with that sort of question except argue about it.

A: So you’re an agnostic then?

B: Again, why is my belief only of value to you as something that needs to be put in the right file or bin? You are treating beliefs like some anal retentive office drone, who cares nothing about what he’s filing as long as it has the right number. You’d treat Shakespeare and Romance novels as just so much paperwork that needs to be filled out.  

A: That’s not right. I’m legitimately confused about how you can do what you are doing. How can you talk about “having a common belief” with many people if you think that belief is false? When you “go to services” you are going to a service for God.   Let me put it this way – you understand why some people would call you a hypocrite, right?

B: I suppose, but I think they all want religion to be something it isn’t. How many Dionysians do you suppose really believed in Dionysius? Do you think a priest in the temple of Isis would have thought that some wild Scythian should believe in Isis for the good of his soul? Picture this: Aristotle dancing around altars and sacrificing to all sorts of goddesses popping out of the head of gods, and then, later the next afternoon, he finishes his proof that God could only be pure actuality without a body and never generated. Are you saying Aristotle was irrational?

Religion is one thing, truth is another. We all think this. When something is true, there’s one version of it for all humanity, and everyone can see that it’s good for there to be one version for all humanity. If a Buddhist wants to shoot a rocket to the moon, we teach him Newtonian mechanics, and what’s more important, the Buddhist wants to learn Newtonian mechanics and knows that he should learn it. If he wants to have a spiritual or religious experience, we think it better to let him keep being a buddhist, and more importantly, he wants to remain what he is. Religion is about live and let live – it’s just a different sort of thing than truth. Truth is fine where it belongs – but it’s pure nonsense to try to force it where it doesn’t belong.

A: But how can one ever get away from truth? Consider what truth means when you speak about “dying for the truth”. Isn’t this something a person should always be willing to do, and isn’t it the sort of truth that we must have with respect to the question of whether God exists? If you don’t believe God exists, you shouldn’t be a part of a group that confesses that God exists. We can tolerate all sorts of things, but we can’t call someone good who doesn’t live in accordance with what she believes. Who cares about truth as “what is universal”. The more important sense of truth is living in accord with what you believe. So yes, if Aristotle sacrificed to Athena and then went off and proved there was no Athena, then he was a hypocrite. We might tolerate his hypocrisy, or even understand it, or even “live and let live” – but it’s still hypocrisy.

B: Listen to you! You’re a Christian, for goodness sake. Not a Christian like some of my friends, but like Torquemada! It’s Christianity that invented this crazy idea that religion was the sort of thing one has to die for. You know what pagans would do if his village was conquered by another one? They’d accept the gods of the conquerors, no questions asked! Gods are just part of the social structure – they’re bound up with the society in which someone lives, with its rulers and customs. This is why, whenever I travel, I try out the various churches in the area I’m in. In fact, I try various services here in town.

But let me get back to my main point.  Do you know what happens when you start insisting that “the god question” (as you call it) is something that needs to be “true” or “worth dying for”? It becomes worth killing for too. Is that what you want? Because that’s what it is. All your high-sounding “dedication to truth” is just another sword at the throat of the powerless. It’s really just dedication to my truth. Believe in my gods, (or don’t believe in any of them) or else! It wouldn’t change anything about an Inquisitor to make him torture for atheism – which is exactly what your idea of truth calls for.  

Look, I know you’re not “an Atheist” (as you would put it). You’re “spiritual”, and you have an idea of truth that convinces you that you should not be a part of a religion. All I’m saying is that, if you were really consistent with your application of this idea of “truth” that you are using to call me a “hypocrite”, then you are appealing to the same standard as an Inquisitor or a Communist. The whole problem with these guys is that they though “the God question” was a matter of truth. At the very least, you’re committed to this idea of “one religion for everybody”, even if you have prudential reasons for not insisting on it. Face it, you think that a Buddhist or a worshipper of Isis would be better off if they were “spiritual, but not religious”, just like you.

A: I don’t think that at all! I think Buddhists should die for their beliefs, Christians should die for theirs, etc.

B: And what about guys like me, who deny any connection between religion and truth, even why we still see the value of both?

A: I suppose you should die for that too.

B: But what do you have then? Anyone should die for anything? How is this any more noble than saying that no one should die for anything?   That’s the problem, you can’t separate this idea you have of truth as personal commitment from the idea of truth as objectively true. This ties you to the idea that there is some sort of objective truth about religion.

A: But you think that too! You make all sorts of objective truth claims about religion!

B: Maybe, if you want to put it that way. But again, I don’t take any of these claims too seriously. You’re the one who wants to categorize everything and put it into truth boxes. I don’t see much value in all these labels and theories. Labels and theories have their place, and their indispensible in that place, but you have to know when to use them and when not to.

 

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16 Comments

  1. reyjacobs said,

    July 28, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Religion serves a certain social function, or used to. There was a time when religion was about essentially providing you a spouse with like view on morality. Everyone who believed this one thing about morality grouped together over here in this building, and you chose a wife from among the women there. Anyone who disagreed with or violated the morality of the group was tossed out. Then along came this guy named Paul who made religion all about belief in metaphysical notions that are supposedly facts. It changed religion. For as long as it could (up until 380 AD) religion kept to its original purpose. But with Augustine insisting that we must accept the Pauline conception, religion became a battleground between those who saw it the old way and those who saw it the new way. The matter was finally settled by something called the Protestant Reformation, and a little more by the Industrial Revolution. Now, religion is not about morality, and you can’t assume that because someone goes to church with you their morality is the same. As a result, religious houses of worship no longer are any good at fulfilling the old social function of being the place where you will find your spouse. Instead, you find your spouse in school, or at a bar, or through a dating service. Because religion has failed. Religion has failed because we let a guy named Paul change the very nature of religion.

  2. reyjacobs said,

    July 28, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Among other things, religion used to be about living rather than dying. It used to be about what makes life good. Religion would sanctify what makes life good and condemn what makes it overly complicated and hard. Why is adultery condemned, for instance? Because one wouldn’t die for it? Many have died for it! No, adultery is condemned because it introduces unnecessary complication to life. It makes our relationships too complicated. Now instead of a kid having two parents, it has how many? The father who raises it, its biological mother, and the biological father. This is the sort of thing that is causing the Californians to produce legislation enabling judges to assign custody of a child to more than two parents! Why is homosexuality condemned? Because nobody would die for it? Many are dying for it with AIDS as we speak. It is condemned because of the confusion it creates. Again, say that we have a woman who is married to a man, commits adultery with another man, and has a lesbian lover. Now the child has four parents: the biological father, the father that lives with its mother and is raising it, and the mother’s live-in-lesbo-lover. So complicated. The kid is really going to be screwed up. Religion is about weeding out that complication and putting a fence around the sacred (i.e. the convenient) and keeping out the unholy (that which leads to complication and thereby to unhappiness and hardship). Hence arises that saying “Even if there was no God the (insert name of religion here) life would be the best life!”

  3. reyjacobs said,

    July 28, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    But now, now religion enthrones the absurd and complicated, the immoral, the inconvenient, that which spreads both mental and physical disease, into the heavens itself! And then it call this “truth.”

  4. CW said,

    July 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    This dialogue is masterful. Thank you for it. I believe its gets to the heart of much of American discourse about “religion” in the abstract. It seems to me that most people debating these issues today are not cognizant of how their language has a shelf life. In other words, there is a distinct historical progression of philosophical and cultural alterations that has eventuated in the mindsets exemplified in this dialogue. This is not meant to sound polemical, but much of the catalyst for the change was the Reformation. In a weird way, the offshoot has been to argue about these things in a cultural vacuum, presupposing that culture does not inflect the terms of the discussion. I’ve often thought that perhaps there should be an ontological argument for the existence of an infallible body (e.g. the Magisterium) that can adjudicate matters without leaving them to the personalist paradigms of modern religious debate. Charles Taylor pointed out long ago that modernity is characterize by two seemingly incongruous sentiments: on the one hand, the desire in the sciences and in philosophy to have a “significance-free” explanation of all reality that is totalized and comprehensive (being uncomfortable with nebulous notions of mystical uncertainty), and on the other hand the highly individualistic motive in popular culture to have idiosyncratic meaning systems for each person. Thus, whereas the intellectual sphere seeks to “master the real by force” (to use Nietzsche’s formulation) through mechanized description and control, the popular sphere abides through a complex system of “what is significant/true for me” feedback loops. Taylor notes that this creates the tension but also the unique “balance” of modern culture: rampant romanticized individualism held over against a vacuous reality of empty existence free of any “higher signification.” Heidegger understood this, but he could not, as many Thomists do, believe that a fully developed metaphysics of Being could dissolve this tension, and forever forbear the mastery of the real by force by inscribing the transcendence of Being within a unified conception of creation.

    • reyjacobs said,

      July 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      <i."I’ve often thought that perhaps there should be an ontological argument for the existence of an infallible body (e.g. the Magisterium) that can adjudicate matters without leaving them to the personalist paradigms of modern religious debate."

      If there’s one thing the above dialogue shows its that no such thing can ever exist. Religion is, as you say, culture based, and when it forgets that and thinks that its the one true religion that must be believed by everyone everywhere for all time or they’ll burn in hell eternally, then it ceases to help anyone in living their lives and becomes an oppressive force that cripples and depresses them. It then ceases to fulfill its duty to culture (i.e. as the moral light of the culture) and places its emphasis entirely in dogmas (i.e. mythology) and ritual. This is the very reason why Christianity is struggling to survive. So much emphasis on the proper dogmas and ritual you need to avoid eternal hell crowds out the wisdom aspect of religion, the aspect about how to live a happy and good life pleasing to the Deity, beneficial to others, and enjoyable to yourself. Those latter are the real essence of religion. Dogma and ritual to avoid eternal punishment is not religion but a brand of religious politics.

      “Heidegger understood this, but he could not, as many Thomists do, believe that a fully developed metaphysics of Being could dissolve this tension, and forever forbear the mastery of the real by force by inscribing the transcendence of Being within a unified conception of creation.”

      A fully developed metaphysics of Being could dissolve this tension? Ok. Here you go: We Be. Therefore we need to know how to Be. We Live. So we need to know how to Live. Not to squander our lives in fear of an afterlife that is speculative, but how to live in the now. We Be in the Now. Whether we will Be in the Then we can only speculate. Therefore the Wisdom aspect of religion should predominate. A book like Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) should take precedence over something like Romans. We need to know how to live good lives not how to be justified according to a made up and mythological scheme of justification by faith.

  5. CW said,

    July 29, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    With all due respect, I think an appeal to the “wisdom” aspect of religion is rather vacuous. Whose wisdom? Which morality? Your description of “the aspect about how to live a happy and good life pleasing to the Deity, beneficial to others, and enjoyable to yourself” only implicates you in the personalist paradigm of culture I mentioned. Christianity has never distilled its essence to that vapid itemization of general religious principles. Your reply to the point of metaphysics similarly misses the point and is far too simplistic to have any interpretative traction on theological inquiry. The Church’s stance on hell is more complex than this. We cannot just say “We Be.” The We and the Be are far too polysemous to have any meaning without theological, philosophical, and dogmatic propositions. You cannot simply dismiss dogmatic traditions or strains of philosophical thought (e.g. Heidegger) without doing the historiographical legwork of retracing the steps.

    • reyjacobs said,

      July 29, 2012 at 2:47 pm

      “Christianity has never distilled its essence to that vapid itemization of general religious principles.”

      Christianity resists morality and deifies mythology. But Judaism certainly did concern itself with “how to live a happy and good life pleasing to the Deity, beneficial to others, and enjoyable to yourself” and we find this wisdom distilled in Proverbs and Ecclesisticus. That Christianity cares little for this material is obvious, which is why ultimately the Protestants threw Ecclesisticus (Sirach) out of the canon, and the Catholics although keeping it in the canon obviously pay it little to no attention. Amazingly, the Jews ultimately threw it out too, preferring dead ritual to morality. In the end only the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox retain the book, yet they reject its meaning.

      “You cannot simply dismiss dogmatic traditions or strains of philosophical thought (e.g. Heidegger) without doing the historiographical legwork of retracing the steps.”

      Maybe you can’t, but I can.

      • CW said,

        July 29, 2012 at 3:06 pm

        So, the ostrich with its head in the sand…

      • reyjacobs said,

        July 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm

        I suppose you are that. BTW, where did you pick up phrases like “far too polysemous” and “interpretative traction”? Did you have to go to a special school for that?

      • CW said,

        July 29, 2012 at 7:37 pm

        That does not constitute a legitimate response. I am actually articulating ideas (I apologize if they’re too complex for you to follow). You, however, by appealing to a largely generalized conception of mythology, are the one who is presenting ready-made notions that are simplistic précis of older, outmoded truisms of people like C.S. Lewis.

      • reyjacobs said,

        July 29, 2012 at 8:00 pm

        So, you’re saying you don’t know what mythology means? Above when I say that Christianity deifies mythology, I am referring primarily to metaphysical mythology, namely the doctrine of the Trinity. But I’m also refering other dogmatic mythology, like the virgin birth. These things have no practical value to everyday life. Whether I hold a Trinitarian or unitarian view of God will not change my behavior morally one way or another, nor will whether I believe in the virgin birth myth or an adoptionist type dogma. Morality is independent or mythology because it is universal whereas mythology is cultural. Many different myths can be concocted to explain why murder is wrong; yet no matter what myth you choose murder is always wrong.

      • July 30, 2012 at 9:58 am

        These things have no practical value to everyday life. Whether I hold a Trinitarian or unitarian view of God will not change my behavior morally one way or another, nor will whether I believe in the virgin birth myth or an adoptionist type dogma.

        Kant said something like this too, but it’s really just a slogan. True, a good many moral or political arguments don’t make explicit appeal to articles of, say, the Athanasian creed, but to think that this sort of reasoning is generally true would commit us to saying that there aren’t even statistically significant polling differences on moral or political questions between fervent Evangelicals and Catholics in good standing as opposed to committed Unitarian Universalists and Liberal Jews. I know a good number of persons whose moral choices are completely determined by their being Catholic or Protestant, which can hardly be separated from their belief on questions like the Virgin birth or the Trinity. After all, if Joe denies the Virgin Birth or the Trinity, Joe denies some or all versions of Christianity, and this will make a difference in the sort of life he will live on a day to day basis. At the bare minimum, it changes (or affects) what he does on Sunday, on Christmas, during Lent, on Easter, on the feast of the Assumption, on Corpus Christi, etc. and it changes them in light of theological belief and argument- what a Christian does on Sunday is a consequence of his beliefs about the ressurection of the Incarnate son of God. And for the Christian, these are certainly moral acts – the Catholic holds that it is immoral to miss mass on Sunday, for example.

        If your argument is something like “all Christians claim their morality is rational, so why not keep the rational part and throw out the Christianity?” then we have more to talk about. Still, this is not the same thing as denying that a believing creed makes a real moral difference. But even this argument has pretty serious problems.

      • CW said,

        July 30, 2012 at 11:21 am

        I echo what Dr. Chastek said. Also, an appeal to a “deified mythology” overlooks the history of Christianity in general and the first three centuries in particular. Christianity counteracted mythology by hinging on a discrete historical particularity that could not be dissolved into mythographic paradigms. Scholastic theology understood this.

  6. Jy said,

    July 29, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    “Then along came this guy named Paul who made religion all about belief in metaphysical notions that are supposedly facts…”

    But of course whether or not they are facts is the point. Since you reject them as facts and see them as so many myths, your view is understandable. But some of us really do see religion as being about all of truth, not just morality. Whether or not God is three persons in one and whether I can share in the life of the Trinity is not some absurd issue with no practical consequences…it reveals truth about the nature of love and knowledge. If it really is true that this life can be shared in, or possibly lost, would it be wrong to for religion to make that known…even if the knowledge of the possiblity of loosing it were to make people depressed…wouldn’t it be really really important?

    And it doesn’t follow that if you take the mythologies seriously then you must tell everyone who doesn’t believe your version that they are going to burn…in fact the Church is quite specifically against this…

  7. Jy said,

    July 29, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    At least it is against the passing of judgment….they might burn, as it were, but not for me to decide…

  8. Jy said,

    July 29, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    See the Catechism of the Catholic Church 839-848


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