Thursday, December 22, 2005

Do Religion and Truth Mix?

There are many religions and belief systems out there competing for followers. Many claim to be uniquely true and that other beliefs are mistaken. Obviously they cannot all be true, and for those that claim to be uniquely true, at most one can be true. Many very smart people are ardent followers of these conflicting belief systems, and if at most one is true, then a very large number of people are deluded in their beliefs. Hence I conclude that knowing the truth must be difficult and require careful searching.

Now if I am to choose a belief system, I want it to be true. However there isn’t an objective way to prove the truth of any of the systems. Hence at the least I will demand that my belief system value the truth, recognize the difficulty in finding it, and encourage its followers to be honest truth-seekers. Without these characteristics, I would have very little confidence that the belief system is true.

With this goal in mind, I will examine Christianity, and in particular evangelical Protestantism, as that is the system I am most familiar with. Many other religions share similar characteristics, and in a future post it would be interesting to compare them with this consideration in mind. The following are the characteristics relevant to knowing the truth that I’ve identified:
  1. The chief source of knowledge of the Christianity is revelation through individuals by God. This is how the main tenets of belief are acquired including how the bible was created. Unfortunately, there is no way for others who weren’t the direct receivers to test whether or not the message was directly from God. Actually even the individuals who got the original revelation cannot know for sure that it was from God (perhaps the voice they heard had some other source). Various tests like consistency with other revelation, miracles, prophecy, good works etc. all fail to confirm the divine origin (as all these could have other explanations). Ultimately one must simply accept the claim by the prophets, writers or canonizers to their divine authority. This secret method of obtaining truth without an independent observer concerns me.
  2. Empirical testing of the chief claims of Christianity is not possible. These claims include the characteristics of God, a future judgment, reward in heaven or punishment in hell, and so forth. Empirical validation is crucial in many fields as it gives an objective evaluation of the claims, but there is no such objective means for testing truth in Christianity. This is another reason for concern.
  3. Signs and miracles have been used, and continue to be used, as validation of the teachings. Unfortunately, as I argued in a previous post, at most these demonstrate power, not the truth of views expressed by the miracle workers. It is disturbing to me that these are assumed in the bible and by others as proof of the correctness of the messages. This I think makes its truth questionable.
  4. There is no way to disprove the faith or its claims. At first, this seems to be a strength, but in science if one proposes a theory that cannot be disproved, then it is considered an empty theory that gives no useful information. While Christianity makes many statements about the world, they are all sufficiently vague so not to be testable or about entities or events that cannot be accessed. Let me ask: what statement could one test that if false would disprove Christianity. This inherent vagueness and multiplicity of meaning of statements is makes me wonder about the truthfulness of Christianity.
  5. A host of doctrines is assumed as priors that cannot be questioned. These doctrines can be quite elaborate and must be accepted without any test. They include doctrines on God’s existence, his character and how he relates to people. Some doctrines are questioned by use of the bible, but this relies on other doctrines of the scripture and its interpretation. I think honest truth-seeking would start with minimal assumptions, and rest all these claims about God and the bible on gathered evidence. Hence rather than doctrines one would have observations and deductions – and these could surely be analyzed and improved as knowledge grows. Christians typically strongly object to proposals like this which might “water down” the message. However, if truth is important, rather than certainty, then making observations and deductions will get one there rather than defining doctrines.
  6. If one asks on what basis one should believe, the answer is: “Accept the claims on faith.” A common line of advice is: “Pray that God would convince you of the truth of the message, and then if you are convinced, this confidence itself is itself evidence of the truth of the message.” That is, confidence in one’s belief is crucial to being a follower. I can see how this is useful for motivating followers, but confidence is a strange test: surely one could easily be confident in something false or have faith in a falsehood. Faith and confidence are not a good test for truth, and I suspect could easily lead people away from truth.
  7. Invariably deep questioning, careful criticism, and doubting are discouraged by Christianity. At best these are things one must get over in order to develop in one’s faith. But it is strange that any true system would fear or discourage these. In science these are encouraged, and from these new and better ideas emerge. I can see how falsehood would fear these things, but truth should have no fear of probing analysis.
  8. An enormous carrot is held up for those who maintain the faith: eternal joys in heaven, and a brutal stick held over those who would disbelieve: eternal punishment in hell. Is it really possible to fairly assess the truth of one’s beliefs if one fears going to hell by making a mistaken conclusion from the evidence? I have experienced the fear of hell as I questioned aspects of my faith and for a while it kept me back from my inquiries. But in the end I decided that I would pursue truth foremost, and let God do what he likes to me. I find it hard to believe a true system would use these kind of measures to maintain believers.
  9. Followers focus on converting the unbelievers and seekers, and on maintaining their own faith. There is no open discussion on the truth or falsehood of their own beliefs. If truth is difficult to achieve, then surely people should be spending much more time analyzing the bases of their own beliefs than trying to convince others to believe the same.
  10. One typically joins a community of believers. This is a major strength of a religion: one gains company, friends, supporters etc. That is, so long as one maintains the faith. If one openly rejects the faith, then one loses one’s standing and ones ability to participate. This is another major stick held up against those who might disbelieve. I think this is unfortunate as it discourages independent criticism.
My conclusion is Christianity has few hallmarks of a system that values truth. It has an over confidence on how easy truth can be determined and that it must be true. Its key claims are not testable and it uses miracles and other spurious means for assuring its followers of its truth. Finally, it actively discourages thoughtful criticism through various means including threats of eternal punishment.