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.

13 comments:

  1. 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.

    Hrm. I don't have room to post them all here, but biblegateway.com seems to have quite a number of places that speak of truth and I think truth is highly valued in the bible.

    You might have run into people who feel that truth is not important, that it is too scary, might make them vulnerable if they find out they have been believing a lie, etc.

    He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

    I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.

    Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

    If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Many religions and groups claim to value the truth. And I agree the truth is extolled in the Bible. However, I think it is better to judge a religion by its actions and characteristics than by its outward professions. If these characteristics are inconsistent with its professions then one should suspect that something is wrong. And indeed the characteristics I outlined above are diametrically opposed to that professed desire for the truth.

    -Daniel

    ReplyDelete
  3. It seems to me you are holding up man's science and what it says are truth, and then saying that Christianity (or perhaps any religion, other than that of to science) isn't true.

    I have a hard time believing the statement at the top of your blog, that you are really trying to find truth. I think you have already made up your mind, and are striving to make up stuff to say what you want it to say. I don't feel like I have much to say about "reconciling them to my faith", because they don't seem like real issues to me.

    For example, in your next post, you claim that God must be insecure and threatened by men; it is just silly.

    I guess I should write more on your next post, instead of here, but I wonder if you really do care.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Trying to figure out what to believe has been a long journey for me. I fear that I could be easily mistaken. So, if I am to believe something it ought to stand up to criticism, and so if I'm tempted to believe something then I seek to criticize as thoroughly as I can. That is why I seek criticisms of Christianity.

    For many people Christianity seems obviously true. At times it seemed that way to me too. However other mutually exclusive religions seem just as obviously true to many other people. Isn't that highly worrisome to you? Why are you sure you're right and they are wrong? I conclude that our subjective sense of what is right and wrong is mislead in many people; that is, what people call faith is actually credulity much of the time.

    But there are fairly objective ways for finding truth that don't depend on uncheckable authoritative claims, and are open for anyone to confirm. I don't think the fact that they are used in science makes them invalid for use in religion, at least not for a religion that claims to be pronouncing the truth.

    The problem I find is that when put to truth tests, religions seem very unreliable. Should I have faith in something that I conclude is unlikely to be true?

    (I'll respond to the rest on the comments of my next post.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. I don't think there is anything wrong with having so many different religions. Maybe religion isn't ultimately about finding truth. What is so wrong with that? Leave that to the philosophers. To me, religion is about relying on my God when I am frightened or lonely or seeking wisdom in how to handle life or people. Religion is also about belonging to a body of likeminded believers who encourage me to be the best I can be. Truth is not the only aim in everything, otherwise different religions wouldn't be so fulfilling and satisfying for so many people. By the way, I am fine with other people having different faiths from mine if they find another one better suited to their needs.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I agree that there are many other aspects to religion besides seeking the truth. The social aspects are very important, and hard to find elsewhere. It also provides comfort; whether or not God exists one can still be comforted by the belief that he cares for oneself, and whether or not there is a life after this, one can be comforted with the belief that one is going to heaven. I guess one can be content with such comforting beliefs. But for me the truth or falsehood of the hope is extremely important -- if it is not true I don't want to believe it even if not believing is painful.

    It sounds like you are not too worried about many of the standard church doctrines (such as most people of other faiths are going to hell etc.). If you don't think that is true, then doesn't it bother you to listen to sermons that make a big point of that and ask for money to fund missionaries to convert the non-believers? Or perhaps you have found a church that doesn't stress that...?

    ReplyDelete
  7. In response to your questions, my church doesn't talk about hell, at least hardly ever, so I haven't had to think about it much. And I have no problem with missionaries. I think they do a great thing by spreading hope in parts of the world where people have very little reason to hope for anything. Many times they don't just spread the message of hope, they also physically help people, like Mother Teresa. Anything missionaries can do to increase human dignity where it is otherwise hard to find is a very good thing. Otherwise there is no one caring for these people.

    ReplyDelete
  8. And this is the verdict, that The Light came into the world, but people preferred Darkness to Light, because their works were evil.

    20
    For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.
    21
    But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Posts like the above help make my point. Rather than seeking truth through careful criticism of evidence and hypotheses, many people would rather simply accept an authoritative pronouncement as the definative truth. To me that shows a complete lack of desire for and respect towards truth.

    Daniel

    ReplyDelete
  10. I don't mind helping others if I have the possibility to do so.

    Whether we believe in God or not, the way we use our minds, our bodies and our souls will reflect in our mental, physical and spiritual health sooner or later. It is a matter of good or bad choices.

    It may appear to be matter of heaven and hell, but in the long term, it is also a matter of good or poor health.

    TO BE OR NOT TO BE HOLY... THAT IS THE QUESTION THAT WE MUST RESPOND TO IN THIS WORLD :-)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Great article. I think I agree with all of it. Though I remain a Christian simply because I haven't found more compelling truth-claims that answer specific metaphysical questions. Materialism simply avoids the questions or says they are nonsense. Other religions have some interesting ideas, and I think ultimately the Answers we seek are simply over our collective heads anyway. I have the feeling that all religions are merely symbols for things that we 4-dimensional beings can't comprehend. So I'm ok with not having crystal clear Truth in a religion simply because religion deals with things that science can't touch. Origin, meaning or purpose are not things that science can speak to. Religion is the human endeavor to do so, and it's far from perfect.

    I think your dissatisfaction with religion stems from an inappropriate expectation that our shared cultural heritage has burdened us with. You are correct that religions offer us unfalsifiable claims. But there is more than one possible reason for this. One possibility is that there ARE no Truths to be found in religion. Another is that the Truth is simply too complex or 'other' for any system to articulate. You cannot falsify that which you cannot articulate. So while religion does not offer us the comparative certainty that science offers, it may still be a frontier in Truth searching none-the-less.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I actually have physical evidence that christ is real. I have been healed in body, mind and soul.
    brandon.ambler1@yahoo.com
    I have studied for 11 years why christ is real and alive but the truth is this. You could have all the evidence in the world and still not choose christ. Or you could know nothing but have faith that christ saved you and be completely touched. get at my email i would love to share my witness of what God has done for me.

    ReplyDelete
  13. " 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."
    We certainly agree.

    I recommend you to read an article in my blog (http://bloganders.blogspot.com/2009/08/proof-of-existence-of-intelligent-and.html). It contains a formal logical proof, based on scientific premises, that proves the existence of an Intelligent and Perfect Creator of this universe (i.e. the Prime Cause of this universe (the cause of Big Bang)); and it also proves that His instructions are found in Torah, and that His purpose of humankind is for us to practise those Instructions in Torah.


    It is possible to falsify Christianity. It makes historical claims that can be falsified.

    Le-havdil, A logical analysis (found in www.netzarim.co.il (Netzarim.co.il is the website of the only legitimate Netzarim-group)) (including the logical implications of the research by Ben-Gurion Univ. Prof. of Linguistics Elisha Qimron of Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT) of all extant source documents of “the gospel of Matthew” (which contradicts Torah) and archeology proves that the historical Ribi Yehosuha ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) from Nazareth and his talmidim (apprentice-students), called the Netzarim, taught and lived Torah all of their lives; and that Netzarim and Christianity were always antithetical.

    Thus, if a Christian wants to follow the historical Ribi Yehoshua and his authentic teachings, they must practise Judaism. (Learn more in www.netzarim.co.il)

    All the best,
    Anders Branderud

    ReplyDelete