Tag Archives: Truth

The Islamic State, Christianity, and Holy Texts

What sense can you make of this dialog?

JOE: They say, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

MARY: Why is the Aurora Borealis visible only in the far north?

JOE: I am convinced we will have a Republican president after the next election.

MARY: I should probably have a mammogram.

JOE: Oak trees are strong and brown. Birch trees are weaker, and have white bark.

MARY: Chocolate ice cream is my favorite.

When I took an acting class in college, the professor gave us an exercise based on dialog much like the above. He paired us off and gave each pair a full page of non sequiturs. Each pair was supposed to take a week to figure out how to present the dialog in a way that made sense. We were allowed to repeat words, but not omit or reorder any. When the class met again, we were to act out our interpretations in a convincing way.

My partner was totally stumped, as were most people in the class. However, I took up the challenge and managed to cast the dialog as being about a visit to the dentist, even though dentists were nowhere in the original. (There was a sentence about a proctologist, though!)

I was able to give every syllable an interpretation that made perfect sense. Not only that, but I was sure that I had found the only solution to the puzzle. When other students assigned a different meaning, I had to give them credit for trying, but I thought they had not fit their interpretation to the text as well as I had.

In fact, had I not known that the dialog was designed as nonsense, I might have marveled at how cleverly its true meaning was woven into seemingly unrelated content.

That experience is what came to mind when I read the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. To hear American politicians talk, the Islamic State is not Islamic at all. They are just a “death cult.” The Atlantic‘s article argues very effectively for a more sobering view:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Yes, there are alternate interpretations of Islam. As Graeme Wood points out toward the end of the article,

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam.

[The are] committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

In practical terms, then, one fundamentalist group is attempting to take over the world, while the other peacefully devotes itself to a life of prayer and scholarship. Two groups have the same view of their holy text, but reach opposite conclusions about how to live.

It would be easy to laugh at the ridiculous Muslims, but we in the Christian West have not been without diversity of interpretation of our holy text, the Bible.

One thinks of Christian pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics, while other Christians, equally devoted to the scriptures, decry that practice and focus instead on prayer, asking God to stop abortion by changing people’s hearts.

Or, on a less violent level, one is reminded of Bible-believing Christians who preach that God will heal all who ask in faith for a miracle, even as other Bible-believing Christians caution that such prayers are presumptuous.

How can people who agree on a simple, common-sense, literal method of interpreting a holy text reach opposite conclusions based on it?

Surely part of the answer is that all scriptures have some passages that point one way, while others tend toward the opposite.

However, the acting exercise also taught me that if even a nonsense dialog can be wrestled into meaning something consistent, surely a relatively coherent book like the Bible or the Koran can be made to say things that the original authors did not have in mind.

More than that, it taught me that when someone thinks he has found the only sensible interpretation that takes the entire text into account, it may be because of his cleverness rather than because the text actually speaks with a unified voice.

What if Life is a Joke?

What if the truth about life were horrible? What if, as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are all destined to spend eternity in a shadowy sheol rather than a glorious heaven? Or what if there is no afterlife at all? What if life is absurd — just a cosmic joke played on us by no-one at all?

If you were to discover that any of these propositions is absolutely, undeniably true, how would you feel?

I’ve been rereading Plato at the Googleplex, in which author Rebecca Goldstein imagines Plato on a book tour in modern America. I’d like to share with you a passage that I find very moving. Ms. Goldstein, synthesizing Plato’s writings, has him say this about those who are fit to be the Guardians of his ideal republic.

[An essential character quality is] an inborn horror of being deceived as to the nature of things, and an inborn desire to know the truth… [It] is something different from intelligence and different from knowledge. Those who have this trait love the truth not because it is like this or like that. They love the truth simply because it is the truth and are prepared to love it no matter what it turns out to be. They will stick to a view just so long as it seems to them the truth and will not be seduced away from that view no matter what others are telling them, or what flashier and more attractive options are dangled before them; but they are also the least reluctant among all people to abandon a formerly loved view, if once they become convinced that it is not true. They are always on the scent of the truth, like dogs, who are the most philosophical of animals.

Do you identify with this? I do. During the years that I was in the evangelical church, nothing “seduced me away from that view” — not money, not social opportunities, not fleshly lusts, not even the common decency to see some of its teachings as horrible. I thought I had found the truth; how could anything else matter?

When I became convinced otherwise, I did not mourn the loss of eternal life, a God who loved me, or a sense of eternal purpose. Instead, I felt anger at having been deceived.

I don’t think life is a joke. I’d say it’s more of a game. But if that is the truth of the matter, I am prepared to love it. Delighted, even. How about you?

Voltaire’s Truth-Loving Test in Candide

I’ve been collecting and posting tests of how much one loves truth, as proposed by famous philosophers. So far, we have

  • Plato’s test: Tell children glorious stories. Emphasize that the stories are true when they are, in fact, false. See which children can resist the stories’ appeal, and spontaneously protest as to why they are impossible.
  • C.S. Lewis’ Test: Upon learning that an ugly rumor about one’s enemies is false, is one relieved that even they aren’t as bad as all that, or does one wish to cling to the rumor?

Now for Voltaire’s.

For my entire adult life, this writer of the French Enlightenment was reviled as an enemy of God by every one of my acquaintances who was educated enough to recognize his name. I formed the impression that he was a villain who, entirely unprovoked, spent his bitter life writing polemics against Christianity.

Imagine my curiosity when I read Robert Ingersoll‘s Lecture on Voltaire, and learned that he was exceedingly generous and warm-hearted, a tireless advocate of liberty and justice, and may have done more than anyone else to abolish cruel and unusual punishments in France.

I decided to read the first of his works that I could get my hands on, and that happened to be Candide. In this book, the guileless Candide is raised in a castle and tutored by the philosopher, Pangloss, whose most memorable tenet is that we live in the best of all possible worlds. (“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.”)

Almost from page 1, bad things begin to happen to Candide and everyone else in the castle, from which they are all driven out. Candide, separated from Pangloss for most of his tribulations, wonders whether the philosopher would maintain his sunny outlook in the face of so much distress.

Pangloss returns at the end of the book, having suffered at least as much as Candide.

Candide asks him, “When You were hanged, dissected, whipped, and tugging at the oar [as a galley slave], did you continue to think that everything in this world happens for the best?”

“I have always abided by my first opinion,” answered Pangloss; “for, after all, I am a philosopher, and it would not become me to retract my sentiments; especially as Leibnitz could not be in the wrong: and that preestablished harmony is the finest thing in the world.”

In the final chapter, Candide and Pangloss are living a quiet life on a small farm. Pangloss tries to convince Candide that Candide’s misfortunes, which were many and severe, are entirely compatible with this being the best of all possible worlds. “For had you not suffered them,” Pangloss says, “you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

Obviously and comically, the pleasures of citrons and pistachio nuts are as nothing compared to what both men have suffered. But they are all Pangloss needs to hold onto his doctrine.

I suppose there are many truth-loving tests one could extract from this book, but I’ll choose this one:

Our love of truth is inversely related to our stubbornness in holding onto our ideas, and the lameness of our rationales, as judged by an impartial, educated observer.

C.S. Lewis’s Truth-Loving Test

A few months ago, we heard this from Plato. It was his way of determining who loved truth and who didn’t.

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told.

Here’s another truth-loving test, from C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity. (In the book, he did not propose this as a truth-loving test, but I think it makes an excellent one.)

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

I read the quote over at Slacktivist’s blog. He had earlier treated the theme in a wonderful post called Jackie at the crossroads. In that story, a young woman named Jackie has claimed there are poisonous spiders in airport restrooms, former stow-aways on international flights. When she is shown that this is just an urban legend, she has a choice: she can double-down or laughingly admit her gullibility. Her choice is a very clear window on her character.

How about us? When we learn that the rumor we have spread about our political or religious adversaries is unfounded, is our first reaction to be relieved that they are not so bad after all? Or do we double down by finding another way they are so bad, or by calling the refutation “biased” even though it is our own bias that has just been exposed?

Are We Happier Lying to Ourselves?

I’m not lying to you: scientific experiments have shown that people who lie to themselves are happier than people who tell themselves the truth:

Radiolab: Lying to Ourselves

To begin, it’s interesting to note how the experimenters distinguished the truth-tellers from the liars. There were two ways.

In one experiment, people were asked to pick out their own voice from recordings of 10 different voices saying the same thing. While they tried to do this, electrodes measured bodily signs such as perspiration. Many subjects were not to give reliable answers orally, but the electrodes detected that their bodies could identify their own voice. In other words, their conscious minds were not able to access a truth that they knew deep-down.

In a more amusing experiment, the subjects were asked embarrassing questions, the answers to which are well-known, but which people won’t admit. The most mild was, “Have you ever enjoyed your bowel movements?” Of course everyone has, but not everyone will admit it.

It turns out that the same people who would not admit the truth in the second experiment were the ones who had the hardest time accessing the truth in the first. OK, so now we know who is most able to lie, even to themselves.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that these people are better at some things. For example, competitive athletes pump themselves up before the big contest by telling themselves, “I’m invincible.” The Radiolab show reported that swimmers who lied in response to the embarrassing questions were more likely to qualify for the big race at the end of the year.

What did surprise me is that people who lie even to themselves are happier. I can recall times when I attempted to hide the truth from myself, and I was not happy.

I recall an episode at Christian retreat when I was young. We were supposed to “spend time with God” by going to a quiet place and meditating on the scriptures. Then, we would meet as a group and share what we had learned. The scripture I chose pertained to God creating the world. During my meditation, I realized that God as ultimate creator must be the source of all love. When I shared this with the group, everyone thought that was wonderful.

But I was lying to myself, for even as I shared my supposed truth, I realized that the same logic would demonstrate that God is the source of all hate. With the help of groupthink and my desire to think godly thoughts, it only took a half-conscious effort to suppress the unpleasant inconsistency. Still, I was uncomfortable.

That was a lie that I caught myself in, but how many did I not notice? Regular readers of this blog know that I have reversed many of my deepest convictions over the last few years. To what extent was I ignorant in my earlier years, and to what extent was I just lying to myself? Sometimes, as at the retreat, I was aware of half-conscious lies. I suspect they were the tip of the iceberg.

The scientists on Radiolab said that people who see the world as it is tend to be more depressed. The show’s closing line was, “We’re so vulnerable to being hurt that we’re given the capacity to distort … as a gift.”

Maybe so, but I do know this: I tell myself the truth more often now and am happier for it. I have become a big fan of reality. The lies one tells oneself become a burden. I didn’t realize how heavy the burden was until I crawled out from under it. I suspect that even unconscious lies drain the body of energy.

Even unpleasant reality can hold amusing ironies. Or at least they can be amusing if one cultivates a sort of Buddhist detachment. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe we can only stand the truth if we can stand apart from it sometimes.

What do you think? Are we happier with a little dose of self-deception, or is clear-eyed truth-telling the only way?

How Did We Get to Igtheism?

I learned a new word this week: igtheism. Wikipedia defines it as

…the view that any religious term or theological concept presented must be accompanied by a coherent definition…

So far, so good, right? A “coherent definition” just means a definition that does not contradict itself. This would seem to be a necessary place to start. But Wikipedia continues, and we start to see why igtheism might press our buttons:

… For example, if the term “God” does not refer to anything reasonably defined then there is no conceivable method to test against the existence of god. Therefore the term “God” has no literal significance and need not be debated or discussed.

So is our Western concept of God coherent?

Well, what is the Western concept of God? To start with the basics, the Bible says, “God is love.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that God cares for all his children as we care for ours? Evidently not; he allows horrible things to happen to many of them — things that he can easily prevent and that, if a human parent stood passively by and allowed to happen to his children, we would call evidence of criminal neglect.

I suggest that the word “love” in that sentence has no coherent definition, at least in the context of orthodox, Western religion. (If you can come up with one that takes into account God being omnipotent yet allowing most people to suffer in everlasting fire, you’re more clever than I am. Please leave a comment!)

Believers in the God of the Bible freely admit that their faith embraces paradoxes. After all, why should we expect our finite minds to comprehend an infinite God? As the Bible says,

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

Still, I would draw a contrast between unfathomable and incoherent. I can’t think of any verse in the Bible that boasts, “How incoherent Thou art!”

I think incoherence in religion has arisen because of a sort of arms race. In the beginning, gods were tribal in scope and had limited powers. They controlled the weather, prospered the crops, and helped in battle, but nobody claimed they were the supreme embodiment of Good. Even the Greek gods were capricious, licentious, and not very nice at all. If you could stay out of their way, you were doing well.

Over time, people wanted their gods to be better than everyone else’s. Naturally, a better, more powerful god is more compelling. Over the centuries, the gods that were said to have more superpowers won the battle for hearts and minds. Even within Christianity, the denominations that preach a more high-stakes message (e.g., evangelical denominations) are doing better than their more relaxed, main-line brethren.

As with other arms races, the people involved are so busy upping the ante that they don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into.

We exalt God higher and higher until he is “outside of time and space.” (This is a relatively recent upping of the ante. The Bible never makes this claim; it only claims that God is eternal, which is a completely different thing.) But we also want God to listen to our prayers, so we say he “changes his mind” over time (Exodus 32:14). Putting those two propositions together is incoherent, as far as I can tell.

We give God the superpower to know and control the future: “I [God] make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.'” (Isaiah 46:10.) However, we don’t want bad things to be God’s fault (after all, we have just said he is omnipotent) so, later in the same speech, we have him lament that things didn’t turn out as he had wished: “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea.” (Isaiah 48:18.) If he knows the future and does all that he pleases how can he say, “If only…”? To me, that’s incoherent.

We escalate our view of the Bible until it is the Inerrant Word of God. Unfortunately, it consistently describes the Earth as flat. Inerrantly preaching a flat Earth? Sorry; that’s as incoherent as drawing a square circle.

What do you think? Has Western theology become incoherent?

For more on this subject, here’s the video that got me thinking about it:

Living in the Questions

From the time I first heard the phrase as a young man, I have struggled to understand why “living in the questions” would appeal to anyone. Aren’t answers the entire point?

As I’ve written elsewhere, I derive much aesthetic satisfaction from my molecules having finally aligned themselves so that they have some clue of how the universe works. The answers — at last!

Or so I thought, until I read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene speculates about nine plausible ways that parallel universes (“the multiverse“) might exist. In fact, most of them entail an infinite number of universes.

Just when you think you have one universe down pat, along come infinity more.

It’s unlikely that I will live to see any of those multiverse theories proven or disproven, but who knows — when my grandparents were born, the existence of other galaxies beyond our Milky Way was not even known. If our knowledge could expand from one galaxy to over 176 billion in less than a hundred years, maybe one additional universe will show up any day now.

We made this progress because we never stopped asking questions. When we found an answer, we said, “Fine. What’s next?”

What if we hadn’t done that? We would be living in the same misery as pre-scientific peoples throughout the world. Misery? Yes, misery: ravaged by disease, driven by superstition to sacrifice their own children, and orders of magnitude more likely to die in war.

So there’s a question for us to ponder, and then ponder more deeply: To what extent do we owe our happiness to ceaselessly asking questions about the world?