Honestly…what is with your truth?

I have been spending some time recently thinking about truth.

No, that’s not quite right.  I haven’t necessarily been thinking about truth, but I have been thinking about the subject of truth.

That’s not quite right either.  I guess I’ve been thinking about thinking about truth.  Meta-truth, if you will.  And as I did so, I started to get that semi-relativistic head-throbbing that comes when trying to work out the paradoxes of epistemology.  So I took a step back, took a deep breath, and eventually I realized something.  It’s nothing hugely profound, or even novel.  But I think it’s important, nonetheless.

Perhaps we are putting too much emphasis on ‘truth.’  Perhaps this is the wrong primary approach.  This word ‘truth’ is, after all, deceptive.  Because we are not often very certain of it’s parameters or its contents, we are often left with jumbles pieces and we know not how to assemble them.  We end up being circus clowns of truthiness, juggling and dancing to keep up while endeavoring to keep a straight, serious, face.  Truth is serious stuff, after all, and not for clowns.

This reminded me of something that good old Soren Kierkegaard said:

One must not let oneself be deceived by the word ‘deception.’  One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth.  Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e. by deceiving him, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in error.

Yeah! Take that all you people in error.  I’m gonna kick the truth into you…or something….  You’re gonna wish you ain’t done been wrong in all that error-having you have had….  Sorry, lost it there for a second.  Kierkegaard has that kind of affect on me, it seems.

(BTW, this is not license for people to keep lying for Jesus)

I will not comment on the quote itself, but will prefer to allow it to speak for itself.  I have always liked it though, and am glad to pass it on.

What is the truth? Is there (or is there not) a god? I don’t know.  How to evaluate something that is often so nebulous and slippery as the concept ‘god’ which makes belief in often impossible for the mere fact that we don’t know what the term is supposed to indicate. How can I say it does not exist when I don’t know what it is?  How can I believe in it for the same reason?

(And how do so many people keep claiming that atheism is the claim that there is no god in light of this impossibility?)

But at least we can ask people to be truthful, to tell the truth as best they can, in order to have an honest discussion. But something is not quite right about that phrase.  For some time I could not quite put my finger on what it was, but then it occurred to me; I’m not so much advocating truth as I am advocating honesty.

The simple, brute, fact is that we can’t always know that we have the “truth” in order to give it to others.  If someone asks me to give them the truth, I often have little choice but to cock my head and follow-up with some question.  I need clarification.  And even if I receive the ideal level of clarification, I won’t necessarily be able to give the TruthTM.

But I can be honest.  I can even give good reasons that support the opinion I am being honest about.  But do I dare call it truth?

It seems that such a step is often considered arrogant.  How do I know it’s true? What if I’m wrong?

What I think is going on here is that the term ‘honesty’ has a flavor to it which is often soft and bland.  It has no zing to merely be honest.  People want the truth, right?  Being honest is merely stating an opinion.  But giving the truth…well that’s just sexy!

There is a responsibility behind claiming to give the truth which may not seem as naturally wedded to being honest; and perhaps for good reason.  But I feel that in presenting our beliefs, we have a responsibility to make sure that those belief have gone through some thought, fact-checking, and other considerations.  They, perhaps, have not gone through peer-review, but that is what saying them is for.

And to think those ideas to be true? Well, at some point the ideas we hold, especially if they survive our vetting and the conversational battle-field, we will believe with the force of ‘truth’ (whatever that is) whether it is objectively true (whatever THAT is…) or not.

But recently I’m preferring the concept of honesty, responsible honesty, to truth.

And honesty, in light of politics (both governmental and interpersonal), is an idea perhaps more fundamental and important.  The simple fact is that I don’t often believe that many people are truly…honestly…being honest with themselves or with other people.

I think that would be a good place to start for many people I’ve known in my life.

But they might not even know I’m talking about them.  While they may see the truth in what I say, they may not see the dishonesty in which they live.

Why “these beliefs work for me” is not enough

I get into a lot of arguments with people.  Sometimes, the argument gets ugly, and sometimes it is not.  I’m just one of those people that cares about what is true, and so when someone says something I find to be unjustified or that I  have reasons to disagree with, I often say something.

This often leads to me being called “closed minded,” arrogant, etc.

Just in the last couple of days I have had an email correspondence which started on a polyamory discussion list with someone who seems to consider himself spiritual, and who commented that he has become more serene since he stopped arguing with religious people (it was this and some other things I’ve been annoyed by that led to yesterdays blog about spiritual but not religious people).

I was offended by a comment he made, and tried to explain why I was offended, but it didn’t stick for him.

In any case, I wrote him back late last night, and thought some of the points I made would be relevant to people that might run into this blog.

With no further yapping on my part, here is the entire email:

I am quite aware that your email was not about me.  I was replying to the content that I disagreed with.  My offense at your comment needs some unpacking for you to understand why I was offended.  I’ll get to that at the end of this email.

First I want to say that I notice among many people, in fact this seems to be common wisdom, an unspoken assumption about beliefs.  There seems to be a notion that there is an automatic validity to a belief simply because it works for people, or simply because they have it.  Yes, people rely on things, but I don’t believe it is enough to say that they rely on it and therefore it’s not my place to judge it or even to comment on it.  After all, people have a right to their beliefs, right?

I believe this idea is wrong-headed.  And, more importantly, I don’t think it’s true just because I believe it.  This speaks to the unspoken assumption above.  I have this belief for reasons, not just because it works for me.  This is the crux of the issue for me; I think that people’s beliefs should be justified rationally, or they are not worthy of respect by anyone else.  Of course people have a right to their beliefs, but they don’t have the right to not have their ideas criticized.

An acquaintance and personal favorite leader in the atheist community has become known for asking “What do you believe, and why do you believe it?”  I think this is an important question, and I think that in the attempt to be tolerant, diverse, and respectful this question often gets left behind in the cultural maelstrom (especially in liberal circles).

You said:

Just because you “vehemently view spirituality as meaningless” doesn’t mean that it is. In fact its one of the biggest driving forces in the human experience for many. The fact that you got so offended may suggest that its not quite as meaningless to you as you say.

This, I believe, is a symptom of the problem.  It’s not merely that I believe this, I believe this for reasons.  I am not merely asserting it and saying that it’s true.  It’s not that this idea works for me, it’s that I think it can be defended rationally.  But you didn’t address the content of the claim at all.  I find that to be fascinating, because I would hope that a claim I make would not merely be swept aside with the broom of ad populum, but rather challenged.  Why wasn’t it challenged?

Your comment was not a challenge as to the merit of the proposition or to content therein, but rather to whether it was an idea that worked for people.  The fact that it is a driving force for people has absolutely nothing to do with its validity.  Truth is not determined by what ideas people like, and it is truth that I am interested in.  I am offended by the apparent shrugging off of pursuits of truth in the name of mere pragmatism.  These issues are questionable, investigatable, and conclusions can be drawn with good evidence.  The fact that people use these ideas in their lives does not make them immune to the criticism that can be provided.

I believe that they are physical events in the brain too but who’s to say that our brains weren’t wired like that in order to produce that spiritual experience by a creator? I believe that science and spirituality should be joined at the hip instead of being in opposition and I think fortunately things are headed in that direction.

I cannot [dis]prove that such a creator exists who created our brains such.  But I see no cause to believe it.  What if the world were created by an invisible pink unicorn, a flying spaghetti monster, or blue dwarfs that currently live in my closet?  I can’t disprove those ideas either, but why should I believe any of them?  The issue is not whether I can disprove the idea of such a creator, the question is what evidence is there for belief in such a thing?  What would compel me to believe it? My whims and what works for my life are not relevant here.

Until there is some reason to believe so, it is rational to not believe.  It’s called the null hypothesis.  Do you believe in the dwarfs in my closet?  if not, why not?  Who is to say they don’t exist? I’m betting you don’t believe in them, and I don’t consider it respectful to say “hey, whatever works for you.”  I find this condescending and disrespectful of my ability to think critically and take criticism.   If I believe something you find unjustified, why would you pretend otherwise and merely shrug it off? That’s how we treat children, not adults.  Our beliefs affect the decisions we make, and unjustified beliefs often lead to decisions that affect the world around us.

As for science and spirituality, they are not necessarily at odds.  The simple fact is that they are at odds through investigation, that is by accident of the beliefs of spiritual people not standing up to scrutiny.  And when they are not at odds with science, the thing stops being called spiritual but is then called part of the confirmations of science.  It is like the difference between medical science and alternative medicine; when it works, it’s simply called science and no longer is alternative.  The claims of spiritualism have been tested and have failed repeatedly.  There is no counter-example I have ever seen to this claim.  Look into James Randi’s million dollar challenge.  The fact that nobody has won it is telling.

And no, things are not headed in the direction of science and spirituality being reconcilable.  Despite what morons like Deepak Chopra and the other goons at HuffPo say, there is most definitely a distance between them.  Some, like the Templeton foundation, will seem to say otherwise, but the arguments are spurious.  If you are curious about ths issue, I suggest the JREF (linked above), the Paryngula blog, or the general skeptics community (say the skepchicks blog).

I’m not a religious scholar by a long shot. All I know is my own personal experience. And I know that I became a much more serene person when I stopped vehemently opposing religious people (still struggle with Fox news types). They aren’t all the same.

I am a student of the philosophy of religion.  In fact, that is what I have my MA in.  This does not make me right, but it implies I have spent considerable time thinking about these things. But that does not matter….  I have experiences too.  I used to wonder if they were spiritual in nature, but then I seriously investigated this question, and found that such an explanation is not rationally warranted.  It is not enough to say that you have a different conclusion, you need to demonstrate why or I have no reason to respect your ideas.

The fact that you became more serene person when you stopped opposing religious people says nothing for the validity of whatever spiritual ideas you took on since then.  When a person changes through experience with a new religion, spiritual tradition, etc it does not imply that the ideas they adopted did the changing or that those ideas are true.  That’s simply a tremendously bad argument.  And of course they are not all the same, although there are often common characteristics among them.

There are plenty of good, strong, intelligent people who believe in a higher power on this planet. To paint them all with the same broad stroke is as close minded as a fundamentalist is about non-fundamentalists.

I have never done this.  I am very aware that people who believe such things vary greatly, and I try as much as possible to try and address what they specifically claim and address those claims.  What I am saying is that insofar as a person accepts faith as a strength, I think that it points to a problem.  People use faith in many ways, for many beliefs, and with different temperaments.  But we have to step back and ask what faith is.  It is belief in something despite a lack of evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence.  If there were evidence, there would be no need for faith, because there would be reasons to believe.  personal, internal experiences are not enough for other people, and they do not provide evidence that you have not misinterpreted your experience and attributed it to something imaginary rather than a more mundane and material explanation.  Until someone gives reasons to believe in spiritual ideas, people have to rely on faith and problematic personal experiences.

This is incontrovertibly a weak position to be in intellectually and rationally.  If it isn’t, please explain why it isn’t.

My view is not closed minded, it is considered and measured.  I think that believing in things for which their is no, or at least poor, evidence is not an intellectual, personal, or social strength.  How is that closed minded?

Finally, why was I offended.  I was offended because we atheists are tired of hearing that things like morality, personal strength, and wisdom come from divine or spiritual sources.  It implies that those who don’t believe in such things cannot be moral, strong, or wise.  By associating spirituality with good attributes, you imply that people like me are not capable of it.  If I were to say that all the people I know who are strong, wise, and good were atheists and that atheism is the key to being like those people, would you not take offense at the implication inherent to this?

This is simple discrimination of people who don’t believe in the kinds of things you believe.  It is based on faulty assumptions and poor logical thinking, and it leads to real discrimination, demonization, and distrust of atheists.  Recent studies have shown atheists to be the least trusted group in America (even below Muslims).  I’m offended because you essentially claimed that an atheist cannot be a good person.  I doubt this was your intent, but it is the result nonetheless.  I’m just trying to give you a touch of consciousness-raising about discrimination against atheists and its unseen sources in common wisdom, as evidenced by your comment.  You are doing actual harm to real people, probably unintentionally, by promoting a meme that is simply false.

Please understand that I’m trying to communicate in good…faith.  I’m not attacking you, I’m trying to get you to understand where I’m coming from.

His reply was to say “You’re right” and then to sign off.  I can’t help but feel patronized with an intent to discontinue conversation.


I prefer religion to spirituality

You know how when you are talking to someone about religion and they make some comment about how they agree that religion has been a problem, then they follow-up with saying that’s why they aren’t religious.  Then you smile, and when they continue to say something like “I just have a personal relationship with Jesus” or “I’m just spiritual” you throw up in your mouth, right?

A lot?

Why are you looking at me like that?  That has never happened to you?

Well, nevermind then…

Here’s the thing; religious institutions are not inherently good or bad.  The scandal about the cover-up of child molestation, rape, etc by the Catholic Church is one example of bad, and the civil rights activity of many churches is an example of good.  But inherently, religions are not the problem (nor are they a solution, but I’ll let that go for now).

Now, religion includes many things, and not always belief in gods or spiritual things.  The community, rituals, traditions, architecture, etc that comes with religions are often good things on a social scale, and I freely recognize this and rarely have an issue with the whole religious institution itself.  Hell, even the Catholic Church has some nice things going for it.

But spiritual?  That’s another thing altogether.  First, what the hell does it mean? I have heard all sorts of rationalizations, fumbling definitions about experiences through meditation, prayer, etc.  I know.  I’ve had those experiences myself (some of them, anyway).  It is supposed to be about direct relationships with gods, spirits, powers, or perhaps magick.  But there is no good reason to believe any of it.  None of it survives scrutiny.  It’s all personal experience and anecdote, just like all paranormal woo-woo out there.

Why, if there is anything to spirituality, hasn’t anyone won James Randi’s million dollars?

So when someone says to me that they are not religious, but they are spiritual, I wince because they are admitting that they are trying to disassociate themselves from religious institutions and claim belief in these silly, nebulous, and vague ideas of spirituality.  They are clinging to the part of religion that often is the problem; faith, credulity, and the belief that they are in connection with the powers of the universe.  It’s worse when they claim that they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but are not religious.  I just want to slap the old forehead when I hear that one.

(Yes, I mean my forehead)

The idea seems to be that our personal “spiritual” paths are somehow superior to religious tradition.  But spirituality is part of the many religious traditions, people! Those who started new religions, sects, etc were doing similar activities as those who claim they are not religious today.  And, of course, only a few of them did so in any significant way.  Many others were probably often killed or otherwise socially ostracized due to their heresy.

Example: The Buddha was not following the religion of his time and place, he was seeking his own path and created a new one.  His meditation and subsequent ‘enlightenment’ was a personal spiritual exercise outside of the dominant religious tradition, even though it was influenced by it.  He might have said, if he were as unaware as many I’m talking about in this piece, that he was spiritual but not religious.

And that’s why Buddhism is not considered to be a religion today.

(My forehead us really starting to hurt)

It just seems that every schmuck out there who is “spiritual but not religious” is thinking of himself (or herself) as some unique person not going with the mainstream.

Just like everyone else.

(ouch! Why is my palm so hard?)

If you are doing spirituality, you are doing religion.  If you are doing religion, you are probably doing spirituality, of some sort.  Spirituality without religion makes no sense.

I’ll make that simpler.

Spirituality makes no sense.  At least religion gives you community.  And I’ll bet many of you spiritual-but-not-religious people have your own community somewhere, don’t you?

(Seriously, my forehead is red and sore)