Sunday, October 26, 2014

Doesn't the truth matter?

I have observed an interesting change over the years as I have continued my discussions of theological matters with theists. In the early days I got inundated with arguments for why the universe testifies to God's existence.

 'Look at the birds, the trees, the planets, pretty flowers and beautiful sunsets.' 

These I call the 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' argument for God. Many Christians just consider these signs of a god obvious and are often flummoxed when non believers push back and say that these things prove nothing. The existence of the universe is evidence for the existence of the universe, nothing more, nothing less. No, you don't need a creator. Just because you call it a creation doesn't make it so.

As my friends that are Christians have become more and more aware of the weakness and the circularity of saying that God's creation proves God and that God's existence is proven through his creation,  they've changed tact. They have switched to the 'Well, if it helps people it can't be bad, right? ' argument. What I call the 'utility' argument for belief in God that many refer to as belief in 'belief'. 

People will say that religion has a record of motivating people to do good, keeping people from harming others, giving people a sense of purpose and reassuring them of a better life in the great beyond to keep them from falling into the desolation here on earth.

So many times I have been asked what I intend to replace religion with once I have stripped it away. I have been told over and over again that people need something to believe in, something to hold on to.These are all valid points and issues that are certainly open to debate. But what people don't realise when they present me these arguments is that they are reinforcing to me that the God they believe in doesn't exist.  With every appeal to how belief in their God is helpful it becomes clear they have no good argument to put on the table for why their God is real.

Surely the strongest defence you can bring for holding on to a particular belief is that the belief is true. If Christians could clearly demonstrate that, there would be no reason to go on to all these secondary arguments for faith. 

In no other area of life do we spend time debating whether it is better to spread belief in a lie rather than the truth. I have never attended or read about any international conferences that have been held to discuss whether we should opt for reassuring lies over difficult truths because it might be better for people.

No one argues that we should work to suppress the truth about Ebola, AIDS or Chikingunya because it would reassure people that they live in a healthy world. In those cases, we recognize the far greater dangers we will face if we don't deal with reality head on.

No one is setting up missionary trips to push universal belief in Santa Claus because the idea of an omniscient saint who knows when 'you've been bad or good' and rewards you accordingly would help to keep kids all over the globe in line. Nobody as far as I know has made it their goal to seek to extend this delightful delusion into the over 20s so that grown ups around us will cut down on their naughtiness too.

Indeed, if what matters in faith is how we are led to behave or how it makes us feel, why don't we just construct a religion to have all those elements we want? We could make religions that speak  about how to treat technology and the importance of minimizing climate change, we could author new 'holy books'  with commandments about not texting and driving or how to invest wisely. If usefulness is what matters and pragmatism is what it's all about, why don't we just dive right in and come up with a 'create a religion' app that works on all platforms, ensures the  optimum in behaviour of us all and equality in treatment right across society with no 'us' versus 'them'?

So why DON'T we do that? The truth is that truth does matter to believers.
I don't think I have ever attended any religious service anywhere where I have not heard the word 'truth'  uttered at sometime or another.

At my church I  used to hear about 

The TRUTH of the gospel.
The TRUTH of Jesus' sacrifice for all mankind
The TRUTH of salvation
The TRUTH of everlasting life

Here in Calgary there is a church that even has the audacity to call is self simply 'Truth Church'.

Hank Haanegraph who runs the 'Bible Answer Man' podcast has as his tagline ' Because the truth matters.'

Yes, religion's huge selling point is TRUTH. Each of them has it and they do everything to convince you that YOU need to know it. That's their big marketing strategy. They are selling TRUTH, of course whether people buy it is a different matter altogether.  But once they get a few customers, they can usually survive. Churches know full well that they would not have a snowball's chance in hell of surviving without playing the ' We have the ONE truth' game.

Don't ask don't tell: Keeping congregations in the dark

When I point this out to believers of different types, they tend to object. They tell me that their faith is not about certainty, that they question their pastors regularly and that they grapple with doubts and it's not fair to lump them in with the fundamentalists who say that they know for sure. That's all well and good, but the layers of doubts and uncertainties come from those in the pew not from those in the pulpit. 

How many times have you heard a preacher even in the most liberal of churches go up to a pulpit and speak about his or her doubts or doubts that exist within the doctrine he or she is promoting?  And of course they will never ever talk about doubts of the existence of the God they are preaching about. But why not? In other areas of life people often speak about the arguments out there in society against their positions and actually ADDRESS THEM! Any scientist positing a hypothesis that does not speak about the objections of others in the field to it is not taken seriously. Why are those in churches so happy to let their leaders get away without responding to the points of those raised from other sides?

For every religion in the world there are more people that reject that doctrine than accept it. No denomination can lay claim to having more than 50% of the world's population. Yet the existence of gods being preached about are spoken about as if they are as clear to humans as the existence of the sun. 

There are doubts about the authorship of the gospels, historical accuracy of the exodus, the crucifixion story and as Richard Carrier would tell you, even the existence of Jesus himself. Many priests especially those that went to  top theological colleges are well aware of these doubts and controversies among scholars but will not dare speak of them to their congregations. They withhold the truth even as they go out of their way to proclaim to all and sundry that they speak only in its name. 

They know that the Genesis stories are ancient Jewish myths. They know that the talking snakes, magic gardens and floating zoos are as real as any of Aesop's fables. They also know that their congregations by and large,  buy these stories literally. When atheists like me come along to talk to their faithful and break the news that it's mythical and not mystical, they think we non-believers are the crazy ones. I am sure they would have a heart attack to know that very likely the views of their pastors  align much more with my perspective than theirs.

It's hard to live with the fact that the group of people that follow the word 'TRUTH' so much forsake it so often. 
When I went to Anglican churches, the supposed leaders of the liberal, I heard them say that 'This IS the word of the Lord'  not ' This may be' or 'this might be' or ' this could be.' 

So truth does matters to religious people, that's why they join religions in the first place. They like the comfort that certainty brings. It's also the reason that many of them feel uncomfortable about leaving religion and being atheists or agnostic. When we say we don't know it scares them. It's just not good enough, they have to put their money on the people who 'KNOW'. But saying you know doesn't mean you do any more than me saying I am a millionaire results in a six figure deposit being lodged in my savings account.

Indeed, if churches were more honest about the limits of their knowledge I might still be attending them today. If only they would stay something like this 

" We come here on Sundays because we value the social support we give each other and the love that is shared among us. We respect the tradition from which our faith has emerged but recognize that the truth claims made are dubious at best and many of the claims are plain ridiculous in light of the scientific knowledge of the 21st century. However, we think that there are certain basic teachings that come along with our faith tradition that are beneficial both to individuals and society and we choose to focus on these principles as we seek to make a better world for ourselves and everyone we may influence or come into contact with.'

Now that is a church I could get behind. That would be a real 'Truth Church' . Truthful about what it knows and what it doesn't. Recognising that the true value of the congregation is in the people and the solidarity and support that could be given. The funny thing is, is that you will hear this type of statement from church people quite often   but usually only when the truth claims they start by affirming have been torn apart. 

Preachers don't talk about doubts because they know if they did their church would be empty in a few weeks. Believers aren't looking for 'ifs', 'buts', 'maybes' or 'on the other hands'. It's all about what IS. 

But it's not fair for churches to be able to go about catching their prey through a classic 'bait and switch'. They reel you in with unreal  'truth talk'  and then keep you there with an ' It makes you feel better'  appeal. That's dishonest. If you are selling your beliefs based on 'truth' then you have to back up with arguments that speak to 'truth'. How it makes you feel inside or the purpose it gives you in your life are irrelevant to what's real.

Useful? Only if you make yourself believe the unbelievable

I know after all this talk, there will still be a few who will prefer to take that 'fantasy' pill. The one that works and tastes good too. The thing is that when you look at it, all these cited benefits of 'belief'  are only helpful if you believe. And to believe in a religion like Christianity you have to suspend reason, attempt to believe the unbelievable and claim to comprehend the incomprehensible. Convincing yourself of facts that you know that you would reject out of hand in any other context, ultimately unthinking your way out of reality. How useful is that really?

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