Editor’s Note: Welcome to Part 2 of this Clergy Project member’s thinking on the weighty issue of religious belief. Anyone who left the clergy has given this subject a lot of thought. This guy lays it out pretty clearly and convincingly – and finds a COVID-19 link too. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Scott Stahlecker
In an earlier post titled “The Troubling Mathematics of Belief” I emphasized that if we’re looking to find the truth to life we’ll never find it contained within a single religion or philosophical belief system. Here, I am following up by tossing out this morsel for discussion:
If there isn’t an organized system that represents the “whole truth and nothing but the truth,” then how do we discern what is truthful?
I wouldn’t dare, of course, claim that I have any more insight about the truth than any other person. Each one of us is sure to have our own ideas, because we all have unique life experiences. Additionally, the subject is so multidimensional and complex that we’re obviously not going to solve this mystery in the next few minutes. At best, the only thing I can do is to offer a few ideas and let others contribute their own thoughts on the matter.
TRUTH IS GROUNDED IN REALITY
Rick Gervais, English atheist comedian, had an enlightening discussion about science versus religion with Stephen Colbert a few years back on The Late Show.
Gervais’ reasonably surmised that if you took any fiction or holy book and destroyed it, in 1000 years time these books wouldn’t come back as they were written. But if you destroyed every science book and fact, in a thousand years those facts would all return, because all the same tests would reveal the same results.
For example, we know that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. If this fact were to evaporate from human history in an apocalyptic fireball, this knowledge would be rediscovered when technology reached a point when we could verify this fact again. Now, this is elementary science, which most people should believe (except perhaps the Flat-Earthers). The trouble is, many religious folks today are still using superstitions and myths in preference to facts, and by doing so they are willfully evading the truth.
Consider the COVID-19 pandemic that’s now sweeping the globe. In Old Testament times, the spread of this virus would have likely been interpreted as a plague from God. And as you might have already guessed, many Christians today are attributing this virus to God’s wrath. One such believer is Rick Wiles, a journalist who blames COVID-19 on transgender children and sexual immorality. Ironically, Wiles is also the founder of the website TruNews, but his conspiracy theory sounds more like “fake news” to me. The real news—THE TRUTH— is that viruses are a fact of everyday life.
The beauty in this analogy is it highlights the absurdity of using religious beliefs to interpret truth. The reality is many important truths have already been discovered. For example, anthropology is providing us with truths about our human origins. Astronomy is revealing to us the mysteries of the universe. Geology is showing us how our planet was formed. Neurology and other brain sciences are providing us with a better understanding of the human brain. Again, what these sciences are offering are well-documented, bona fide truths about life, which many religions and spiritual movements still cloak in superstition and myths.
I think most truth can be discovered using verifiable facts. We know many truths now, and more truths will be revealed as the sciences progress. Yet I take this analogy a step further and equate facts as equal to truth. And the facts I’ve learned after leaving religion have revealed to me far more satisfying truths than the “alternative beliefs” I once held.
Learning truths (facts) on the other hand, is not the same as acquiring wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to gain a deeper understanding of overarching concepts and principles that apply to life, which tend to be verified by our subjective experiences. While we would all love to be smart, what we’re actually striving to achieve is wisdom. This quest for wisdom is where I think the skeptic can claim some common ground with the world’s largest religions. The reason is that these religions offer us thousands of years of human history that’s been documented in their sacred writings. While these ancient texts can no longer be trusted to explain anything from the origins of knowledge emanating from a tree to the birds and the bees, these religions nevertheless often offer truthful observations about humanity as well as basic principles of life.
The pop star Alanis Morissette had a hit single in 1996 called, “Ironic.” The song fittingly defined “irony” as the inexplicable way that random events in life happen at the most unlikely of times—such as the old man in the song who turns ninety-eight, wins the lottery, and dies the next day. Similarly, it’s ironic that we are the only species who can ponder the question, “why do we exist?” and yet we still lack enough information to fathom the answer.
What’s interesting about this question is it merely a tiny part of all the complex questions we contemplate in our own search to obtain wisdom. Each one of us no doubt has our own bucket list of things we’d like to know, but here’s a short list I think everyone can relate to.
- How did our world come into existence?Why do we exist and is there a purpose to life?
- How can we better understand human nature and the nitty-gritty details of how our brains work?
- How do we define consciousness?
- Do we have an eternal soul?
- How do we better understand our thoughts, emotions, and unique personality? Beyond these immediate questions we also entertain ideas about how we can establish better interpersonal relationships.
- What role does love, compassion, tolerance, or forgiveness play towards achieving social harmony?
Additionally, we also know that there are higher principles at work in our world such as justice, equality, morality, and ethics, and we’d like the wisdom to effectively live by these principles.
And then there’s a wealth of philosophical questions we’d like to understand such as why do bad things happen to good people? Why is killing a person okay in one situation and not another? Or, should euthanasia be legal?
If we were to do a side-by-side comparison of all of the books of the Bible we’d discover that its writers sought to address many of these questions and assumptions. Unfortunately, the Bible also fails short of being a true source of wisdom, primarily because its writers were fixated on promoting a specific system of beliefs to a limited segment of humanity; namely, their own people. Consequently, the Bible is unable to answer many questions that concern all of humanity in our modern age.
For example, the question, “Why do I exist” has no answer. Christianity can make the claim that we exist to serve its God, but this is not an answer based in truth by way of factual data. “Do we have an eternal soul?” is another great question. But again, the Bible may have a ready answer tethered by its biased views of an afterlife, yet the only way to fact check this answer is to ask someone who has died. On the other hand, can we deny that the commandment “thou shall not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” are truthful in the sense that they reveal general principles, which influence ethical conduct? Or consider the qualities of compassion and forgiveness. Do not these qualities lead to better interpersonal relationships, and if so, can’t we conclude these qualities reveal the existence of guidelines that regulate social harmony?
Another question posed above is “Should euthanasia be legal?” It’s a question much like many we ask ourselves which doesn’t have a true or false answer. Yet, the question does have a right answer, which may change given a completely different set of circumstances. Answering these kinds of existential questions requires a great deal of wisdom—which frankly—the solutions offered by the Bible are far too narrow in scope. Because were we to simply adhere to the biblical “commandment “thou shalt not kill,” and not permit those who are otherwise dying to be relieved of their suffering, we might be found wanting in the qualities of compassion and mercy.
Writing about the topic of finding the truth is obviously an audacious task. The subject is extremely multifaceted, and one in which we all have much to contribute. That said, I wanted to reiterate a few final points, especially for those who are questioning whether or not Christianity offers the kind of truth they are looking for.
Firstly, no religion offers the total package; i.e., the “whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Nor does one acquire truth or wisdom simply by following a religious system. A little common sense goes a long way. If there were only one religion that expressed the truth, there would be no need for other versions of the truth. But since there are thousands of belief systems – well, you get the point.
Secondly, we are at a wonderful place in history where scientific knowledge has advanced to such a degree that many truths to life have already been revealed. For example, there’s already ample scientific evidence about the origins of the universe and the evolution of our species, and “alternative facts” such as the creation myths described in the book of Genesis only obfuscate this evidence. This tells us that many existential mysteries, which humans have been seeking to solve for thousands of years, have already been solved. One need only dispense with religion to immediately grasp these readily available truths.
Thirdly, as humans we are filled with creativity and capable of great feats of intellectual achievement. We seek answers to simple questions that reveal details about our own personalities, and we entertain conundrums to better understand the principles that govern how our physical world operates or that guide human conduct. We’re also capable of performing the greatest of altruistic acts as well as the most dastardly of deeds. The Bible has done a remarkable job of capturing these human traits, to include many pitiful stories about just how dastardly we—and God—can be. And as any admirer of a red-letter edition of the Bible can testify, the teachings of the itinerant preacher known as Jesus in the subjects of compassion and forgiveness can be taken as truth; meaning, truthful in the sense that if you exercise these qualities they are likely to yield their desired effects.
My own spin is that much of what the Bible has done to capture the thoughts and actions of humanity over the course of the past four thousand years represents a great deal of truth. However, the Bible is limited when it comes to detailing how to acquire a broad spectrum of wisdom.
Which brings me to my last, most important suggestion. Gleaning the wisdom offered in a single book, or following one systemized version of the truth is extremely limiting. Many of us who are former preachers and teachers of the gospels have come to recognize just how narrow “minded” this ancient text can be. If our goal is to acquire wisdom, then it’s necessary to study as much as we can about differing religions, spiritual movements, and other philosophical ideas about life. The more we know, the more able we will be to discern many of the commonalities or overarching principles that apply to all facets of life.
Bio: Scott Stahlecker was raised a Lutheran but converted to Seventh-Day Adventism in 1980. After serving the church in both lay and professional capacities, he left the church in 1990. He identified as an agnostic until 2004 and has been an outspoken atheist ever since. Throughout his life he and his wife have owned many businesses to include hospice agencies in Texas and music stores in Alaska. He is the author of the novel Blind Guides and Picking Wings Off Butterflies, a memoir about raising a child with a traumatic brain injury. He continues to write extensively about the benefits of living life as a freethinking individual. Learn more about him at www.scottstahlecker.com
>>>>Photo Credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5ZOwNK6n9U ; By Thomas Atilla Lewis, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15735536