Testing the Truth-Telling Thing

Testing the Truth-Telling Thing February 1, 2011


“This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive” 

G.K. Chesterton as quoted above in Orthodoxy and Eve Tushnet in the article I linked this weekend are going over some of the same ground. Chesterton was converted not by a single metaphysical proof, but by his conviction that Christianity was in accord with his most essential beliefs about the world, and that, when he and the Church diverged, he usually came around to the other side after investigation. The beliefs he was absolutely sure of pointed him towards the theology.  He did some metaphysical backsliding to bring his theology in line with his ethics and experience.

In some ways, I find myself in a similar position to Chesterton. I find that a lot of Christian theology works for me in a way that plenty of other philosophies have not. When I say ‘works’ I mean pretty much what Chesterton does—that it matches many of the core assumptions I make about the world, and it harmonizes some of the conflicting ones in ways I didn’t expect, but seem to fit. I find plenty of Christian vocabulary to be useful in ethical/philosophical arguments, to the point where my debate friends tend to roll their eyes or yell “Convert already!” when I reference “people’s essential brokenness/woundedness” in a justice debate or Kantianism as flawed because it places duty above love at a debate on ethics as a system of laws.

But I don’t believe. I’m not at all convinced that Christianity is the correct explanation of the world and laws I’ve observed. I’m still trying to find an atheist author for whom I feel as much kinship as I do for C.S. Lewis, but I don’t assume I’ll fail. After all, Christians have the advantage of numbers. Most philosophers I’ve read have been Christians, just as most Western writers since the establishment of Christianity have been Christian. With more authors to pick from, I’d expect that, for many philosophies, it would be easier to find a Christian proponent than an atheist champion.

And I am looking into the Christian tradition which most interests me, essentially cherry-picking. Plenty of the baggage added to Lewis’s mere Christianity in individual denominations is a lot less compelling and easier to contradict. If I think of the principles that I share with Chesterton and Lewis are universally accessible, it’s not surprising that a major religious tradition incorporates them.

The above explanations go far enough toward satisfying me, but most of the Christians I talk to disagree and think that my affinity for Christian doctrine should be enough to push me out of atheism. I’m curious whether any of the atheists who read this blog have sympathy for this view (but Christian comments are also welcome, as always).

Have you ever had a similar problem? Are there particularly Christian ideas that seem true? Would you ever change a metaphysical belief because you found an ethical system that seemed like an upgrade on your old model?

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  • I don't really understand how christians could say that you should convert merely because of your affinity with the christian doctrine. The doctrine is of course essential in christianity, but even more important is the reason christianity exist: because we believe God sent his son, who died and rose from the death. If you don't believe that, you'll have a hard time calling yourself a christian, even though you think about the world / morality / life … in a very similar way.

  • dbp

    I agree with Ciska: if you believe that the central claims of Christianity are actually false, then I think it would be irresponsible to convert on the basis of the fact that it seems to be a worldview with fringe benefits you like. The sensible path, to me, seems to simply keep an honest and open mind to Truth in general and follow where it leads.Still, on the basis of what you've written here, I'm rather perplexed at the following statement: "I’m still trying to find an atheist author for whom I feel as much kinship as I do for C.S. Lewis."It seems to me that you're determined not to let go of atheism, and it's not clear to me why that should be the case. I certainly understand reluctance to affirm a truth-claim for something like Christianity because you don't yet have enough evidence; but it doesn't by any means follow that the logical course is to doggedly affirm the contrary of that same truth-claim.My reading of your blog indicates that you believe in a world with eternal, transcendental truth (inasmuch as things can exist without a necessary identification with particular concrete physical substrates) and an absolute system of ethics based on love (which is above all an interpersonal phenomenon). If you take those as premises, as you seem to, why is a universe with a transcendental, personal being so much less likely than a universe without such? At the very least, for these to be emergent properties of a merely mechanistic universe, the mechanism involved must have in it rather elaborate characteristics which produce such things, and even more so such that these cosmological characteristics could find such a profound and nuanced (and, according to what you have written, accurate!) reflection in just a few pounds of gray matter.But if you accept that such a cosmologically complex picture of a mechanistic universe, the only reason you are doing so is because you are doing some metaphysical backsliding of your own. That's fine, but it certainly isn't science. It's dogmatic (or positive, if you prefer) atheism, and the only reason your backslide ends up there rather than at deism or theism would seem to be because of some predisposition toward the former rather than the latter.

  • I totally an completely agree with your post. I almost could have written it. I have two observations that may come from the fact that most the people I have to talk religion with are blue-collar folk just trying to raise their kids right, rather than ivy-league philosophy majors (well the first one maybe due to this).First, a vast number of common 'christians' don't really care or think about these 'deeper' questions – Lutherans don't know what makes their church Lutheran as opposed to Catholic for instance. Honestly a lot of folks don't put that much 'thought' into at all so when your picking nits it seems irrelevant to them. I personally find it hard to understand how if you actually believe these supernatural things you wouldn't take the theology of it very seriously.Second – I get the distinct impression from reading Chesterton and Lewis that they don't take the 'belief' parts of it all that seriously. I know both these statements will anger the believing readers of your blog, but I think its true. When you read them they sort say "yeah we are asked to believe this nonsense, but myths are fun and who cares anyway" – most atheists I have read find this atrocious thinking. Honestly I can say that I feel I am at that mindset with Lewis and Chesterton on this, but I still don't really believe any of this stuff. Part of me thinks of the parable about the two guys praying, the tax collector who knows he is a sinner and prays for forgiveness and the holy man who knows he isn't sinner, but is making himself a worse sinner because of it! Is it enough to just pretend and do all the stuff a wish for 'forgiveness' or 'grace' on the whole matter? Or is it silly to even think about these things if deep down you know that you just don't actually buy any of the supernatural claims? Maybe I wish that the whole hierarchy took it as lightly as I do, and just pretended they didn't, I don;t know but the whole mindset ends up making you very self conscious when you look around a packed church and think "these people really believe the facts of this?" I do think this creates a little conflict with the orthodox side of believers and Chesterton/Lewis – partly why I find it odd that religious 'conservatives' love Chesterton so much. This conflict is because on the one hand he is promoting the love of mystery and myth… and on the other the church is making continually claims to these things having to be accepted as actual hard historical facts.

  • dbp

    Chesterton promotes the love of mystery and myth because he believes that such a love is part of a human faculty which rightly apprehends the presence of deeper truths in existence beneath the mundane veneer of the world.The truth of specific (non-Christian) myths is not something Chesterton is likely to insist upon, while he would consider it insanity to reject the reality and importance of the myth-making faculty. Why? Precisely because he feels that the inclination to myth inclines us to actual, substantive, objective Truth.In other words, if creatures are actually being wooed by a Mystery, they shouldn't poo-poo mystery categorically. But who would advance such an argument if they didn't believe the premise was true?

  • Erik

    Why assume that because Christians have promoted the Core assumptions you make about the world that all of the add-ons (there is a god, Jesus was god, ect) to the philosophy are also correct without proof? This would be like accepting the word of an astronomer that there is life on mars simply because your experience is that when astronomy tells you the time of sunrise and set and phase of the moon has always been right. Each truth claim must stand or fall on it's own merits. Anything less becomes an argument from authority. Why not instead assume that Christians (and other religions)'have simply co-opted the best arguments from humanism? If the religious really believe these core values perhaps they should consider "converting" to humanism. Not that this makes any more sense than the converse suggestion; the first comment is right that if you ascribe to a religions doctrine you are a member of that religious group and if you don't you aren't. Wishing to belong doesn't make it so. "deconversion" happens only when someone comes to the conclusion that all the stuff added on to the core philosophy is unnecessary and likely untrue.

  • Erik

    AAAARRRRGGGG! its own merits, its own merits! My religion now demands a substantial penance

  • Anonymous

    You are *so * missing the point! You are looking for something that not only keeps you from slitting your own wrists, but also defines your existence. You say you want is irrefutable proof [of what?!] , I say you'll get that proof the same day I get irrefutable proof of the existence of quarks.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I meant "you say what you want is"

  • More likely humanism co-opted the best arguments from Christianity than the other way around.I do think the Passion story is central to Christianity, and also (pace Rene Girard) to humanism. Whether that means one should believe in it is a question. One can believe that something should be taught, even while having skepticism about it.Humanism co-opted from Christianity after Christianity reached its apex of acceptance. In its later phases, humanism was also affected by the Protestant call to educate (or indoctrinate) the laity. I doubt your effort to develop a coherent belief structure would have made sense before the Reformation — pre-Reformation RC laity iwould have delegated determinations of coherence and sense to the monastic orders, as most Buddhists do today outside the United States.In contrast, the Passion story was shaped by the struggle to convert pagans to Christianity in the centuries while Christianity competed for acceptance, before it assumed dominion. Key parts of the Passion story (and emphases of the roles of the characters in it) are teachings which were crafted to buttress the rejection of assaults on the Roman church by Arianism and Donatism in its early years.Religion is a living thing in an ecology — and so is humanism. Most likely both are Lamarckian not Mendelian, of course. That suggests that adherence is somewhat ahistorical and fanciful since separability of one religion from another is impossible to completely carry out.On the other hand, dedication to a religious doctrine may be part of why a religion kills its opposition and achieves a worldly dominion. If you want to be a soldier of the faith, you probably want to yield to a hierarchy and accept a code of military justice. But there's no reason you need to volunteer to be a soldier, is there? Religious wars seem passe.( no doubt some "humanist" athiests and communists will disagree )

  • How refreshing! Normally, I am in the position of hearing from atheists whose stunning obtuseness about elementary common sense makes me feel like shouting. Suddenly, I am confronted with an atheist who is willing to acknowledge the intellectual attractiveness of the Faith.So, for the first time in a long while, I get to say "Don't listen to the Christians screaming at you to convert already." Take your time. Walk all the way around the thing. Kick the tires and look under the hood. Jesus' counsel is, surprisingly, "count the cost". Why? Because as Bonhoeffer says, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." If the Catholic faith is true (and it is) it means you are being called into a saving relationship with a crucified man who says "You are to be like me." That's a hell of a lot more than signing off on an abstract acknowledgement that there might, after all, be a Ground of Being.Doesn't meand "dawdle and delay forever" (Jesus also has choice words for those who put their hand to the plow and look back). But it does mean that the Catholic faith has no problem with you taking your time and really checking it out for holes. The confidence of the Faith is that, however many difficulties you find, you will never find a real doubt.So: no pressure. But stay the course and keep seeking the light. He certainly gives it to anybody who really wants it, and you act an awful lot like the genuine article, Leah.

  • I'd certainly be interested, Leah, in hearing what specifically it is that you find appealing about Christianity. Feel free to just point me to earlier posts if you've written about this in more detail before, as I'm sure you have.You mentioned the numbers thing, that Christian philosophers have had the numerical majority just as they've had in larger civilization, and there's probably some truth to that. But I'd take this point a little further: I'd say that there are so many different threads of tradition within Christian thought itself that it's pretty easy for just about anyone to find one that appeals to them. This is probably an inevitable development in any belief system that's been around for as long and spanned as many cultures as Christianity has.Just in political terms, for instance, Christian thinkers have spanned the entire political spectrum, from the very furthest left to the very furthest right. I could talk about the liberation-theology minister who once gave a guest talk at my UU church in which he argued that the parable of the vineyard was not, as is commonly thought, a theological story about who gets to go to heaven, but an actual economic lesson calling for fairness for unjustly treated workers. (No kidding.) Then, of course, there's the religious right, which firmly believes that Jesus advocated slashing the capital-gains tax.Same thing on almost any moral issue you'd care to contemplate. Environmentalism? There are Christians who say protecting the planet is a sacred trust, and Christians who say it's an evil pagan plot. Contraception and abortion? There are Christians who cheer it and Christians who revile it. Gays and lesbians? Some Christians make them bishops, others think they should be hanged or stoned (sadly, as recent events in Uganda show, this is not a figure of speech). There are Christians who are absolutists, postmodernists, and everything in between.

  • Matt

    It's weird to me that someone would use theology to substantiate their own claims about the world. Wouldn't you use investigation and reason to substantiate those claims?In other words, reason and empirical investigation are "truth-telling" things, and they directly conflict with theological claims. I'm surprised to read an atheist that values Lewis for anything other than his literary prowess. He was an absolutely horrid apologetic and most of his arguments were riddled with logical fallacies and faulty premises. His "three L's" argument should be mandatory in any introduction to logical fallacies.

  • Well, one need note that there's an old dispute about seeming versus being with respect to "being a Christian". Jonathan Israel's wonderful tomes on the Radical Enlightenment are all about how that dispute evolved until the French Revolution made it finally possible for the radicals and atheists to fully come out of the closet on the Continent. In the USA, I suspect the radicals chose to stay in their Masonic lodges and limit themselves to mumbling. Meanwhile John Locke books were sold throughout the colony saying any atheist should be stripped of their civil rights and imprisoned or put to death because they have no morality. Later on, if you were an atheist you were a Communist, or at least not fit to teach. You can still become a persona no grata in some (many) parts by declaring you're an atheist. Your co-workers could call you a sower of unnecessary controversy.On the other hand, under a big Christian tent, you have no such risk. I vote for big tents. If you are not a believer, and you don't avail yourself of a big tent when it's there and available to you, perhaps you need to go to a social skills class. Tell your friends, tell your intimates, tell your family that you're an athiest. Don't put it on the Internet and don't bring it to work. Or move to France or another enlightened country.Of course, the reality that many people in the USA do just that is ground for the rumors that Obama's an atheist. God forbid Obama fall on a banana peel and defend his right to be one. It would be proof positive.

  • A Philosopher

    Here are two candidate truth-telling things you're confronted with (among others): yourself, and Christianity. You find at least a prima facie attractiveness to Christianity because you find it does well as a truth-teller. However, obviously the verdicts of you disagree with the verdicts of Christianity on at least some points. It thus follows that you find yourself more reliable as a truth-teller than Christianity, and if you're selecting systems based on their reliability as truth-tellers, you should prefer your own system to Christianity.Mildly related point: as a general rule, if you think your metaphysics and your ethics are contradicting each other, and that you might have to shift your metaphysics to retain your ethics, you're almost definitely wrong. The inferential links between ethics and metaphysics are subtle and complex; as a rough rule pretty much any metaphysical position is compatible with pretty much any ethical position.

  • orgostrich

    There are two points I'd like to make:1- I think it is also important to remember that your "core values" did not emerge from a vacuum. Assuming you grew up in America, even if your parents were not religious, you were likely raised in a predominantly Christian environment. Christian ethics and metaphysics can be found everywhere in this country, so whether they are objectively true or not, it is not surprising that you intuitively agree with some of them. I don't think it is therefore valid to use that agreement as evidence that Christianity is a special truth-telling thing. That being said, I do believe in objective morality, and agree with a lot of Christian ethics. If someone could show me a necessary and sufficient link between the resurrection and objective moral truth, I might change my mind about the whole religion. 2- I've been trying for about a year to defend/explain objective morality in a universe without a God, and I've failed so far. I'm specifically caught on the evolutionary disadvantages of true altruism. Christianity seems to explain this better (souls and a connection to an omnibenevolent God), but I'm not giving up yet. Even if I did decide they were simply contradictory, I'm more likely to drop objective morality than to drop atheism. If you ever find any resource that helps explain this, please post it!

  • Leah, 3 points:1. What Ebonmuse said.2. Most Christians today are not 'real' Christians. There is a perfectly accessible book that you can read that describes what a Christian should be, which rules they should follow and how they should act. Read The Bible again.3. You grew up, like most Christians, in a relatively secular, liberal, economically successful democracy. You see the Christians around you adopt the same culture you have and mould their religion around that and then seem surprised that you are attracted by some of the modern Christianity you see. Is that really surprising?There were some perfectly good writers around who didn't like Christianity (although they believed in a higher power) and I'd suggest reading some Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson to see if there's anything in their writing that is appealing to you. It has the benefit of being intellectually stimulating too, whereas religion tends to go for the emotions.

  • Interesting post. I think it would be interesting to hear you expand on what you find compelling from Christianity in terms of it explaining your worldview so well. I can agree with some of these ideas… but wonder if they can't be expained in other ways?Are we simply bound to desire improvement and be frustrated by limitations and slow progress?Or are we actually "broken or wounded?"The Christian concept of brokenness or woundedness is specifically linked to the belief that we were literally created in a perfect state and then fell from it, and are now plagued by the aftermath. If you don't believe that, then I don't know if it's right to say that you mean the same thing when you use those terms.Perhaps other phrases of yours are like that? Maybe the language conveys the human plight… but it's utterly devoid from all of the other stuff that actually makes it part of the Christian belief system.Does that make sense?Off the cuff, it makes me think of saying that because if I go to one of the Dakotas and say, "Geez, I can see forever" it would mean I really find the beliefs of the flat-earthers useful and attractive even though I don't really subscribe to their "theology." In reality, only a few words are common and the rest is completely divorced. I think that's what I'm trying to "wonder" by this comment.How much really is common and how much just happens to be some words you both use?

  • I think you would have a good time speaking with Jennifer Fulwiler at http://www.conversiondiary.com

    Check it out.