Friday, December 30, 2011

IDHEF - Chapter 1: Can We Handle the Truth?

This is part of my breakdown of the book "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist." Related posts can be found by clicking here.

   The chapter starts out with quotes from A Few Good Men, particularly the famous line, "You can't handle the truth!" The authors then go on to point out the hypocrisy that people tend to demand truth in everything else but religion and morality.
...Why do we demand truth in everything but morality and religion? Why do we say, "That's true for you but not for me," when we're talking about morality or religion, but we never even think of such nonsense when we're talking to a stock broker about our money or a doctor about our health? (p36)
I pretty much agree, as I have written about in the past and will continue to write about in the future. Where I begin to differ is on the explanation for this.
Although few would admit it, our rejection of religious and moral truth is often on volitional rather than intellectual grounds—we just don't want to be held accountable to any moral standards or religious doctrine. (p36)
Have they considered that few would admit it because they find it to not be true? Furthermore, where is there evidence to back up this claim? Perhaps the better explanation lies in cognitive dissonance. This is a well-studied theory in psychology.
Dissonance is aroused when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one's belief, the dissonance can result in misperception or rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others to restore consonance.
An early version of cognitive dissonance theory appeared in Leon Festinger's 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails. This book gave an inside account of the increasing belief which sometimes follows the failure of a cult's prophecy. The believers met at a pre-determined place and time, believing they alone would survive the Earth's destruction. The appointed time came and passed without incident. They faced acute cognitive dissonance: had they been the victim of a hoax? Had they donated their worldly possessions in vain? Most members chose to believe something less dissonant: the aliens had given earth a second chance, and the group was now empowered to spread the word: earth-spoiling must stop. The group dramatically increased their proselytism despite the failed prophecy.
This theory explains why Harold Camping hasn't apologized for wrongly predicting the end of the world and may also explain how a sex abuse scandal at Penn State was covered up. It has much to do with protecting previously held beliefs and little to do with not wanting to be "held accountable." And the more deeply held the belief, which religious and moral beliefs tend to be, the more defensive a person will likely be toward that belief. One possible way, I think, to reduce dissonance to protect one's beliefs is to claim there is no such thing as truth.

   While the following example is a work of fiction, it is an example of a person reducing dissonance. In the clip, Sheldon says he is going to teach evolution to creationists. Sheldon's mother informs him that evolution is his opinion. He rebuts her by pointing out that evolution is a fact. In order to reduce dissonance and maintain her belief in creationism, she replies with, "And that's your opinion!" This is very similar to the idea from the book of "that's true for you but not for me" quoted above.

Video embedding disabled. Click here to go to video on YouTube.

   I also think this might be part of the reason we see religious people rejecting objective truth—when scientific discovery contradicts what is in the Bible (just look at Genesis chapter 1 for a ton of contradictions), how does one preserve their belief in the Bible? A common method is to say that much of the Bible is just metaphor (or "it's not meant to be taken literally"). Another possibility could be to just say that there is no thing as truth.

   I have more alternative solutions to why Christians would deny truth as opposed to the authors' suggestion of avoiding accountability and their finger pointing at liberals, relativism, and postmodernism (see the "The Road Runner Tactic" and "The Road Runner Goes to College" subsections). If these are really the problems, then why do 91% of evangelicals, according to Christian apologist Josh McDowell, believe there is "no absolute truth apart from myself"? My suggestions involve population growth as well as the goals of the emerging church movement (in addition to contradictions to science as already mentioned). Starting with population growth, it used to be in America that individual Christian sects (let's try to remember that Christians are not united under one church) could form their own communities away from other Christian sects, reducing interaction with such groups. In other words, Lutherans could stay away from Catholics, Baptists could stay away from Catholics, Pentecostals could stay away from...well, pretty much everyone else, and so on. When the population grows and these sects are forced to interact with each other more, how can they deal with their theological disagreements? One solution would be to go back to the days of persecuting each other, much like what was being done in England that resulted in some of these groups moving to America. Another solution is to declare that differences in theology are "true for you." (Another solution would be for their god to come sort things out, but I don't foresee that ever happening.) The same goes for the emerging church movement, which seems to have the goal of bringing Christian sects together to fight for common goals. Now, I notice the Wikipedia page for this, as well as for evangelicalism, note postmodern influences.

   I have recently begun reading "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" by Susan Jacoby. In the first chapter, she states, "As defenders of monolithic state-established churches have always known, the presence of many religions, unchecked by the inquisitor's rack and pyre, tends to impeach the claim of any religion to absolute truth and spiritual authority" (p 15). As this chapter was on the Revolutionary period, this would suggest this idea of there being no truth has existed at some level for the entire existence of the United States.

   With all that, I suspect this idea that Christians have about there being no such thing as truth due to postmodern influences is actually a chicken and the egg problem (or, in other words, there is likely confusion between correlation and causation). Is it postmodernism influencing Christianity or is it that Christianity developed similar ideas simultaneously with postmodernism? Honestly, I do not know for sure, but I am skeptical of the suggestion that "liberal" postmodern ideas, especially ideas that seem to be more dominate in Europe—or maybe these ideas are bigger along the coasts of the US, but I have not observed them here in the Midwest—would have such an influence on even some of the most conservative Christian sects.

   I almost forgot about the problem of seminary, though this has much more impact on the pastors than it likely does the parishioners. The problem is that, apparently, most seminary schools, if not all, teach about how the Bible was written and they learn the textual criticisms...things you won't learn reading this book. (As an example, most scholars place the dates the various Gospels were written to be much later than do the authors of this book. I'll address this in more detail in those later chapters.) In the Introduction, Frank talked about a class teaching about the Old Testament. He said this was at the University of Rochester, but such a class could realistically be held at a seminary school. This will lead to cognitive dissonance amongst the religious students. At which point, they have a decision to make: they can either abandon their belief in light of the bad evidence they have to support it or they can come up with excuses to keep their belief. "It's true for me" sounds like a good one.

   Note #1: One potential problem to stating that truth does not exist is the dissonance it could create in other situations, such as those the authors pointed out like "want[ing] the truth from advertisers, teachers, and politicians," etc. My thoughts on this are that excuses to reduce dissonance in one area are not actually a person's belief; therefore, dissonance would not occur in those other areas. In other words, these people that claim that there is no such thing as truth do not actually believe what they claim about truth. They use it to reduce dissonance only when needed, but it is never going to cause dissonance. Yes, it makes these people hypocritical. I find no reason to suspect they would even notice their hypocrisy.

   Note #2: I'd like to provide a slight apology of my own. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself and go into all of the scholarly facts about the Bible until it becomes relevant to the book, yet here I made a reference to those facts without presenting them. Thus, I have made a claim without providing the evidence to back it up. I'm not asking that you take my argument on "faith," but to consider it for the time being and you can come back and reevaluate it later after I have presented my evidence.


   I want to start out this section by pointing out that the authors seem to be jumping the gun here. The whole point of this book is to follow a 12-point progression, one of those points being whether or not the New Testament is historically reliable. And here are the authors using a story from the New Testament to support a point in the progression before demonstrating the reliability of the New Testament. I'm not overly concerned as the truth of this story is not critical to their point, but I feel it is worth noting.

   Shortly after this, we get the bizarre again, as they did in the Introduction. This happens in the discussion about a debate between author Norm Geisler and Michael Constantine Kolenda. Supposedly, Kolenda had said, "These Christians are very narrow-minded people. I read Dr. Geisler's book. Do you know what he believes? He believes that Christianity is true and everything opposed to it is false!" (p37)
   They follow with Norm's reply: "These humanists are very narrow-minded people. Do you know what he believes? He believes that humanism is true and everything opposed to it is false!" (p37)
   Now, I do not know what Kolenda actually wrote in his book that Norm was referring to, but, I am a humanist and I know that humanism, just like atheism and skepticism, does not make any positive claims. Like skepticism, humanism is an approach...a methodology. So, when the authors say, "Humanist truth claims are just as narrow as Christian truth claims" (p37), this is a misrepresentation of humanism, which makes this a straw man argument.

   They next go into the "truths about truth." I agree with all of them except for this last one that "all truths are absolute truths." It honestly depends on our definition of "absolute." Per typical definitions, and ones typically used by apologists as well, it essentially means "not to be doubted or questioned." But, as I have said before, it is good to always be open-minded. Additionally, in science, there are no absolutes. We can be highly certain about things, but never absolutely certain. So, unless one is using a non-dictionary definition of "absolute," like say one that means something vague like "far beyond a reasonable doubt," one should not claim that there are absolute truths. Otherwise, I have no issue with the example they gave with that bullet point.

   I do have to take a small step back now, based on what we will stumble upon in Chapter 2. In the section "HOW IS TRUTH KNOWN?" the authors state that "Most conclusions based on induction cannot be considered absolutely certain, but only highly probable" (p64). This is basically what I just said in the last paragraph. It seems what is going on is that here in Chapter 1, they are speaking about truth itself and in Chapter 2, they are speaking about how we know truth. There is still a slight problem here in Chapter 1, though. If we can't be absolutely sure, as in their Chapter 2 example, that something like gravity is absolute, then they can't say here in Chapter 1 that "[a]ll truths are absolute truths." It seems the point that they are trying to make is that truth is not subjective, but, if this is the case, the words they should have used are "subjective" instead of relative and "objective" instead of "absolute." (To top things off, they also used subjective language—feel—in their example. The point seems to be that it is objective fact that Frank felt warm on the day listed, even though the feeling itself is subjective. For example, did Frank feel warm because the temperature was actually warm, or was it all in his head? If you find this all to be confusing, don't feel bad. I find it confusing as well, which is why I have now spent two long paragraphs on just these few sentences.)

   There are then the "The Road Runner Tactic" and "The Road Runner Goes To College" subsections. I don't have much to say on these except this following quote explains much the reason why I am an outspoken atheist. I am working on some posts related to this and may add the links later. For now, here is the quote:
Ideas have consequences. Good ideas have good consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences (p40).


   I only have a few points to make in this section. For starters, I really dislike how apologists (not just the authors of this book) like to use anecdotal stories to make their point. And they're not all that convincing of stories. Norman , who is telling the story about his encounter with a man he names as Don, claims that Don was "apparently eager to have a Bible thumper for desert" (p42). This seems to be an attempt to give Don the appearance of possibly being a fierce opponent. So, when Norman "defeats" his opponent, we get to see how effective—supposedly—Norman's argument is. To an informed atheist, such as myself, it's not that impressive.
   The big red flag was that this Don didn't understand the difference between atheism and agnosticism and how they are not mutually exclusive. There is also the confusion between what is possible and what is probable, which we have already encountered before in the Introduction, as well as the authors' straw man of atheism. The following is the text to which I am referring:
   Don looked stunned for a second but then narrowed his eyes and said, "To tell you the truth: I don't believe in God. I'm an atheist."
   "You're an atheist?"
   "That's right!"
   "Well, are you absolutely sure there is no God?" I asked him.
   He paused, and said, "Well, no, I'm not absolutely sure. I guess it's possible there might be a God."
   "So, you're not really an atheist, then—you're an agnostic," I informed him, "because an atheist says, 'I know there is no God,' and an agnostic says 'I don't know whether there is a God.'" (p42-43)

   The only other thing I want to make a quick note about is that the authors are again referring to philosophical skepticism in the middle of page 43 as opposed to methodological skepticism, as was done in the Introduction.


   I don't have anything to say on the first part, so I'm skipping forward to the subsection, "Truth vs. Tolerance." (I will also be skipping over the subsection "Once I Was Blind but Now I See" as I have nothing to say there either.) The first part here that I would like to address is this idea that "we should accept and respect people who have different religious beliefs" (p46). We saw a similar idea presented in the Prefece. As I said there, I would think if one is going to respect people, that would mean you don't evangelize. Would that not be the respectful thing to do? Yet, just two pages before this, we had a story about Norm evangelizing. So, I find their choice of words to not mean what the intend to say. (For one other thing, respect should be earned; it should not be a given.) It would seem what they don't want to do is harass people, which used to be the norm in Europe 400 years ago. (Remember, it was religious persecution that brought many of the first English settlers to America.) They seem to have no problem with challenging people's beliefs, which is fine; I agree with that. The line between challenging and harassing can be a thin line, but challenging beliefs is good. As the authors said earlier, "good ideas have good consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences" (p40). The same goes for beliefs, which are, after all, basically ideas that people think are true. Therefore, if one does not appreciate bad consequences, they should not necessarily accept or respect people who hold bad beliefs. And, to be clear, not respecting someone does not necessarily equate to harassing or persecuting that person.

   My second objection is their claim that "you ought not question someone's religious beliefs" (p47) is exclusive and intolerant. The problem I have centers around the word "ought," which is a suggestive verb as opposed to a command verb like "do." This makes a significant difference in the "exclusiveness" of the statement, yet the authors treat this as though it were a command. I personally disagree with that suggestion, but it is not exclusive and intolerant as the authors suggest. They continue this straw man argument into the next paragraph, but I don't see a need to say any more.

   The next thing I must address is with their fifth point, in which they say that "pluralists misinterpret Jesus' comments on judging [Matt. 7:1-5]. Jesus did not prohibit against judging as such, only judging hypocritically" (p47). For reference, the NIV translation reads as follows:
1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Basically I just want to ask is how do they figure they know what Jesus meant by this (assuming he actually existed and actually said this)? Sure, the last verse says "you hypocrite," but I think one could argue that the first two verses suggest that everyone is a hypocrite. But I don't seriously want to get into a debate on interpretation. It just amazes me (OK, it actually frustrates me) the way apologists will say they know the correct way to interpret the Bible. Doesn't everyone?

   Lastly, I'll just chip in that I agree with the last paragraph of this subsection. Except I am going to twist it on its head and point out that, likewise, if Christianity is not true, then it would be unloving to not suggest to any Christian that their religious belief is false.

   The last section is just the Summary and I have nothing to add, so I will see you again in Chapter 2!

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