This article may or may not be all over the place, and rather long. I’m hoping it will pull together some of my ongoing themes, and to that end I’ll be linking several of my older posts. If you haven’t read them yet, I would encourage you to read each one as you come to the link. I think all of them together will give a clearer and more comprehensive picture of the issues I’m addressing. The combined length of everything is in the range of a small book, so it may take you a little while.
I first ventured into the subject of knowledge and truth several months ago with this post, which is sort of an abstract philosophy piece about the nature of knowledge. Looking back, I can see that my ideas at the time were just beginning to form, and it’s a glimpse at the incomplete foundation on which I was starting to build new ideas. I’m sure several months in the future this article will look the same, and that thought excites me. What new things might I discover?
Lately I’ve been reading Carl Sagan’s excellent book The Demon-Haunted World. I’ve found it particularly interesting because he makes many points that I’ve already written or thought about on my own. While it feels good to find your own thoughts expressed by a highly intelligent and respected person in a bestselling book, it would of course be a fallacy to think it’s evidence they are true. We want to stay away from logical fallacies, and no matter how intelligent Sagan was, him saying something doesn’t make it true.
Before I had read anything by him, I quoted Sagan in my post about The Path to a Free Mind (as I write this, my reading progress in his book is, by chance, paused at the very page on which that quote is found). In that post I began tackling the issue of truth in religion. It is common for religion to claim an absolute truth, and all reasoning within the religion is expected to conform to what has already been established. This is a problem because history proves that humanity is very good at believing lies. In order for your belief system to honestly lead you toward the truth, it must have a method built-in to effectively separate truth and lies, and discard ideas that don’t work.
In my opinion, the way of thinking that is most effective at policing its own claims is the scientific method. Carl Sagan gives some practical advice on the matter in his “baloney detection kit”. It presents a starkly different alternative to most religious thinking, in that it pursues the truth by seeking to prove itself wrong, rather than seeking to prove itself right. Of course, individual scientists can easily become biased and manipulate evidence to support their ideas, but the basic method of thinking and investigating is designed to reduce the effects of bias when applied correctly.
Religion has no way to police its own claims. The changes in large organized religions happen in response to shifting culture, not plain evidence and logic. Christian apologetics, I believe, hides evidence and ignores logic in order to protect an assumption, such as the great assumption of Christianity that the Bible is perfect and true. The study of apologetics does not seek to honestly evaluate all the evidence, but to find arguments that are effective against problematic evidence. In my article A Search for Truth I gave a simple example of how that sort of thinking can very easily lead to believing falsehoods.
I also proposed that logic itself is a much stronger foundation on which to base your search for truth than a religious book. Logic does not make a claim of any particular truth, because it isn’t an ideology. It is rather a basic law of the universe, or as I put it, “the substance from which truth is formed”. There can be no truth without logic, no sentient thought, and in fact nothing at all can exist without logic. The very fabric of the cosmos is governed by logic; order is by definition logical. Without logic, there would be nothing but absolute chaos.
It seems like a difficult and abstract concept, but it shouldn’t be. Logic is merely a property of the universe and everything in it, something that says, “if this, then that”. If you add 2 and 2, then you get 4. If two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen are bound together, then you get a water molecule. Logic is to ideas, concepts, and events what mathematical symbols are to equations. I’ve had Christians ask me where logic comes from. You may as well ask where mathematics comes from; it’s all around you, an integral part of the universe on every scale. You may claim that your God created logic if you wish, but I would argue that for a sentient God to exist logic would also have to exist, which would make it as eternal as your God.
The use of logic, however complex it can get, is fundamentally very simple. You start with a truth…let’s say, the fact that humans have a sense of morality. You want to use that truth to find more truth, for example, the reason we have a sense of morality. In order to go from “we have morality” to “we have morality because“, I need to gather evidence. I need to fill in the variables of the equation that will lead to a logically valid conclusion. That does not mean the conclusion will be true, only that it’s a possible truth. Logic is useful to eliminate false options, and it’s only by eliminating all options but one that you can arrive at absolute truth. So really, what we’re doing is trying to get a little closer to truth.
Let’s consider the Christian claim that in order for morality to exist, or to make sense, there has to be a lawgiver. For the sake of a simpler argument, let’s narrow it down further to the specific claim that there is a perfect and unchanging God who has laid down an absolute standard of morality. What evidence is there for this claim? The Bible, of course. So the “truth” we are trying to verify is that the Bible is the ultimate and binding source of morality.
There’s one question I would ask someone who makes such a claim: “Do you believe it is morally wrong to kill a family member or friend who converts to a different religion and then tries to convince you to convert as well?”
Suppose the person says yes, that is a morally wrong thing to do. I can conclude logically that either they believe morality is relative, or they are ignorant of their own scriptures and thus their interpretation is uninformed and cannot be taken seriously. Why? In that one article I wrote with a click-bait headline, I looked at a passage from the Christian Bible in which God commands exactly the thing I laid out in my question. If it is morally wrong to do such a thing, morality must be relative, because what was right for the Israelites long ago is wrong for us now (we are assuming here that anything God says to do is morally right). My next questions might be, “What gives you the right to decide that something God commanded is no longer morally right? Isn’t it good simply because he commanded it? If morality is an absolute standard, why does it change so much over time and across cultures?” What’s really happening here? Is the Christian actually relying solely on the Bible for their moral direction?
I believe that morality is inherent to (almost) all humans. It is a logical extension of empathy as I explained in this article, because empathy is what drives your sense of justice. These people claim to strictly follow the Bible’s morality, but their own morality objects to parts of it, so they must find a way to explain why those parts are no longer in effect. Using the same reasoning, I could explain why the entire Bible is no longer in effect. Both of our moral systems come from the same place, but they use an old book as their basis for reasoning, while I prefer to use pure logic. But logic, it seems, has provided a stronger foundation than the Bible, since my model can explain every single system of morality in existence, as well as the self-contradictions in them. Our morality is imperfect because we are imperfect and empathy adds an element of subjectivity, not because logic is a bad foundation.
Some have asked why we should trust logic more than the Bible. The assumption seems to be that both of them are impartial things that we can either use correctly or incorrectly. While it’s certainly true that logic can be used badly (remember, valid conclusions can still be false), the Bible is far different. The Bible claims to be much more than logic is, and everyone has a different interpretation of it. That in itself should raise a red flag–why is a perfect book, inspired by an omnipotent being, impossible to agree on? Even humans can write carefully enough to remove any doubt about what their words mean. I would expect a perfect God to produce an astonishingly clear and understandable book. Nevertheless, Christians often claim that we can’t trust our own reasoning so we need to trust a holy scripture. This claim is self-defeating, because you’re using your own reasoning to decide that the Bible is trustworthy, and to decide what its confusing words mean. Even if you believe the Bible is the absolutely true word of God, that belief is still based on your own reasoning and assumptions.
Logic, on the other hand, is much simpler. Either you understand it or you don’t. There’s no ambiguity; your argument is either logical or not. And despite all our arguing, despite our frequent failures to use logic correctly, we can still agree on exactly what constitutes valid logic. No such consensus can be reached for Biblical interpretation. So every single one of us is relying on our own reason to support our beliefs, and every single one of us lives by a morality that is fundamentally no more than a specific application of empathy.
In my latest article, I explored the issue of evidence. When it comes to Christian apologetics, many things are given as evidence that do not point definitively to the Bible being true. How did the Bible endure and Christianity spread so far, if it isn’t true? But you can ask the same of many religions, and when you think about it, that’s not evidence at all. What if I asked you, “How was spaghetti invented, and how did it become so popular, if the Flying Spaghetti Monster isn’t real?” It’s the same argument, and it’s a fallacy. Ideas can and do spread across the world and endure for millennia despite being false, and there are countless examples of common misconceptions that started with one person writing a book, or saying something, or being misunderstood. There are even documented cases of widespread false memories, called the “Mandela Effect” by some people who think it’s an indication of parallel universes. Ideas truly are like viruses, and they can spread and mutate rapidly.
The claim that we need any specific religion in order to be morally good is nothing more than a long-standing misconception. In fact, at least in America, prison inmates are disproportionately religious, and there is an interesting correlation between areas with larger populations of Christians and a higher incidence of various moral issues, such as porn use, teen pregnancy, divorce, racism, violent crime, as well as other issues like poverty and obesity. Is it irrelevant that the least religious countries in the world are among the happiest and least violent? Even though correlation does not prove causation, the data must have something to say. I touched on my own hypothesis in the article How Christianity Perpetuates “Sin”, and toward the end of my article on Calvinism. However you interpret the facts, one thing should be obvious: a religious basis for morality has proven no better than a secular one, at least on a social scale. You may feel that you need the structure of a religion to keep you from murdering or raping, but don’t make the mistake of assuming everyone does.
I think religion, in its most common form, is what occurs when someone stops trying to verify a hypothesis and instead constructs a convoluted shell of protective arguments that render the hypothesis impossible to test, prove, or disprove. In order to maintain a stable and comforting “truth”, evidence that would disprove the hypothesis is assumed to be false without investigation. Fortunately, as we learn more about our universe, reality replaces our old superstitions and we become less religious, because when reality conflicts with your beliefs, it isn’t reality that’s going to change. Why not subscribe to a method of thinking that leads the way in eradicating lies?