Saturday, September 6, 2008

THE universal truth

PREAMBLE: This post started out as an attempt to write a comment on a post by Jen F on conversiondiary about Truth and Religion. But it got too long and I realized it would fit better here. The comments I read there are an excellent supplement to this post - if you've got some time, read through them, and see if what I'm saying would help these people to find some common ground.

Also, as I've said before, I think there are some universal truths that can unite everyone behind a common purpose. I've been going back and forth with Uncle E now for several weeks, trying to nail down some core belief that we share. I can't be sure that I've got it yet, but I think I might be on to something. So here you go.

I've always thought that beneath all of the religions, there is some "objective truth", that they're all looking for. And they all have bits and pieces of it, but the real objective truth is so profound that it's hard to hold in your head. It's what I'd call a God-scale concept. So it gets corrupted, dumbed down, or stories get built on top of it in an effort to explain something that is very much beyond our full understanding. And cynics use people's innate desire to find the truth to gain power and influence for themselves. And the question becomes "which religion should I adopt?" or "Which religion is the most true?", which boils down to "Which truth-fairytale with power-mongering built in should I believe?"

The problem is, people feel a real need to know "the truth", so they make all kinds of justifications and rationalizations why the false stories and power-mongering are in fact a good thing, and part of the "real truth".

So what do you do? My answer has been that the truths religions are trying to tell are true for all religions, we just don't understand exactly what they are yet. So I've tried to look for things in what everyone is saying, from all of the different religions, and the atheist community, that might represent a common ground, because I think that common ground is the truth.

I've come up with something simple, that I've really known all along, I just haven't articulated in exactly the way I did with Uncle E just recently, and will do here now. The simple truth is, we all have a conscience, and we all use it to determine "real" truth.

Don't scream moral relativist yet. Because there's a little bit of faith here. The faith is that my conscience comes from wherever it is that truth comes from, and will reliably guide me to do whatever it is I should be doing with my life. With any religion, you are pressured to take on faith any of the claims of that religion that you can't prove with evidence. I've found that that one assumption, that one single leap of faith about the truth of my conscience, gives me all of the benefits I can find in any of the religions, and it has none of the mind-bending baggage that comes with trying to believe that EVERYTHING a particular religion says is true. Not only do I not have to believe everything a particular religion says, I can look at a religion's claims and decide whether I think they are true or false, without worrying about whether I will have to re-write my entire world view.

Really, I think most people who are not born and raised in a particular religion, but actively make the decision to enter it, do so because their conscience tells them something about it represents the real truth. So what they're doing is trusting their consciences, but not fully realizing that's what's guiding them, and ending up letting something else (a particular doctrine) guide them over the long term, which leads to problems.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that's the one thing that unites religious people. Whatever conception of God you have, you keep it because your conscience tells you it's right enough (many find it's not perfect), not because of any other logical justification you may be able to give me or anyone else.

Think I'm wrong? Think about this for a second. If your conscience told you the church you were in was not where you should be, would you think your conscience was defective and continue to follow that religion, or would you leave? Sure, you would question, and possibly wonder if you were going nuts, but in the end, what would you do?

This is a tough question for a lot of people, because their idea of conscience is so tied up with a particular religion's ideas. And when I discussed this with Uncle E, who has been Catholic for 45 years, after a day, he came back and said that conscience trumps Jesus, and if his conscience told him he had to leave the church he would do so. But he said that even though this was the case, his belief in God was the most important thing, even more than his belief in the correctness of his conscience, because without God there would be nowhere for a "true" conscience to come from. So atheism is still out, conscience in his view doesn't unify theists and atheists.

The problem is that when people say "God", they almost always mean a particular kind of God. For example, the "There is only one, worship no Gods before me" kind you get with monotheism, or the one that made us in its image you get with Christianity. But if you think about it, do we know this for sure? Do we know there is only one God? I've wondered, what if the universe was made so that there is one objective truth, and a real way to tell good from bad, but it was made by a group of gods working together as a community? Many Gods, but one Plan for the universe. Does anyone have a reason besides "My religion says no" why this couldn't be true?

I asked Uncle E. this question this morning, because he put forward a belief in God as the source of our consciences as the foundational truth he and I did not share. But the thing is, if you want to call "the source of our consciences, and the source of a real objective truth we should seek for" God, then OK, I believe in God then, because I do think my conscience means something and will guide me well. But what does this God look like? Are we sure there is only one? Are we sure God is the first cause, instead of being made by the first cause and in turn making the universe? Are we sure about anything about God, other than the fact that since we have a conscience that is such a marvelous guide to what we should do in life, God must exist as the source of that?

I think we can verify the reality of our conscience, and through that make a valid argument for the existence of God, but that doesn't allow us to argue for a particular conception of God. And since our conscience is what we use to decide what conception of God to accept, God isn't more important in our daily lives, it's our conscience that matters. Put another way, A belief that our conscience will guide us well is more important than any particular conception of God.

If, instead of "My God is the source of my conscience, so an assault on my God is an assault on the truth of the idea that my conscience could guide me reliably", people said "My conscience determines which God I accept as real", I think that might solve a lot of problems. In a few words: My conscience is the foundation of my beliefs., instead of My God is the foundation of my beliefs

It's the reverse of how Uncle E. looked at things. I wonder, now that I've pointed this out, what he'll say?

UPDATE: His response is:
I think a lot of this, like Einstein's relativity, depends on the position of the observer in relation to the observed. From my viewpoint, it might be conscience and truth first, God second, but the truth is that God came way first, and I am just a late arrival. It can be helpful noting how it looks from my viewpoint, but that is very parochial, and the non egocentric viewpoint is the more truthful one overall. But I suspect that distinction of observer may be one cause of our disagreements.

If you look at your conscience as being the source of your beliefs, it does unify you with everyone else, including most atheists I've talked to. Because, if you're an atheist, how do you choose your moral structure? Should it be utilitarianism, empathy, survival of the fittest, some other concept, or some mix of these? Your answer will often depend on looking at the effects of the various alternatives and thinking about which one your conscience likes the best. So there's an important but rarely highlighted distinction between religious people plus conscience-following atheists, and those (predominantly atheist, but also possibly extremist holy-book-thumper religious) who think it's not important to follow their conscience because it's not as reliable as some other guide to action (logic/scripture).

So, to the religious people: what do you think? Could you regard yourself as being "on the same side" with someone who had a completely different conception of God, or didn't believe in God at all, but acknowledged that following your conscience is how you should live your life? Or is God truly more important to you than following your conscience?

UPDATE, in response to Uncle E's thoughts: And, if viewing your conscience as primary (the source of any coneption of God you will accept) allows you to work with everyone else for a better world, is the parochialism of this view justified by its effects? It's an "ends justify the means" agrument, I know, but I've often wondered if I should support a religion that I'm pretty sure is not 100% true, because of the beneficial effects. This is just that same question rephrased, except instead of a religion, I'm wondering if we should support a "parochial" but in a very practical sense true, view, for the sake of working together for a better world?


Melissa said...

I guess my question is who decides what is "better". I have asked myself does it matter to me if Christianity is a lie, the answer I came up with was yes. I can't follow this unless I really belive its the truth, but I've found that it really does stand up under questioning.

Myron said...

Thanks for your comment.

"Who decides what is better?" is an excellent question. But, if I'm right that our conscience is a good guide to what is "better", and it's a guide we all share, then we can use it to come to an agreement about what "better" means. What I hope people can do is set aside their differences and agree that there is something they all believe in (their conscience).

My personal view is that in very important ways Christianity is true. But in very important ways other religions are true as well. And the non-religious make important points too. If we want "the real truth", I think we have to find the truth behind what everyone is saying, and be guided by that.

Rephrased: I think it's wrong to call Christianity "a lie". But is it the whole truth, does absolutely everyone else's contrary position have no merit whatsoever, and will they eventually come to be Christian if they honestly search for truth? Or can parts of Christianity legitimately be questioned, and parts of other people's viewpoints (by which I mean parts that DON'T agree with "standard" Christianity about something) valid?

JackieD said...

I've been trying to think of an answer to your question:

"So, to the religious people: what do you think? Could you regard yourself as being "on the same side" with someone who had a completely different conception of God, or didn't believe in God at all, but acknowledged that following your conscience is how you should live your life?"

But the problem is that there's not enough of a framework to answer. Could I be on the 'same side' agains the brand of 'logic only' atheist?. Could I be on the 'same side' against the 'scripture only' Christian? Yes, because both of those extremes completely exclude conscience, which we've already determined is a bad idea. But I'd say that the third extreme of 'all conscience' is also lacking.

"Or is God truly more important to you than following your conscience?"

I consider my conscience to be a tool for determining the will of God, so this question is roughly equivalent to 'Are the movements of the stars more important than astronomy?'

Myron said...

Could I be on the 'same side' agains the brand of 'logic only' atheist?. Could I be on the 'same side' against the 'scripture only' Christian? Yes

Ok, so we can agree on what we're against. But can we agree what we're for? Even sorta-kinda?

Let me put that another way: Let's say there's a hindu or a muslim, who thinks the Christian god is a silly idea, or that Jesus is an important prophet but giving him the kind of centrality and significance that Christianity does doesn't make sense. But this person also thinks that the way you decide what to do is by looking to your conscience. If you both truly believe that your conscience will guide you successfully to do God's will (and if you're correct about that belief), then it follows logically that you'll both be doing the same things, working towards the same goals ("goodness", as determined by your conscience). Could you use that to work together, and regard the fact that this person has different beliefs about God to be secondary, because they're doing God's will too? Or would it be important to convince them that your view of God (and your religion's interpretation of goodness) is "true" and theirs is "false"? I think there's a grey area here, so, give me a number from 1 to 10, where 1 indicates it doesn't matter at all to you what kind of God they believe in so long as they believe they should follow their conscience, and 10 means that the fact they believe in a different kind of God from you is incredibly important, and your ability to work with them is about the same as your ability to work with someone who didn't believe the validity of their conscience at all. I'm trying to get a sense of the relative importance of a particular kind of Christianity vs. your conscience in your life.

"Or is God truly more important to you than following your conscience?"

I consider my conscience to be a tool for determining the will of God, so this question is roughly equivalent to 'Are the movements of the stars more important than astronomy?'

Roughly equivalent, yes. But I'd say it's like "Are the movements of the stars more important than astrology?" Because religion is interpretation of what the universe means, and a conception of how we should live our lives, not just an observation of the fact that there are physical laws and a cataloguing of what those laws are. It provides meaning to life, instead of just determining facts. To some people, religion seems as silly as astrology. A belief in the movement of the stars (astronomy) is like a belief in the correctness of your conscience - something everyone (or almost everyone) shares, and can verify for themselves if they like. But astrology puts something on top of that which provides additional guidance for your life, just like religion gives a more complex (and you might say complete) meaning to the basic drives you get from your conscience.

So, my asking if God is more important than your conscience, or if conscience is more important than God, is like asking if people who believe in the movements of the stars can work together, even though some of them believe in different kinds of astrology as well, and truly believe that's very important in their lives, but other people don't, but they still study astronomy and agree on that much.

JackieD said...

"Ok, so we can agree on what we're against. But can we agree what we're for? Even sorta-kinda?"

Well, I guess we're all for compassion, love for your fellow man, an other-centered life, honor, truth, justice? Does that sound right? The problem is that these are all abstract concepts, much easier to agree on than to actually live out. What we probably wouldn't agree on is how a person should live in order to follow these concepts.

Your question about how much it would bother me to work with someone of a different religion has a flaw. You say that we both "believe that your conscience will guide you successfully to do God's will".

We do not, in fact, believe this. (or perhaps it should be 'in theory', since we're in the realms of the hypothetical here) We hope and pray that our conscience in combination with the tenets and practice of our religion will guide us successfully to do God's will. That is, I think, one of the definitions of a religion--you believe that you cannot be a good, whole, satisfied, person without the help of a higher power. A corollary would be that you cannot obtain the help of that higher power without extra-personal guidance of some kind. (by extra-personal, I mean outside of the self)

If a Muslim, Hindu or Jew agreed on the above statement, I'd have very little problem working with them on any goal we shared (and we'd share quite a few, I'm sure). I'd put it at about 2-3 on your scale. Not so important that I'd have to constantly hound said individual, not so important that we couldn't work together towards the same goal, but important enough that if we both wanted to really sit down and discuss the matter, I'd stick by my guns and try to argue the validity of Christianity.

Myron said...

(by extra-personal, I mean outside of the self)

What about someone like me? I'd have no problem with you following your religious practices, because I think there are many elements of truth in them. But I don't have religious practices myself, I rely solely on my conscience. I do think there's a possibility a conscience is a way for God to guide you if one exists, though, so perhaps there could be an extrapersonal element there. How would I compare to someone who had a religion?

And I'd appreciate some more detail on how the view of 'all conscience' is lacking, if you wouldn't mind elaborating. It's kinda how I live, so I'm interested :) I mean, yes, you've said your view is that the practice of a religion is required, but... what does it provide that my approach lacks, which makes it required rather than just very helpful?

JackieD said...

To be honest, I think someone with no religion who followed only his conscience would fall at about a 6-7 on the scale. That's quite a bit higher than for other religions because as I mentioned before, there's an inherent assumption shared by two religious people that is not shared by non-religious types. They assume that their own personal knowledge and feelings are not sufficient to lead them down the right path.

I think my biggest problem with the 'conscience only' theory is that it depends solely and completely on the person, on his or her experiences, opinions, and temperament. Even if we accept the conscience as a God-given compass for making decisions, there's at least a couple of reasons why it's not an infallible guide.

First, there's lack of information. Your conscience is generally not in posession of all the facts and has no knowledge of the all the outcomes of a decision, so its ability to rule correctly is limited. I'll admit that this is a slippery argument, because at some point every decision must be made based on imperfect knowledge. It's usually the case that more information is better, however, and one of the purposes of religion is to provide extra guidance.

The second (and more important) reason is that the human mind has a truly remarkable ability to decieve itself, justify itself and ignore unwanted evidence. One needs only look at history to realize that this tendency is far too strong for people to fight on their own, even extraordinary people. For example, you said "I think if Hitler et. al. had sat back and deeply reflected on what they were doing, they would have realized it was wrong."

Do you think they never deeply reflected on their actions, never thought about what they were doing? They all had a nice excuse, a justification for their actions that stood up to all of their own reflections. Even if we consider characters of such evil to be defective in some way, lacking the natural compass that most people have, there is still the problem that they did not arise in a vacuum. In order for these men to become powerful, millions of people had to quell, quash, or otherwise decieve their own consciences in order to follow along. It is far too complicated a trap, and I do not believe humanity can face it unaided.

If you haven't already read it, Jen F's column "How I became Pro-Life" ( shows a bit of what I'm trying to say, when she realizes how both the ancient Greeks and more modern thinkers justify infanticide.

But perhaps those aren't the answers you're looking for. Everyone knows that it's hard to follow your conscience, and even religion isn't a magic bullet that make things crystal clear.

One way to think about it is that if I'm searching for the truth of the universe, it wouldn't neccessarily be a great idea to do it all on my own. I'm only 23, and I can expect to live for 80 years or so. But the Catholic church has been making a concentrated, devoted effort to find truth for over 2,000 years, and several other religions have been at it for even longer. It would be foolish of me to think that I alone, in the brief time I have in this world, could make a fraction of the progress they have.

I have a question for you though. (this may not be the best place for it, since I'll be referring to a later post, but I'll move it if you like) What exactly are the 'truths' that you think religion has managed to stumble upon in between their silly little stories and power struggles? You seem to at least accept the existence of God for conversational purposes, but you don't believe in immortal souls (which I'd say is a pretty fundamental truth for every major religion). What exactly do you agree with? (if you've already answered this, let me know, but I don't remember ever seeing specifics)

Myron said...

Do you think they never deeply reflected on their actions, never thought about what they were doing? They all had a nice excuse, a justification for their actions that stood up to all of their own reflections.

Your post makes a lot of excellent points, and I intend to respond in greater detail later. But I've been thinking about this part.

Maybe my conscience-first idea won't work for everyone, because they don't think like me (not to say my way is "better", just saying that it's easy to fall into the trap of saying everyone is like you, and what works for you will work for everyone, when that's not true).

I guess reflection just comes naturally to me. But what I'm doing naturally may not be so natural to others. What I'm doing is not just reflecting on the world around me, but reflecting on the processes I use to reflect on the world, and thinking about whether those processes will yield good results, and where they come from, and why I think the way I think, and how my thoughts might be different if my history was different. I may not be able to eliminate biases, but I can look for them, acknowledge them, and name them. How many other people do this? I don't know.

I find it's the same with emotional thinking, which might be easier to understand than bias-finding, so here's an example. You can have a strong emotional reaction to something, which can cause you to react in an irrational (although not always counter-productive) way. But it's almost a conditioned reflex in me to sit back and think about that emotional response, before I act on it. And once I can say "Ok, I'm angry and that is affecting my judgement in this way, because two years ago I was in a similar situation and got burned"... I don't know. Things are easier to manage somehow. It's funny because people can get the impression that I don't have strong emotions, simply because once I've named them I can deal with them, instead of letting them control me, but they're still there and just as strong.

When I talk about "deep" thinking, that's what I'm talking about - thinking about your thinking processes, not just applying a certain thought process blindly to the world arond you. And no, I don't think Hitler or those like him did it. And maybe it's not realistic for me to expect that most others will. But I think most others (almost all) could, and I think the world would be a better place if they did. I think just giving somenoe a religious/moral framework to think with, and saying that that framework should not be questioned, misses a whole level of thought which I think could enrich the world, no matter how much thought other people have put into the thought-framework in question.

That probably makes very little sense. Basically there's a deeper level of thinking I wish people would do, that's all.