More trouble with “truth”: Religion

In opening this thread on Socrates and his relevance to our modern lives, I mentioned “an oddly serendipitous string of events”: Several of you had, independently, emailed me with links and thoughts that, directly or indirectly, touched on issues that Socrates raised.

Here is one example, which segues from the previous post on Socrates’ negativity, his apparent sacrifice of gentleness at the altar of unvarnished truth. A few weeks ago, Joel Rotem, a reader of The Hannibal Blog, emailed me this TED talk of theologist Karen Armstrong, in which she puts forth a theory of “good” religiosity. Joel was sceptical and asked philosophically:

Is it OK to misinform your listeners in order to get to a noble target? Do the ends justify the means?


As you see, Armstrong wants to persuade us that religion is not really about “believing” this or that, but about behaving in a certain way: with compassion. All religions, she argues, have at their core a version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Hatred, she infers, is alien to true religiosity and a form of “hijacking” religion.

Now, this is of course a Rorschach test of sorts. Those who would like to exonerate religion will tend to confabulate ways to agree with Armstrong, those who would like to indict religion will do the opposite. Joel is in the later camp, as I tend to be. But that is not the point.

The point, as Joel said in our impromptu debate (because Socratic dialectic seems to come naturally and effortlessly to readers of The Hannibal Blog ;)) is this same tension between true and good that got Socrates into so much trouble. Joel’s words:

In western thought, we often equate truth with good (both very subjective terms). Telling the truth is good. Lying is bad. We must always strive to reveal the truth. We have book and movies dedicated to heroes struggling to reveal the truth. Some of our (my) heroes fighting to reveal the truth include: Woodward and Bernstein, Galileo and hey, how about that Superman guy fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Seems pretty open and shut until you listen to a Karen Armstrong. Is it better to paint Islam as the religion of humility and peace or to [point to] Islam’s bloody roots and doctrines?

Joel did not single out Islam but implicated all religions. He then listed other topics, beyond religion, where “truth” will get you into a world of hurt. For instance, race: What if we were to discover a truth that we would find just too apalling to entertain? We seem to need lies to maintain civilization. The problem, as Joel said,

is of course the slippery slope. Who says what lies we should believe for the common good?


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14 thoughts on “More trouble with “truth”: Religion

  1. As a general rule, the Golden Rule might be good one, but in practice not everybody wants to be treated the way you’d treat yourself.

  2. Thanks Andreas ! I am sitting in front of my laptop now with a big grin on my face.

    You did an awesome job presenting my dilemma and I would love to get your opinon and that of the blog’s readers.

  3. For some reason, I stumbled when you said that good was a subjective term.

    We can name and rename things, actions, concepts, but in my view, at our human core we understand what is good and what is bad.

    I would encourage all readers of the Hannibal Blog to read Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent.

    Thanks, Joe, for a wonderful question.

    • Good is perhaps the most subjective term in our culture. Every culture I know has a different view of good. Are abortions good? Is faith good? Is having kids good? Is killing good?

      Cheri, you are one of the most prolific comm enters on the site. What is your opinion on the post?

      For example: Would you release the Rodney King tapes knowing it would help expose police brutality but at the same time trigger race riots that would claims the lives and property of hundreds?

  4. Andreas – you, Joe and Cheri – have hit on yet another important and under-understood issue.

    My favorite quotes on truth are from a poet and a philosopher – professions that are both thought to be about getting to (often different) truths.

    W.H. Auden said ‘truth is the faintest of all human passions’ – oft declared as important but rarely acted upon as if it were.

    H.G. Frankfurt (the ‘On Bullshit’ guy) modified it to say that ‘self truth is THE faintest of all human passions’. Neuroscience and psychology seem to be rediscovering this poetic truth. Incidentally in ‘On Bullshit’ Frankfurt concludes that bullshitting is worse than lying & that truth is important mainly because its more useful.

    On goodness – we see the relativism of good and bad playing out in our eristic political debate every day. Yesterday for example – is the climate bill a ‘tax’ (and therefore bad in the eyes of Republicans) or a cap-n’-trade ‘market oriented solution’ (and therefore good in the eyes of both Republicans and newly enthralled by the market Democrats)?

    Frank Luntz (the Republican strategist and the guy who coined the ‘death tax’) points out that all labels and especially political labels have connotations of goodness or badness. And political arguments are often won based on how successfully each side frames the debate in its own terms….

    We live in an Orwellian age where many of the institutions charged with defending public truths against powerful private interests have been swift-boated or bought and paid for by masters whose aim is only self interest….

    Sad but true (?). Or is it truthy(?).

  5. What Karen Armstrong says in so many words is that underlying all religions is an Ur-morality – loving is good; killing is bad; treat others as you would wish them to treat you; I am you, and you are me, and so on.

    The intelligent and the enlightened in all three of the monotheistic, middle-eastern religious traditions see this, and practice it, and put into literary perspective certain passages, which those not so enlightened or intelligent, use to give sanction to their intolerant and violent predilections.

    Are not the Torah, the Koran, and the Christian New Testament, literature, to be taken in the same spirit as any other great literature? Literature, whether “religious” or secular, contains stories, fables, poetry, myths, philosophy, precepts for living, for us to ponder, discuss, to put into perspective.

    Religious writings (religious literature) are no more to be taken literally than any non-religious literature. To take religious literature literally, is to drain it of all meaning, life, magic, and colour. Taking it literally, sets peoples and cultures against each other; taking it symbolically, makes visible a common humanity.

    The problem, then, is not religion itself, but its adherents. Unfortunately, people being people, most will interpret it as it wasn’t supposed to be.

    The religious writings are the foundation of all cultures. Therefore, to be ignorant of them is to be culturally and educationally impoverished. They should therefore be studied by all, but as literature.

    • Here is the deal, I do not find the “Ur-Morality” in the actual texts or history of religion. In fact, it seems to only apply to people who have the same race, gender and religion as you.

      I am no expert on religion but growing up in Israel, I spent eight years studying bible and Jewish history (and a year or two Islam). Here is my impression:

      The Torah states “you shall not murder” but it really only applies to other Hebrews. The people of Israel are commanded not just to conquer the land of Canaan but to annihilate the existing residents (it is actually a sin to spare any of their lives).

      The Koran states that “Muhammad’s law is by the sword” here is a passage you might enjoy:

      “Fighting is prescribed upon you, and you dislike it. But it may happen that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that you love a thing which is bad for you. And Allah knows and you know not.”

      Of course, Islam spread through the Arabian sub continent by means or religious purges of “Idol worshipers”

      I am really not an expert on Christianity and was under the impression that the whole “Crusade business” and the Spanish Inquisition were aberrations until I found this little gem: t Matthew 10:34 – “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword”

      In essence, you really have to be willing to pick and choose your passages and display some intellectual “flexibility” to state the Judaism, Islam and Christianity are all about the golden rule…

    • “……..you really have to be willing to pick and choose your passages and display some intellectual “flexibility” to state the Judaism, Islam and Christianity are all about the golden rule……..

      This is why they should be studied as literature, for, obviously, the facts which they asseverate are nonsense, and those who believe them literally are fools. When we read and study any literature, we have to consider when it was written, and the circumstances, in order to understand it, to put it into context.

      And the worlds of the various writers of the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran, were, to put it mildly, very different from today.

      Because the human race seems to contain more of the fools than of the wise, the Torah, the Bible, and Koran, will inevitably become the sticks with which the majority of humankind who are fools, will bash the wise.

  6. This post is a short piece about a big topic.

    In short, Joe, I would agree with your observations about religion and yours, Jag, about politics, and how the terms truth and good are manipulated for an end.

    I hold the terms truth and good as the philosophers called the Eternal Verities.
    From fairy tales to fables and short stories to novels, most children and adults have no difficulty finding the truth and good or the lies and bad. It’s fairly simple. Our Townby Wilder is an example of the concepts of truth and good told in a simple way.

    There are those who live to turn truth upside down and manipulate the masses into selling their souls.

    • Since this blog deals with history a lot, how about this quote from my favorite amateur historian “History is written by the victors” Winston Churchill

      Truth is almost as subjective as “Good”.

      Still, Cheri. If you had to pick one value, would it be Truth or Good?

  7. What a fantastic debate this has become!

    First, a linguistic matter: Jag, if something is “under-understood”, then it is clearly overstood.

    Christopher, I’m entirely with you regarding reading religions as literature (ie, non-literally). As you know, The Hannibal Blog does a lot of that. But Joel’s point is different: that you cannot, as Armstrong does, ascribe any “truth” at all to any religion, because you will find in the text whatever you want. If you want to find violence, you will. If you want to find the Golden Rule, you will. So Joel is indeed one of those (ie, one of us) reading religion as literature, but that reading has led him (us) to certain conclusions about religion.

  8. Christopher, I failed to acknowledge your point on my first comment and it is a fantastic one – The bible, new testament and Koran must be studied. You really cannot understand anything about our world without studying them at least marginally. Perhaps I am also missing the study of some texts regarding Buddhism and Hinduism, I just don’t know what I don’t know (:

    Living in the US for the last several years I was amazed that non-religious people have absolutely no idea of what the bible actually contains. Separation of church and state is great, but this has gone too far into the realm of ignorance….

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