G. K. Chesterton, whom I praised yesterday, is also famous for the argument of the “truth-telling thing”:
“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”
Forgive me if I go into Angry Internet Atheist Mode for a second, but…
Yes, it’s told so many truths. Like that God created the world in seven days. And that there was a giant flood. And that it’s morally acceptable to condemn people to eternal torture. And that homosexuality is wrong. And that slaves should submit to their masters. And women to their husbands. And that the Second Coming will occur before the last of this generation passes away. And that people who are capable of doing so should castrate themselves. And that you should not suffer a witch to live. And that epilepsy is sometimes caused by demons. And that it’s a really really good idea to kill Babylonian children.
And that everything is a combination of essence and accidents. And that things have final and formal causes. And that the planets are arranged in a succession of crystalline spheres, each with a governing angel. And that capitalism is a terrible idea.
And that church councils like the one that killed Jan Huss are infallible.
And after you’ve subtracted all the things that, in the light of modernity, obviously the Bible couldn’t have actually mean or obviously couldn’t really have been Biblically supported, what are you left with? Ideas like “humanity is flawed”. Gee, thanks religion. Surely only God could have noticed this startling and well-concealed insight!
When religion makes non-trivial testable claims, whether in its holy books or from later clergy trying to interpret those holy books, those claims have a spectacular record of being exactly as wrong as you would expect from chance – and then some. So what the stars are the “truth telling thing” people talking about?
Let’s ask one. From Unequally Yoked:
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.
Time for a metaphor here, and I’m going to sort of steal it from Alasdair MacIntyre.
Suppose that one of the Roman civil wars – let’s say the one precipitating the Year of Four Emperors – goes on for decades and turns into an apocalypse. Roman civilization and learning are destroyed. All the Romans have are fragments of their old culture. Something something Mt. Olympus. Some kind of apple thrown at some kind of party caused the fall of Troy. There are these books in a cave that tell the future, who knows how they got there? We should avoid hubris, but we don’t know why.
Then someone from a very distant colony arrives, bearing intact copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey and a few other important books that reveal all the tenets of Greco-Roman paganism.
Suddenly, everything makes sense! The reason we go on pilgrimages to Mt. Olympus is because the gods live there. The reason an apple caused the fall of Troy was because it was thrown by the Goddess of Discord! The reason these books in a cave tell the future was because they were written by the Sibyl, who gained the gift of prophecy after a love affair with Apollo. We should avoid hubris because Jupiter is jealous and will zap us with lightning bolts.
On the other hand, the Iliad and Odyssey would continue to be laughably wrong about all testable claims, like that the ocean is perfectly circular or that there’s an island inhabited by Cyclopses.
Because Roman religion was originally shaped by the Iliad and Odyssey and then fractured into confusing fragments, restoring exposure to the source of the religion will cause this feeling of “suddenly everything I believe fits together and makes sense.” But none of this subjective feeling of sense-making will correspond to ability to make correct claims about the external world.
Modern Western civilization spent about fifteen hundred years having its thought processes completely shaped by Christian doctrine. Over the past few centuries, changes in science and philosophy have shattered a lot of Christian doctrine and replaced it with more modernist ideas, but they haven’t succeeded completely and certainly not at the deepest level. Most people contain various strata of conflicting Christian and modernist ideas superimposed upon one another, and not all the Christian ideas are conveniently labeled “Christian”.
Exposure to the Christian ideas in their original form should allow a lot of aspects of modern culture to be viewed in a new light. To give a trivial example, dislike of homosexuality is pretty common in our culture, but has zero intellectual foundation outside of an ethical system that people generally aren’t exposed to unless they specifically study Christian philosophy. Less trivial examples might be beliefs about guilt, penance, justice, innocence, marriage, modesty, humility, etc, etc, etc.
If this were the whole picture, then things could go one of two ways. People could be exposed to really high-grade modern philosophy that removes the remaining Christian elements (like makes the consequentialist argument against stigmatizing homosexuality), suddenly have a revelation of beauty and consistency, and become full-on atheists. Or people could be exposed to the purest form of Ye Olde Time Religion, suddenly have a revelation of beauty and consistency, and become full-on religious people.
Buuuuut it’s more complicated than that because I think the modernist beliefs and the religious beliefs are held in different ways, although don’t ask me to get more technical than that. Maybe the modernist beliefs are held explicitly and endorsed? And the religious beliefs are held kind of subconsciously as aliefs? And so I think the high-grade modernist philosophy and the Ye Olde Time Religion are appealing in different ways and to different parts of our belief structure.
This applies not just to Christianity but to any claim that old ideas should be taken seriously because they match our intuitions and aesthetics. Reactionaries, I’m looking at you here.