Religious "Truth"

Moving beyond tone...what did Rev. Simpson say to elicit "derisive laughter" from Jerry Coyne?  Here it is, in full--
I believe my faith, and wear my pastor hat comfortably. But I also wear my university professor hat quite easily too, and, far from letting people stay naive, spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to teach people how to look at religion with methodological sophistication, i.e. to look at it from behind the curtain. Just because it’s a story doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and by true I don’t mean scientifically true, but true within the framework of the community’s understanding of truth, which is a kind of truth that is thousands of years older than scientific truth.
I'm against derisively laughing at someone who comes to your blog and contributes calmly and carefully, but that doesn't mean I'm for this paragraph.  I'm against it, just without the derisive laughter!

"Just because it's a story doesn't mean it isn't true." This reminds me of David Ariel's book "What Do Jews Believe?" In explaining what Jews believe, he continually talks about "the sacred myths of the Jewish people," like the myth of God creating the world, Moses receiving the law from God, the Exodus, and so on.
No matter how literally or metaphorically we choose to interpret them, these sacred myths form the framework for the Jew's ongoing search of personal meaning in his or her own life, the life of the Jewish community, and society as a whole.
I get that.  In fact, I practice that. Last week I went to Temple for Rosh Hashanah.  I enjoyed hearing the myth of the binding of Isaac. It's an interesting thing to talk about once a year, not because it's a lesson for us all (yikes), but because it's so deeply perplexing and thought provoking.  I like the feeling of being connected back in time to previous generations who have thought about that myth as well.  I like being part of the group--both in the present sense and across time.  The music  and liturgy and rituals (all repeated across time) all create a satisfying sense of continuity. It is nice to have days that are extremely different from other days--more contemplative, more focused on "what matters." 

So:  sacred myths, check.  In the next paragraph, Ariel seems to be serious about the word "myth".  A myth is just a myth.
Sacred myths are articulations of our most deeply held beliefs that are not subject to verification for truth or falsehood. While the truth of these myths is valid and sacred for those who hold them, it does not necessarily follow that other people's myths are false or wrong.
But notice how "truth" is starting to creep in, in the second sentence.  He's not satisfied to say that these myths play some central and serious role in the life of Jews (sure, yes), he wants to say Jews believe they're true.  (Would I derisively laugh at this point, if I were discussing this behind closed doors? Only my significant others know for sure.)   Not just plain true, but true "for those who hold them."  This, I think, is a very misleading way of using the word "true."  In fact, Ariel thinks these myths are so far from being really true that the myths of different religions can all be true at once. For example, it's both true that Jesus is not the son of God (since Jews believe that) and true that Jesus is the son of God (since Christians believe that).  We are definitely not really talking about truth here, in the normal robust sense.

Now you could say: no problem. He's up front about that. There's no real confusion.  But in fact there is confusion.
What, then, do Jews believe about God?  We must start with the premise that God is the transcendent reality which exists beyond the limits of our knowledge....The God we worship is the invisible creator of all life....God created the world but He Himself stands above and beyond all living things.
He's talking about what Jews believe, but to believe X is to believe that X is true--really true.  Ariel has already said that these myths are not true in the robust sense that would exclude other contradictory things from being true. So how can he now tell me that, as a Jew, I must believe them?  Going back to Rev. Simpson's paragraph:  just because it's a story does mean it isn't true. And it makes no sense to confess belief in propositions you don't regard as true. 

Is there any harm done by this sloppiness about "truth"?  All these stories do play a very central role in the lives of Jews--not necessarily as "lessons" in any straightforward sense, but as puzzles, traditions, focal points for discussion, etc.  And who cares about a little sloppiness?

One reason to care: When children are being inculcated with religion, even the most liberal-minded teachers throw out all the talk about "sacred myths" and "stories."  These things are presented to children as truths they are supposed to believe, in just the same way they're supposed to believe that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president.  (I am an eye-witness to this fact.)   So the confusion has repercussions.

Another reason: There are so many occasions when it's important what's really true (is climate change real?) and so many times when we should struggle seriously about what to believe (is genetically engineering a good idea?).  We shouldn't lose our grip on the meaning of words like "true" and "believes."


Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. I've been struggling lately with my Jewish heritage/identity and how I want to raise my kids. I don't believe in God at all yet am very much Jewish ("culturally" I guess is how it's referred to). Is it dishonest to raise my (purely hypothetical) kids as fully Jewish, going to Sunday and Hebrew School, Jewish summer camp (where I met my husband), youth group, etc., when I don't actually buy into the religious part of it? I do find it deeply comforting and rewarding to belong to a community, to connect with the past by saying the same prayers and eating the same traditional foods as my grandparents, by visiting Israel. (This was felt more strongly being the "other" in Texas, not so much now that I'm one of a zillion in NYC.) But I think I would feel like a liar making my kid have a bar mitzvah and stand up and give a speech about God when I just think it's totally made up. I guess I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I certainly don't feel like I was duped growing up as part of a (reform) religious community, but my sister, who has recently declared herself a militant atheist, says she feels like she was brainwashed by Debbie Friedman songs.

I'd welcome your thoughts on this, Jean, as you are much smarter and have thought through this more than I!

amos said...

Most people are astonishingly skillful at compartimentalizing their thoughts: religion is that compartiment of the mind where many people take a vacation from reason and science. Otherwise, the same people, at least educated people in developed countries, think scientifically and reasonably.

I don't think that the fuzziness about the concept of truth in liberal religion puts our children's education in rationality in danger. That is to underestimate our children's grasp of truth and the ability of
most people to compartimentalize
distinct aspects of life.

amos said...

email follow-up

Jean Kazez said...

Anonymous-- For me it is easy to be an atheist with a certain amount of Jewish life. Both things are important to me and I find the tension between them nothing but intriguing.

Giving kids some Jewish life, even though they live in a very skeptical household is harder. The literalness of early religious education is a big impediment, though. You don't want your kids being misled, and your kids might rebel too, if they don't get much reinforcement for belief at home. Many problems there...but my kids will kill me if I go into too much detail.

I know a lot of agnostics/ atheists who have gone this route, including many who did have bar/bat mitzvahs for their kids. It can be done, and I think it's good for kids to learn early on that life is complicated!

Faust said...

I think that "true" is a bit more flexible than you let on here. There are some truths that are clearly relative. For example: for me it is true that beer tastes good. For others this is not true. So true for me. Not true for my wife.

Now there will be immediate complaints: making historical claims about the intervention in time by God is not like the experiential reality produced by the senses as they contact various aspects of reality. We are saying God REALLY DID THIS. This is a "contextually invariant claim" as it were.

Enter "metaphor." God entering time is a "metaphor." Meaning what? That "God" did not REALLY do this, but it is as though "he" did, in the same sense that Juliet is not REALLY the sun, but it is as though she was. Juliet is the sun FOR ME, says Romeo. She is MY sun.

Religion is the transmutation of mundane things into symbolic objects via the operation of the imagination. Objects are transmuted into a kind of poetry. Were you go up to Romeo and say: "my good friend, you are confused, Juliet is not the sun, she is but a girl." He would reply: "For me she is the source of all that is good in the world. Were she to perish, the world would go dark and I would have no reason to live. She is the sun to me."

Now "God" is a bit trickier because "God" doesn't appear to be around in the same way Juliet is. But I don't see this presenting an obstacle. The manifest testifies to the unmanifest, metaphorically speaking.

I should say that my view of religion is a bit like Wittgenstein's:

...the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in you life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God?...Practice gives the words their sense.

Jean Kazez said...

If someone thinks God is "around" in any real sense at all (however unstraightforward) then they think there are truths about God that rule out other possibilities. So fine--they do believe in God. What Ariel is saying is that you could count as believing in God even though you think the "truths" you "believe" don't rule out contradictory possibilities. For example, you could believe there's one one God, even though you don't think that rules out what the other guy says--that there's not one, but lots. Using "believes" in this way is really misleading, I think.

We only use "believes" that way when we're speaking very loosely. "I believe beer is good." What I really mean is "I enjoy the taste of beer." "I believe Anna Karenina threw herself in front of a train." What I mean is that in the novel, Anna Karenina threw herself in front of a train.

Nice Wittgenstein quote--what chapter, what verse? :-)

Faust said...

Well I don't know exactly to what extent Ariel thinks these issues are metaphoric. To my mind, if you refer to something as a myth, you are talking about a set of beliefs that are not "real" in any sense, where "real" means existing independently of a culture or mind. If Ariel thinks there are "real myths" then I think the problem is not with "true" or "believes," but rather with his notion of what a "myth" is.

I do agree that some people push a "religion as metaphor" line and then cheat some really real beliefs in the back door. In fact I think this is extremely common. The reason, I think, is that people can't help but universalize their experience. Why doesn't everyone LOVE the music of band X? OBVIOUSLY they are the best. People who don't love them are CONFUSED.

I also think you are right that "believes" is not quite right here. I definitely do not "believe" that beer tastes good to me, nor would it be appropriate to say that Romeo believes that Juliet is the sun. These are direct experiences. I think one could direct towards these uses of belief the kind of critique that Wittgenstein uses in On Certainty against Moore regarding "knowing" that "objects exist."

To elaborate further, the Wittgenstein quote is from culture and value 85e. I pulled it from a discussion in Genia Schonbaumsfeld's "A Confusion of the Spheres," a book about Kierkegaard's influence on Wittgenstein.

Here is another from Wittgenstein:

"Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don't mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us 'the existence of this being', but, e.g. sufferings of various sorts. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts--life can force this concept on us. So perhaps it is similar to the concept of 'object.'" (CV 86e)

Schonbaumsfeld recommends this be paired with Wittgenstein's comment in On Certainty:

"But can't it be imagined that there should be no physical objects? I don't know. And yet "there are physical objects is nonsense. Is it supposed to be an empirical proposition?--And is this an empirical proposition: 'There seem to be physical objects'?" (OC 35)