Unravelling truth

This is the first in a series on the New Atheists.

There are many kinds of truth.

This opening statement may cause rejoicing in the hearts of the many relativists who now populate western society. However, the statement is not meant to encourage relativism, but proper thought—and, of course, those two things really don’t go together.

It is utterly amazing that relativism has taken such a hold on western society, whose clear Christian origins speak so plainly of the truth of God, which ought to permeate all of life. I guess it is understandable on the personal level. It certainly creates a certain amount of warm fuzziness, as I am, at least, affirmed for my opinions (“Whatever you believe, that is fine”). Of course, to be affirmed is not the same thing as being truly valued. But, hey, let’s not press too deeply.

Okay, so it makes us feel good to hear from the relativist that ‘there are many kinds of truth’, and so even my (whacky?) ideas are legitimate. That is, it makes us feel good—until we learn that our doctor takes the same attitude to his medicine, or the city engineer has taken the same attitude to his bridge-building: “There is no right way to treat cancer. I feel we should try meditation.” “There is no correct way to build a bridge. Why don’t we use chewing gum?”.

There are certainly plenty of opinions in the world, but they don’t all match reality. And anyway, it is completely illogical to suggest that the ‘many kinds of truth’ can all be correct, even when they are diametrically opposed to one another. Despite the postmodernist contempt for ‘Greek thought’, the nose-on-your-face kind of truth in this ancient ‘law of non-contradiction’ should be plain, even to the naked emperor.

Among the most recent assaults on the Christian gospel, we have a bunch of people who have been termed the ‘New Atheists’. (To call anything ‘new’ gains a hearing in a consumer society, even if there is nothing really new in it. How many ways are there to say “There is no God”?)

Christians have been responding to such attacks since before Christianity (Psalm 14:1: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”). But as we yawn and respond to this latest wave, it is handy to remember that there are many kinds of truth. That is, if we want to know the truth of a statement (or philosophy, or movement), we can ask about its truth from several points of view.

  • Does it correspond to reality? Did Jesus exist? Did Jesus become big news? Did Jesus die on a cross? Did Jesus rise from the dead? The answers here are either yes, or no.
  • Does it cohere? That is, is there a way in which all the aspects of Christianity actually fit together to tell a unified, harmonious whole? The answer here is to tell the story.
  • Does it prove true personally? Are there people across time and cultures who testify to hearing the voice of their shepherd, and following him out of a deep conviction that this is the true and right way for all to go? The answer here is to listen to people’s testimony.
  • Is it pragmatically true—that is, does it work? Does the Christian gospel take people through the hard times in a way other philosophies of life fail to do? Does it help people face the hardest time as they face the grave? The answer here is to stand by the bedsides of the sick and dying.
  • Is it productively true? Once the Christian world view is accepted, does it generate science, art, society, politics, education, healthcare, and so on, of a very different kind? The answer here is to know a bit about history.

There are many kinds of truth. Whichever kind we pick on, the Christian gospel comes up pretty well. But more of that anon.

6 thoughts on “Unravelling truth

  1. Why does a “New Atheists” article talk about relativists? Are you trying to say that ‘New Atheists’ are relativists and advocate “There is no correct way to build a bridge. Why don’t we use chewing gum?” I don’t know any “New Atheists” who advocate relativism. Could you please you give some examples who these relativist people are?

  2. Dear Peter, I fear you have been distracted by the title which promised a few excursions into ‘new atheist’ territory. I also fear you have missed the point about bridge-building with gum. But, the point of introducing relativism was as a response to my own opening line about many kinds of truth. The article then went on to clarify the kinds of, or aspects of, truth that we need to think of. If you are aware of some of the discussions of atheism whether new or same old, you will recognise that the attacks come from within these various categories. But more of that later—perhaps I can request ‘patience’??

  3. … sorry, to explain about a doctor curing cancer with meditation, or the engineer building bridges with chewing gum: the point is that this would NOT happen. The more ‘scientific’ realms have (at least mostly) held onto the view that there is TRUTH, or REALITY, that is unchanging and which we have to discover and then bend our lives accordingly. They do NOT operate by saying ‘any old opinion is fine’, which is what the relativist says about what they call ‘religious truth’ (as if that is a separate category to ordinary truth). And, when we go to the doctor, or walk on a bridge, we are usually glad that the doctor and the engineer are NOT relativists. We want to deal with reality at that point.

  4. Peter Bolt,

    I still don’t get why your header and article talks about “New Atheists” while focusing in relativism. Are you trying to say those are related or are you trying to associate those in the minds of your readers?

    When the “New Atheists” talk about “religious truth” they don’t actually mean that religious dogma etc. is “true”. It is a short hand of something else. The “New Atheists” also know that bridge builders are not absolutists claiming that the bridge will hold no matter what and they know that there is no single absolute answer which material is the best for bridge building. Using reinforced concrete or steel as a material depends on engineers’ opinions (Choosing the amount and used material is relativistic).

    Even “not being relativists” does not bring you closer to the truth. The “New Atheists” are glad that their doctor is not faith based absolutist claiming that there is only one way to treat cancer by using faith healing.

  5. As a guy who ‘kinda gets out there’ and talks with people in the real world of atheists and Christians alike, I find that the real mainstream inculcation affecting everyone is randomness.  Being random seems to be more than socially acceptable (ironically, I feel that I could never pull it off and get away with it), but actually standard.  Daily, I find Peter’s observation in society that there is almost a despising of logically connected thought processing (Greek).  I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but here in California, the word random is used quite often with a feel for clarity and identification.  Our family took a young woman into our household to help her through a slightly desperate time in her life, and her family identified us as the “randoms.”  While they were appreciative of her new safe harbor, they saw us as random?  Interesting.  Here is what is really at stake.  The societal push in the back has us stumbling in a world view that says we create our own individual reality.  So now everyone is in charge.  We used to determine what meta-narrative we should fit into, but now we are the meta-narrative.  The people I run across are over the top with themselves, with little or no qualifications, meaning, they have invested very little real thinking into their thinking.  Getting people to think beyond themselves is a painful process to watch.  I find that people are in bitter shock and awe when they are questioned about the logic of their dearest cliche.  “Random,” they cry!
    Thanks for provoking the thought Peter.

  6. To Peter Turegum:

    You said:
    “The “New Atheists” are glad that their doctor is not faith based absolutist claiming that there is only one way to treat cancer by using faith healing.”

    My question: Where is Peter Bolt suggesting that “Faith healing” is a good way to treat any medical condition?  Phrasing it like that, seems to be a straw-man argument – I don’t think Peter Bolt is suggesting that Faith healing is a good thing, but rather he is criticizing the view that “religious truth” can be relative [true for me, but not for you”] by comparing it to scientific truth [which most people agree is true or not-true].

    But perhaps, the “New Atheists” [if by this phrase we mean the likes of Richard Dawkins], are not really prone to this kind of relativism – they [Dawkins et al] are more modernists rather than post-modernists.  “New Atheism” if it refers to the resurgent vigourous atheism is probably a return to modernism – possibly [but I’m not certain about this] after a growing dissatisfaction with the philosophical solutions profferred by post-modern theories.  However, for individuals [such as Dawkins] this may not hold.  In general terms, there are probably some disillusioned post-modernists amongst the new atheists.  Others such as Dawkins may never have been post-modernists in the first place.

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