Introduction: honesty and the religious traditions

Honesty is one of the great virtues of modern society. Honesty as we understand it means to always tell people the truth about our own motivations and intentions, not to deceive grown people with comforting myths (such myths are only fit for the child and, we think, adults without dignity), and to "tell it like it is". Clearly the invention of the scientific method and the central place it now holds in our society has something to do with this; it is no coincidence that the main virtue of the scientists (whose very role is to investigate beyond the boundaries of the knowledge of others and truthfully report back to them what he finds) has become one of the most commonly demanded virtues of the rest of us.

A brief aside will suffice to show that honesty and a respect for the "truth" as we understand it now is not at the centre of the Christian or Jewish traditions. Although an atheist, I of course mean no disrespect to these great religions; and believers may find themselves vindicated in my conclusions. Religion quite simply values different things, and its definition of truth is quite different. You can skip this if you want, but those familiar with the Bible might want to hear my reasoning.

To start at the beginning, in the Ten Commandments God says: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." This, of course, is quite different to a general prohibition on lying, and it is hardly the most strongly worded of the commandments. A better clue to God's motivations comes from the earlier commandment not to worship false gods, as "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate me." Nor, in the long enunciation of the law that follows, does one find anything concerning the punishment for telling a lie about anything except the nature of God.

The reason for this is that the Biblical definition of truth has more to do with truthfulness about the nature of God than anything else. This continues in the Christian tradition, for instance in John 24: "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth". And there are literally dozens of similar passages in the New Testament, including the reference to Satan being the "father of lies" in John 8:44 - he lies, of course, about the nature of God and the value of the revealed Word. Not about what Frank said to Sally about Melissa.

I am not saying that religion is inherently hostile to honesty and truth in the way that we understand it, only that this is clearly not central to its enterprise. And indeed, there are some out of the way quotations which do appear to condemn lying about banal things. The Book of Proverbs is particularly verbose on the subject of lying, and goes so far as to declare that of the seven things God hates, two are "a lying tongue" and "a false witness that speaketh lies" (the two are separated out, interestingly). But this is hardly a central text and, without being flippant, the Book of Proverbs says a lot of things. So, I'm not saying the Judeo-Christian tradition necessarily encourages dishonesty; but the opposite was by no means its central goal.

Life and error

Then along came the scientific method, declaring that everything could be investigated and understood - that we could know the truth about everything. And the modern mania of specialized academic disciplines that categorize everything - from animals to the minutae of events in the human past - is just just one symptom of this. And not once do any of these disciplines feel the need to resort to God or anything that they can't actually touch and see and comprehend themselves. All they have to do is investigate, tell the truth, and then use this knowledge to improve the human material condition: this is essentially what we now call "progress".

But the elephant in the room that nobody has noticed is the fact that our lives actually depend on believing in all sorts of myths and fairytales - in effect, simplifcations of reality. This stretches from the most banal things - such as the fact that I believe this keyboard, for the purposes of everyday life, to be a solid object rather than a mass of swirling atoms - to the very profound, such as the lies we tell those we love in their darkest moments because we know they could not survive without hearing them. And if our nation is ever under attack, and we all risk annihilation at the hands of our foes, we do not sit around discoursing on the merits of our two social systems; we want - we need - to hear our leaders speak stirring myths that provoke us to defend what is ours.

In effect, as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "The conditions of life might include error" - what we need to live, to keep us going, is not necessarily the truth. For the longest period of human history, the obsession with the "truth" was something only shared by a small handful of philosophers who hated actual life and other men - this is the whole point of Plato's Cave - in favour of the "sky of ideas" that they could touch and comprehend on their own. When this spirit turned itself to an understanding of nature and the world - science - it was a huge boon to humanity, and has produced the most prosperous and internally peaceful societies that have ever been seen. But in its application to human affairs - to morality, to an understanding of oneself, to an analysis of how we should live together - it could be poisonous.

By destroying myth and error in pursuit of some unadorned "truth" in human matters we are reduced to the level of rocks and dogs, things we study and comprehend from the outside. But in an understanding of human affairs, it is myth that matters the most; and the idea of objectivity is simply another myth, if the most insidious there is. While we may, unlike beasts, be able to put ourselves in the position of another person and see things partially from their point of view, we are never going to become the objective Gods that are able to analyze human affairs as if they were like the automatic movements of ants to us. We are forever stuck in our fleshy prisons, and the application of "scientific" understanding to ourselves can only destroy meaning, never create it.

Love and war

Take the experience of love. When I love a beautiful woman, does it really benefit me to know that I love her because I have an internal drive to propagate the species, that chemicals in our brains drive us into each other's arms and that my experience is no different to that of every other human being - and that "objectively" she cannot possibly be any better or worse than every other woman? The idea that one can derive any benefit from this sort of "objective" analysis of the "truth" - in effect, an analysis attempted from outside the human condition, by a non-human - is absurd. And, with respect to Mr. Dawkins, I am not instead going to gain my satisfaction by marvelling at the wonders of evolution which created me and allowed me to experience these things.

I want simply to love and to be human. The "error" that sustains my love might matter to a God, but to me it is as irrelevant as the error which leads me to believe the world consists of solid objects and not a mass of energy and matter in constant flux. These simplifications sustain life, just as the simplification and myth that their communities were the best on earth have allowed men to fight and die to protect themselves and their families for all of human history until today, when we look with scorn on such opinions. But who, when threatened, would die for the "truth" that no society is any better than another, that in the end we are all dust anyway, and there is nothing more elevated in this life than merely being and debunking myths?

And we can honestly do no other, for it is inherent in our worldview to think in such a way; but let us at least be honest with ourselves about what we are doing. The cool, cynical scorn with which we look at human affairs - the attempt to criticise from the outside, as if we are not human as well - denies our very nature and is really a unique animating principle of a society in human history. It sucks the pure pleasure of being out of life, and alienates us from ourselves and from the world. And it leaves us profoundly unequipped to understand genocide and war because we can no longer take seriously anyone who takes anything seriously - from hence spring the banal ideas that we can eliminate war by simply getting rid of bad governments and installing technocrats, or creating a "world state" and so destroying national sentiment, the passionate attachment to what is yours because it is yours.

In short, without love and passion unashamedly enjoyed as a human being, we can never be fully human, and with them we risk resembling beasts; but in the attempt to obey only reason and "objectivity", to never believe anything that is not true and to have no truck with the fairytales that make life beautiful, we risk resembling machines - and the Devil has the last laugh because we can never anyway achieve the objectivity of a God. An insidious choice - but whoever said life or the future would be easy?

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