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Religion and Truth

I need a big book to take on a big flight, and as I think I mentioned here before, I’m enjoying Neal Stephenson’s ‘Anathem’ on this trip. It’s over 900 pages of fairly small print, so I only read about half of it on the trip up, and have plenty to keep me occupied on the trip back.

It’s excellent and highly recommended to those who enjoy dense, philosophical science fiction. Lots of the ideas have struck me, and extended things I’ve been thinking about, but one quote from page 577 really hit me. I need to offer a bit of background so it will make sense for you. Some of the characters were using a simple gas stove to cook a meal. Erasmas, the main character, asked why they were using such a simple cooker, when there were much more hi-tech ones available, and they replied that because they often travelled in isolated, difficult environments, they preferred to rely on things that they could understand, and that they could pull apart and repair if necessary (I often have the same reaction under the bonnet (hood) of modern cars…).

So here’s the passage:

Later, Cord [Erasmas’ sister] began to share her views about what had happened, and it became obvious that she was interpreting the whole thing from a Kelx [a fictional religion in the book] point of view. It seemed that Magister Sark had got himself a convert. His words, back in Masht, might have made only a faint impression on her, but something about what we had lived through at Orithena made it all seem true in her mind. And this didn’t seem like the right time for me to try to convince her otherwise. It was, I realised, like the broken stove all over again. What was the point of my having a truer explanation of these things if it could only be understood by avout [kind of secular philosopher-monks] who devoted their whole life to theorics [kind of science/philosophy]? Cord, independent soul that she was, wouldn’t want to live her life under the sway of such ideas any more than she’d want to cook breakfast with a machine that she couldn’t understand and fix.1

OK, so leave aside for a moment Erasmas’ automatic assumption that his own explanation is ‘truer’ than hers, and the implied condescension. This passage just got me thinking about ideas and explanations and our insistence on forcing our ‘truer’ interpretations on others.

Thinking this way is anathema to Christians (and presumably to followers of other religions too): evangelism is all about convincing others to accept our explanations. It’s seen as a sacred duty in most religions. And not only religions, of course: we try to encourage, and when that fails coerce, others to see the world in accordance with our political and scientific and philosophical views, too. But I dunno… it seemed to me that perhaps what we need to look at is (again) the Dr Phil test: “How’s that workin’ for ya?” If other people’s world views seem to be making them happy and fulfilled, and leading them to make the world a better place by caring for others and the world around them, how about we leave them alone, and focus on those whose beliefs are obviously (in their frame of reference, not ours) making them miserable or making them act in evil ways toward others?

Hmm, that might change who is the evangelist and who the sinner in need of salvation, in quite a few cases, I suspect.

  1. Hmm, didn’t realise quite how many explanatory notes I’d need to insert when I started this!

3 Comments on “Religion and Truth

  1. Part of it is that we regard ourselves as fairly smart people and the way we view things makes a lot of sense to us. So when we see people who see things differently, our reaction is to try to correct them. Sometimes we’re right (No really, rocket cars with no braking systems are trouble), other times we’re not. But we feel just as correct either way because it’s all the same internal system of judgment.

    Just this weekend, I totally made an ass of myself at a conference by exhibiting this very behavior. Really, what it comes down to is presentation. I could’ve presented my stance in a much better fashion but my presenting skills blow. Luckily, the recipients of my fervor were (at least outwardly) very patient with me. I learned a lot.

  2. I like your observation here, Dave, being prepared to listen before we speak. Sometimes I have heard people explaining something world-viewish, and wanted to jump in with “No, no, that’s not a good way to think”, but held back, or else been embarrassed later to realize that in philosophical matters, people often just latch on to any word that suits them. Their words can have connotations different from mine, and ring false alarm bells. If I had waited to hear the whole idea, or just observed a bit more, I would have found myself more in agreement, and more able to discern the differences in our thinking and grow from there. The premature “No, no!” would only have prevented or hindered that from happening.

    This happened a number of times in PNG, where language and world-view are more at odds with me on average than in a western country.

    But there are issues where respecting niceties can cause real suffering. How about Mbeki and his stance on AIDS? His view may have been making his happy and fulfilled, but it was a disaster for others under his influence. That may be too clear cut, but I think there are times to assert a difference of opinion.

  3. Interestingly I heard something similar in a sermon a couple weeks back. I may have mentioned to you one the the bits of trivia presented. In a survey of 73 jobs, rating the jobs on respectability, evangelists came in 3rd from the bottom, above crime bosses and drug dealers. Sometimes people get on a soapbox and become totally ineffective in their message because of the very thing you wrote about. By living our lives and caring for people we can help them (should they need it) more effectively than ramming information down their throats.

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