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Changing Truth

Via Ed Brayton’s blog comes the link to Dan Fincke’s review of Christianity’s latest “poor me” porno, God Is Not Dead. Thank you, Dan, for watching that movie so that the rest of us don’t have to!

Dan actually wrote a multi-part review that may end up being remembered long after this entirely forgettable movie is forgotten. In the second installment, he points out how the movie tries to make atheists look bad by portraying them as behaving like Christians.

For example, if you were like me, you were troubled by the idea of Professor Radisson’s desire to have his students sign a statement of belief that “God is Dead” with threats of failure if they do not do so. He was forcing them to agree to a conclusion without any debate. He was being closed minded and dogmatic.

In the real world it is Christian universities that alone in America require of students and faculty that they sign faith statements to attend or teach. If Professor Radisson’s actions bothered you, in reality you should be bothered by these Christian universities’ behavior. This is not a point against secular universities. If any atheist philosophy professor (or any atheist professor of any other kind) at a secular school has ever had anyone pledge that says “God is dead”, I’ve never heard of it.

It would be easy to accuse the Christian filmmakers of deliberate hypocrisy for pulling this kind of switcheroo, but let’s be charitable and pretend that they just don’t know how atheists really think and behave, and are just assuming that atheists pull the same kind of manipulative stunts as are common in Christian culture. Still, it raises an interesting question. Why do Christians need to compel faculty and students to swear allegiance to specific doctrines? And even more interestingly, why is it that secular institutions do not?

The answer comes from where you get your truth. Secular institutions get their truth from secular sources of truth, namely the same objective reality that governs the lives of both believer and unbeliever alike. To be truth in a secular context, a thing must be objectively verifiable by both believer and unbeliever alike (at least in principle). This isn’t to say that you can’t choose to disbelieve secular truth, but the important thing is that your disbelieve cannot change what is true in the secular sense. “Secular” refers to that which is true for everyone, regardless of belief.

For example, you might decide that you don’t believe Ohm’s Law, but if you take a voltmeter and someone else takes a voltmeter and you actually measure the relationships between voltage, amperage and resistance, you’ll get the same results as the person who understands Ohm’s Law and applies it to their study of electronics. Ohm’s Law is a secular truth, and neither your belief nor your disbelief can affect Ohm’s Law one way or another. The electronics department does not require you to swear allegiance to Ohm’s Law because it does not need to. The laws of electronics are not derived from human beliefs, are not affected by human beliefs, and do not require the support of human beliefs. They are secular truth.

Contrast that with religious truth. Judeo-Christian truth changes whenever the beliefs of its adherents change, both on an individual level and on a cultural level. Convert from Protestant to Catholic, or from Catholic to Baptist, or from Baptist to Mormon, and Christian truth changes for you. Slavery used to be just fine with God, but today Christians want to take credit for discovering the truth that all men are created equal—unless you’re a Calvinist, in which case a few people were created elect and the rest were created explicitly so they could suffer in hell for all eternity.

Likewise, some Christians today are proud of the truth that God liberates and elevates women, and makes them equal with men. The old truth, that women are possessions created by God for man’s benefit, is no longer a truth, unless you belong to a more fundamentalist sect that “puts women in their place,” Biblically speaking. It’s a cultural thing: cultures that routinely relegate women to second-class status have no problem with the original truth, but liberal, egalitarian societies prefer the new truth. God just goes along with whatever is most popular at the time.

The problem is that there is no secular source for Christian truth. Every Judeo-Christian truth we can discover is a truth that is available to us exclusively through human sources. Not only is the Bible itself written by humans, but humans are responsible for picking which human writings constitute sacred Scripture. Different groups have different Scriptures, and groups that have the same Scriptures interpret them in entirely different ways. Even in the same group, truth changes over time: when the Roman church decided that its patriarch was Christ’s sole, authoritative vicar, it was not only true at that time, it instantly became a truth that had always been true—at least for those that believed it.

Judeo-Christian truth derives from human belief, and changes as the beliefs change. In order to protect and defend Christian truth, it is vital that Christian institutions protect it at its source. Especially at educational institutions, oaths of doctrinal allegiance are essential to preserving the institution’s original Christian truths, because education has a way of providing thoughtful people with new information that changes what they believe. Leave any room for personal growth and discovery, and naive beliefs are doomed. Any number of liberal and/or secular institutions have started out as conservative Christian universities that failed to properly forbid changing your mind. Heck, even with formal commitments to dogmatic inflexibility, many modern Christian institutions are struggling to hold on to their traditions, because there’s nothing behind them to hold them up.

Of course, the way to avoid these kind of issues is to avoid basing your “truth” on changeable beliefs of humans. Secular truth works equally well regardless of human beliefs and opinions. It’s a higher standard precisely because it does not require arbitrary and unreasonable restrictions on what conclusions you are and are not permitted to draw. Draw whatever conclusions you like, but your answers are subject to verification, and could be wrong. Religious truth can’t do that for you—whatever you believe, is right, at least in your own eyes. And that’s why religious truth is infinitely more fragile than secular truth, and why religious institutions have to take extreme measures to try and protect it.

Comments

  1. John Morales says

    Even in the same group, truth changes over time: when the Roman church decided that its patriarch was Christ’s sole, authoritative vicar, it was not only true at that time, it instantly became a truth that had always been true—at least for those that believed it.

    “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”

  2. says

    At the point when you’ve become so concerned with truth that you’re trying to compel loyalty to a version of that truth, aren’t you more or less admitting you know that it’s not true?

  3. raven says

    It’s basically a hate and lie film. Reefer Madness for fundies.

    If their religion was true, they wouldn’t have to lie all the time.

    That they do, is an explicit admission that truth, reason, and reality are not on their side. Which is no surprise. Martin Luther said exactly that 450 years ago.

    Martin Luther — ‘Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not strug…

    Today Martin Luther would be a misogynistic internet troll, babbling away about demons, atheists, and reason on various forums.

  4. raven says

    I’ll add here, that fundie xians are huge fans of Joseph Stalin, They have heretic purges and witch hunts often and occasional show trials. I’m sure they are devastated that they can’t send them to Gulags any more or burn them at the stake.

    The usual targets these days are evolutionary biologists in bible colleges. They get real excited when they find one. Followed shortly by someone getting fired.

  5. bmiller says

    I do think we need to be careful here.

    Not every secular university topic is physics or chemistry or engineering. There is plenty of declarative TRUTHS proclaimed in university departments which are…squishier. Not only the social “sciences”, but also truths about human nature proclaimed in business management and economics courses.

    There is no need for ridiculous proclamations of dogma, but there are other ways of encouraging a degree of orthodoxy. Would a hard core Marxist choose the University of Chicago for Economics?

    I am not disagreeing 100%…even the University of Chicago is no Pensacola or Bob Jones University (LOL).

    • Deacon Duncan says

      That’s a point worth noting, although even in those cases I think it’s truth with a lowercase “t” and not something that can’t be challenged without provoking gasps of “blasphemy!”.

  6. Samantha887 says

    Everyone should see this movie, whether a Christian or not. If you are skeptical of the movie, I encourage you to go see it for yourself, then decide how you feel about it. As a Christian, this movie affirmed my faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The Bible and Christianity are accurately depicted, and the movie covers some tough questions that nonbelievers may have concerning the Christian faith. God’s not dead. He can’t be; He raised me from spiritual death.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi, Samantha887, thanks for stopping by. It’s interesting and significant that you would find your Christian faith affirmed by a movie that turns truth on its head and appeals to stereotypes and inaccuracies rather than facts and sound thinking. I would encourage you to go back to Dan’s blog and read through some of the many flaws, fallacies, and outright falsehoods that went into making that film such a strong affirmation of what Christians believe.

    • Nick Gotts says

      some tough questions that nonbelievers may have concerning the Christian faith

      Does it deal with the question: “Why do so many Christians feel the need to lie about what atheists believe and how they behave?”?

    • rapiddominance says

      He raised me from spiritual death.

      I’m asking you, sincerely, to elaborate on this statement to a degree you feel comfortable. You won’t get a hostile response from me.

      Scott Morgan

  7. Samantha887_trthskr says

    Everyone should see this movie, whether a Christian or not. If you are skeptical of the movie, I encourage you to go see it for yourself, then decide how you feel about it. As a Christian, this movie affirmed my faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The Bible and Christianity are accurately depicted, and the movie covers some tough questions that nonbelievers may have concerning the Christian faith. God’s not dead. He can’t be; He raised me from spiritual death.
    “I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” -Jesus

    • Deacon Duncan says

      By the way, it’s fairly trivial to “raise” someone from “spiritual death,” since spiritual death and spiritual life are conditions that exist only in the minds and imaginations of believers. A fictional savior can easily produce such changes in the minds and imaginations of those who indulge themselves in such fantasies.

  8. forestdragon says

    Would posting the same message again (with or without minor changes) be considered spamming or trolling?

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