A white supremacist walks into a crowded house of worship in suburban Milwaukee, Wisc., and murders six Indian-Americans. The killer, 40-year-old Wade Michael Page, is roundly condemned for the atrocity. Everywhere, that is, except in neo-Nazi circles. To members of that “community,” Page is a hero, a martyr with enough courage to make a bold statement by boldly acting.
In eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, during the celebration of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, a Muslim extremist detonates a vest packed with explosives and kills three members of the U.S. military and three civilians. While family members mourn loved ones lost in the atrocity, radical elements like the Taliban and al Qaeda celebrate.
One society condemns a behavior, another praises it. How do we know who is right?
The owners of a fast-food restaurant chain donate money to organizations that seek to strengthen the traditional family; reporters, politicians, and gay activists rise up to protest the “hatred” and “intolerance.” Is there no way to discern the truth of the matter? Is it all just a matter of opinion?
No one on either side of these conflicts believes it is just a matter of opinion. Everyone is passionately convinced about the truth — but Truth appears to be hopelessly confused about what is true.
We are a world of many tribes, and some of those tribes have declared war on others. In each of the cases above, one tribe will not rest until its enemy has submitted and accepted the warring tribe’s “truth.” Even some anti-war activists seem to be perfectly willing to use violence to make their point.
Is submission to the stronger power the only peace we can find? Is war the only path to peace? Is there no way for all our tribes to know what is just and true for everyone, everywhere, all the time?
Not if religious and moral truth is just a matter of what an individual or tribe believes it is. And, sadly, pretty much everyone believes just exactly that. Every religion has its revelation. Every tribe has its wise men. Every atheist and skeptic has his dawkins. Each community passionately believes its truth — and dismisses those who disagree as fools, infidels, or haters.
This rant was triggered by an op-ed published in today’s on-line edition of the Salt Lake Tribune. The article, entitled “Truth in Mormonism,” was written by Ed Firmage Jr., a former Mormon who had an epiphany in grad school that all religion is “a pious fraud.”
Mr. Firmage, who now sees himself as a skeptic, tells us that “religious truth is a matter of what you believe,” that ultimately “the truth of religion, if it has any truth, … is not what you believe but what you do.” If we could all just understand that religious truth is what transforms us, not what our creeds tell us, we could avoid “the usual sectarian disputes” and focus on “things that can unite us in common cause.” “Humanity today faces challenges greater than any in history,” Mr. Firmage says. “These are decades that need a saving truth, not of creeds but of faith in action, faith directed at solving the real problems of our time.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yet everyone in the three examples I cited above has a faith, and the aggressors all believed their actions were directed at “solving the real problems of our time.”
Contra Mr. Firmage, religious and moral truth cannot simply be a matter of what an individual or group believes. The world cannot be united in common cause without some way of agreeing on the values that define the “real” problems of our time and give us guidance on solving them.
Mr. Firmage, like everyone else, would be only too glad to help the rest of us understand the truth that will unite us — as long as everyone is rational enough to see things the way he does. He probably misses the irony that his epiphany about the truth of religion and the importance of faith in action actually is just another religious truth.
I don’t mean to be hard on this fellow. He isn’t any more deluded than other skeptics who have found an intellectual insight they believe transports a person above tribal superstition. But the fact is, he can’t point to any evidence that makes his “truth” — his opinion — any better than that of the neo-Nazi or Islamist. Even if everyone agreed with his perspective, agreement is no indicator of truth. Humans, even the smart ones, are notoriously blind to our own prejudices and faulty assumptions.
So what is the solution? Is there nowhere in the real world we can look for proof of what is true and just? Is there no one whose “faith in action” shows us a path forward that everyone can agree is good?
I think proof beyond reasonable doubt is available, but many people — most people, actually — won’t like it.
I guess we’re all entitled to our own opinions — or we used to be, anyway. And we all get to live with the consequences of thinking that religious and moral truth is just a matter of what you believe.
God help us all.