Yes, But Is It True?
For the 500 years known as the Modern age, reason was king. Unfortunately, it was also held to a standard it could not bear. Despite the beliefs of Descartes, Locke, and the other philosophers who ushered in the Enlightenment, reason did not have the ability to deliver truth objectively. It could deliver something close to what is commonly called absolute truth, but as long as humans are involved, truth will never be completely objective.
As is often the case with religion, evangelicalism arrived late to the Modern age party. Once it arrived it became an enthusiastic participant. If you come from an evangelical background you have probably heard of the term inerrancy, a construct of the Modern age. Inerrancy is the belief the original autographs of scripture (which we do not have) were without error in every tiny respect. Scripture claimed no such thing for itself, but the evangelical adoption of modernity demanded it. One single error would lead to a slippery slope from which we could not recover. Such was the necessity when you embraced the notion of absolute truth.
Swinging pendulums have always played a leading part in the movement of history. A culture moves far to one extreme, then rides to the other. The discoveries of Quantum physics showed the impossibility of holding onto the notion of objective truth. Hard as we might try, the scientist, with his biases, gets in the way of absolute objectivity. Once that reality was firmly grasped, it wasn’t long before the pendulum started swinging again, and we moved from an age fixated on objective truth to a post-empirical age in which the existence of any kind of verifiable truth was questioned. All supposed truth was seen as social construct.
According to an excellent article by Kurt Andersen in The Atlantic, this move away from the search for verifiable truth began in the 60s with the oft-repeated catch phrases of the Baby Boomers. Mantras such as “Do your own thing” or “It’s all relative,” commenced the swing. But it took the Internet to move the pendulum to warp speed.
Let’s say you believe the government adds subliminal mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals. (According to Andersen’s article, 15 percent of Americans hold that belief, while an additional 15 percent believe it is possible.) Before the Internet you had to go to great difficulty to find others who agreed with you. Magazines that touted conspiracy theories were tiny and poorly circulated. Your idea was eventually dropped not only from lack of evidence, but because you couldn’t find a tribe that agreed with you.
The arrival of the Internet changed all of that. Today, if you want to believe the earth exists on the back of a turtle swimming in a giant ocean, you can find a group on the Internet that believes the same thing and has the “evidence” to prove it. This disregard for truth is maddening.
When our culture first began its journey away from truth, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan started saying, “You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.”
Just a couple of decades later we have a presidential spokesperson who speaks of “alternative facts” and a president who, when confronted with one of his too frequent lies, replies with a shrug, “Well, I read it on the Internet.”
The notion of truth is under attack, and leading the way is a rather surprising group, evangelicals. That’s right. The same evangelicals who hold to the notion of absolute truth when it comes to the inerrancy of scripture, embrace with enthusiasm a president who has publicly lied 2.5 times a day since taking office. Those same evangelicals deny both global warming and evolution, despite massive scientific evidence supporting both.
Evangelicals still embrace the idea of absolute truth when it suits them, but when it doesn’t, like when you preach about the statistical realities of your likelihood of a harsher prison sentence if you are a person of color, they cry, “Yeah, but statistics can say whatever you want them to say.” Well folks, you can’t have it both ways.
The proper response to realizing all truth is less than objective is not to abandon the notion of truth. All truth is not social construct. The proper response is to rigorously get as close to objective truth as is humanly possible. Truth matters, whether it is the truth of scripture, or the truth that LGBTQ people do not pose any kind of threat to the moral order of a society, or the truth that blacks do receive harsher prison sentences than whites.
Maybe one of the most concerning parts of this whole conversation is that I am well aware a lot of my readers have abandoned this post before they even got to this paragraph. Discussions about truth seem esoteric or intellectual, and of no immediate concern. It is a shame, because truth matters, greatly.
I spent much of my life aligned with the evangelical camp, but I was never comfortable with their commitment to “absolutes” and used to regularly get myself in trouble with more conservative folks for refusing to accept the doctrine of inerrancy. What I see happening now, holding to inerrancy while having a complete disregard for verifiable truth in other areas, is not something I saw developing to this extreme. Its arrival is disconcerting.
As for me, I believe what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said remains true. “You are entitled to your opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.” It is truth that sets us free.
And so it goes.