If You Love Truth So Much, Why Not Give Up Stories?

Robin Hanson wants to know:

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

via Overcoming Bias : Stories Are Like Religion.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

6 thoughts

  1. I didn’t forgo religion because I love truth or reject stories. I love stories, I just don’t BELIEVE the stories in the Bible. (I don’t even love those stories. As stories go, I can’t get into them.) It isn’t about needing truth, but about needing to suspend disbelief enough to make the religious activities feel like they have value. I can’t suspend disbelief THAT much. Most religious practices are not or entertaining enough for one who doesn’t believe the practices to have the purported spiritual significance. There are so many things I would rather do–like knit, ride a bike, paint, cook, take apart a toaster, do a jig-saw-puzzle, watch Mad Men or sleep, for example.

  2. Interesting. (For lack of space I will skip the social status implications raised and jump straight into apologetics.)

    One of the reasons I am a Christian is because I find the stories so potent. As a multi-cultural library of oral histories, the Bible is littered with resonant stories. Deliciously, later writers reference what has come before, casting meaning through the lens of their own contemporary experience. We add an additional layer by reading these parables in the present tense. Conversely, today’s fiction and television generally disappoint. Contemporary narratives often lack the prismatic quality of religious texts, perhaps as a result of being worked over by fewer writers.

    Being “faithful” does not require a suspension of disbelief. While I, as a devout, church-going, Christian do not believe in the literal truth of someone becoming un-dead, the metaphor of resurrection is in itself truthful and compelling. (E.g.: resurrection as a comment about how our ideas and actions can flourish beyond our own mortality; resurrection as a reminder that things sometimes change radically for the better just as we give up hope.) Similarly, the horn blows that sent the walls of Jericho tumbling down reveal the truth of the transcendent power of collective action- be it genocidal or philanthropic. Religiosity is not an abdication of reason, it is an embrace of the power of parable.

    1. What you describe is about as close to being religious as I can manage. I wouldn’t describe myself as Christian, however, so much as inspired by some of the stories and rituals associated with Christianity*. Much as I am by certain literature, other faiths, and natural phenomenon.

      I’m don’t agree with you on the difference in quality between contemporary and historic or religious stories, although I certainly agree that a lot of contemporary entertainment is mindless and silly. Seems that this may be a matter of taste.

      Back to Robin’s question – I think it poses a false comparison. Giving up religion because of truth is an example of someone giving up a literal belief in the face of knowledge. But very few people hold literal belief in most stories, so there’s no reason that learning that the stories are fictional should affect them in any way. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Gandalf doesn’t exist, but what does that matter?

      Where the use of truth to undermine religion gets challenging is when you’re dealing with people who treat religion as a collection of inspiring allegory and useful rituals that help them improve their life in some way. That is, like you (and me), they hold no literal belief, and so arguments asserting the falseness of Christian beliefs should have no effect on them. There’s nothing intrinsically contradictory about being inspired by a fiction.

      * I say “some” with intent – the Christian canon contains much that is inspiring and good, but it also contains some things I find repugnant, at least in their plain reading.

      1. Yes, the Christian canon contains all sorts of awfulness. Sometimes a different reading or understanding can soften the repulsion but sometimes not. It does not bother me that such vileness is contained in the Bible. The Bible is a library of human experience. People are capable of great cruelty. What appalls me are hateful, oppressive denials of basic human dignity carried out in the name of Jesus with scripture used as a justification. The best remedy, I believe, is to occupy the sanctuary rather that run screaming from the pews.

  3. Well, “gotcha!” I guess, but surely it matters that religions (at least, the kinds of religion that Hanson was asking about to begin with) purport to be true, while novels, movies, et cetera do not. People who tried to answer the prior question about religious belief in good faith pretty generally were aware that people who are religious believe in religions in specific ways that people who enjoy fiction definitely don’t “believe in” the stories they enjoy, and that religious commitment directly involves making assertions about the world that enjoyment of a story obviously does not. (Suppose that Hanson had asked, not about whether people ought to give up being religious, but whether people ought to give up reading Bible stories as literature, or Paradise Lost, or The Almighty Thor; I’ll bet that the answers would have been rather different.)

    It may be that reading stories has, as a side-effect, an increased probability of believing something else which is false, even though it doesn’t involve any belief in the fiction itself. (People who read a lot of novels may be more inclined to believe in something false even though they don’t believe in the truth of the novels they read — say that life is going to tend to work out more like a novel than it really tends to.) If so, that’s sad. But saying that people who care about truth should never believe things they have no reason to believe is a rather different claim from saying that people who care about truth should never do things that could possibly expose them to an increased risk of error in other, not logically related beliefs. (Drinking whiskey will no doubt do that too, but if the argument had gone from abandoning religion to teatotaling this would quite rightly be seen as a really gross sort of bait-and-switch.)

  4. The question is not the difference between “truth” and “beliefs”, the question is do your habitual way of life actions prove that you want nothing to do with truth, or that you want the truth even if it costs you your beliefs.

    Everyone uses one of two methodologies to get to their beliefs. Albeit, some people are more thorough in their application of their chosen method, than others. Either they gather all of the passages and facts that they can use to “prove” a set of beliefs true, and all of the passages and facts that they can use to prove all opposing beliefs false, and interpret everything in the light of their beliefs, or they continuously keep on gathering EVERYTHING that might apply to the topic at hand, interpret everything in the light of the context, flow of thought, flow of discussion, … that it is a part of, … so that they can accurately determine the meaning of each and every piece, then put all of the exact meaning, without adding, subtracting or distorting any to make things fit their beliefs, and then alter their beliefs to fit the fullness of the truth, with everything “cut-straight”.

    What we habitually do proves what we really love. You can be in any belief group, and have any beliefs at all, and “prove” your beliefs to be “truth” to your belief group using the first method. If you look at what those in the first group “seek out”, “gather”, … and their interpretation methods, there is no possible way for anyone using that method to do anything other than “prove all of their core beliefs true to themselves”, and, “prove all opposing beliefs false. Their methodology allows for nothing else. These people, even though they “believe” they love truth, truly hate truth, and close their eyes to anything, and everything that might fly contrary to their beliefs. These are the people that will get angry and “figuratively” want to tear you to pieces for ever daring to doubt their beliefs, questioning the core of who they are, … or will simply ignore you because they are already happy with what they do believe. (Mat. 7:6) Since their beliefs “are” “truth” sincerely looking at anything “else” is not only a waste of time, it is dangerous.

    There is a passage in scripture that reads, in Greek, “Continuously keep on proving ALL things over and over again, as a habit and way of live, always holding fast to that which is good/true.” Since you might have missed some passages or facts, might have misinterpreted the meaning of one or more, … might have missed some facts, those who love truth are always open to going over the passages and facts, evidence, … of others. You see, if you love truth, finding something you missed, or misinterpreted, and being able to give up a lie to get to truth is a wonderful thing. Those that love truth cannot ever lose when objectively examining ALL of the facts and passages relating to a topic. Those that love truth have everything to lose by including anything that is not in their “selected” set of passages and facts, or interpreting anything anyway other than in such a way as to prove their beliefs true and all opposing beliefs false.

    The question is not the difference between “truth” and “beliefs”, the question is do your habitual way of life actions prove that you want nothing to do with truth, or that you want the truth even if it costs you your beliefs. Based on the evidence, which is it? You can be an Atheist, Agnostic, Mormon, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Moslem, … or any belief in the world, using the first methodology. If you are going to do that though, why not start with a set of beliefs you want first, like, … multiple wives, all the wives have to obey me absolutely in everything, … and then find a group with those beliefs and gather the passages and facts they have gathered to prove their beliefs true and all opposing beliefs false, … and construct a belief set you really like. (Ladies, you might want to reverse these.)

    Most people honestly love, and seek after truth, the way most people honestly seek out things to step into in the farmyard. Come to think of it, … most people have a similar reaction when they find it as well.

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