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Bay Area Atheists/Agnostics/Humanists/Freethinkers/Skeptics Message Board › "Does Romney's Religious Devotion Make Him More, or Less, Trustworthy?&

"Does Romney's Religious Devotion Make Him More, or Less, Trustworthy?"

user 9892369
San Ramon, CA
Post #: 432
[part 2 of 3]­

Most religions place a high value on honesty and on the concept of truth itself, which is seen as sacred. Religion scholar Huston Smith said that the world's great wisdom traditions converge on three virtues: charity (meaning love or compassion), humility and veracity. Veracity is truth-seeking and truth-telling and the sublime objectivity that enables both. Medieval Jewish commentator Rashi said famously, "God's seal is truth." Muslims call Islam "the religion of truth." In Christianity, the two defining attributes of God are love and truth, while Satan is "the father of lies." In Buddhism, which is nontheistic, compassion is the highest virtue, but some say that truth is god.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that veracity is one of the world's most universal ethical values. Whether or not we thrive depends on our ability to figure out the cause-and-effect relationships that govern our well-being. Which buttons do I need to push to get fed, to get money, to get sex? Getting the answers right can be a matter of life or death. In the short run, it may be nice to think whatever I want, but if I indulge in too much wish-thinking, reality can hit me pretty hard.

We also can get whomped if other people lead us astray, whether it is because they themselves have a poor grasp of reality, or they don't care what is real or they have reason to trick us. As members of a social species, most of the information that we need in order to flourish comes from other humans, and so one of the most critical aspects of any relationship is trust. It is tremendously important that we be able to differentiate useful truths from hot air and deception.

While the jury is still out - for better or worse - on the net effect of religion in the modern world, some scholars (and research) suggest that religion functions to bind communities together, suppressing selfishness and encouraging shared beliefs and virtues that enable communal life. Consequently, religions have mechanisms for encouraging veracity, along with other virtues such as generosity and service. For example, truth-telling and truth-seeking are taught during religious training, from Vacation Bible School to seminary. Divine Truth is the focus of songs and art, while human dishonesty is cause for shame or confession. Religious communities expect members to be "upright" in their dealings with each other, and they sanction violators. In addition, theistic religions, meaning those with humanoid gods, leverage another form of social pressure. They cultivate the sense that someone is always looking over your shoulder. Like Santa, God sees you when you're sleeping and awake, whether you've been bad or good. Researchers have found that, even in atheists, mentally activating the concept of "God" can elicit more scrupulous behavior.

The caveat is that religions also use the concept of truth in ways that encourage dishonesty and self-deception. Many start with a set of dogmas and ask believers to make any eternal logic or evidence fit the structure of the dogmatic belief system. Truth is, essentially, trademarked. It is what leaders or sacred texts tell you it is, and it is your job to revise or ignore any indication to the contrary.

This may not have created much of an integrity problem for believers in ages past, when the only available explanations for natural phenomena and human behavior were those derived from religion itself. In modern societies, though, adherents are confronted with a whole marketplace of ideas. The proto-scientific aspect of religion, meaning its value in explaining the natural world, is increasingly obsolete, as are its moral priorities. As religious teachings diverge further and further from what is known about the world around us and about the functioning of the human mind, the faithful can feel obligated to contort their own minds, suppressing evidence and distorting logic in order to maintain traditional beliefs.

In fact, sometimes they are exhorted to do so. An Evangelical Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, written by Gleason Archer, opens with the following words: "In dealing with Bible problems of any kind ... be fully persuaded in your own mind that an adequate explanation exists.... Once we have come into agreement with Jesus that the Scripture is completely trustworthy and authoritative, then it is out of the question for us to shift over to the opposite assumption, that the Bible is only the errant record of fallible men as they wrote about God." Whew. Archer goes on to create a 400-page monument to the art of confirmatory thinking.

Religious teachings themselves can make honest inquiry feel unsafe. Threats of eternal damnation, shunning, or even the divinely sanctioned murder of apostates all provide strong incentives for the faithful to avoid looking too closely at received traditions. Threats like these create the conditions for what is called motivated belief, in which rationality provides post hoc justifications for beliefs that are subconsciously driven by emotion. A thoughtful but motivated true-believer may become particularly adept at logical fallacy and distortion of evidence - in other words, adept at the art of self-deception, something we're all rather good at even without any help from religion.

Religious mixed messages about honesty can be quite overt. Islam, for example, teaches that believers should be honest. "Surely God guides not him who is prodigal and a liar" (Quran 40:28). However, it also contains a set of teachings called al taqiyya that permit or even honor deception under specific circumstances. One such circumstance is when a Muslim fears discrimination because of his or her religion. In the most restrictive interpretations of taqiyya, this is the only time deception has divine sanction, but taqiyya has also been interpreted to apply in a broader range of circumstances: to defeat enemies or to defend Islam itself. According to stories imbedded in the Quran and subsequent records of Islamic jurisprudence, deception can be a virtuous weapon in religious conflict and in the pursuit of Islamic hegemony. Since Islam is Truth, the moral negatives of deception may be outweighed by the benefits of right belief and sharia, which eventually bring joys and peace that trump all else.

Like Islam, Mormonism crystalized under conditions of persecution, and like Muslims and Evangelical Christians, Mormons believe that God wants them to convert the world to their form of belief. The combination means that Mormonism sends some mixed messages about honesty. Hinckley, the Mormon president who publicly denied knowledge of traditional teachings, also made the following statement: "In matters of honesty, there are no shortcuts; no little white lies, or big black lies, only the simple, honest truth spoken in total candor."

"Being true is different than being honest," said Hinckley. The contrast between this statement and his public dissimulation is stark, and it is a good reminder that people who deceive in the service of faith often are also people who highly value truth.

[continued in part 3...]

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

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