Having considered in my past posts all my concerns with Armstrong’s book, The Case for God, I wish to now address the most important subject of them all: Where do Armstrong and other non-literal believers stand on the issue of whether or not falsehoods are (or at least can be) better than truth?
This may seem like a strange question. To help explain why this question is so important, I need to point you to an excellent post done by AndrewS a while back entitled “Why New Atheists are the Dullest People in the World“.  (See here for original post from Leah.)
Non-Literal Theists vs. Miliant Atheists
In this post, AndrewS tells the story of Leah and her realization that despite being a non-literal believer she was still a “Raging Religion-oholic.” Another poster named brillientk89 — a new atheist (i.e. militant atheist) — took issue with her non-literal theists views. AndrewS, who is also an atheist, defended her views. His key point is that brillientk89′s stance is so militantly in favor of ‘truth’ that he makes no room for even fiction. (Thus the reference to being ‘dull.’) 
Here is a key part of the ‘exchange’ between Leah (the non-literal theist) and brillentk89 (the militant atheist):
Leah: Science tells me that my emotions are caused by biochemical reactions, but that doesn’t help me navigate my emotional life the way a good story or ritual does.
brillentk89′ s response: I’m sorry you feel that you need nice stories to make you feel better about your existence. Maybe you should see a therapist.
Leah: I personally am not a scientist. I don’t have time to run every issue in my life through the scientific method, and I will be dead before science can come up with answers to my most pressing questions about day to day living: love, compassion, anger, hatred, forgiveness. Happiness. So in the meantime, I don’t consider it a copout to turn to the heuristics of story and ritual.
brillentk89′s response: I consider it very much a copout to avoid actually looking for real answers versus coming up with ones that happen to sound good.
I think most of us would agree that brillentk89′s position seems rather extreme, especially to someone that is essentially a fellow atheist (i.e. non-literal theist) in all but name. Andrew’s defense of Leah through positing the value of fiction seems like a pretty good defense to me.  Unexpectedly, brillentk89 more or less agrees with AndrewS: apparently he does not like fiction much and only reads non-fiction books unless they are really good.
I do not know if brillent is representative of must militant atheists or not. I would guess that most militant atheists are capable of enjoying fiction for what it is. But this only increases the power of Andrew’s defense of Leah in my opinion.
Brillent’s Logical Consistency
But here is the thing, brillentk89′s position does seem to logically follow from a certain set of assumptions. I’ve come to accept the fact that we’re all logically correct given our own starting assumptions. The real argument is over who has the right starting assumptions. If only people realized this. So much time in discussion could be saved!
You see, I believe I understand exactly why brillentk89 feels he must attack Leah’s point of view. I believe it’s because (as we’d expect of any good non-literal theist) she says this:
I have no desire for anyone who is happy as an atheist–or as a Mormon, Buddhist, Pagan, Jew–to stop what they’re doing.
Well, no wonder brillentk89 is so concerned!
Leah seems to have just said that The Truth doesn’t really matter that much! In fact, if we take her literally, seems to be saying that you should just do what makes you happy and not worry about whether or not it’s true!
Now to be sure, one does not have to read Leah’s statement this way. But as it turns out — and I’ll explain this more in the next section — it’s quite natural to read Leah this way. So Brillent’s concerns that she favors falsehood over truth are logically valid concerns given what she’s said so far.
The Problem of the Non-Literal Theist Position
Here is the problem as I see it. Leah’s whole point is that religion can really help a person in their life. However, for her she doesn’t need all that “belief” stuff:
Do I believe Jesus was born of a virgin? No. Do I believe he rose from the dead? No. Do I believe I or anyone else will be denied a place in heaven for not accepting him as savior? No. I don’t believe in an afterlife at all actually.
For Leah, it’s about the rituals and the narrative that religion brings to a person’s life.
I really think spirituality is a temperament, and what or whether a person believes has very little to do with it.
My own opinion is that Leah is wrong about this and that belief and religion are more intimately tied together than she believes, especially over a population. (Obviously there can always be individual exceptions, like herself, but can you really make a whole religion out of non-literal beliefs alone?) In fact, I think Leah goes against all the existing evidence when she makes these claims. However, that’s not the point of this post, so for now let’s admit that (evidence or not) this is an open question.
The real question that I feel brillentk89 is, in his own way, trying to ask Leah is actually this: Are you saying that even though literal believing Mormons, Buddhists, Pagans, and Jews are believing falsehoods (and you agree they are falsehoods!) that you’d still encourage them to believe in their falsehoods!?
Not surprisingly, Leah skirts this question entirely. She spends considerable time explaining that she personally can get all the benefits of religion without any sort of belief. But she never addresses this very key issue that (I believe) brillentk89 is raising: should all literal believers give up their beliefs in God? This is Brillent’s implicit question and it’s spot on.
But I don’t blame Leah for ignoring this question, because frankly there is no good response possible for her here.If she were to say “well, actually, yes, all Mormons, Buddhists, Pagans, and Jews would be better off giving up their false beliefs and turning their religions into orthopraxies like mine” then she just undercut her position that there is no One Truth out there. She can’t do this because it’s a key part — I’d say the core – of her whole belief system! So if she admits everyone should become like her — a non-literal theist — there apparently is a One True Religion after all. This is the opposite of what she says she believes.
But, paradoxically, if she were to claim that believers should stick with what works for them and not bother with “non-literal theism” because it’s “not for everyone” then she is implicitly advocating that some people really are better off with falsehoods rather than truth! Therefore, Brillent’s concerns are valid.
This is why I don’t blame Leah for ignoring the whole issue. She undercuts her own position no matter what she advocates here. Yet Leah logically must be taking one of those two positions, right? There is no super-position possible here. She (as a non-literal theist) is trying to claim a middle ground that is actually part of the excluded middle. It is logically impossible for her to resolve this conundrum within her own beliefs because it would force her to either be in favor of “what works for you” instead of Truth or be in favor of “One Truth.” Both positions are unacceptable to her despite being the only two options logically possible for her.
Is “Truth” Just a Word that Means “Beauty”?
What does all this have to do with Karen Armstrong’s book? Everything! Because this is the essence of the problem with the non-literal belief system Armstrong espouses. She too can’t come out and say “well, actually, I’m advocating for the position that untruth is often better than truth.” Yet that is pretty much exactly what she is hinting at throughout. Truth just doesn’t do it for us human beings, it seems.
So Armstrong masterfully dances around the issue because if she ever admits it directly she has two problems. First, we all intuitively have a biological sense that The Truth Matters. This might yet turn out to be a delusion (this will be the topic for a future post) but it’s a human impulse so strong that it can’t be denied directly. So, true or not, it’s a losing cause.
Second, if it is true that The Truth can be inferior to falsehoods, then Armstrong’s whole argument collapse under its own weight anyhow. How in the world can Armstrong continue to make her rational arguments against literal belief in a Supreme Being (which she insists is an idol throughout) when rational arguments don’t really matter more than ‘being happy’? For the correct rational retort to Armstrong would then be quite simple: “literal belief in God works for me better that non-literal belief.” And the rest of what she says no longer matters. In any case, there is certainly no call for writing a 500+ page book attempting to argue people out of their literal beliefs like she does here if the truth doesn’t matter compared to what we get out of our (false) beliefs.
Yet Armstrong is trapped on the other side as well. If she instead says “well, actually, I admit that my main point of writing this book was to help literal believers accept that non-literal belief is better” then she a) just claimed there was a One Truth out there after all and, b) was forced to establish that point through a series of untruths.
Not wanting to be stuck in this conundrum, Armstrong ends up instead approvingly quoting Keats as her best defense:
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in the Sublime creative of essential Beauty. (p. 231)
It’s hard to figure out for sure what Armstrong wants us to take away here. She seems to be saying that, regardless of whether or not an idea is ‘really true’ it’s ‘true’ anyhow if its artistic or beautiful. (Ah! We again see brillentk89′s point of view making better sense all of a sudden!)
Under this interpretation ‘truth’ has two meanings: the regular one about facts and this new one Keats is suggesting. If this is a correct interpretation of Armstrong’s views, then even Armstrong speaking of ‘truth’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘something that is factually true.’ 
Marshaling some support for this interpretation of Armstrong is this quote from her:
Where science is concerned with facts, religious truth is symbolic and its symbols will vary according to context; they will change as society changes, and the reason for these changes must be understood. Like arts, religion is transformative. (p. 218)
(Well no wonder brillentk89 lacks a soft spot for art!)
But Armstrong doesn’t even stop here. She goes on to say that we experience a “misplaced loyalty to the past” (p. 92) when we interpret scripture literally because “truth is constantly changing” (p. 93)
Can truth change? If it changes isn’t it tautologically not truth?
As always for Armstrong, there is a certain about of plausible deniability built into this saying. She might defend herself by saying that she only meant that something that is true for today might no longer be true tomorrow. As in “I’m wearing a blue shirt today” and “I will wear a red shirt tomorrow.” So I hesitate to read in too much here.
However, it seems to me that Armstrong’s arguments are rationally DOA either way for the very reasons I explained with Leah’s equivalent conundrum.
Do Non-Literal Theists Advocate for Misrepresentation?
I have written posts in the past calling into question the non-literal theist practice of misrepresenting themselves through clever re-interpretation of words. I used Leah as my example earlier precisely because she refuses to take up this practice. Good for Leah!
However, I think there is an open question of whether or not Armstrong did misrepresenting herself through clever re-wording. After all, the name of the book is itself a deception: The Case for God.
Yes, you can claim that as Armstrong understands the term “God” her book is a case for this “God.” True enough. But how will the average person seeing the title understand it? Is not the book ultimately really a case against “God” as most people understand the term? In what sense is a case for a non-literal God not therefore a case against against a literal God? And does that not mean that this book is really a “Case against ‘God’” as most people throughout all history have understood the term? Yet it was marketed as primarily a defense against the new atheists rather than her own take on the case against God.
And it’s not like she couldn’t have been more accurate in her title. She could have called it “The Case for Religious Practice” or “The Case for Orthopraxy” or even “The Case for a Symbolic God Rather Than a Literal One.”
But, of course, then many people in her intended audience would not have bought the book and her message would not have gone to the very people she wanted to receive it: literal believers.
That being said, I confess that I do not blame Armstrong for giving her book a snappy name nor for advertisting it as a defense against the new atheists. Nor do I blame her publisher for the simple ruse since their main goal is (and perhaps should be) to sell books and make money. This is a case where profit goals and proselytizing goals both matched up well. For better or worse, I can completely understand why the book was named what it was and I am pretty sure I would have done the same thing if I were in Armstrong’s shoes.
I think physicist Stephen Weinberg did a pretty good summary of what I felt brillentk89 was really getting at:
Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives. At least the conservatives like the scientists tell you that they believe in what they believe in because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy. Many religious liberals today seem to think that different people can believe in different mutually exclusive things without any of them being wrong, as long as their beliefs ‘work for them.’ This one believes in… heaven and hell, [that one] believes in the extinction of the soul at death, but no one can be said to be wrong as long as everyone gets a satisfying spiritual, rush from what they believe… [W]e are surrounded by ‘piety without content.’… I happen to think that the religious conservatives are wrong in what they believe, but at least they have not forgotten what it means to really believe in something. The religious liberals seem to me to be not even wrong.
The fact is that militant atheists really are a lot like fundamentalists in this regard. (A point Leah does not miss!) They believe in The Truth just like a religious believer does and they think Truth applies to everyone equally. They wish to advance that Truth and they are not okay with people that are (indirectly) advocating for the idea that falsehoods are better than The Truth.
But the case is not entirely bad for the militant atheists. By comparison, non-literal Theists find themselves in two unenviable positions: they mustn’t say if the truth is better than a falsehood and they mustn’t say if they really believe there is no superior religious belief system or not. So instead they just skirt the whole issue.
 Normally, I do not put links into my posts to anti-Mormon or DAMU sites. But I’m going to make an exception in this case due to the nature of this post.
 AndrewS once told me that he is constantly shocked that he and I end up on opposite sides of a debate because we often seem to be on the wrong side of where we would be expected. For example, in one debate I took the side of a computationalist view of mind and he against.
Perhaps this is another case. For while I think it was great that AndrewS, as an atheist, would defend a non-literal theist, I think it’s somehow symmetrical that I, as a theist, defend a militant atheist; at least for this post. I’ll point out the error of brillentk89′s ways in my next post.
 AndrewS goes on to point out the obvious problem with brillent’s position:
In other words, according to brillient, if someone recognizes they have emotional needs and tries to fulfill these emotional needs through reasonable means, then really, they should see a therapist.
What baffles me about this is that if we take brillient’s idea to its extreme, it would simply medicalize normal human appreciation of the arts. Do you like stories? Rituals? You must need therapy.
Andrew is spot on here. But it’s sort of outside the scope of this post. Maybe in the next one. But I want to give credit where it is due.
 But, given Armstrong’s apparent belief that “truth” has two meanings, perhaps it is not that surprising after all that Armstrong is advocating for the apophatic method whereby we affirm that God exists, then affirm that God does not exist, then affirm that God does not does not exist. However lame this is epistemologically, I can’t deny that it’s probably a pretty good meditation technique. At least as good as Koans or imagining a one-handed clap so as to get your mind into a meditative state. But by the end of the book I was certainly left wondering if Armstrong was advocating for delusion over truth.