Do Non-Literal Believers Believe Falsehood is Better Than Truth?

Case for GodHaving 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“. [1] (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.’) [2]

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. [3] 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.’ [4]

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.

Conclusions

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.

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

42 thoughts on “Do Non-Literal Believers Believe Falsehood is Better Than Truth?

  1. Bruce N, you have spotted the exact reason why so many of my friends and I called ourselves agnostics in college rather than atheists. If you really are an atheist, you believe in the Truth of atheism, which takes you to some very intolerant extremes, as you point out here. That will not win you very many friends, and it takes you down some very difficult mental paths.

    Here is something to ponder. Let’s say you have a friend who is a drug addict and alcoholic and doesn’t believe in God. And let’s say that person finally gets on the right track because he becomes a Christian. This person goes from being self-destructive and selfish to a truly good, giving person over the course of the conversion. Years pass, and the person is giving to charity, is a kinder person, spends his life helping others, and is obviously happier and content with his life. He has a happy family, with a wife who loves him and a few happy kids. His co-workers like working with him. He no longer looks haggard and unhappy — he looks younger and smiles and radiates a certain glow.

    I know literally dozens of people who have undergone this transformation, either by joining the LDS church or other Christian churches. So the question to atheists is: how can you possibly oppose this transformation? Truth is often extremely difficult to pin down, and is very often subjective — how can you say your version of Truth (which would not have made the person happy and may have ended up in their suicide) is better than the Truth that made them happy and a productive member of society?

    I will end with something I have learned: the Book of Mormon tells us exactly how to know Truth, ie, how to tell good from evil. Moroni 7:16-17:

    16 For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.

    17 But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.

  2. Geoff says: “So the question to atheists is: how can you possible oppose this transformation?”

    Geoff! I’m so used to disagreeing with you ;) that it’s humbling when you hit the nail on the head so hard that I am left speechless.

    This is a very real and practical example of what I am driving at in my own sloppy way. I prefer your approach, actually. This is what I call (I’ll explain in a future post) “Russell’s Other Paradox.”

  3. Bruce, just keep on reminding yourself that we are both flawed brothers in Christ stumbling our way through life trying to do our best, and you will then…agree with me on everything! Obviously joking. Disagreement is a good thing as long as it is approached in a spirit of discovery, not contention.

  4. “Disagreement is a good thing as long as it is approached in a spirit of discovery, not contention.”

    I have nothing to add to the OP discussion, but this is more than worth quoting.

  5. When I first saw this post title on twitter, I had some different people in mind, and I was going to forward this to other people and what not…but then I saw that the post wasn’t up yet.

    Now that I see that it’s up, and that it features one of my posts, I don’t know what to think.

    I will respond to Geoff B’s comment 1 first:

    The interesting thing about the truth test lined out here is that anyone else could easily say that it’s not about truth at all…rather, it’s about whether something improves a person. So, this actually fits in with Bruce’s post very well. Is a falsehood that improves a person better than truth that may depress someone enough to suicide? (Of course, maybe you could argue that the truth will ALWAYS improve someone and a falsehood will ALWAYS make someone worse off…but suppose we could just take for granted that “not all truths are useful”?)

    On the other hand, suppose that Christianity or Mormonism doesn’t improve someone, but makes them worse off. And suppose that another religion (or atheism/agnosticism/whatever) improves them. Then, regardless of your disagreements with the factual claims of the other religion or atheism or agnosticism or whatever, would you say it’s better for someone to improve themselves as a person or believe in the “truth”?

    It seems a very non-literal-believer thing to highlight personal or interpersonal improvement as what people should be looking for. Those kinds of things seem closer in scope to something like “beauty” or “feeling good” than “truth,” (which is taken to be hard.) Notice how in Geoff B’s example, he makes no appeal to God’s actual existence, or the truth of Christianity. It’s all about the transformation in person. Of course, there is an underlying premise, “This transformation happens because of God/religion,” but it’s the transformation that one has really focused on.

    With respect to the post itself, I’ll have to spend more time with it (and probably the entire series) to think out a good reply, but my thoughts are something like…what if what Armstrong is doing is trying to create a space for diversity? So, she his making a space for non-literal belief. Part of the way she does this is by talking about what she feels are flaws in literal belief, but other parts are by making an argument favoring non-literal belief, in favor of “beauty,” etc., etc., In this way, she’s not necessarily arguing that there is One Truth that non-literal belief is the way for everyone. If anything, she is arguing for the truth of the diverse space.

    I don’t think she’s going to say that falsehoods are better for some people than truth because she’s not even playing that game. Because she’s not playing that game, it seems like she loses at yours, or is “avoiding saying some things,” but this isn’t much of a concern because she’s still not playing that game.

  6. Andrew S, my argument is based on my personal experiences. I spent my teenage years and my early adulthood as an agnostic, and I was miserable. I converted late in life (35) and have had 13 wonderful years so far, each year better than the other. I know literally dozens of people who have had similar experiences, including a very good friend who is an evangelical. For me, this is all about things that bring you to Christ being good and True. Drawing closer to God through Christ is central to this experience.

    I am still friends with many, many people from my youth who are still agnostics. Some of them are miserable. Some of them are doing OK and seem pretty happy. I cannot claim that, no matter what happens, becoming a true Christian will always, without fail, make you happy, because each individual has his or her unique experience. I can simply say that it has made me happy and several other dozen people I know happy.

    Drawing closer to God will make you happier in the long run, I believe. But I also believe that we each have our own road to get there.

  7. Geoff,

    I will continue to note that your argument sounds incredibly like a “non-literal believer” type argument. “My argument is based on personal experiences.” “I was miserable, but now that I’ve changed (insert change here) I’m not. I know literally dozens of people who have had similar experiences.”

    The argument focuses on experience. Do what feels good (in a higher sense of “feels good,” of course, but still.)

  8. Andrew S, come to church with me, do temple work and your home teaching, and you will feel good too!

  9. I’m absolutely sure church with the kinds of people on blogs like these would be quite enjoyable, but other people are “uncomfortable” with me being an “outsider.” or whatever.

  10. Andrew S, i love you. I want you to come to church with me in Colorado. If anybody even looks at you sideways i will punch them in the nose. :)

  11. We all have times when we sit bored through bad talks and have to suffer through bad teaching and have callings we don’t like. It is especially rough with small children. But I enjoy the company of my fellow Saints, and I always feel good at the end of the three hours. I can’t remember a time since I was baptized where I felt bad the whole time at church. Just my personal experience.

  12. AndrewS,

    You keep noting that Geoff isn’t making a rational appeal, and therefore is like a non-literal theist. …seems to me he’s less like a non-literal theist and more like a believer that believes in faith. This just happens to be a shared point between the two belief systems. (Just as there is also a shared point between fundamentalists and militant atheists.)

    As for this: “what if what Armstrong is doing is trying to create a space for diversity? …In this way, she’s not necessarily arguing that there is One Truth that non-literal belief is the way for everyone. If anything, she is arguing for the truth of the diverse space.”

    If Armstrong were here, I suspect she’d say *exactly* what you just said: that she is just making space for non-literal belief. And I think she’d quote herself in a (small) handful of places where she says something similar to that.

    The problem is that it doesn’t seem to jive with all the facts. I would have bought this response more if, for example, she hadn’t declared essentially everyone that disagrees with her as believing in idols: a word specifically chosen to be equivalent to heresy, I suspect. (See my summary of her post where I document this.) She does not seem to leave much room for other sorts of beliefs that don’t fit certain ideas of hers. And those that disagree believe in idols and are often even evil in her eyes. (For example, any time she has a religion that believes it has unique truths she works out some way to show how this causes violence.)

    Further, the truth is that Armstrong goes far beyond merely making space for non-literal belief in this book. She advances non-literal belief (falsely, unfortunately) as the original beliefs about God in fact.

    I do believe there is much here that cries out for explanation and that can’t be explained away the route you’re trying to go with this. But, of course, you are entitled to read the book yourself and draw your own conclusions.

    Now consider about your statement here: “I don’t think she’s going to say that falsehoods are better for some people than truth because she’s not even playing that game. Because she’s not playing that game, it seems like she loses at yours, or is “avoiding saying some things,” but this isn’t much of a concern because she’s still not playing that game.”

    Again, I think non-literal theists like Armstrong would indeed say something very much like that. I just want to point out, however, that the question of “well, are you saying people are better off with falsehoods in some cases?” is a fair question regardless of whether or not she is ‘playing that game’ in her mind. That is to say, it’s a fair question period. That is why I feel that refusing to ‘play that game’ to such a question strikes me as a clear dodge to a completely valid question.

    That being said, I have NOT in any way taken a stance on whether or not falsehoods can or can’t be better than truth. I am making no moral judgment in this regard at all in my post. I am merely pointing out that this is an obvious and fair question and Armstrong does not wish to answer it because ‘she is not playing this game.’ (I am also predicting that most non-literal theists will choose to ‘not play this game’ because it’s a losing game for them.)

    But wait. Didn’t I just essentially restate what you just said? It would seem we are in agreement on this point, then.

    I would suggest that if we have a disagreement at all it’s actually over whether or not the question of falsehoods better than truth is a fair question or not. Or maybe I should say it this way: is there really such a thing as ‘not playing that game’ when we are asking a question like this?

  13. “I can say that the Church experience for me has not often been about what feels good.”

    SilverRain, I suspect that if this were true in toto that you wouldn’t be active. So maybe we can look for how it ‘gives you meaning’ or something like that?

  14. Well, the last time I enjoyed church or felt the Spirit because of it was well over six years ago. All my significant spiritual experiences or meaningful encounters with divinity which I can think of have been despite Church ward worship experiences, if not oppositional to them. In fact, my first temple experience was so glorious because I felt like I belonged, had a place, for the first time. And that changed about four years ago.

    I am not a part of the “fellowship of the Saints” and can’t really remember a time when I have felt comfortable at or fulfilled by church since I was a young child and ignorant. And yet, I go to Church every week. Which is why I don’t know what to say about this, it is so far out of my personal experience.

    Now does worship make me a better person? I used to think so, but I doubt now. Why do I go? Because the Lord has told me to stay. That’s it.

  15. SilverRain,

    Thank you for sharing such a personal story.

    I suppose I can add only one thing: there is meaning to be found in sacrificing for a higher cause. I’m glad you have been able to find at least this.

    I wish church attendence could mean more to you than this, of course. And perhaps it will again someday or once some of the trials in your life come to an end.

  16. SR, stories about Alma 32 probably wont help. For whatever reason, you are being given this trial. I would like t think that sometime in the future you will lookback on this time and be glad you kept on going to church.

  17. In The Silver Chair, the green witch tries to persuade the prince and the adventurers with a-aslanist and a-surfacist arguments. The marsh wiggle Puddleglum says that if Aslan and the surface world are just children’s stories, they still beat the real world all hollow. The point is that people who talk of non-literal truth, symbolic truth, and all that, may still in some way be saluting the actual truth.

    There is actually quite a bit in Lewis about now “non-literal truthiness” can sometimes be a sort of complacent stupefaction and sometimes an obesiance to the Truth by those who believe in their hearts but not with their minds.

  18. I enjoyed the post. A lot to think about. I think Bruce does a good job of pointing out the problematic nature of non-literalist beliefs.

    In Karen Armstrong’s defense however, I would argue that her intent does not seem to be trying to convert literalist believers to a non-literalist perspective. I don’t think that it is a case against God, and a condemning of believers as idol worshipers.

    To me, she seems to be speaking directly to atheists, agnostics, and fence-sitters who are contemplating abandoning religion altogether because they are liberal and hate fundamentalism. By condemning literal believers and accusing them of idol worship, she is merely trying to show solidarity with liberals who see the dangers of fundamentalism and want to avoid it. She is arguing that to be religious, you don’t have to be a fundamentalist. So it is a Case for God for liberals.

    But if she were to speak directly to literal believers, she would change her language, recognizing that for them, there is also value in their literal belief. She is at her core, diversity oriented. I could be wrong, but I don’t think she is necessarily antagonistic towards literal believers (unless of course they are too fanatical).

    I probably shouldn’t be saying all these things without having read the book. But I do think it’s important to consider who her audience is, and how she might be tailoring her views towards them.

    Militant atheists and fundamentalists both try to pin her down, and show that logically, her arguments are not consistent. True, they are not consistent. But the nature of truth has been so elusive to philosophers over the ages, that for those who are not confident enough to make dogmatic claims about truth, Armstrong’s poetic appeals for a non-literal belief are perhaps a good middle ground to stand on.

    The great thing about religion and poetry, is that you can create truth. If a scientist said “truth is beauty,” it would be a terrible and destructive lie. But in the mouth of a poet, it becomes transcendent and meaningful. A poet can say, “the apple falls to the sky, and “the apple falls to the ground” and both are true, because in poetry, anything is true. And I think Karen Armstrong is saying that religion is a kind of poetry.

  19. Nate says: To me, she seems to be speaking directly to atheists, agnostics, and fence-sitters who are contemplating abandoning religion altogether because they are liberal and hate fundamentalism.

    Nate, despite my strong stance against Armstrong in many places, I would agree that you are describing her as she probably sees herself.

    However, sometimes we don’t even know our own minds. The fact is that she spends only one chapter on the subject you quote above. I hate to beat this drum again and again, but I do not believe you can really look at the full message of the book and see it as purely only that quote above.

    One of the most obvious determining factors here for me is her stance on Christian beliefs. She is not open one whit to a literal interpretation because it’s so decidedly at odds with her own beliefs. This is true despite the overt problems with her arguments. (As described in detail in a previous post.) If she was not in some sense hostile to literal belief, it would have been easy to have left a literally resurrected Jesus an open question. (And the sources demand it anyhow if we are just going with the sources.) I do not see how you can explain this fact about Armstrong away using the approach you are suggesting.

    So at some level, I actually do agree with you. Armstrong has her interests and biases and they come out in the book. Whether or not it was intentional might be a different story. I have considered both possiblities (indirectly) in this post.

    “And I think Karen Armstrong is saying that religion is a kind of poetry.”

    Yes, she is saying this.

  20. re 13,

    Bruce,

    I would have bought this response more if, for example, she hadn’t declared essentially everyone that disagrees with her as believing in idols: a word specifically chosen to be equivalent to heresy, I suspect.

    I think that could still easily be part of her making space…she has to make a compelling case ***not*** for literal believers, but for non-literal believers to feel secure/able to justify their position. Her approach to do this could be a kind of echo chamber to non-literal believers (and possibly those on the fence) saying, “hey guys…here’s a narrative. Doesn’t this narrative resonate with you and feel good?” By hijacking the discourse that talks about true/right for her purposes of “feeling” right instead, she can make space for her audience. I would go further, but ultimately, I think that the ultimate response would be:

    I do believe there is much here that cries out for explanation and that can’t be explained away the route you’re trying to go with this. But, of course, you are entitled to read the book yourself and draw your own conclusions.

    I just want to point out, however, that the question of “well, are you saying people are better off with falsehoods in some cases?” is a fair question regardless of whether or not she is ‘playing that game’ in her mind. That is to say, it’s a fair question period.

    A fair question (is “fairness” objective?), but would it be a question whose answer could translate between value systems? Obviously, for the “new atheist,” a “yes” (or anything resembling that) is going to come off pretty badly…and that doesn’t make people feel good, so why would she try to answer or provoke that question anyway?

    (I am also predicting that most non-literal theists will choose to ‘not play this game’ because it’s a losing game for them.)

    Can you lose a game you’re not playing? I’m just asking this out loud. To say “It’s a losing game for them” reads to me like 1) they are playing (they are not) or 2) that if they were playing, it would be a losing game under their own terms (it would not). It’s a losing game for them under *our* terms.

    I would suggest that if we have a disagreement at all it’s actually over whether or not the question of falsehoods better than truth is a fair question or not. Or maybe I should say it this way: is there really such a thing as ‘not playing that game’ when we are asking a question like this?

    Exactly, and my (tentative) assertion is that there is such a thing. Since I’m not a non-literal believer, I don’t really know how far I can go here.

  21. As a fossilized old teacher of English, Histoery and Logic, I found this post most confusing. Let me explain.

    Historically literal faith meant that every thing within the Bible is completely true and correct. At times,that has been expanded to include the cannon of the particular faith. A non-literalist does not accept that position. The amount of acceptance or non belief or doubt can vary tremendously from person to person, though not to the extent that they would deny their faith.

    The Leah that you describe is closer to an athiest than to a person who has faith but has some or significant difficulties with the literal truth of parts of the scriptures or the cannon.

    Many in our Church do not believe in a number of things that should dissuade people from labeling them as literalists. The Johanine Comma, Paul”s supposed instruction that women are to be quiet in Church and the “Old Earth” proponents are all simple examples of this.

  22. Stan, how is that necessary? It seems to me that believing that people are part of their culture, and some cultural biases can therefore creep into sermons doesn’t mean that you don’t believe in the literal events of scripture.

  23. 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!?

    Personally, I wouldn’t encourage people to believe things I think are false — but I wouldn’t necessarily put a lot of effort into discouraging them either. We only have a finite amount of time and energy on this planet, and trying to talk people out of religious beliefs they’re attached to isn’t always the most constructive use of that time.

    I like to think I place a high priority on factual accuracy. But if I invest too much emotional energy in trying to convince people that they’re wrong and I’m right — that’s not a good way for me to ensure that I remain open to learning things myself.

    Anyway, this is just one more atheist’s viewpoint to consider if you’re interested in various atheist perspectives. ;)

  24. Andrew, have you noticed that our interactions form a pattern of sorts? The problem is, I sort of don’t believe you honestly believe the things you are saying. I might be wrong (I can’t hear your tone of voice), but that is my take and you might want to clarify with me what you mean or are getting at if you actually, for example, sincerely believe Armstrong wrote the book for atheists and didn’t intend it for literal believers. This is *really* difficult to believe. Actually, it’s impossible to believe.

    So I’m going to try to give you straight honest answers as if you are asking me sincere questions, but you should know that I don’t really believe you were asking me sincere questions. This is not an accusation, just an attempt to acknowledge how I’m currently reading your questions.

    “I think that could still easily be part of her making space…she has to make a compelling case ***not*** for literal believers, but for non-literal believers to feel secure/able to justify their position. ”

    Okay, I confess, you’ve made up a scenario whereby what Armstrong says makes sense: She really actually wrote the book entirely for atheists and she never intended literal believers to read it and, had she know they would be the primary consumers (as I’m sure they were, especially given both the title and the fact that the vast majority of human beings are literal believers and I’m sure she knows that) she would have used an entirely different approach.

    Yes, I think you’re stretching for the sake of being argumentative. But if you are right then I am reading her wrong because I wasn’t the intended audience. I do not believe this and I think it’s sort of silly to even bring it up, frankly. But I confess that under that scenario you are right.

    “A fair question (is “fairness” objective?)”

    What would make you think that the phrase “a fair question” has to have some sort of objective meaning? It’s a figure of speech and one that I imagine you understand perfectly well.

    However, yes, I believe ‘fairness’ is objective, personally.

    “Can you lose a game you’re not playing?”

    Yes. Actually, very common.

    I suppose the real situation is that there are many ‘games’ that we can’t help but be part of. I used to tell people that hated how dating because it was “a game” so they choose to “not play” that they were in fact playing, just very poorly.

    Andrew, here is the thing. I am asking a question that is logical and consistent with what they say they believe. I get to ask it. They don’t have to answer if, no matter what, the answer will hurt them. Nothing else is going on here. The fact that they don’t want to answer the question can, as you are doing, be re-imagined as ‘not playing the game.’ But to me, they are still playing. A non-answer is still an answer of sorts. And it says something about their beliefs that we can then use as a fact in discussion. That is what I am doing. Nothing more.

    Personally, I don’t care that they ‘aren’t playing the game’ because to me no one ‘doesn’t play the game.’

    Since to me “playing the game” means nothing more than I get to take what they say and point out logical inconsistencies and create circumstantial evidence that I have them right via questions they do not wish to answer, they are playing the game I’m playing.

    Presumably what you mean when you say “they are not playing that game” it is something very different from what I mean. Presumably you mean “they don’t have to answer” or something equivalent. And, I agree, they do not have to answer. In that very limited sense, you are right that they do not have to “play that game.” So we are both right.

    “Exactly, and my (tentative) assertion is that there is such a thing. Since I’m not a non-literal believer, I don’t really know how far I can go here.”

    Okay, Andrew, let’s ask you to answer this question for yourself. Does the truth have a privileged position or is it just utilitarian in nature? Can a falsehood be better than the truth and thus have better utilitarian value than truth? I’m asking you as yourself for whatever you decide to call your belief system. I think this is a ‘fair question’ for you too.

  25. “The Leah that you describe is closer to an athiest than to a person who has faith but has some or significant difficulties with the literal truth of parts of the scriptures or the cannon.”

    Leah is an atheist in the classic sense, Stan. She calls herself a non-literal theist because she believes in none of it literally.

    So you have to look at the context here. “Non-literal theist” for the sake of this post is limited to someone that believes like Leah — a strong religionist that does not believe in God (i.e. is an atheist) but believes in the value of myth and religious practice.

  26. chanson says: Personally, I wouldn’t encourage people to believe things I think are false — but I wouldn’t necessarily put a lot of effort into discouraging them either. We only have a finite amount of time and energy on this planet, and trying to talk people out of religious beliefs they’re attached to isn’t always the most constructive use of that time.

    chanson, I actaully follow exactly what you said in my life as well. Probably we all do to one degree or another, if for no other reason than we can’t possibly spend the energy necessary to try to help people out of their false beliefs (which are many) and still feed ourselves.

    That being said, did you notice that you gave an answer to a different question I was really trying to get at? (And that I believe brillent was getting at, though I might be wrong there.)

    If you want to answer the original question as intended, I guess we’ll have to reword it a bit:

    Do you believe that there are falsehoods that no only do you not want to spend time trying to remove from people, but that are actually *better* than the truth and thus a good thing?

    Your answer does not address this unless you were hinting at a negative answer to the question. In fact, when you say “I like to think I place a high priority on factual accuracy” which seems to indicate that you do not believe such falsehoods that are better than truth exist. In short, you seem to be saying that while you don’t feel it’s your duty to convince people of the truth, you do believe it wouuld be *better* if they found the truth and accepted it.

    Now imagine for a moment Leah gave that answer. That’s fine, of course. And maybe Leah *would* give that answer. But now she has a new problem. Because now she *is* advocating that there is a one truth out there. People would be *better off* if they were non-literal theists like her, because that’s the truth!

    I note here that even the most die hard Mormon believes this about any and all other religions. They believe they have the truth and the truth is the best. They aren’t necessarily going to go try to convert everyone out of their beliefs if they are obviously taken by their current beliefs and it’s working well for them. So holding this opinion, in this limited sense, means basically nothing different than any religion’s view.

    This was the actual point.

  27. These days, I increasingly believe that a) people who preach to the choir do so by “defeating” their oppositions’ arguments, and b) even when we see such tactics, we shouldn’t forget that said people are really just preaching to the choir. If a member of the opposite side reads the book them fine… But if they disagree, who cares? Well, I would only care to the extent my choir has potentially been disturbed by the argument. So I defend my point not to convince the opposition, but to secure the choir for the cause.

    I can’t speak for Karen Armstrong because I’m not her, and I haven’t even read the book. It just seems easier for me at this point to assume that anyone is writing to the crowd than otherwise. This is especially the case with Mormon blogging, Richard Dawkins book (so it’s not reserved for non-literal believers…), etc.

    Why do I assume this? It’s because I think people want to avoid conflict. Making a fight with other people increases conflict and decreases interpersonal morale. Making a fight with others for your “crowd” to have a two minutes hate against those others actually improves interpersonal morale (at least, until those others catch wind of what all you’ve been saying).

    Maybe it’s ok for you or anyone else to read the book. But if you’re going to argue about it, that’s when you fall out of the intended purpose. Maybe you don’t believe non-literal believers should have a space for their narrative or promote that narrative (a distinctly different issue than disagreeing with that narrative.) Fine, no need to talk about it. Someone else can read the book and maybe enjoy it instead, so on goes publishing.

    Maybe you think there are some games people must play, and that people are more likely to be playing very poorly than not playing at all. Fine. So, you will continue to keep score, and others won’t. You will continue to find it impossible to believe ssome things because they just break the rules too much. OK. That says more about you than anyone else. As you say, to YOU, they are still playing.

    I don’t know enough about truth to answer questions about it. I think truth is often overrated in our speech (most people say they care about truth…) but underrated by how we live and act (sure, it would be nice if we believed things that really were true… But ultimately we will believe what convinces us and objective, ultimate reality really won’t matter past that.) I try to recognize that subjectivity where others try to ignore it.

    Sorry if that’s an unsatisfying answer. I guess I’m just playing this game too badly…

  28. Andrew S,

    I confess, I’m thoroughly lost now. You started out arguing that I misunderstood Armstrong because she was actually writing to Atheists and that was why she took a strong tact against literal belief — to make them comfortable. Now you are claiming “it just seems easier for me at this point to assume that anyone is writing to the crowd than otherwise” which sounds like you assume that the book is intended for a general audience. (As I believe it was.) But then later you say “Maybe you don’t believe non-literal believers should have a space for their narrative or promote that narrative” which switches to the idea that it’s written to neither atheists to convince them to accept non-literal beliefs in God (as you originally claimed), nor to a general audience, but was actually a celebratory book from a non-literal believer to other non-literal believers.

    In all honest, Andrew, I think you’re grasp at straws. Of course Armstrong wrote this with literal belivers in mind and intended for them to read it. She had a little bit in the book for everyone and seems to have been quite sincere in her desire to reach others of different beliefs. For literal belivers, she tries to move them towards the idea that theirs is a new kind of God. For Christians, she helps them see the folly of their ways. For atheists, she tries to encourage them to not be militant atheists because they are making the world a less humane place and are creating fundamentalism. And for all, she encourages religious practice as a way of finding ‘ultimate meaning’ in life so that we can live and die well.

    I do not blame Armstrong for writing this book. Other than the question of honesty, I think she did a fantastic job with it when viewed from the perspective of it as a sort of missionary tract. (Which is what it is.)

    This idea that we all actually write to the choir: I have mixed feelings about it.

    From a certain point of view, I think you’re right. When Dawkins rights his book, there is probably a part of him that honestly wants to reach believers and show them how silly they are. There is probably a more reasonable part of him that say “well, they are so closed minded, they won’t even read it.” And when someone actually does read it and points out the problems, there is his human nature to catch him when he falls by saying “oh, they are so closed minded!”

    So from a certain point of view, I suppose you are right about Armstrong. She probably really wishes that she can reach literal believers and convert them to the true way, but she probably knows they are too closed minded to listen to her. But, heck, let’s name the book “The Case for God” instead of “The God Delusion” and I’ll bet I reach my intended audience better than Dawkins did. And if I reach none of my intended audience, I’ll still be advancing the narrative of non-literal belief to those that agree with me. I see no down sides here.

    And you know what, Andrew, I think I see where you and I disagree on this. Because, other than the issue of honesty and tolerance, I think writing out best criticism and inviting those we disagree with to read them and criticize us back is the right thing to do! So I applaud Armstrong and Dawkins on that front; we should criticize each other!

    So I plead guilty to writing to the choir (at least in some sense), guilty to criticizing Armstrong, not-guilty to misunderstanding her or only giving her superficial reading or using strawmen responses (or at least I honestly believe that to be the case), and not-guilty to allowing others to criticize me back and then answer them sincerely. (As I’ve done with you.)

    Nothing more can be asked of me, I’m afraid. What else could there be?

  29. Choir. Interesting. My phone aurocorrects choir to crowd a lot. Every time you see “crowd” in my last message, it should’ve been “choir”.

    Anyway, interpret it however you’ll want. If you see straw grasping, then that’s fine with me.

  30. Andrew,

    Actually… that clarifies a lot. :)

    Okay, with that change in mind, I still have a point of confusion that I’m going to need some clarification on.

    It still seems to me that you’re now saying something very different from what you started with. Previously we were talking about Armstrong writing to Atheists to make them comfortable with literal believers. Now we’re talking about it being a celebratory sermon from one non-literal theist to the non-literal theist choir.

    It seems to me that you have either a) switched narratives, or b) there is some thread here I’m missing and will need to be clarified.

    This new approach, in all honesty I think I am mostly in agreement with you.

    I *do* think Armstrong wrote a book that was celebratory of the non-literal theist narrative. I think that’s why someone like John Dehlin liked it so much. It’s full of nice subtle (well, mostly subtle) attacks on the religious meme he’s most in competition with (i.e. literal belief) while crafting a narrative of restoration for someone with his own beliefs. It’s a powerful narrative too and loses little for being factually false.

    I can’t go with you to the idea that somehow Armstrong *only* intended it as a celebratory narrative of like-minded individuals. I don’t even think human beings are capable of thinking such thoughts most of the time for all that. (We always believe our reasons are the right ones and will convince anyone that isn’t closed minded.) But I *do* think I could agree that this is what the real outcome will be: primarily choir preaching. (As is probably normally the case.)

    If that is all you are saying, I confess, I actually mostly agree with you.

    In fact, I see my own posts in the same light. I’m intentionally writing on M*, which is aimed as literal believers. I suppose I see really only one difference between myself and Armstrong. I have made no pretense at all (not even to myself) that I’m doing anything but preaching to the choir. (Or, warning the choir in this case, since I assume many weren’t familiar with Armstrong’s book already.)

    But do I hope that my message will be read and criticized by others outside ‘the choir’? Absolutely!

    That’s the way real epistemology works, actually. We write initially for our choir, hoping to convert a few outside our choir. The really good arguments convert more than just our choir by surviving criticism of those outside the choir. Armstrong’s meme isn’t going to make the cut as a general meme, I suspect, because it’s too easy to demonstrate that it’s factually wrong. But it will probably become a pretty normal way for non-literal theists and atheists to craft a self narrative.

  31. My first comment relating to Armstrong was:

    my thoughts are something like…what if what Armstrong is doing is trying to create a space for diversity? So, she his making a space for non-literal belief. Part of the way she does this is by talking about what she feels are flaws in literal belief, but other parts are by making an argument favoring non-literal belief, in favor of “beauty,” etc., etc., In this way, she’s not necessarily arguing that there is One Truth that non-literal belief is the way for everyone. If anything, she is arguing for the truth of the diverse space.

    My thought process was this: by “creating a space,” she is NOT trying to say that “non-literal belief” is the only correct narrative, or that everyone should accept it. She is making the case for non-literal belief, but it’s not to everyone. It’s to people already amenable or persuadable to that thinking. The way she makes this case is by telling a narrative about God, and then arguing that this narrative is the “original” narrative for God (I originally wrote “by talking about what she feels are the flaws in literal belief.”)

    But I don’t think she’s making these arguments to try to stick it to literal theists or to convert them to the “truth” of non-literal belief. She makes the argument so that non-literal believers will have something to go by (e.g., the beauty of the narrative). Or so any people amenable to the narrative (perhaps theists or atheists who are on the fence, or persuadable) can go, “Ok, that sounds pretty good.” By making space, she doesn’t have to be right; it just has to sound good. By making space, it doesn’t have to sound good to everyone, just for some.

    I thought I had made this point more explicit in my response to you in comment 22:

    I think that could still easily be part of her making space…she has to make a compelling case ***not*** for literal believers, but for non-literal believers to feel secure/able to justify their position. Her approach to do this could be a kind of echo chamber to non-literal believers (and possibly those on the fence) saying, “hey guys…here’s a narrative. Doesn’t this narrative resonate with you and feel good?”

    I don’t know how you got, “ Previously we were talking about Armstrong writing to Atheists to make them comfortable with literal believers. ” from that. Why would she be trying to speak to atheists about the merit of literal belief when she is not a literal believer?

    I could see if you thought I was saying “Armstrong is writing to atheists and theists to make them comfortable with nonliteral believers,” but I don’t think that contradicts or is mutually exclusive to what I’m trying to say about “preaching to the choir.”

    Ultimately, I don’t think she’s going to brute force her way. I think she’s really just trying to address the people who already are amenable to the non-literal belief message and try to make a good narrative for it. So, whether atheist or literal believer, if you read the book and say, “Ok, this sounds good and solid,” then it’s for you, regardless of whether you personally accept it or not.

    It’s a powerful narrative too and loses little for being factually false.

    If I understand this line, I think it’s really important to what I think of Armstrong. Armstrong is making a lot of statements that SEEM to be arguments about truth (what is the truth about how early believers believed in God? etc.,) but really are about establishing a narrative by critiquing the existing nrrative. Because they are about narrative (which is in the realm of aesthetics, beauty, feeling, etc.,), it doesn’t actually matter so much if they are factually false as long as people are captivated by the narrative.

    That’s really part of my point. When I say I don’t think that Armstrong is writing for literal believers or for literal non-believers (atheists), it’s because I don’t think that her arguments’ ultimate intention is, “Look people [theists and atheists included], you should get with this program because this is right.” It’s more, “Look people [theists and atheists included], you should get with this program if you think this sounds right.”

    …well, the people who think this sounds right are going to be mostly fellow non-literal believers. People already converted or people on the edge who just needed a neat little book to make a coherent narrative.

    I don’t even think human beings are capable of thinking such thoughts most of the time for all that. (We always believe our reasons are the right ones and will convince anyone that isn’t closed minded.)

    But that closeminded part is a pretty big hole. I think people preach to the choir when they come to realize (and I’m saying “when,” not “if”…maybe that’s hyperbolic) that you can’t really argue your way into making people agree with you, and in fact, trying will just piss everyone off. So, why not stick to doing fun things like talking with people who already agree with you?

    Armstrong’s meme isn’t going to make the cut as a general meme, I suspect, because it’s too easy to demonstrate that it’s factually wrong.

    Why would factual incorrectness prohibit its ability to make the cut as a general meme? This is part of what I mean by “not playing the same game.” It seems that people in general are really good at buying narratives that are actually, demonstrably factually wrong. (Think of anyone’s lay understanding of the history of something like the country. Now, of course, history is fraught with things that are dubious…but common sense historical understanding is fraught with things that are known to be wrong.)

    No, if it doesn’t become a meme, it’s because it doesn’t captivate people. Not because it’s factually incorrect. (Although i suppose the elephant question here is: does the truth captivate people?)

    But it will probably become a pretty normal way for non-literal theists and atheists to craft a self narrative.

    Space created. Mission accomplished.

  32. AndrewS,

    I think that could still easily be part of her making space…she has to make a compelling case ***not*** for literal believers, but for non-literal believers to feel secure/able to justify their position. Her approach to do this could be a kind of echo chamber to non-literal believers (and possibly those on the fence) saying, “hey guys…here’s a narrative. Doesn’t this narrative resonate with you and feel good?”

    I don’t know how you got, “Previously we were talking about Armstrong writing to Atheists (i.e. people that don’t literally believe in God) to make them comfortable with literal believers (i.e. and their beliefs). ” from that. Why would she be trying to speak to atheists about the merit of literal belief when she is not a literal believer?

    Yes, perhaps I misunderstood a nuance in what you were getting at. I thought you were saying that she was speaking to non-believers about the value of belief. (And by implication, the value of not dismissing believers.) That is how I read you and that is a possible way to understand your original statement, I think.

    With your further explanation, I now believe that what you are saying is that Armstrong’s focus might have been (you are suggesting) more narrow: she is writing about non-belief only to non-believers and only about the value of narrative from an aesthetics standpoint, and that she wasn’t suggesting any sort of value to belief at all.

    Is that what you are saying?

    I hope you can see that it’s pretty understandable that I’d be confused on the nuance here. In any case, “I don’t know how you got…” is hopefully explained now.

    That or else I still don’t understand and you’re going to have to explain further.

  33. AndrewS,

    I have a suspicion that your real concern isn’t the ones you keep harping on. Might I suggest that this is more of your real concern:

    But I don’t think she’s making these arguments to try to stick it to literal theists or to convert them to the “truth” of non-literal belief.

    I want to point out that this isn’t what I said. You are ‘reading me’ this way. I don’t believe I’ve claimed that Armstrong was ‘trying to stick it’ to literal theists anywhere. However, I suppose there is a limited sense in which I do believe Armstrong is attempting to “convert” theists. However, that sense is the very one that you admit to:

    She makes the argument so that non-literal believers will have something to go by (e.g., the beauty of the narrative). Or so any people amenable to the narrative (perhaps theists or atheists who are on the fence, or persuadable) can go, “Ok, that sounds pretty good.”

    But isn’t this an outright admission that she is working to convert those Theists that she can because they are already admendable?

    How is this different from, say, what a Mormon Missionary does on a mission? Is there any real sense in which any of us ever do doing anything but trying to convert only those that we can and thus only those that are already somewhat amendable?

    I wonder if what you see as the difference is one of perceived tone. You see Armstrong (based on my summary) as taking a tone of ‘I’m making space’ whereas you see a Mormon Missionary (and also my OP) as having a tone of ‘I’m right and everyone else is wrong.’ Isn’t that the real concern here?

    But what tone we sense is largely based on our own personal biases.

    A good Mormon Missionary does not take a tone of “I’m right and you are wrong” if he/she wishes to be effective. And, unfortunately, Armstrong does come across to me at times with a tone of “I’m right and everyone else is wrong.” (How else to read calling other religious beliefs ‘idols’?)

    As someone that has a certain point of view about life and it’s meaning, I confess, I would have a bias towards Armstrong’s point of view. Have I hidden this? Have I not admitted this is the case throughout? So is it possible that I am reading in a tone that isn’t there? Maybe. But again, “idol”?

    On the other hand, Andrew, as someone that has a certain point of view about life and it’s meaning, you would have a bias against my writing in much the same way. The natural thing would be for you to not see some of the negatives in her approach and emphasize the positives while ignoring some of the positives in my approach and emphasizing the negatives.

    Outside of some admitted frustration at how I felt Armstrong intentionally skews history to make her point (and this is such a completely natural thing for me to feel given the circumstance!) I have not claimed she is specifically trying to convert anyone but the amendable nor has claimed that she has a tone of “everyone but her is wrong.”

    I also feel like I can’t win with you. The fact is that whereas Armstrong actually did write a book for the general public (or this I believe for the reasons previously given), I actually did write a post for the choir here at M* and admitted this. I do not feel like you have really seen this fact yet nor it’s significance.

    But then, I confess, I was not expecting to ‘win’ at all with anyone. I just wrote a post and stuck with the facts and some clearly stated (but limited) opinions. The rest is up you.

    In any case, I don’t really feel like we’re substantially disagreeing over anything but interpretation of my tone at this point. In fact, consider your own quote here:

    Armstrong is making a lot of statements that SEEM to be arguments about truth… Because they are about narrative (which is in the realm of aesthetics, beauty, feeling, etc.,), it doesn’t actually matter so much if they are factually false as long as people are captivated by the narrative.

    But isn’t this virtually a summary of my OP?!?!??!?! I mean seriously, aren’t you are saying exactly what I’m saying?

    What I’m really tempted to say to you (forgive me, I mean this with tongue in cheek) is this:

    AndrewS, I feel you have me entirely wrong. For some reason you think that I wrote this on M* with my intended audience as atheists and non-literal believers. And while it’s true that I SEEM to be making arguments about how Armstrong should give up her beliefs, in fact I’m preaching to the choir and I know it and so does everyone here, including yourself. Therefore I am NOT saying “Look people [atheists and non-literal believers included], you should get with this program because this is right!” No, what I am actually saying is: “Look people [theists, plus any fence sitting atheists and non-literal believers that might happen to be reading], you should get with this program if you think this [i.e. the inconsistency of non-literal belief] sounds right.”

  34. re 34:

    Bruce,

    I would still first emphasize the importance of this line I wrote:

    Her approach to do this could be a kind of echo chamber to non-literal believers

    So, maybe I don’t know what the term “non-literal believer” is being used to mean, but I have been operating under the distinct impression that it means something different than “atheist” or “non-believer.” Non-believers or atheists can be non-literal believers, but don’t have to be. brillientk89, for example, is an example of a non-believer/atheist who is decidedly NOT a non-literal believer. How can Armstrong be having an “echo chamber” with someone like brillientk89 when he does not agree with her to begin with?

    she is writing about non-belief only to non-believers

    Armstrong isn’t talking about non-belief to non-believers. She is talking about non-literal belief (which is different from non-belief) to non-literal believers (which is different from non-believers.) She is not saying, “This is a story about not believing in God” (although you, as a literal believer, might see it that way.) It is a story about believing in a non-literal God. In other words, she’s still doing an act of believing.

    …the value of narrative from an aesthetics standpoint, and that she wasn’t suggesting any sort of value to belief at all.

    I don’t know how to respond to this. She is suggesting that the value to belief IS the value of narrative from the aesthetics standpoint. (If you mean “value of belief” in terms of “value of LITERAL” belief, then I would agree that she isn’t suggesting any sort of value to belief at all…although maybe she would suggest that the value of literal belief is ALSO the value of narrative. In other words, as you wrote originally: “For the correct rational retort to Armstrong would then be quite simple: “literal belief in God works for me better that non-literal belief.”” Yeah. That’s the point. If you like the narrative better as an autobiography/biography/history, then go for it.)

    I hope you can see that it’s pretty understandable that I’d be confused on the nuance here. In any case, “I don’t know how you got…” is hopefully explained now.

    That or else I still don’t understand and you’re going to have to explain further.

    I think that the roots of the misunderstanding/confusion is a confusion about what “non-literal believer” means and what “non-believer” means. I think they mean two very different things, even if to a literal believer, it might look like both people do not literally believe in God.

  35. AndrewS,

    I feel like I basically understand your point, minus a few nuances maybe, and I do not see myself disagreeing with you on any substantial points (well, other than the fact that I don’t believe Armstrong literal was creating a echo chamber, etc. But these are points of opinion). I’m not sure why you keep rexplaining things like this:

    Non-believers or atheists can be non-literal believers, but don’t have to be. brillientk89, for example, is an example of a non-believer/atheist who is decidedly NOT a non-literal believer

    Agreed.

    She is not saying, “This is a story about not believing in God” (although you, as a literal believer, might see it that way.) It is a story about believing in a non-literal God. In other words, she’s still doing an act of believing.

    Agreed.

    (Though I note that you are playing a semantics trick here, though perhaps unintentionally. As explained in my post, to a literal believer she *is* saying “this is a story about not believing in God” from a certain point of view, though she is careful to *not*clarify this nuance.)

    I think that the roots of the misunderstanding/confusion is a confusion about what “non-literal believer” means and what “non-believer” means. I think they mean two very different things.

    Agreed. (I do not believe I’m confused. But I think it is the root of the confusion between us.)

    I agree with you that there is a huge difference between brillent and Armstrong.

    The problem is that ‘atheist’ is word pointing to many things. Armstrong is an atheist under some definitions and not others. One might say that non-literal beliefs are a type of atheist, in it’s broadest definition. I get this and I think you get this. I do not wish to argue what words we care to use.

    One correction to what I said that seems to have you confused:

    the value of narrative from an aesthetics standpoint, and that she wasn’t suggesting any sort of value to belief at all.

    Should have read:

    the value of narrative from an aesthetics standpoint, and that she wasn’t suggesting any sort of value to literal belief at all.

    You are right that she is suggesting a sort of belief.

    If you want me to clarify how I’m using terms, here is my usage:

    Atheist: 1) Anyone that does not believe in a literal God. This includes militant atheists, non-literal believers, and non believers. 2) a short hand for militant atheists or non-believers as distinct from non-literal believers. (Perhaps confusion of usage here?)

    Non Believers: Atheists that are not non-literal believers.

    Non-Literal Believers: Those that believe in the value of religious narrative and may or may not affirm that the truth is less important than a good narrative.

  36. re 35,

    Ohh, a second message…

    I want to point out that this isn’t what I said. You are ‘reading me’ this way. I don’t believe I’ve claimed that Armstrong was ‘trying to stick it’ to literal theists anywhere. However, I suppose there is a limited sense in which I do believe Armstrong is attempting to “convert” theists. However, that sense is the very one that you admit to:

    Consider “trying to stick it” to literal theists” as a colloquial way of saying something like “attempting to “convert” theists.” So, if you claim the latter, that’s what I meant to challenge. This is going to be a problem later on in the message though.

    But isn’t this an outright admission that she is working to convert those Theists that she can because they are already admendable?

    Here’s where the problem begins to arise. She is “converting” people based on narratives. She is not “converting” people based on trying to show that one narrative is more “right” than “another.”

    How is this different from, say, what a Mormon Missionary does on a mission? Is there any real sense in which any of us ever do doing anything but trying to convert only those that we can and thus only those that are already somewhat amendable?

    I don’t think Mormon missionaries try to convert people based on whether they think people like the Mormon story better (although I’m sure there are plenty of ex-Mormons and non-Mormons who will establish Mormon epistemology…the “burning in the bosom,” etc.,… as exactly that.)

    No, Mormon missionaries and other believers try to convert people based on the fact that they think that there is truth to Mormonism. The fact that they think that not accepting Mormonism will have eternal consequences.

    The fact that Mormon missionaries can only appeal to those already amenable to the message is a bug in the system. It is a flaw. It is a setback for Mormons. Because the Mormon truth applies to everyone regardless of whether you like it or don’t, whether you like the story or not.

    That’s the difference between Armstrong and Mormon missionaries. That’s the difference between literal believers and non-literal believers. (For a relevant contrast that we’ve discussed before: that’s the difference between Mormons who practice it as a religion and cultural Mormons.) For Armstrong, non-literal believers, and cultural Mormons, if the narrative doesn’t appeal to someone else, that’s OK! Because everyone need not be a cultural Mormon!

    …in fact, the cultural Mormon analogy really makes this work, I believe. Cultural Mormons are making space for cultural Mormons. They don’t care whether you are a cultural Mormon. In fact, in their messages, they are speaking to other cultural Mormons. Their messages may often seem like attempts to convert believing Mormons (consider when John Dehlin has a podcast with a critic of the church or of the Book of Mormon. It may look like he and they are trying to “convince” people in general of the truth of a historical claim, or whatever), but in actually it’s speaking to the choir. It’s for other cultural Mormons and for other people already amenable to that claim to say, “Yeah, I agree! I am not alone!”

    Do you see the difference here?

    I’ve had people of all kinds of religions respond to the claim that their religion is “ugly” or that it has hard claims or that it is negative or whatever with the claim, “It doesn’t matter if it’s pretty or not, because it’s true.” In other words, the difference between literal belief and non-literal belief is that for the literal believer, what’s driving them is this idea that what they believe in is true, and so it doesn’t matter whether you think it’s pretty or ugly, or whether you like it or not, because you have to get in line with “the truth.”

    But the non-literal believer argument doesn’t work the same at all. If it’s ugly, you drop it. You read a different narrative.

    I wonder if what you see as the difference is one of perceived tone. You see Armstrong (based on my summary) as taking a tone of ‘I’m making space’ whereas you see a Mormon Missionary (and also my OP) as having a tone of ‘I’m right and everyone else is wrong.’ Isn’t that the real concern here?

    I think the second sentence aptly describes what I’ve been saying. But if you would say that difference is only one of “perceived tone” as opposed to a fundamental difference in approach, then I’m skeptical as to whether you’re understanding me at all. So, I can’t answer whether that is “the real concern” here.

    A good Mormon Missionary does not take a tone of “I’m right and you are wrong” if he/she wishes to be effective. And, unfortunately, Armstrong does come across to me at times with a tone of “I’m right and everyone else is wrong.” (How else to read calling other religious beliefs ‘idols’?)

    But this is also part of what I’m saying. Here’s another way of reading calling other religious beliefs idols: it’s part of the narrative. For other non-literal believers, they will take comfort in such a narrative. For literal believers or for non-believers, you won’t. It’s ok. The narrative isn’t for you.

    Mormon missionaries COULD take an approach of asserting a narrative (and I will continue to assert that this is DIFFERENT than a matter of tone), but it would be counterintuitive to what they seek as Mormon missionaries. Mormon missionaries want literal believers, not cultural Mormons.

    As someone that has a certain point of view about life and it’s meaning, I confess, I would have a bias towards Armstrong’s point of view. Have I hidden this? Have I not admitted this is the case throughout? So is it possible that I am reading in a tone that isn’t there? Maybe. But again, “idol”?

    On the other hand, Andrew, as someone that has a certain point of view about life and it’s meaning, you would have a bias against my writing in much the same way. The natural thing would be for you to not see some of the negatives in her approach and emphasize the positives while ignoring some of the positives in my approach and emphasizing the negatives.

    If this is how you see things, then that is fine by me.

    In any case, bye.

  37. AndrewS,

    “In any case, bye”

    Guess you’re making it clear you don’t care to discuss this any more. That’s fine, no one is forcing you to.

    Here’s the thing, Andrew, let’s take what you say here:

    I’ve had people of all kinds of religions respond to the claim that their religion is “ugly” or that it has hard claims or that it is negative or whatever with the claim, “It doesn’t matter if it’s pretty or not, because it’s true.” In other words, the difference between literal belief and non-literal belief is that for the literal believer, what’s driving them is this idea that what they believe in is true, and so it doesn’t matter whether you think it’s pretty or ugly, or whether you like it or not, because you have to get in line with “the truth.”

    But I’m literally lost count of the number of times that non-literal believers have told me point blank that “it doesn’t matter if its ugly because its true.” Of course they say this about different things then literal believers (perhaps what they call non-sterilized religious history), but they still say, still say it in equal proportions, become fundamentalists about it, become verbally (or more) violent about it at times, etc.

    In short, reality (or in any case my experiences) clashes with your narrative about the difference between literal and non-literal believers.

    I am suggesting that you perceive a difference that is simply not there and that you perceive it because you want to and it fits your desired worldview to perceive it that way. But that in reality there is no difference here in method or approach, only in what both groups say it about. I’m suggesting that there is greater similarity than difference between all of us.

  38. Andrew,

    I’m really not sure if I understand you or not, so let me take a stab at (without arguing) trying to summarize what I originaly thought you were saying so that you can correct my perceptions (if you wish.)

    I think your point could be summarized like this:

    Bruce, this post misses the point. A non-literal believer like Armstrong is making a narrative and isn’t concerned with the literal or non-literal truth of the narrative. That’s the whole point of their belief system! Yeah, you can (as you do) point out factual problems with her narrative. But so what? Facticity only matters to you because you care about faciticty in your narrative. Armstrong, as a non-literal believer, does not. So by even writing this post, you are missing the point of her whole narrative, which is not built on facitity to begin with. You are, in fact, demonstrating the difference between her approach and your approach. Her approach is that you built a nice narrative that makes you happy and you don’t worry about if its factual or not. Because of that, it’s ‘with in her system’ that she isn’t always factual. And because of that, we can assume she is only writing to those that agree with her to ‘make space’ and not to ‘convert’. If they disagree with her, then that is fine with her and they can go find some narrative that works for them instead. By comparision, your OP takes the stance that facticity matters and that it must be worked into the narrative and that is why you don’t understand her since this is the very point she is negating to build up her alternative narrative.

    In any case, that is what I *thought* you were saying. And I’ve been operating on the assumption that this was the point I was counter arguing with. I’ve made several attempts to give you ‘sign posts’ that I understood you (or thought I did) by restating various forms of this argument throughout in hopes that you’ll say “oh, I see he got it”. This, unfortunately, never happened.

    I do not feel you’ve done the same back to me, so I don’t really know if you understand what I’m saying or not.

    Now, of course, there are several possible problems here.

    First, I may have misunderstood you from the outset. Second, I may have understood you, but I may be doing a poor job of explaining myself. Third, I may have understood you and you may have understood me, but I may just not realize it because I’ve ‘misunderstood that you understood’. ;)

    So any which way, this may be entirely my fault.

    But please consider the above an olive leaf to at least check to see if I understood your point or not.

  39. Bruce, I have another take on this that might be interesting to explore in another post. That would be: if you are a non-believer, what evidence could possibly convince you to be a believer? What if an angel suddenly appeared (a la Alma the Younger) or what if you saw a light and heard a voice (a la Paul)? Would that be enough?

    I can tell you that when I was an agnostic I was not mentally/spiritually prepared enough for such events to change me. What had to happen is that I had to be humbled (and boy was I), and then I had to search for myself for a way out of the hole I had dug for myself. And then at exactly the right time, Heavenly Father reached out to me and gave me a taste of what I was missing in my life. To refer to Alma 32, this is when the seed was planted. And I liked that seed, so I nourished it, water it, dunged it, etc, and I really, really like the results.

    My question to agnostics and atheists would be: what exactly would you need to have to change you from your current belief system? I would be interested to see where they are compared to where I was 15 years ago.

  40. Geoff,

    That is a good question.

    I think, at some level, our beliefs are ‘who we are’. I’m not sure how else to say it and I know the way I just said it probably sounds trite or cliche, though I don’t mean it in the usual way.

    When you reached a point where you needed change, you became amendable to a change. Thus a change could be made. To force that change upon you prior to that point would have been to magically make you not you. But God didn’t want that other person (who you weren’t) to be saved, he wanted *you* to be saved. Thus the way it happened is exactly the way it needed to happen.

    This goes along with my disagreement with Andrew above. He says:

    The fact that Mormon missionaries can only appeal to those already amenable to the message is a bug in the system. It is a flaw. It is a setback for Mormons. Because the Mormon truth applies to everyone regardless of whether you like it or don’t, whether you like the story or not.

    But this is how Andrew experiences Mormonism, not how Mormons experience Mormonism.

    Mormons do not themselves see the fact that they can only appeal to the ammendable as a ‘bug in the system.’ If you talk with Mormons most will say things like “We aren’t here to convert, we let God do the conversion and let it be up to him.” Or even “People wind up in the kingdom that they will be happiest in.”

    There is even a strong thread of belief that not everyone is meant to be Mormon and might have other callings in life, etc. (Here I think of certain quotes from 19th century GAs plus the idea of baptism for the dead for spirts of US or World leaders that come and ask for it, etc.)

    Having said this, I admit that I agree with Andrew that sometimes we are weak and it doesn’t come across that way. But this is the Mormon ideal in any case.

    Interestingly, this seems to be effectively the same argument Andrew and I were making previously, but in reverse.

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