Truth, Or Consequences?

The debate continues at Mangan’s; the issue is whether one can genuinely be interested in conserving the virtues of Western society while at the same time publicly questioning the truth of the central claims of Christianity. The Christians in the conversation would, unsurprisingly, like us to agree that Western civilization is essentially and inextricably bound up with Christianity, and that therefore no “true conservative” should go around suggesting that its beliefs are false. Meanwhile others of us, including Dennis, our host, feel that although Christianity has of course been the dominant religion of the West thoughout most of its long history, the cultural and philosophical core of the West is not in itself distinctly Christian.

In this comment, Dennis sums this up succinctly:

The problem with using Christianity to explain the success of the West is that until recently, most everyone in the West was Christian. I find it perfectly plausible that the West would have been as successful if it had worshiped the gods of Olympus, but there seems to be no way to show that, just as there seems to be no way to show that Christianity is necessary.

If, as I and many others think, the fundamental claims of Christianity — the existence of God, the incarnation of that God in Jesus, the miracles performed by Jesus, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, Heaven, Hell, and the rest of it — are simpy false, then what are we supposed to do? Should we just pretend to believe and “go with the flow”? If, as good people who happen to be irreligious, we do not believe that morality and a decent society must depend on religion — with ourselves as Exhibit A — then why should we restrain ourselves from the public pursuit of truth?

As commenter “Thursday” put it, in the comment thread at Dennis’s site:

One can of course believe all of the following:
1. Christianity is necessary for the West to produce good social outcomes.
2. Christianity is false.
3. Therefore, something necessary for the West to produce good social outcomes is based on a falsehood.

However, contra Mr. [Lawrence] Auster, the reason one can be in favour of the West and still believe that Christianity is false is that one does not have to value truth more than good social outcomes.

Furthermore, while one may value good social outcomes more than truth, one may still give truth some value, and thus wish to have some unobtrusive place for oneself, and others like oneself, to express the reasons for their disbelief in Christianity.

So: if a conflict arises, do “good social outcomes” trump the truth? That’s a hard question. But implicit in the defense made by the Christians in this thread are two assumptions: first, that the tenets of Christianity are not false, and second, that even if they were, the protection of religion from skeptical inquiry would lead to “better social outcomes”. That second assumption has to be true in order for us to be forced to confront the hard question. But I think neither of these assumptions is demonstrably true.

Meanwhile, there are certainly those who disagree, including, again unsurprisingly, members of Congress:

Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) interrupted atheist activist Rob Sherman during his testimony Wednesday afternoon before the House State Government Administration Committee in Springfield and told him, “What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!

“This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God,” Davis said. “Get out of that seat . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”

This is not exactly encouraging.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Monique Davis’s utterance is both unsettling and disappointing. I also think that it’s cynical for a Christian even to adopt the stance that Christianity should be left untouched — whatever its truth or falsity — simply to preserve the social fabric. It’s an entirely pragmatic argument, which doesn’t say much for the hypothetical Christian’s confidence in the truth of his or her worldview.


    Posted December 29, 2008 at 10:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I quite agree, Kevin. But here’s the opposing viewpoint – a comment left in the ongoing discussion at Mangan’s by Lawrence Auster:

    I have not kept up with this discussion over the last couple of days and just want to say this.

    I see how defenders of Christianity in this thread are getting into more particular arguments about religion, for example, that it is needed as the source of morality. Now that is true and important statement. But such a particular assertion about religion is inevitably going to arouse the opposite assertion, and then there’s an endless philosophical debate about that.

    As far as this present discussion is concerned, I want to avoid all that. I’m not interested in any of that. I simply want people to accept the idea that Christianity is central to our civilization and that to attack the truth of Christianity is to attack the very identity and legitimacy of our civilization and to undermine our ability to defend it, and therefore anyone who considers himself a conservative should stop doing that.

    In the same way, anyone who attacks the legitimacy of America, or who says that America is a fundamentally guilty country, or who reflexively sides with America’s liberal critics, is undermining our ability to defend our civilization; and anyone who considers himself a conservative should stop doing that.

    And in the same way, anyone who says that whites are a force of evil in the world is undermining our ability to defend our civilization, and no true conservative would join in such an attack.

    Now, Mr. Mangan and others presumably understand the above argument when it comes to attacking America and to attacking whites. But they refuse to understand it when it comes to attacking Christianity.

    Also, as I’ve said before, I am not seeking to convert atheists to Christianity. I am seeking to get them to attacking belief in God and the Christian religion, so that conservatives can stand together in defending the West from the forces that are destroying it.

    And, for the nth time, I am not saying that people cannot criticize various manifestations of the Christian religion. I am saying that if people want to be seen as conservatives and as defenders of the West, they should respect the Christian religion as the religion of our civilization, and therefore they should refrain from making arguments denying its truth. There are more than enough West-hating, white-hating, America-hating liberals doing that. We don’t need self-described conservatives doing that as well.

    Ms. Davis is obviously no conservative, of course. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

    Posted December 30, 2008 at 12:10 am | Permalink
  3. Peter Lupu says

    I am shocked as to how many fallacies are present in the above quoted passage from Lawrence Auster.
    First, respecting a religion does not entail that one cannot challenge it and even deny its truth.
    Second, Christianity is not the “only” religion in the west; Christianity, as everyone knows, emerged from Judaism.
    Third, Greek civilization, perhaps the most important foundation of Western culture, was not even remotely Christian.
    Fourth, truth and utility are not coextensive. Even if we assume that Christianity might have been instrumental in certain respects for the emergence of western culture, it does not follow that its fundamental tenets are true.
    Finally, it is folly to simply assume that that which might has been instrumental for the origins and emergence of a culture is necessary for its preservation throughout its history.
    In fact, occasionally it may hinder its development (e.g., One can make a very good case that Islam which was perhaps helpful for the development of several cultures in the past has a negative impact upon the progress of several areas in the world for some time now).

    These are just a few of the ridiculous fallacies in Mr. Auster argument. There are others.


    Posted December 30, 2008 at 7:17 am | Permalink
  4. Alex says

    Peter Lupu writes: “Greek civilization, perhaps the most important foundation of Western culture, was not even remotely Christian”.

    This is arguable.

    In his The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman argues that Plato’s greatest triumph was the successful integration of his thought into Christian theology – though this is seldom spelled out in books on Christian doctrine.

    A couple of examples: Justin Martyr (second century AD), a Platonist by training, was among the first to claim that Christianity could draw on both scripture and Greek philosophy for its own ends. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215) alleged that God had given philosophy to the Greeks as ‘a schoolmaster’ until the coming of the Lord as a preparation that paved the way towards perfection in Christ.

    Posted December 30, 2008 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Alex, and welcome.

    While it is fair to point out that Christianity absorbed various philosophical influences from the Greeks, it is of course absurd to suggest that the Greek culture of which Plato was a part was in any sense Christian. This was a polytheistic culture, one for which the highest virtue was not faith but rational philosophy, and whose highest era was in the fourth century B.C.

    That Plato’s greatest “triumph” was to for his ideas to be picked up by a religion whose founder was not born until three-and-a-half centuries after Plato died seems to be getting things rather backwards also.

    Posted December 30, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Outstanding summation, Peter.

    These are all the same points we have been trying to make clear to Mr. Auster. It would be splendid if you would go to the thread itself and post this comment where Mr. Auster might be likely to see it (I’ll even do it for you if you like!).

    I hope you are well; I’ve been thinking of you, and fear that this holiday season might not be such a happy one.

    Posted December 30, 2008 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  7. Alex says

    Malcolm writes: “…….it is of course absurd to suggest that the Greek culture of which Plato was a part was in any sense Christian”.

    I didn’t mean to imply that Greek culture was in any sense an actualized (before the fact) version of Christianity – but only that it was a harbinger of Christian philosophy. At least that’s my understanding of Freeman’s thesis in the book I cited.

    Greek thought, in particular Plato, was understood by some early Christian intellectuals as prefiguring the philosophy of Christianity. Up to the time of Aquinas, Platonism was regarded as the specifically Christian philosophy. Aquinas initiated a revolution in Christian thought by his systematic exposition of the Catholic faith in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy.

    (Tanks for the welcome)

    Posted December 30, 2008 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    Well, if we’re going to indulge in speculation about the remote origins of various ideas, let’s not ignore the claims of the Indian subcontinent. After all, what is ‘Pythagoras’ except for the Hellenization of ‘Pitar Guru’? And the suggestions about transmigration of souls to be found in Socrates/Plato probably have a similar backstory.

    But c’mon, already. Ideas stand or fall on their own merits, not on their pedigrees.

    Posted December 30, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  9. Peter Lupu says

    No, Malcolm, It won’t. And it will get worst in directions we cannot even anticipate.

    You welcome to post this thing I wrote there at that other site. I am sure many others many similar points.

    I hope you have a great new year despite it all.


    Posted December 30, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Well, Alex, rather than Greek philosophy merely being a “harbinger” of later Christian thinking, perhaps we ought to say that Christians, seeing the value of Greek thought, thought their own system could be improved by trying to absorb some of it. The Greeks got there first, after all.

    All this harbingering and prefiguring kind of gives the credit where it isn’t due, I think.

    Posted December 30, 2008 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  11. Alex says

    To answer Bob’s point about the pedigree of ideas: I don’t think any harm is done by referring to the antiquity of ideas – provided one doesn’t make it an appeal to their authority in order to exclude any criticism.

    Malcolm: I note that you’re pretty dismissive of “harbingering and prefiguring”. Since I’m not a crackpot with an axe to grind on this topic, I won’t elaborate further.

    The only observation I’d like to add is that if the tradition of rational inquiry, which we attribute to the Greek philosophers (among others), had not been suppressed and its influences attenuated as the authoritarian institution of the Christian church evolved, it is possible that many centuries of woe might have been mitigated.

    By the way: I see there is no preview button provided and it’s not possible to edit comments after posting them. So I’ll correct my previous typo by saying “thanks” instead of the goofy “tanks” for the welcome.

    Posted December 31, 2008 at 3:49 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Hi Alex,

    Sorry about the lack of a preview feature. I should see if there is one among the zillions of WordPress plugins out there. I often take it upon myself to correct typos and other obviously unintentional errors in comments; I almost fixed that “Tanks” (thought it might have been a folksy touch – sorry).

    I zeroed in on prefiguring, etc., because, not knowing what exactly your position was, I thought you might be using the terms in the sense that Greek civilization was just an imperfect first try at Christianity.

    I could not agree more with your penultimate paragraph. The Christian cheering section over at Mangan’s, rather than acknowledging what a stultifying influence the Church was on Western science, actually seems to have the ridiculous idea that the Church is somehow responsible for its development.

    Posted December 31, 2008 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

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