True For Me, Untrue For You

Whatever happened to nineteenth-century anticlericalism and atheism? In the era that the uninformed imagine to have been supremely religious, there was no shortage of voices proclaiming that the whole thing was a lot of damned nonsense. Religion was the opium of the people, it was a conspiracy of the ruling classes to befuddle the workers and blind them to their true interests; or it was a straw to suck their hard-earned wages into the pockets of epicene layabouts in funny clothes. Even before Marx, it could be seen as the “knavery” of crafty ambitious individuals abusing the simple people. But then came the hippies’ discovery that all religions are really one; the eclipse of rationalism and the canonisation of all subjective experience; the politically correct attempt to ‘respect’ everything that our parents had noisily disliked; and the fall of Communism. So where does that leave us? With protected status for anything and everything that can, with marginal plausibility, describe itself as “religion” or “spirituality”. That is, with a free pass for con-artists.

Someone who says that there is a God and that he will send atheists to Hell is disagreeing with said atheists about the nature of reality, but they nevertheless share the assumption that there is only one reality, and that it matters whether or not we get it right. The space that used to be occupied by atheism is now mostly given over to the notion that “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me”. I cannot begin to comprehend what this is supposed to mean, beyond the harmless suggestion that we not go to war over religion. If I believe that Shanghai is the capital of China, does that proposition thereby become “true for me”, and if so, what does “true for me” mean other than that I believe it, which we knew already? Or is the cosmos obliged to respect my belief, providing me with a parallel universe in which Shanghai is the capital of China? And if the principle of “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me” stops short of brute facts like the capital of China, let us by all means discuss what other brute facts it stops short of, such as whether there is a God or a soul. If there is a God who created heaven and earth, he ought to be at least as factual as Shanghai; how could such a huge construction job get done by something that only existed insofar as I believed in him?

Another feature of the modern landscape that is not quite religious belief, but that nevertheless shuns the logical-positivist atheism of old, is the twin assumption that everyone believes whatever they believe because it comforts them, and further that this is a reasonable proceeding. No one now seems to believe any proposition because they genuinely consider that it just happens to be true – not true “for them”, but really true, objectively true, out there somewhere – regardless of how it makes them feel. A hundred years ago, many Christians did not in the least enjoy believing in Hell, but were nevertheless convinced that it existed and feared that they might be sent there. Anyone who believes in Hell nowadays, however, does not expect to see it herself; for clearly, if all truth is truth “for you”, then nothing bad can happen to you personally. Indeed, the rise of fundie Christianity may be due partly to the marriage of the old-time Hell with the New Age assumption that one will not be going there oneself. Pace Sartre, Hell is for other people.

Richard Dawkins is remarkable for saying: “The universe doesn’t owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn’t owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it’s true, it’s true, and you’d better live with it”; and our culture is remarkable for needing to have it said.

Posted on July 18, 2011 at 18:50 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, From Rationalism to New Age

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