Yesterday we discussed why society cannot depend on Religion to guarantee morality, and why Religion cannot establish virtue in society.
Today we are going to see that Religion claims three modes of gaining access to truth—revelation, moral sentiment, and right reason—and that the first of them is an unreliable source of morality.
Religion’s access to truth: revelation, moral sentiment, and right reason
Religion generally recognizes three ways of accessing truth: revelation, moral sentiments, and right reason. Each of these has distinct characteristics.
Revelation is regarded by people of faith as the most reliable of the three forms of accessing truth. They believe this because revelation is supposed to be the word of God himself. No other source could be as trustworthy as God. Hence, God’s word is to be treated as the final say on any subject. Revelation is as true as true gets.
Moral sentiments are second in order among the three modes of accessing truth. They consist of feelings or internal voices advising us about what we should do or not do. These feelings and verbal messages might together be called the voice of conscience. Conscience speaks in two ways. One is negative, telling us, or making us feel that we should not do something. The other is positive, telling us or making us feel that should do something. These promptings seem to come from some inner source, and believers tend to think that they are God’s way of speaking to us either directly, or indirectly through some intermediary spirit like an angel. Although moral sentiments can be twisted by a vicious character, they are usually regarded as reliable—especially when they prohibit us from doing something.
Finally, right reason takes third place as a way of attaining truth. Believers certainly do think that intellect is a gift of God, and that if it is operating properly, it can attain to God’s truth. But they also believe that reason can be easily deflected by self-interest and personal blindness, so that it often attains falsehood rather than truth. Religion generally regards reason and intellect as not very reliable tools for accessing the highest truths.
Each of these three ways of accessing truth has its difficulties.
Revelation too unreliable for society’s needs
Revelation is regarded by Religion as most reliable, because it is supposed to be the Word of God himself. But this supposition is very hard to maintain in the face of the competing opinions held by different believers. There seems to be quite a bit of disagreement among the world’s religions about what precisely God has revealed to us—not to mention about such questions as whether a God exists who can reveal anything.
Of course, many religions regard their particular version of God’s Word as the absolutely correct and true one. It is difficult to know how to evaluate such claims, since each group seems to think that God himself vouches for their own particular story. Does God contradict himself? Or is it just the stories that conflict? In either case, it is impossible to make a rational assessment of where the truth may lie, because contradictory statements cannot both be true, although they may both be false.
Without a way to judge among the different claims, the only way religions maintain their particular versions of God’s Word is by assertion. And when two conflicting assertions meet head to head, their adherents often come to blows. The history of religion unfortunately shows that God’s Word does not seem to restrain large numbers of believers from trying to destroy those who have a different interpretation of that Word.
So revelation is only reliable for the particular believers who accept a particular version of God’s Word. Regional religious groups may have been able to hold societies together in the days of restricted travel and communication. But today, with constant contact and communication spreading rapidly across the planet, it is no longer likely that the many religious traditions of the world can coexist without tension and conflict.
Revelation, therefore, because of its narrow and targeted messaging, cannot provide reliable access to truth at all times and places. And a truth that is merely relative is not much more than a preference.
And a mere preference is not the sort of foundation society can build on.
On Monday we will see that moral sentiments and right reason are also too unreliable to ground moral behavior in society.
Until Monday, then.
7 December 2012
by Alfred George filed under