Another golden oldie from my 2009 CP blog:
An acquaintance of mine, Stephen M. Wagner, sent me the following question: “is it better to believe something true through indoctrination and rhetoric or to believe something false through reflection and argument?”
While it is a great question, let me put it in my own words, in part because I want to make it my own, and in part because I’m uncomfortable linking rhetoric with indoctrination. So here’s my question:
Is it better to affirm a truth for the wrong reasons than to deny it for the right ones?
Take the proposition “The Christian God exists”. I believe that this is true, but I also think there are many Christians who believe this for the wrong reasons. For instance, I know a guy who runs the sound board at church, has a couple small kids, and has always gone to church because … well because he’s always gone to church. He would affirm that the Christian God exists … with a lackadasical shrug. It is inertia more than conviction that keeps him going. I find that a pretty distressing, if all too common scenario.
Nor is it necessarily better when you light a fire under Christians. That is what the Focus on the Family curriculum “The Truth Project” does, but I have done a close analysis of this curriculum (the results of which are to be published in “Christian Scholar’s Review shortly) and there I argue that the curriculum is more indoctrinational than educational. Sadly, yet more wrong reasons.
And then I have met others — Muslims, atheists, Buddhists — who seem to be as serious about knowing the truth as Mr. Sound Board is not serious about it. They reflect, argue, ponder, and at the end of what certainly looks to any unbiased person to be a good faith attempt to weigh the evidence, conclude that “The Christian God exists” is not true. What should I think about Mr. Sound Board vs. Ms. Conscientious Objector?
This prompts me to think of Bertrand Russell’s famous quip (as retold by John Searle who claimed to have been there). At an Oxford dinner Russell was apparently asked what he would say to God after his death if it turned out that he was wrong about his atheism. Russell’s quick reply (no doubt stated with the bravado and slight slur of a few glasses of after dinner port) was “Not enough evidence God.”
Russell’s answer may have been stated in a rather flip manner, but what about the possibility? At this point some voices in the crowd might raise Romans 1 to settle the issue. But these issues strike me as much more complex and deserving of nuance than a simple proof-text.
Anyway, however we address that issue, Wagner’s question remains for all of us. Is it better to stumble on the truth than to miss it after a frantic search? The answer, I suppose, is that it is better yet to find the truth after an earnest and admirable search.