This post has been in my head for quite a long time. The genesis of it was an epiphany I had years ago, even before the Trump Era, when I realized that it was literally impossible to discuss most issues with religious fundamentalists. Increasingly, this came to be true, not just of true Fundies, but for nearly all Evangelicals, and virtually all Republicans. It was particularly frustrating when it happened with people that I used to love and respect and had previously found to be rational people.
It kind of came to head in a series of conversations with people close to me, where they would eventually say something like, “we can’t even seem to talk about anything anymore.” And they were right. But not for the reasons they thought.
In order for two people to have a rational, productive conversation, they have to have some common reference points. When that is the case, discussions can still lead to significant disagreements, but at least the argument can occur on common ground. As a benefit of this, often disagreements can be resolved by finding one commonality that can bridge the differences.
There are a number of points of commonality that have generally applied between human beings. One is common goals. In many cases, humans have common goals, even if they disagree on how to accomplish them. I want my kids to grow up safe, healthy, and happy, for example. And so do most parents. This can be a point of commonality, but has become a point of contention in our times.
The reason is simple: some of us expand “I want what is best for my children” to encompass “I want what is best for all of our children.” But others limit “best for my children” and don’t give a flying fuck about “other people’s children.” This is literally how we get the response to desperate parents sending their kids over the border by themselves turning out to be (for white right wingers) “send them all back, and who cares if they die?”
That leads to a second traditional commonality: common morals, or common empathy. I think we used to have these to a greater extent, but, the American Right, and particularly white evangelicals have shifted dramatically on this, and I find that we do not have actual common morality. See the border issue above. Or, “should people die because they can’t afford healthcare?”
So, if you can’t appeal to a common morality, empathy, or goals, what is left?
At the most fundamental level, it would seem that we could at least appeal to facts. To some common understanding of truth.
And that is what this post is about. Because the fundamental truth that I learned in the last decade is this:
Evangelicals do not believe in absolute truth.
Yes, I said it.
For all the decades of indoctrination, for all the slanderous claims about atheists, it turns out that the ones who actually do not believe in absolute truth are the ones who claim loudly that they and they alone know truth.
I find it fascinating that, generally speaking, atheists freely embrace the idea of absolute truth. (Which is contrary to the bullshit I was taught.) Most people - particularly in practice - accept the idea of absolute truth. It really is just one group - conservative religious people, particularly white Evangelicals - that resist it.
But they do believe in AN absolute: Absolute Authority.
There is a huge difference. And this difference is why we cannot talk about things anymore.
Without further ado, let me do a compare and contrast with these two concepts:
1. Absolute Truth: Absolute Truth Exists as a Reality
In this worldview (for lack of a less triggering term), absolute truth exists. There are fundamental truths and realities that govern our universe. Gravity exists (although our understanding of what it is has changed), and we can describe its effects in mathematical ways. Germ theory explains many diseases - and viruses are not a fantasy. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere affect climate. (Widely understood since the 18th Century.) Fossil evidence tells a story of the past. And that is just a very small sampling of accepted absolute truth.
Most of us - in practice - live our lives accordingly. We believe in practice that truth is absolute, and we can count on it being true and continuing to be true. We accept that truth doesn’t care whether we believe it or not - it is true even if everyone doubts it.
Absolute Authority: Truth is what the Absolute Authority says it is.
This is, again, a huge difference. Truth isn’t an ultimate reality in itself, but rather a fiat declaration by an absolute authority. For Evangelicals, this could be expressed as “truth is what God says is true.” And, as a corollary, they, speaking for God, tell you what truth is.
2. Absolute truth: Truth is out there to be discovered
The process of finding truth, for those of us who believe in absolute truth, is a process of discovery. We observe, we learn, we explore. Science is one tool that assists us in doing this. And not just the “hard” sciences, but disciplines such as economics, sociology, psychology, and even, in some cases, mysticism, music, and poetry. These are different ways of approaching the truth that exists using all of our human abilities.
The quest for truth is never-ending, because we will never know everything, understand perfectly, simply because truth is too big to contain in our human minds. But we can discover more, understand better, and tap into that limitless truth that exists.
Absolute authority: Truth has been revealed
Who needs to discover truth? We already know truth, because our preferred authority already told us what that truth is. “Discovering” truth is merely looking to the authority to be told what the truth is. The claim is, of course, that god himself has revealed truth to them, and since god is infallible, so are they. But in reality, what they mean is that god has “revealed” truth to them by what ancient people wrote down and what their modern authorities say those ancient writings mean. It all comes down to human authority in the end. God has revealed the “truth” to their preferred authorities.
3. Absolute truth: While truth is absolute, our ability to see and understand it is imperfect
This is a significant reason that believers in Absolute Authority claim that believers in Absolute Truth do not in fact believe in truth. Because we tend to change our minds given better information or a more complete understanding, we are viewed as being “relativists.” But in fact, because we believe in absolute truth, but not in our own abilities to always see and understand perfectly. Hence, we never stop the quest for truth - we try to see better, and understand better, and adjust our beliefs to better align with truth as we do.
Absolute authority: We know the truth because it was revealed to us
See above. Believers in Absolute Authority already see perfectly and understand perfectly, because the authority has told them the truth in perfect and perfectly understood form.
4. Absolute truth: Anyone can discover the truth
By “anyone,” what I mean is this: there is no tribal limitation to who can discover and know truth. No theological, racial, or national limitations. Anyone willing to search for truth can find it, provided they have an open mind and the skills necessary to understand and explore truth in a given area. In practice, this means that believers in Absolute Truth expect that people of varying religions, ethnicities, income level, nationality, and gender to be able to understand and find truth. The question is not “who” but “is it true.” This is one reason that believers in Absolute Truth read broadly, and outside of their own race, religion, and nationality. Truth can be found there too, because there are humans worldwide who seek and discover truth.
Absolute authority: Truth can only be known by those with the right theology (and politics)
I wrote about this more extensively in my post on Presuppositionalism. Believers in Absolute Authority have to have a way of determining who the authority is, after all. And this is done by looking at whether the potential authority already believes the “right” things - theologically or politically.
As one might expect, this leads to circular reasoning. Truth is what the authority says, and we believe the authority because he says what we already believe.
This is why, just to give an example, public health experts are disbelieved regarding Covid-19, but crackpot charlatans pushing fake cures are believed. The first are perceived as being “liberals” or “atheists” or otherwise outside of the theological orthodoxy. (And also, they disagreed with the Orange Messiah.) Whereas the charlatans speak the same theological and political language.
5. Absolute Truth: No person or group has a monopoly on the truth
As Aquinas once said, “All truth is God’s truth.” The corollary to the above is that since anyone can discover and understand truth, no one group has a monopoly on truth. Because of this, cross-tribal dialogue is crucial to sharing and refining our understanding of truth.
Absolute authority: Only our group owns the truth. Everyone else is wrong until they agree with us.
This is literally the way white Evangelicals think. They alone have god’s truth, and everyone else is wrong until they agree entirely with white Evangelicals. Hence, non-white theologians are wrong until they agree with the enslaving and slavery defending white theologians of the 19th Century that white Evangelicals have decided are their authorities. Other religions are clearly wrong. And scientists who do not believe the theological orthodoxy are wrong by definition.
Unsurprisingly, this leads to disregard of all voices outside of a very white, very male, very Western hegemony. And also, only right-wing political beliefs can be true. Because only their tribe has truth.
6. Absolute Truth: Experts and expertise matter
Those who do not think through this issue tend to claim that a reliance on experts and expertise contradicts #4 above. But this is a shallow analysis. Believers in Absolute Truth know that these two ideas are actually complementary and necessary for each other.
Here is an analogy: Not long ago, there was a widespread belief in the (mostly male) Classical Music world that women lacked the physical ability to be world-class brass players. Abbie Conant blew away that prejudice. In essence, she made it obvious that anyone (male or female) could be a world-class brass player. But you can’t just take a random person off the street (male or female) and hand them a trombone and expect them to play it. Heck, I’m a professional violinist, and I would be a hopeless mess with a trombone. Anyone can be a trombonist. But it takes years of training and practice.
Likewise for discovering and understanding truth in many areas of life. Scientific exploration takes years of training and practice, and expertise matters. Likewise in other disciplines such as economics, sociology, medicine, public health, and many of the areas involving political decisions. An average person off the street is not qualified to opine about whether Critical Race Theory helps explain entrenched inequality (and most likely couldn’t define CRT if their life depended on it.) Likewise for climate change, or OSHA regulations, or vaccine efficacy. These are areas where we need trained experts who work with and understand how to use the relevant data.
(This doesn’t mean that average people shouldn’t vote: democracy is a different issue from how we determine truth.)
Believers in Absolute Truth look to those who devote their lives to discovering truth using their training and expertise as sources of truth. Sure, skepticism and questioning are part of the process - but expertise does matter.
Absolute authority: Only theology and tribe matter.
You can see this in action throughout our current political culture. For the Right Wing, only tribal affiliation matters. For white Evangelicals, only theology and tribal affiliation matter. Expertise is distrusted, because it tends to contradict their political and theological ideologies, which are, bluntly put, not true.
7. Absolute Truth: Truth is discovered by observation, experiment, and experience
To a significant degree, if you believe in Absolute Truth as something to be discovered, you need a way of thinking and acting that leads to discovery and understanding of that truth.
While the scientific method is not the end-all of methods, it is necessary for the discovery of certain kinds of truth, and helpful for many others.
In all cases, discovery of truth requires observation. Mere thinking in the abstract is divorced from all reality, and depends so much on where one starts. Thus, thought is a useful part of the process, but it is not the entire process. Observation of the world around us, of others, of causes and effects, is where the search for truth starts.
Experimentation is the way that we test our ideas. An observation leads to a hypothesis about what is happening, experimentation can help determine the truth. Furthermore, experimentation can and does lead us to discover what works and what doesn’t.
These experiences help shed light on reality and truth. Ultimately, being open to experience - and the experiences of others, who may have different experiences that also shed light on truth - leads to a better understanding of truth.
Absolute authority: truth is delivered from on high, and is discovered through theology
To a degree, this can be traced in the Western tradition to Plato and Aristotle, who preferred abstract thinking to experimentation. (Although, to be fair, Aristotle also observed nature and documented an incredible amount.)
This becomes toxic when one believes that truth is determined by thinking hard about theology. To give a nasty example, Bill Gothard’s cult is based on the idea that truth is reached by a hyper-literal approach to the Bible, including trying to re-create the cultural preferences of the past, particularly gender hierarchies.
Observation, experimentation, and experience are looked at as anathema - particularly if they contradict the dogma and ideology.
8. Absolute Truth: We can and should change our minds when we get more accurate information and understanding of truth
This is actually a core belief for those of us who believe in Absolute Truth. Because we realize that we understand imperfectly, we know that we will need to change our minds when we understand better. (See #3 above.)
One could quote Saint Paul here:
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
As humans, we are always going to have an incomplete understanding, but we can increasingly have a better understanding.
Isaac Asimov, the late great science and science fiction writer, wrote an amazing essay entitled “The Relativity of Wrong.” I highly recommend it. An imperfect understanding doesn’t invalidate that understanding completely. And changing one’s mind when better information is discovered isn’t a sign of “relativism,” but actually an acknowledgement that a constant search for better knowledge and understanding of Absolute Truth is not only possible, but necessary.
Absolute authority: We were always right (even when we change our minds...but don’t talk about that.)
This would crack me up, if it weren’t for the deadly serious consequences of this way of thinking. White Evangelicals deny that they have changed. They deny that theology has changed over the millennia. They deny that many of their political positions are younger than I am. So, they engage in historical revisionism, claiming that “we have always been at war with Eastasia.” That way, they can claim that they have never changed, that their beliefs have never changed, and that truth and understanding never change.
But actually, what has happened is that the authority has told them what they should accept as truth. Since the idea of Absolute Authority hasn’t changed, they can simply accept the new “truth” as if it always was that way, because their preferred authority tells them so. (See: Trump, Donald, for endless examples of this.)
9. Absolute Truth: We can learn from the ideas of the past, but we should be open to learn
It might come as a surprise to many believers in Absolute Authority that those of us who believe in Absolute Truth actually know the past and read writers from the past a hell of a lot more than they do.
Actually, our knowledge of history and past ideas inform our current understandings of truth. What people thought in the past is relevant - great thinkers often have insights regardless of when they lived. And also, knowledge of truth doesn’t magically appear. As Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” The discovery and understanding of Absolute Truth is a process that is ongoing, and builds on what others have learned.
That said, thinkers of the past have been wrong, sometimes badly. Evaluating their ideas means comparing them to later discoveries and other ideas. In many cases, this also means evaluating their prejudices and the prejudices of their time. (In fact, one of the major changes in how we approach truth in the last few decades has been acknowledging that we need more diversity in our voices - you cannot understand everything about our world without including women, non-whites, and LGBTQ people, for example.)
Thus, the Absolute Truth approach to the past is not to disregard it, but to learn it and evaluate it, taking what turns out to be true and discarding what is not. It is respect, but not worship.
Absolute authority: Truth was revealed in the past, and any changes are heresy.
This is one of the bizarre things about talking with people who believe in Absolute Authority. Whatever authority they claim to follow is typically located in the past, whether ancient or modern - but far enough past that it cannot be questioned. And often this “past” is a myth anyway, such as the myth of the Antebellum South as the most perfect “christian” society. (See: Wilson, Doug)
I also should mention that generally, those who believe in Absolute Authority tend to be fairly ignorant of the past, of past ideas. And they have rarely actually read the old books they claim to follow, and are unaware of the scholarship surrounding those books. The past exists as an authority, not as the messy reality human history always is.
Thus, the past is worshipped as an idol, burnished by their preferred legends, and used as a sword against anyone who argues for change from their beliefs about the past.
10: Absolute Truth: Truth is best discovered in community
This is the outgrowth of the other ideas. No one person or tribe has a monopoly on the truth. Truth is discovered and understood by an ongoing process. A diversity of voices can counteract biases, including confirmation bias. Expertise matters. Observation, experimentation, and experience help us find and understand truth.
Because of this, more people are better than fewer in searching for truth. Cross-dialogue is crucial. And excluding voices leads to bad results. This idea is what I would call community. The “scientific community” is literally what it says it is. Scientists - better than the rest of us - share within their own community, and research and discovery build on everything else going on.
In fact, this is an example of one of the great American myths: in reality, it isn’t the lone genius who discovers and creates. Rather, it is teams of experts working together. Elon Musk didn’t “invent” a damn thing. He put up his money to hire hundreds of engineers and thousands of craftspeople to build his cars and spaceships. Literally nothing you use these days is the work of a single person. Teamwork is what makes things, designs things, distributes things.
For those of us who believe in Absolute Truth, then, one of the challenges of our globalized world is to expand our idea of “community” to include the entire planet, to bring together people from all over to address our challenges.
On a more focused plane, this means that seeking truth when it comes to political and theological problems requires that we include in our community not merely the dominant social class, but those who are negatively affected by our current economic, political, and social hierarchies. We cannot understand the truth about systemic racism without involving minorities. We cannot understand the truth about the depredations of patriarchy without involving women - particularly those who pay the price so other women can enjoy privilege. We cannot understand human sexuality and gender while excluding sexual and gender minorities. It’s about community.
Absolute authority: Truth is dictated by the hierarchy
In contrast, those who believe in Absolute Authority see truth as not found in community but in hierarchy. Those with authority know and dictate the truth. Those lower in the hierarchy are bound to accept the truth as dictated.
And, needless to say, the voices of those who say they are suffering because of the actions of those at the top are definitely not welcome. Hence the opposition to CRT, to use just one example.
11. Absolute Truth: The world is complex, and solutions to difficult problems are not simple
If you believe in Absolute Truth, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that truth is not simple, it isn’t reduceable to slogans or simple solutions. Just like you can’t design a rocket based on high school-level physics equations (although those are a part of the design), you cannot solve every social issue with simplistic answers.
Not only that, but circumstances differ, and the truth doesn’t look exactly the same in all circumstances. Just a scientific example here: light is a wave. Except when it is a particle. And trying to use the wrong analogy to understand the behavior of light in a given situation just doesn’t work.
Likewise, for other areas of truth: we approach truth using analogies, not exact mathematical ideas, so solving problems means finding how truth looks in that situation and acting accordingly. And, of course, experimenting and observing the results, so that the approach can be changed if it isn’t working.
Absolute Authority: We know the simple solutions to every problem
Oh god, this is talking to Right Wingers regarding social problems. Or talking with white Evangelicals about nearly everything. There is always a simple solution to be found somewhere in their dogma, and the fact that it isn’t working and has never worked is irrelevant. The authority has dictated the solution, so it must work. (It can’t be Galen who is wrong, it must be the corpse.) The dogma and ideology is always right, reality be damned! And the solutions are always simple and simplistic. “Well, of minorities would just become Christians (meaning, with white theology), they wouldn’t be poor.” “Just take ivermectin for Covid.” “Tax cuts for the rich will solve all our problems.”
12. Absolute Truth: While Truth is absolute, applications are not universal prescriptions
Related to #11. Applications vary. Light can be treated as a wave or a particle, depending on the situation and application. Social problems need solutions that are directed at the particular needs of suffering people. Not all people respond to medications the same way. LGBTQ people don’t need to be made cishet. 18th Century economic theories don’t work for regulation of complex banking systems or global corporations. Poverty isn’t primarily caused by laziness, so moral lecturing like one would give a wealthy, educated person isn’t effective or helpful.
The complexity of the universe and reality require nuanced and flexible approaches.
Absolute Authority: Universal prescriptions (except when they are not.)
Hey, dogma is what matters! (Except when it comes to the rich and powerful, who get a hall pass to be as unethical as they want…)
13. Absolute Truth: Skeptical of authoritarianism
When you believe that Absolute Truth exists, and can be discovered by anyone willing to do so, it is difficult to embrace a person or party that gets to dictate truth. And that is what authoritarianism is at its core: the ability to dictate truth.
Believers in Absolute Truth therefore are skeptical of anyone claiming to have a monopoly on the truth, whether that is a charismatic leader, a totalitarian party, an authoritarian religion, or an ideology.
Absolute Authority: Embraces authoritarianism
Believing that truth comes from authority leads naturally to a belief that a strong authority and authoritarianism are desirable. For religious hucksters like Bill Gothard, this is literally the core of their teachings. God established a hierarchy: men above women, parents above children, religious leaders above everyone. God speaks to the authorities, who then share that truth with those below them. Truth is best enforced (and it must be enforced) by authoritarian control.
And this, in my view, is why white Evangelicals fell so hard for Donald Trump. They have been wanting an autocratic authoritarian for a long time. The fact that Trump is the very embodiment of a liar, and lies constantly does not bother them. Because they believe in Absolute Authority, not truth. Trump has become the authority, and what he tells them is by definition the truth. Even, nay, especially when it contradicts reality. Believing the lie is the way they show loyalty to the authority.
I should also note that believers in Absolute Authority do not see disagreement as a different perspective, but as rebellion against authority. Since truth derives from authority, refusal to accept the dictated truth is rebellion, and should be crushed by force. Hence the need for authoritarianism.
14: Absolute Truth: Tends to admire people based on accomplishments
This is something that I have noticed increasingly in the last decade or so. People who believe in Absolute Truth tend to save their admiration for people who have actually accomplished something. So, at the top of the admiration list tends to be people such as, say Einstein, who revolutionized our understanding of the universe. But also people who accomplished things on a far smaller scale. Many of us admire Anthony Fauci not so much for his role as a much-maligned spokesperson for the CDC, but for his underappreciated role in combating the AIDS pandemic and other public health crises. We also tend to admire the “little people,” the ones working behind the scenes that nobody ever knows the names of. Hidden Figures finally brought some of these names to light, but how many more “computers” still are unknown today? And yet they are heroes of the space program every bit as much as charismatic faces such as John Glenn.
The bottom line here is that those who believe in Absolute Truth tend to look to whether a person has earned credibility, has done any actual work, or accomplished anything through their own efforts.
Absolute Authority: Tends to admire people based on charisma
Have you ever wondered WHY anyone actually admires or sends money to televangelists? Why Bill Gothard was able to sell millions of people his pricey seminars and materials, and nobody ever asked him to prove his ideas worked? Why a man who inherited his wealth and still ended up bankrupt a half dozen times before some combination of money laundering and reality television resurrected his fortunes is considered a “good businessman” despite being by any objective standards terrible at business? Or, for that matter, why people like my parents still believe “Reaganomics” works, despite 50 years of evidence that it does not?
The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that evidence - truth - is secondary to charisma. And, of course, tribal identity. Truth is dictated by authority, authority is determined by tribal identity and charismatic appeal to the tribe. Hence Trump. Hence Reagan. Hence Gothard. Hence televangelists.
15. Absolute Truth: Believes empirical evidence
Want to know how to change the mind of someone who believes in Absolute Truth? Show your evidence. While humans generally tend to react emotionally, then justify their beliefs later, there are actually plenty who are persuadable. I have, in several cases, changed my mind based on discovery of better evidence. (In fact, one thing you can see as a common theme on this blog, is that I hate being lied to. Show me I was lied to, and present me with evidence, and I will - and have - change my mind.)
When it comes to truth, empirical evidence is the best we have in many cases. And those of us who believe in Absolute Truth generally try to follow the evidence.
Absolute Authority: Believes persuasive charlatans
A few acquaintances have been pretty pissed that I have told them straight up that I refuse to engage with Trump voters. The reason for this is that I have discovered that Trump voters have zero interest in engaging with facts or truth. The same largely (although not entirely) goes for white Evangelicals. And for the same reason:
Empirical evidence is irrelevant to someone who believes in Absolute Authority.
Since truth is based on authority, and discovery of truth comes from listening to the authority approved by the tribe, the only way to refute Trumpism or Evangelical dogma, or Republican talking points is for the authority to dictate a different truth from on high. (And even then, it doesn’t always work…) The word of the charismatic charlatan always wins over empirical evidence. Every time.
16. Absolute Truth: Credibility is earned by telling the truth, and is lost by telling falsehoods
Since everyone has to rely to some degree on experts - we cannot all do all the work of experimentation - how does one decide who to believe? For the person who believes in Absolute Truth, credibility is earned by telling the truth consistently.
Why do I trust automotive engineers to design my car? Why do I trust my doctor to diagnose and treat me? Why do I go to the hospital if I am ill? Why do I advise people to consult a lawyer regarding legal issues?
This is how experts work. They build credibility for themselves and their disciplines by consistently telling the truth, and changing when proven to be mistaken. So a believer in Absolute Truth assesses credibility based on past truth-telling.
The flip side of this is that a source that tells falsehoods will lose credibility. One reason I see the Anti-Abortion Industry as completely lacking credibility is that they lie constantly and about everything. And, when I have confronted an Anti-Abortion person with their lies, they double down. Tell lies, and you lose credibility. Even a trusted source can lose their credibility if they cease to tell truth consistently.
Absolute Authority: Credibility is due to tribalist authority, and authorities are believed as truthful despite all evidence to the contrary.
“Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Groucho Marx did this first, but there is an even better scene in An American Tail, unfortunately not online due to copyright crap.
In the case of those who believe in Absolute Authority, credibility comes from tribalist authority, not from a record of truth-telling. In fact, a tribal authority will be believed even as they consistently and proveably lie. Trump is Exhibit A, of course, but he is hardly the first or only example. Because truth is determined by authority, the authority cannot, technically speaking, tell a lie, because whatever that authority says is, by definition, the truth.
17. Absolute Truth: Can be persuaded by evidence, logic, and empathy
One sign that you are dealing with a person who believes in Absolute Truth is that you can persuade them using evidence, logic, and empathy. In the case of evidence, the way to refute science is better science, not an appeal to authority. Better evidence can be persuasive. A better use of logic can also change the mind of someone who believes in Absolute Truth. Seeing a flaw in one’s thinking will, if one is open minded, to reconsider the results of that flawed thinking process. It certainly has for me - and I have spent my life since my childhood trying to think better. But also, empathy can assist a person who believes in Absolute Truth in reconsidering beliefs. After all, if other people are seeing or experiencing the world differently, perhaps they are seeing or understanding truth from a different perspective, and that perspective can help me get closer to the truth.
Personally, ALL of these three have led me to change my mind. As I grew older, and could read outside of the theological and political bubble, I found that there was better evidence available that challenged my beliefs. One of the side effects of a law school education was that I discovered flaws in my own ways of thinking. I cannot overestimate the difference that law school (the one affiliated with Bill Gothard’s cult no less!) made in my thinking, and the way that that education combined with my later practice of law upended so much of my belief system.
And finally, empathy has changed my mind on so many things. From LGBTQ rights to systemic racism to my theology more generally. It is dangerous to dogma to leave the bubble and talk to people outside of it.
Absolute Authority: Cannot be persuaded by anything
This in a nutshell is why I refuse to engage with Trump voters. I have yet to find that they can be persuaded by anything. I mean, if they could, they wouldn’t have voted for Trump in the first place. Their non-white friends would have told them. Empirical evidence would have shown he was grossly unqualified and obviously ignorant every time he opened his mouth. A basic understanding of how fascism works would have revealed his fascist rhetoric.
But those who believe in Absolute Authority cannot be persuaded by anything. Not empirical evidence. Not logic. And certainly not empathy.
I should know. This has been a struggle with family and former friends. But there is nothing you can do, because they already know the truth. They know every goddamn thing there is to know, so listening to others is neither necessary nor desirable. They have their slogans and talking points and are ready to “own the libs.”
And so, I have learned to just disengage. There is zero point in arguing or discussing.
18. Absolute Truth: It’s fine to be uncertain
I think this one is a good one to end on. Theologian Peter Enns has been instrumental in my own spiritual and moral journey, and one of his great points is that certainty is actually sinful. It is distilled arrogance rather than faith.
For those of us who believe in Absolute Truth, we also are uncertain that we know all of it. The truth is too big for any of us to fully and finally comprehend. Or even remember at the same time. (How much do you remember of what you learned in high school?)
A certain humility comes from realizing that truth is something we search for, discover, and seek to understand, not something that we know in full. Obviously, we “know” some things with a fair degree of certainty. But even then. Case in point: the effects of gravity are fairly well understood, and in the practical sense, I can be as certain that I will fall if I jump as anything. That said, exactly what gravity is is just as uncertain as what light is. We have ways to describe it, predict it; and analogies that let us get our minds around it. But no scientist legitimately thinks humans understand either light or gravity completely. We have our ideas and our models, but we are uncertain as to how accurate they are.
So much more so for the things less amenable to science. For many things, we have uncertainty combined with a determination to do the best we can. And this requires listening, trial and error, and flexibility in coping with a changing world.
It’s okay to admit that you do not know it all. That uncertainty in fact can be an incentive to learn more, understand more - to seek a greater understanding of truth.
Uncertainty is not a threat to a belief in Absolute Truth. Rather, it is expected.
Absolute Authority: Certainty is mandatory
Oh heck yes. The point of a belief in Absolute Authority is that you can be certain. This is a comfort to many people. It is so nice to know that you are right and other people are wrong. It’s the same basic orgasmic feeling that self-righteousness in general provides. And, unlike the thrill of discovering truth through hard work, it doesn’t cost any effort. You just purchase it from your authority figure. (Gothard made serious bank doing this, and he isn’t the only one.)
I probably should write a whole post on related idea that a believe in Absolute Authority and the certainty that one knows the truth absolves one from taking responsibility for one’s own actions. It was all god’s fault that I acted like a cruel bigot, right?
The dark side of this, though, is that expressing any doubt, any uncertainty, any deviation from the truth as imposed by the authority, is apostasy, lack of faith, weakness, sin. Certainty is mandatory and non-optional.
I feel like these 18 points are just the surface of what this topic has to offer, but these are the ones I have been thinking on for several years now. This post expresses my frustration at the lack of commonality I have with family, acquaintances, and others of my former religious and political tribe. But also, it helps to clarify exactly who I enjoy discussions with these days. I don’t agree with everything these friends believe, though. It isn’t primarily an agreement on conclusions, but an agreement on the basic goals of learning and understanding truth, and seeking the common good.
Earlier this year, I read my first bit of William James, and realized that he is probably the philosopher I feel best reflects my own beliefs. His idea of a diverse and “pluralistic” universe that encompasses everything fits better than either the Platonic “Forms” or the ultra-rigid dualism of Evangelical Fundamentalism I grew up with. His belief in pragmatism - or, as Christ might say, looking at fruit to determine truth - also strikes me as more flexible than an attachment to dogma and ideology. Just for fun, here is a brief quote from A Pluralistic Universe that seems appropriate here.
Hegel was dominated by the notion of a truth that should prove incontrovertable, binding on everyone, and certain, which should be the truth, one, indivisible, eternal, objective, and necessary, to which all our particular thinking must lead as to its consummation. This is the dogmatic ideal, the postulate, uncriticised, undoubted, and unchallenged, of all rationalizers in philosophy. “I have never doubted,” a recent Oxford writer says, that truth is universal and single and timeless, a single content or significance, one and whole and complete. Advance in thinking, in the hegelian universe, has, in short, to proceed by the apodictic words must be rather than may be, which are all that empiricists can use.