Subjective Truth and The Rationality of Religion

[The discussion thread for Julian Baggini’s Karma’s heart of Stone at Talking Philosophy took off and produced an interesting discussion of how atheists should critique religion. I was making the case that atheists were far too prone to satisfy themselves with critiquing the crudest religious expositions but that they should be gunning for the most sophisticated critiques. It produced a long and interesting discussion thread that broached many subjects. It is a shame that this kind of discussion between atheists and religious people doesn’t happen more often instead of the stock bun fights were people get to reiterate their stale positions.

One of the more interesting interchanges concerned a discussion of ‘subjective truth’. This illustrated for me another area in which atheists and those adhering to religious philosophies are inhabiting different mental universes. I have lightly edited the discussion into the following.]

You make some interesting points, especially about the importance of ’subjective truth’ in religious thought. Some religious thought, the mystical sort, is much more poetical, allegorical, prophetic and less rational, with these currents being found in all the main religious traditions. Of course the objective of religious thought is generally ethical, dictating a different framework from the scientific, focusing on the subjective and ideal rather than the objective and physical.

Many religious folks (like myself) like their religion rational and philosophical but within that rational structure room will have to be made for the mystical and the unknown. Buddhism is characteristically founded on a philosophical system and a ’science of mind’, which is well suited to some people but not others. Such a variety is healthy.

Religious traditions have their own distinctive systems of thinking that are highly discipled, and they must each successfully incorporate objective reality. Atheists will find the psychology repulsive, the ethics dubious at best, and the means of integrating reality ridiculous. That is fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that religions are simply irrational or that they aren’t highly useful to a fair segment of humanity. It has also been my experience that once you tune into the the way these various systems work, a real wisdom and genius is to be found at the centre of them.

Only a minority really appreciate the philosophical aspect of a religion but this should not surprise, as generally only a small minority of a population ‘gets’ philosophy, but the genius of religions in general is that they have a package that also works for the non-philosophically inclined with all the other parts—the poetical, mystical, allegorical and prophetic—coming into play. Not everyone wants to be a philosopher and these other channels are available to them. But it could never work if there weren’t that foundation of truth on which the whole is built. It just isn’t realistic to make up some stories to keep folks in line as that kind of Kool-Aid will only work for a few people for a while, but it will never last.

So I think there is a rational core to religion, but it works quite differently from scientific rationale. This makes sense as it is trying to do something quite different.

[In response to this, Jean Kazez objected:

The worst part is this talk of “subjective truth” that’s been popping up in the last several comments. I mean really…either a deity created the world or didn’t, either I’m going to survive in an afterlife, or I’m not, either Jesus is the son of God or he isn’t, either I have lived previous lives, or I haven’t. It really is just nonsense to think that there’s some sort of subjective truth at stake here, whatever that would mean. These are all claims about the world, to be sorted out by the usual methods we use to sort things out. Now, I grant, some of these otherworldy ideas play a role in people’s lives that I do want to grasp, but the claims themselves ought to be taken at face value and debated in the usual ways. They’re true or not true… there’s really no third option.


I would never have guessed that Jean appreciated The God Delusion! Seriously this is a basic point, and while this point of view is adhered to religion is going to make almost no sense from the inside. I mean it is possible to observe that people seem to get benefits from their religion but I can’t see how one would ever make any sense of how or why they do.

I had promised to write an article Theism for Non-Theists on my blog which was going to touch on this, so this might be an opportunity to take a bite out of it.

By subjective truth I mean of course a truth that holds across time but is truth for an individual only. All the questions raised by Jean were posed from the perspective of ‘objective’ truth, the kinds of truths is good for different observers and what we normally mean when we talk about just ‘truth’.

However, supposing I suffer from severe vertigo, then it is true for me that walking over a high rope bridge is going to be a terrifying experience. It won’t be true for someone that suffers from no vertigo and has been doing it every day of their lives. This is a simple example, but religion is in a sense all about trying to condition people to behave more skilfully, more in their long term interests, to be able to make more sense of the world, etc. All of these are highly relative, being dependent upon what you believe, what your experiences are, what your natural disposition is and so on. Also as you gain more experience with a religious tradition, trying it out in a greater range of circumstances you will start to verify that it helps with ethical objectives (this is my personal experience and tons of other people I have spoken to, but its all anecdotal and I am not trying to make any claims, just convey a concept). In this way you can verify the religion in your own private laboratory, verifying truths of a quite different kind from, say, whether the Earth rotates around the Sun or vice versa.

So the idea of ’subjective truth’ isn’t a mixing up or diluting of the usual idea of truth but referring a really quite complementary idea.

[To this Jean Kazez responed:

Chris, I really think when people say God created the universe, they are actually talking about the universe–the one out there. They are making a claim about the world. It just can’t be true for you that he did, and false for me. Just not possible.


But this becomes highly problematic. First you have to understand what a Christians mean by ‘God’, and how can you make any instrumental sense of the creation story: what experiments can you conduct to falsify the claim that God created the world? Of course atheists will say ’see! we told you so’, but this just reflects a positivistic approach to the world which is excellent for making sense of science and investigating physical processes but fails entirely for religion. The only way I think to approach such religious doctrine is firstly in psychological terms (does such a view of the world appeal), and then in ethical terms (will this view help me to make sense of the world and act skilfully), all of which needs to be tested by trying it out.

If the only knowledge that you are prepared to even discuss must be compatible with a materialist ontology (one that is pretty incompatible with quantum mechanics by the way–see Henry Stapp’s The Mindful Universe), then this is all mumbo jumbo and you will won’t many coherent conversation with non-atheists on religion.

However many people do find religion useful in their lives, even if positivists won’t find meaningful truth in such claims. They will experience the religion as truth, but it will be an entirely subjective truth, as in ‘this icecream is delicious’. We do this all the time.


One response to “Subjective Truth and The Rationality of Religion

  1. My spiritually is populated with inner-worlds inspired by Whitman and children’s books, so I have come to value subjective truth. And it occurred to me some time ago–and I am reminded of it by your discussion with Jean Kazez–that many put too much stock on the importance (especially objectively) of Life’s Big Questions.

    I am not convinced finding an objective answer to “who -really- is the son of God?” would make life collectively or individually any better or worse. While I understand that these can all be categorized as “Where Do We Come From and Why” questions, who cares?

    Like reading, what counts is between the lines; objectivity only subjectively matters.

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