In an earlier blog, called Are You A Religious Naturalist Without Knowing It?, I outlined the parameters of a non-theistic religious naturalist orientation. Today I’ll follow that up with a consideration of what is meant by the word truth, framing my understandings thereof in a religious naturalist context.
Musician Carl Smith offered the following aphorism:
There are 3 different kinds of truths.
1. Empirical truth (evolution happened)
2. Consensual truth (it is good to be nice to each other)
3. First-person truth (truth that emerges unbidden -- for example, in the creation or apprehension of art)
Here's my exegesis.
The matter at hand, in the end, is which truths are accorded the status of consensual truths, and how that process takes place.
For empirical truths, the rules for consensus are out there: evidence, repeated experiment, successful technologies based on the resultant understandings, etc. While it's the case that there are those who refuse to join the consensus that evolution happened or that antibiotics can cure disease, they must, by definition, disregard these rules in order to take such positions.
The general consensus that it's good to be nice to each other may well prove to be rooted in our genetic makeup as social organisms; should this be robustly demonstrated by evidence and repeated experiment, then it would move into the category of consensus on an empirical truth. Absent such data, the rules for reaching consensus on moral/ethical matters are far more elusive, as lifted up in recent postings and comments on this blog.
For first-person truths, the rules for consensus are not out there at all. The painting on my wall that speaks to me may well not speak to you; you may even wonder why I would hang such a thing on my wall. The God to whom I pray may bear no resemblance to the God to whom you pray; you may even wonder why I would hold such a God-concept.
As near as I can tell, consensus on matters like art or theology are going to be rooted in such factors as temperament, life-experience, and cultural surrounds, not to mention even more abstruse qualities like aesthetic and mystical sensibilities, and these are going to vary from human to human. If my tastes in art or theology turn out to map onto yours, then there's a consensus of two. Full stop.
True, attempts to impose first-person truths on "the masses" have sometimes been proximately successful, particularly when accompanied by the instigation of fear or the promise of reward. But these have a way of attenuating and fizzling out. Those who bemoan the continued influence of messianistic “leaders” have lost sight of the influence such persons exerted in former times.
Not only is there every reason to expect first-person variation. There's every reason to celebrate it. Global homogeneity in first-person truths is a most depressing concept.
And now, the religious naturalist frame. The religious naturalist proposition, as many of us articulate it, is that one explores the religious potential of our empirical understandings of nature. The built-in RN consensus is that we take these understandings to be true until such time that they are replaced by deeper, and occasionally paradigm-shifty, understandings of what's true, at which time we eagerly explore the religious potential of these deeper or novel truths.
That's the consensus part -- the premise that we hold empirical truths to be foundational, including empirical truths about the human (e.g. current understandings of brains, hormones, genes, embryology, evolutionary dynamics, language, learning, cultural dynamics, death).
But given this premise, my first-person framing of my religious orientation is not likely to map onto yours. I can tell you about my framing, and you can tell me about yours, and the conversation may generate insights that we each go on to adopt as our own.
Newcomers to the religious naturalist concept regularly ask why it is that we have no belief statement. Why isn't there the equivalent of the Nicene creed? How is this religious if there isn't such a thing?
The response: Here's a list of books you might want to read. Here are some people you might want to talk to. Here are some poems that speak to many of us.
That said, I’m convinced that the fact that self-professed religious naturalists share a common empirical narrative that elicits religious "beliefs," as contrasted with a narrative that has the "beliefs" folded right into the account, means that it has exciting potential as a global orientation – as “Everybody’s Story.”
And since our current stock of empirical truths has much to tell us about such crucial moral matters as human commonality and sustainability, I for one have opted to hang it on my wall and devote my religious life to its first-person contemplation.