Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Do you actually seek the truth about reality?

Christadelphians often make truth claims about reality. In fact they refer to their beliefs and even their community as "the truth". But how many Christadelphians actually do the work required to establish whether or not their beliefs are in fact true? How many Christadelphians are what we might call "active truth seekers"?

It's one thing to think that your beliefs are true. In fact all religious people believe this. It's another thing entirely to actually question the foundations of those beliefs and discover for yourself whether your beliefs are verifiably true. If you do not take this second step, your belief is blind. It is nothing but mere assertion without basis. You may as well believe in unicorns and fairies.
"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see."
Hebrews 11:1 (NET)

Does truth matter to you? How convinced are you? How deeply have you questioned your faith?

When someone tells you that something is true, how do you go about assessing it? Do you just blindly trust everything people tell you? After all, your friends wouldn't lie to you would they?

But people can be wrong, and often are. They don't need to be lying to us. They could just be honestly mistaken. Determining whether something is true is sometimes very difficult, and can require real effort. It can mean active research, education, and a lot of reading. This takes time, and even then it can sometimes be difficult to be certain about what is true. If the evidence is unclear, you may be better off simply withholding belief until additional evidence is obtained.

If your search for truth goes no further than the Bible, then how can you trust that the Bible itself is true? Is it true just because it says so? What about the holy books of other religions? How can you know for sure? Could you be mistaken?

Why are humans so poor at determining what is true?

We have inherent biases that actively get in the way of us determining what is true. We find it very uncomfortable to question our existing beliefs, for fear that we could be wrong, and so we often choose not to question them. This is the same for everyone. There are no exceptions.

Instead of daring to question the foundations of our beliefs, we instinctively respond by seeking out "evidence", no matter how weak or superficial, to justify the beliefs we already hold. We are not impartial truth seekers, and naturally we will often hijack our own attempts to determine truth. However, once we are able to recognise these behaviours in ourselves, we can try to overcome them. It takes practice, but it is a skill that can be developed.

Am I biased?

Do you only look for evidence that favours beliefs you already hold?
Do you only look for evidence that supports what you want to be true?
This is known as confirmation bias.

Do you stop reading something as soon as it contradicts your existing beliefs?
Do you reject anything that doesn't fit your current belief system?

If you reject something, how much effort do you put into actually understanding fully the thing you are rejecting? After all, if you do not understand it, how can you effectively argue against it?

The more we want something to be true, the more likely we will believe it is true, even without good evidence. This is known as wishful thinking.

When it comes to beliefs, one of the best tests for personal bias is whether you approach your own beliefs with as much scrutiny as you would someone else's.

Can we do better at determining what is true? 

What if I told you that the most effective tools we have when assessing whether something is true are skepticism and critical thinking?

In fact, most of us have a natural skepticism for most claims and we use it instinctively.
For instance, if I suggested to you that there are invisible fairies at the bottom of the garden, you would instantly be skeptical. You might even start to question my motive in telling you such a thing. You have never seen a fairy and have never experienced anything remotely like fairies existing in the garden. Further, you are no doubt aware of fairies existing in make-believe "fairy tales". Given this combined evidence, you would therefore reasonably conclude that real fairies probably do not exist (even though you could not prove it). Not only that, but you would naturally want to know how I knew the fairies were there in the first place, especially if they were invisible.

Now consider that many Christians (including Christadelphians) believe in the literal existence of invisible angels in and around our homes or places of worship and keeping watch over various aspects of our lives. If you are reasonably aware of your own thought processes, you will suddenly realise that you perhaps think a lot less skeptically when it comes to angels than when speaking of fairies. Yet your rational brain will tell you that there really is very little difference, except that you have read of angels in the Bible. However, whereas before you were skeptical of the source of the claims about fairies (i.e. the above paragraph), I wonder if you were just as skeptical of the source of the claims about angels?

It doesn't work if you don't use it

Skepticism, not to be confused with cynicism, is an excellent tool, but it won't work if we don't use it. The fear of being wrong is a powerful motivator not to question our beliefs, and when combined with the positive reinforcement from our friends and family who share those beliefs, it's easy to see why people continue to believe things even though they've never looked into whether or not they are true.

We instinctively know that if our core beliefs are found to be false, there may be dire consequences for our life, both socially and emotionally. But what is the cost of not questioning?

What if you lived your whole life believing a lie?

As Carl Sagan once said:
"Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable."
Also, many of us were taught religion before we were old enough to reason. We had not developed sufficient critical thinking skills and healthy skepticism to effectively determine whether the ideas were true. We simply trusted those who taught us, believing that they would not lie to us. We may also have implicitly trusted that these people had themselves done the requisite investigation into the truth of the claims. Unfortunately many of those who taught us had also been taught their beliefs from a young age, and so the cycle of indoctrination has continued for generations.

By the time we were old enough to reason, confirmation bias had already taken hold. We seemingly heaped up piles of evidence that confirmed our beliefs, while ignoring or waving away any evidence that might be contrary. We were probably unaware of the dishonesty in doing so, and may even have been applauded for "strengthening our faith".

Now that you're aware of the process, it's time to change.

However, I just want to re-iterate that questioning one's beliefs is extremely difficult and often painful. It requires dedication, and brutal honesty. But think about what you are risking if you don't.

A curious and questioning mind is a sign of intelligence

Consider making it a priority to investigate your beliefs further. Look beyond the Bible. Research how it was written, when it was written, who it was written by (if we know), how much or how little we know about the authors, what we know about the time period from other sources, and so on. What do Babylonian records and Canaanite records tell us about ancient Israel? What can Egyptian records tell us about the accounts of the exodus? What evidence is there for the great empire of King David and his son Solomon? What happens to people who never had access to the Bible? What about people in other nations who lived before Jesus? Why are there so many religions? And so on...

Question everything. If a question makes you afraid or nervous, then that is a question you must take seriously. The more you want something to be true, the more cautious and skeptical you must be when examining the evidence. Read both sides, and be sure to read material from the correct source. The more unbiased you try to be, the more your search will be rewarded.

Do not try to just reaffirm your current beliefs. If you do that, you will have failed before you set off.

Make a commitment to seeking the truth, even if it hurts.

Follow the truth, wherever it leads.