Religion and Truth


  • Epistemological theories of coherence and correspondence are useful to reconcile conflicts in religious declarations.
  • Religious truth cannot rely on statements of fact since its claims are invariably about a metaphysical realm beyond material reality.
  • Very few correspondence claims about religious truth can be defended, and the most specific declarations are invariably coherence claims that eventually harden into claims justified by trust in religious authority.
  • Every founder of every religion begins with a revelation or insight that claims metaphysical truth as a private possession.
  • A ubiquitous example is the conversion experience that reorders the believer’s spiritual reality; in epistemological terms, it reorients the coherence virtual circle in a radical catharsis that reforms it utterly.
  • All such conversions are both highly personalized and ineffable; both the desire implicit in their adoption by converts and their non-conceptual substance make them difficult to communicate.
  • This difficulty is magnified for the convert by the momentous nature of the revelation that prompts evangelism and tempts metaphorical and conceptual communication that must distort the conversion experience that has inspired it.
  • The tension is nearly always reconciled by converting the private belief into disciples’ personal trust, a recognition of his personal authority, inevitably leading to a failure of comprehension by his disciples.
  • This pattern is replicated in other pursuits, for instance, the initiation of scientists into the dominant paradigm of their discipline or of the “true believer” into a mass social movement.
  • Conceptualization and categorization always predominate when the founder dies and personal authority must be transmuted into institutional authority that must distort the original faith so as to make it comprehensible enough to adherents so that they surrender rational agency to trust, but the compensation for this distortion is that the religion may now claim public authority.
  • The trust that powers their adherence is axiomatically subject to revocation in the name of new convictions authorities deem as heretical or to challenges to trust from other religious authorities; in all cases, the revocation of trust is synonymous with the reactivation of rational agency to evaluate appeals to trust.
  • In contemporary life the surrender of trust, often in adolescence, nearly always ends in formulations of personal faiths, requiring a retention of rational agency that is axiomatically hostile to any future surrender to trust.
  • For social comity and public morality, it is important that believers not confuse trust with belief since the desire that moves belief is not convertible to authority.

It is difficult even to recognize issues that we lack the language to frame because we cannot discover the means of reducing the problem to its constituents (see “Reductionism for Dummies). The problem seems irreconcilable because of its complexity or ambiguity when in truth we have either not found the means of isolating it from related problems or of finding the natural fault lines that enable us to see its components. We need neologisms that allow us to conceptualize the missing elements. For example, we can use the related terms coherence  and correspondence constructively to examine a thorny issue for which we commonly find inadequate language: the problem of truth in religion.

I will begin by defining the two critical terms above. Coherence references the method of justifying truth, goodness, and beauty claims that measures each new claim against a set already accepted by the thinker. Its justification thus becomes a matter of non-contradiction with personal “truths.” I use quotations because of this term’s unique meaning when used with coherence justification: to a coherentist, the only claim acceptable as truth is one that does not violate her personal schema without reference to any external reality. Correspondence requires some means of establishing a relationship between the new claim and and perceptual reality open to universal reason and to shared reality. It recognizes five such relationships: empiricism, expertise, authority, competence, or undistilled experience (see “What Counts as Justification?“). Coherence builds its schema of truth in a relational web, testing each private truth claim against prior ones already accepted. Because it requires no outside verification, coherence is idiosyncratic. Everyone’s schema is different. This personalism leads to problems in resolving conflicts among persons’ differing conceptions of truth, goodness, and beauty (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). Correspondence acts on the assumption that assembling any such schema must begin with simpler truth tests of a claim against one explicable element of reality using some correspondence warrant. The assumption here is that reasoning and experience have an inverse relation to verifiability: the more complex or singular the experience, the less reasoning can work upon it to isolate it from the reality it nests within, break it along its fault lines, analyze its essence, and communicate it to others. The simplest of such efforts reveals facts, whose reliability comes from their perceptual simplicity (see “Facts are Fluxy Things“). Empiricism, expertise, and competence all work to connect facts and interpret experience in just this way (see “The Limits of Empirical Science” ).

These contrasting justification methodologies are not always incompatible (see “Pure, Poor Systems of Knowledge). For instance, the correspondentist must resort to coherentist warrants in issues for which there are no perceptual referents, as in the case of emotions. and for declarations about which no knowledge is possible. When faced with this level of uncertainty, the thinker may simply refuse to form a judgment, holding her options in abeyance. Or she might extend her investigation into the realm of the unknown that is at the moment of choice also unknowable. At this point, she indulges in an alloy of judgment and desire, directing her conclusions not by correspondence but by permissible extensions of it. She indulges in what are properly called beliefs (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”).  So the correspondentist builds her world view upon a solid surface of publicly defensible judgments about reality surrounded by a hazy atmosphere of belief to extend them. At the opposite extreme, the coherentist may accept some correspondentist methodologies in part or sum, so she may find herself in agreement with her correspondentist friend, though if examined, both would soon find a deeper dispute. The coherentist’s acceptance of, say technology, would rely on their harmony with other elements of her private schema rather than the one-to-one correspondence that might justify a public judgment. It would be difficult to embrace scientific truths and the technologies they spawn on coherence grounds, for instance. That a drug passed rigorous clinical trials might matter less to a coherentist than that her neighbor found it helpful. One should be careful in accepting the possibilities of harmonizing the two modes of justification despite their partial compatibility; at their core, these two modes are fundamentally incompatible and produce opposing ways of looking at ourselves and the world and the truths we derive from our perceptions. In the blur of ordinary experience, any such effort is likely to be incomplete and error-ridden (see “Better, Blended Systems of Knowledge). Fortunately, it is also open to continual improvement by better reasoning or evidence over a lifetime.

For now I wish to examine the conflict that arises not from an attempt to reconcile the correspondentist and the coherentist positions but from a failure to recognize the kinds of verification appropriate to each. The issue of religious truth fissures along a natural fault line when examined in light of these terms that might not be apparent otherwise. A very few fundamentally spiritual claims might seek correspondence justification. For instance, a theory of intelligent design might rely upon three working theories in cosmology: spatial geometry since the Big Bang, entropy and energy conservation, and cosmic fine tuning. These explanatory efforts are necessarily broad, especially in light of the special Providence that all religions claim as true, each in their own way. These recent correspondentist efforts have a long pedigree, dating to Aristotle’s prime mover and Aquinas’s five cosmological proofs and even Anselm’s ontological one. They are ultimately fairly anodyne attempts to investigate the order that using the word “cosmos” implies, but they are far from the multifarious claims of denominational religion. It is these quite specific truth and goodness claims that religionists most ardently defend. Unsurprisingly, they can in no way be defended as real knowledge of the divine. Here is why.

The initial revelation—or to use a less charged word, insight—that a religionist might proclaim should be separated from the truth claims of the religion that become its settled dogma or teachings. The former is verified solely by coherence means and the latter by correspondence, nearly always by institutional authority. These different means of warrant obligate those who examine the religion’s truth claims to respond differently not because the claims are necessarily different but because the modes of warrant are (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?“). Allow me to illustrate.

It is revealing that what might be called the conversion experience is such a common factor in religious history. The list is illustrious: Gautama, the Buddha; Paul; Augustine; Mohammed; Thomas Aquinas; Martin Luther, Joseph Smith. In some cases, the adherent is moved from disbelief to faith, in others from a lesser faith to a greater. But all share this common thread: one’s worldview is radically reoriented, shifted dramatically and totally and realigned into what the believer sees as an enlarged understanding. This would be a shock to any thinker’s system, but it is particularly disruptive for the coherentist. Ordinarily, her schema is augmented by each new truth as it is first examined in light of and then integrated into her schema of understanding that in turn becomes one more personal truth that justifies later truth claims. When an anomaly is examined, she may either reject the anomaly or reorder the entire schema. But the latter cannot happen too often, for it requires a resubmission of everything she had known in light of the anomaly that challenges it all. That challenge must contradict the essential structure of the coherentist’s worldview and must do it so convincingly that it overturns all that had formerly made sense of her world.  This latter process is an event commonly called catharsis. Consider what that reordering must feel like to the thinker for whom the principle of non-contradiction has not only ordered her world view but also has formed her only means of knowing truth, goodness, and beauty. To call it cathartic isn’t the half of it. The religious conversion experience is such an event. It must be cathartic because the jolting truth claim that prompts it has no simple relation to an external reality that can be verified by correspondence means. Revelation and insight by definition are internal events not amenable to public warrants. It is interesting to read the accounts of those who experienced such spiritual shocks. The reordering may be sudden. Aquinas is said to have compared all his previous writing to straw after his experience and did not write again for the brief remainder of his life. Or it may be gradual. Augustine speaks of his previous objections to Christian belief gradually evaporating in the face of his new understanding. The experience, of course, is an essential one for many fundamentalist Christian faiths and characterizes branches of Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as well.

Its essence is ineffable, and that is the problem (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”). It cannot be communicated. It certainly cannot be justified to a dispassionate outsider. Should a fellow communicant be moved by her conversion experience, it strikes me as impossible that either could compare their experiences: so persuasive, so indescribable, so intense (see “Awe“). The essence of the experience is its private nature. Its constituents are molded in the prior experience of its possessor and the force of its motivation in the reordering of private reality that is as incommunicable as it is overwhelming.  Its radical reorientation is not a fit subject for words, which believers seem to recognize when they say such deep and radical conversion moves them to silence. That response deserves a respectful silence from the observer as well.

But therein lies the problem, doesn’t it? For the belief, private as it is, communicates a truth about external reality. No revelation is about the communicant alone. No insight reveals truths applicable to only one soul. It is in the nature of religious truth claims that they be correspondence, meaning they profess some element of universal reality. And not just any element, but the key arc of experienced reality that underlies all metaphysical reality, at least so it seems to the believer and so the truths proclaimed by that believer must prove if warranted. It would be a small deity indeed that effects a catharsis meant to convey a solely private truth. The problem thus becomes a clear issue of justification: how can one justify the claim to correspondence truth using coherence means? There is no way.

Bear in mind the urgency of the issue. The communicant has experienced something intense, profound, and life-altering. It may be ineffable but it is also indubitable to her mind.  Her world view has been shattered and reassembled to reveal a much deeper truth, one as old and as exhilarating as Plato’s cave dweller crawling out into the sunlight. Yet the pedestrian, public tests of correspondence — empirical, expertise, competence, authority, or undistilled experience—can do little to support her new claims. She might attempt experience, yet what moved her was internal, not open to observation, communication, or repetition. If founding a new religion or altering an existing one, the believer must rely on the trust her followers have in the truth of her claims, but the root of such a trust cannot touch the essence that would confirm it, and so followers cannot duplicate the unique realignment that she has experienced, nor can they or she appeal to correspondence warrants to verify the truth that has so changed her life.

Something similar that can be approached through correspondence is the kind of synthesis felt by initiates into some of the grand theories of the human sciences, which reveals just how powerful the cathartic experience can be (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). Karl Popper examines this sort of conversion in his famous essay on falsifiability, as he recalls his amazement at seeing followers of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx attempt to explain the rush of reorientation they experienced when exposed to the explanatory power of these theories. So overwhelming was the conversion experience that followers easily disregarded contradictory correspondence evidence despite their education and sophistication. For it is the dizzying clarification itself that forms the most powerful argument in favor of the catharsis. Not only does everything make sense at last, but the catharsis has revealed an entirely new and previously hidden essential element of reality. What countervailing evidence would be strong enough to blur such a crystalline vision? Popper urged a relentless search for anomaly as a corrective to that enthusiasm in reference to such secular conversions, but where is the anomaly to be sought in the privacy of the conversion experience, excepting only inconsistency or hypocrisy?

One possibility might lie in examining repetitive conversions, though these are not all that common. They do occur, though, and each should cause at least a moment’s hesitation in the believer before complete acceptance. I have known persons of deep and sincere faith whose understandings deepen through the years, who regard each new insight as the final truth and dismiss all old ones as error despite their total prior commitment. These successive revolutions each reorient the believer’s understandings; in the face of the conversion, it probably asking too much of the believer to compare this thrilling catharsis to earlier ones. She also now faces the daunting task of reaching out beyond her private experience to communicate what she sees as a vital universal truth claim, a hopeless task.

The warrant must surely be correspondence, not coherence, and the communicant must claim to be offering to her listeners not a private truth built upon her own beliefs but a crucially important public one founded upon public warrants. To what proof of correspondence does she appeal and how can she justify that claim?

With that reaching out beyond the harmony of her own convictions, the believer changes the claim because she now must change the warrant. She must now appeal to her listeners on the grounds of her authority, and even if her own followers bestow their personal trust, the next generation of believers most certainly must resort to institutional authority to find the correspondence justification they need to move later generations to accept their message. They must find the means to earn the trust of adherents who did not know the holy prophet. This is done by forming an orthodoxy based upon dogma, doctrine, holy books, and/or ecclesiastical rank upon which adherents base their faith. But the tension between private belief and public trust must remain because belief seeks to retain rational and moral agency so that permissibility and coherence might be arbitrated by the believer while the act of bestowing trust must transfer agency to the authority that decides on the congregant’s behalf, perhaps in partial defiance of her beliefs. The temptation to private belief then fosters heresy, apostasy, and challenge to orthodoxy which inevitably challenge congregants to reacquire the rational and moral agency they have previously surrendered by the submission of their trust. But this re-acquisition of the power to decide is merely another name for the forfeiture of trust and the failure of authority’s capacity to renew it (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority). At that point, believers are thrown upon their own resources again, and even if they embrace dogma, sacred texts, or rituals, their subscription will be powered by their own beliefs rather than by external or institutional authority. Though believers might wish to ennoble or universalize their coherentist convictions by thinking them rooted in trust, the revelations or intuitions that make sense of their beliefs must always be of their own making in pursuit of their own hypothetical ends (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts“).

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