Posted by: N.S. Palmer | December 8, 2012

A Proposal for Truth in Religion

By N.S. Palmer

“Two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anyone with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.”

– Matthew Arnold, God and the Bible (1884)

What Matthew Arnold wrote in 1884 is still true today. It applies to most religious faiths: Not just to Christianity, but to traditional Judaism and Islam. It applies to any faith that incorporates supernatural events such as miracles, virgin births, Divine interventions, or personal appearances by God on earth.

I’m not foolish enough to claim that I know such things did not happen or could not happen. The world is full of surprises.

What I do claim, with respect and love for my believing friends, is that such accounts are not historically credible.

That claim is nothing new. David Hume and Baruch Spinoza both criticized historical accounts of miracles.

But could such accounts be true in a slightly different way?

We already know that truth means different things in different contexts. A mathematical truth such as “2+2 = 4” is true in a different way from an empirical truth such as “There is an elephant in the living room,” and both are different from a moral truth such as “Honesty is a virtue.”

Why not assume that religious truths are also special, with their own kind of truth and their own criteria for correctness?

Let’s look at characteristics of a true proposition that matters to us:

  • It’s helpful.
  • It’s important.
  • It either corresponds to a “fact” or logically coheres with a system of judgments.

As an aside, a careful analysis of so-called “facts” reveals that they are thoroughly imbued with judgment. There’s no such thing as a “brute fact” existing independently of interpretation by some mind. As a result, correspondence with facts is just another way of looking at coherence with a system of thought.

Consider a simple fact, such as that I now see the color blue. It refers to “I,” a conscious being; “now,” at a specific point in time, possibly referring to a conventional method of timekeeping; “see,” exercise a sensory faculty of detecting electromagnetic radiation; “the color,” a particular way of experiencing electromagnetic radiation, “blue,” that is, one in an infinite spectrum of colors. The supposedly simple fact both contains within itself and refers to countless concepts, experiences, and activities. It’s more concept than color.

The idea that reality depends on consciousness was a key conclusion of George Berkeley, an empiricist philosopher who famously said “esse est percipi” — “to be is to be perceived.” That led to questions about trees falling in forests where there was no one to hear them: did they make a sound? Berkeley answered that they did, because even if no humans were around to hear it, God was omnipresent, so He was there to hear it.

Berkeley inspired a limerick that was popular at Cambridge before World War I:

There once was a man who said, “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
To find that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”

“Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd.
I am always about in the quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours Faithfully, God.”

But that’s a topic for another time. It has been treated better than I could by my late friend and mentor, Brand Blanshard, in his book The Nature of Thought.

Consider a true proposition that’s known to every school child:

The earth revolves around the sun, and the sun does not revolve around the earth.

What most people do not know is that the choice between the Copernican (sun-centered) and Ptolemaic (earth-centered) view of the solar system is logically arbitrary. Astronomers say that the earth revolves around the sun not because it is true in some absolute sense — it isn’t — but because it makes astronomical calculations easier.

If one adopts the Ptolemaic view of the solar system, one starts with the proposition that the sun revolves around the earth, as do the other planets and the stars. But therein lies a problem when you look up at the sky to observe the movements of the planets and stars. The planets appear to move backwards a little bit (retrograde motion), then forward in their orbits, then backward a little bit, and so on.

In the Copernican model, we explain planetary retrograde motion by saying that the earth is also moving relative to those other planets. Copernicus said that they really followed circular orbits because heavenly motion had to be perfect and he considered circles perfect geometric figures; now we know (using roughly the same model) that the orbits are elliptical. However, the planets appear to move backwards because as the earth orbits the sun, it moves relative to the other planets, which are also orbiting the sun.

In the Ptolemaic model, however, the earth isn’t moving. Ptolemaic astronomers had to find some other explanation for planetary retrograde motion. The explanation had to fit all the same observed facts as the Copernican model, but with the earth at the center of the universe. To solve this problem, Ptolemaic astronomers said that as planets and stars orbited the earth, each one of them made smaller circles along its orbit, called “epicycles” (epi = on, cycle = orbit).


A diagram of epicycles from the book Theories of the World from Antiquity to the Copernican Revolution by Michael J. Crowe.

The Ptolemaic model fit observed facts just as well as the later Copernican model did, and it enabled astronomers to predict the movements of heavenly bodies. However, it was more complicated and difficult than the Copernican model. Simplicity might not equal absolute truth, but it has its advantages. So now we all “know” that Copernicus was right, Ptolemy was wrong, and that the earth revolves around the sun.

The point of this digression is that on logical grounds, Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy have equal claims to be true. They represent not inconsistent, but simply different ways of describing astronomical phenomena. And depending on which description you choose, certain propositions will be true or false.

Under the Ptolemaic description, for example, planets move in epicycles as they orbit the earth. Under the Copernican description, they don’t. Which is right? The answer is that in the context of their own assumptions, they are both right. In the context of the other description’s assumptions, they are both wrong.

Those considerations apply in many areas:

  • In physics, relativity (for astronomical phenomena) and quantum mechanics (for sub-atomic phenomena). Each works well in some contexts and not in others.
  • In economics, the labor theory of value and the subjective theory of value. Each works well in some contexts and not in others.
  • In psychology, Freudian psychoanalysis, Gestalt, behaviorism, and neuroscientific theories. Each works well in some contexts and not in others.

That doesn’t mean there is no truth to be had. But it does mean we should not assume some propositions are false when they are, instead, simply part of alternative descriptions of the world.

What does that have to do with truth in religion? You can probably see where I’m going with this line of thought.

Under different religious descriptions of reality, God dictated the Torah word-for-word to Moses, or He didn’t; Jesus claimed to be the son of God and rose from the dead, or he didn’t; and so forth. Under various secular descriptions of reality, the Bible is a collection of moral teachings, history, and legends assembled by people who sought to improve the lives and conduct of humankind; or it’s a pernicious bag of superstitions. Take your pick. Depending on your point of view, they’re all true.

What I want to argue is that just like Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy, different descriptions of the world result in different things being true or false, meaningful or meaningless. And that takes us back to what I said earlier about the characteristics of a true belief that matters to us:

  • It’s helpful.
  • It’s important.
  • It either corresponds to a “fact” or logically coheres with a system of judgments.

Whether one believes in various religious ideas or not, one must acknowledge that they satisfy all three criteria of a true proposition:

  • They help people lead happier, more productive, and more moral lives — not all the time, of course, but usually.
  • They are important, because whether one believes in God or not, the existence and nature of a Creator of the universe is about as important as questions get.
  • They correspond to facts or logically cohere with systems of judgments, that is, with the religious worldviews of which they are a part.

The universe, and our lives, and almost anything can be described in different ways. The different ways don’t conflict because they’re simply looking at the same thing from different angles. From a particular angle, within a particular way of describing the universe, certain things will be true that are not true when considered from a different angle or within a different way of describing the universe.

When confronted with an unfamiliar religious belief, the important question is not “Does it seem true within my worldview?”

The only really important question is: “Is it morally, psychologically, and pragmatically helpful to the people who believe in it?”

As Hillel once said, “The rest is commentary.”

Copyright 2012 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. An interesting and thoughtful analysis and argument.

    I used to think that Truth was essential if you believed in God. But anymore I’m not so sure. I think only love is essential. When I made that shift, suddenly it was a lot less important whether I understood or even thought plausible the fantastic stories of the Bible.

    • Thanks, Jim!

      I agree with you about love, and I think we both agree with Jesus. When asked what the greatest commandment was, he said it was to love God, and that the second-greatest was to love our fellow human beings. I tend to think that the second is included in the first, but there’s some tutorial value in stating it separately.

      My main point is that we don’t have to “check our brains at the door,” as atheists are fond of claiming. We already know that truth means different things in different contexts. This just applies it to religious faith.

  2. I think here an advocate for the point that there’s a difference, though, between having one’s own opinion, and having one’s own facts, needs to come forward. They’re not the same thing.

    It’s not the case that the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems equally fit observations, and that saying “in their own context” is actually just a kludge to rescue one from the other is fairly easy to demonstrate. In the context of a single split second, it’s fair to say that a man who’s just stepped off the observation deck of the Empire State Building can fly. There he is, unsupported, in mid-air, just like any bird. “In the context” of that extremely limited set of observations, and ignoring any others (particularly the evidence of the next several seconds), one could fairly persuasively present the case that it’s “true” the man flies. Taking away the arbitrary constraint of a “context” contrived to fit the conclusion, rather than being led to a conclusion by excluding none, is what demonstrates the presumed conclusion to be absurd. In the case of the Ptolemiac system, observations that could be, and were, made with the crude instruments of the 18th century to record the transit of Venus from independent locations and then use those figures in triangulation yield a sun 93 million miles from the Earth, as well as a sun 200 times the diameter of the Earth (given its apparent size as nearly exactly that of the moon). There is simply no element in the universe light enough that a body that large would be under the gravitational influence of the Earth, and not vice-versa. The Ptolemaic model also requires a mechanism to explain retrograde motion which is presented strictly by fiat, and never defines the nature of that mechanism in the natural world; where the Copernican model explains it simply and persuasively as a function of observations made when a body in an interior orbit overtakes one further from the sun. No awkward, inexplicable secondary mechanism is required. These are not equivalent explanations, and haven’t been for hundreds of years.

    You say “that doesn’t mean there’s no truth to be had”, and that’s a crucial point, and one I think you give very short shrift. Facts matter; a lot more than opinions, or what it pleases us to believe. Depending on the Ptolemaic model will result in the wrong answers in distance calculations to other worlds, since they depend on a secondary motion that puts them in incorrect positions relative to the Earth at nearly every point in their orbits. Adhering to this model because it’s traditional and insisting it’s “just as good” as the Copernican model and fits the observations just as well means you will never land a probe on Mars, orbit one around Venus, or perform a successful flyby of Saturn. What I mean by all this is, insisting on one’s own comfortable view of things, when it’s at odds with demonstrable reality—having one’s own “facts”, rather than just opinions—has real ramifications, and they’re nearly uniformly disadvantageous precisely because they’re at odds with reality.

    People like me don’t have any issues with what other people believe because they were brought up to hold it to be true. It’s no concern of mine what building a person spends his or her Friday, Saturday, or Sunday in. I don’t agree when some people say they can prove there’s no god. What kind of god? Where? When? That said, I don’t agree when people tell me they know there is one, and what he thinks, wants, and forbids, either. And where people like me do have a problem is when such people want to convert these claims into legislation that’s binding on the rest of us. I won’t have Copernicans burned at the stake and all the probes that crash or inexplicably miss their rendezvous “explained” away as being the will of Someone Who Doesn’t Want Us Poking Around Up There In the First Place; such efforts eventually quietly shelved forever. The truth is that a God who answers (or doesn’t) prayers and intercedes (or doesn’t) at the same rate we’d expect of random chance is indistinguishable in every respect from one who doesn’t exist at all, and the apologetics and utterings about working in mysterious ways are really just more epicyclicism. If “wheels within wheels” works in one’s private life, that’s fine. But I draw the line at basing anything binding on our society on it.

    The rest isn’t, unfortunately, just commentary. When missionaries are driven by their dogma to tell Africans that it’s preferable to overpopulate the world and suffer the poverty that comes with it, to contract AIDS and spread it to their wives and unborn children, rather than risk God’s eternal wrath by using condoms, I can’t agree that religion is helpful. When parents are dogma-driven to refuse their children life-saving operations or even transfusions because they believe it interferes with God’s will, I can’t agree that religion is helpful. When Rick Perry thinks the solution to drought in Texas is to pray, rather than start working to limit global warming so maybe his great-grandchildren might see this cup passed from them, I can’t agree religion is helpful. When young men with their whole lives to look forward to think it’s a better idea to kill themselves and take 3000 others with them flying planes into buildings because they’re promised a reward in the hereafter for doing so, I can’t agree religion is helpful. Arbitrarily-held, personal “facts” at odds with demonstrable reality are not helpful. I can think of a lot of harm religions cause because they’re inflexibly dogmatic that can’t be caused by anyone without such an axe to grind, but I can’t think of any acts of goodness or kindness religious people do because it puts them right with their god that the irreligious can’t do simply because they want to make things better for someone else.

    • Hi, LP —

      As usual, you’ve made an insightful and witty comment. Your reference to “epicyclism” made me laugh out loud.

      Your points require some thought, so I can’t do them justice this evening. With regard to one point, however — the equivalence of Ptolemaic and Copernican explanations of astronomical observations — the point is not original with me. I got it from Bertrand Russell, who observed that in the absence of absolute space and position, it was arbitrary whether one thought the earth revolved around the sun or vice versa. I think that part of your argument is something I happily concede, viz, that the Copernican explanation is simpler and easier to apply. I had a similar argument over the dinner table on Sunday with the family. My point then, and now, is simply this: you can reconcile almost any theory with observed facts if you’re willing to do enough back-flips in logic. One thing that I get from your argument is that you think Ptolemy just makes too many damn back-flips. Fair point, he does make more than Copernicus.

      As I said, your comment deserves a more considered reply, but I can’t provide that right now. It’s coming … Who knows, I might decide that you’re right.

  3. […] A Proposal for Truth in Religion « Ashes of Our Fathers […]

  4. […] argued in another article that science and religion are simply different ways of describing and experiencing the world. They […]

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