A passion for truth

That last Discussion Question is the one that really got us going in Happiness class yesterday, the one about whether religion or spirituality add years to one’s life – seven years, specifically, according to the cited study… presumably seven quality years, my quip about the mitigating effects of all those hours lost in Sunday School notwithstanding.

I said I was prepared to believe it, so long as we understand “spirituality” inclusively and naturalistically. There is such a thing as humanist, secular, and atheistic spirituality, and if the point is to believe in something larger than oneself (not necessarily a god, possibly just people, the planet, or the starry heavens above) then godless spirituality should qualify for the Life-Extension dividend too. As Andre Comte-Sponville says, experience and a universe should suffice if anything does.

Not surprisingly, in the ensuing discussion the name of Professor Dawkins quickly came up. He was alleged to have denied, in The God Delusion, that there is any objective truth or goodness in the universe. I didn’t recall him saying that, but if he did (I said) he misspoke.

But on further reflection, I can’t imagine him writing that. Or even implying it. Say what you will about RD’s polemically provocative style and tendency to shoot from the hip, expressing ill-formed judgments about women (recall his many dust-ups over others’ feminist sensibilities), boys (the young clock-maker in Texas), “faithheads,” etc., it must be acknowledged that the man is passionate for truth. In fact, he has apologized (sorta) for precisely that: “Sorry if I go a bit over the top in my passion for truth.”

In God Delusion he wrote,

when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal force, the truth does not necessarily lie midway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong. And that justifies passion on the other side.

A passion for truth is nothing to apologize for. Intemperance, incivility, and insult in its name may be. That’s why I’m toying with the idea of trying out an improvised version of John Rawls’ “Original Position” thought experiment in next semester’s Atheism & Philosophy course. I’d ask everyone to don the “veil of ignorance” as to their own (ir-)religious attitudes and beliefs, and just join a civil conversation about atheism and concepts of an afterlife without so much demonstrative personal investment in their own preconceptions. At the end we’d raise the veil and evaluate our performance not in the light of who we are individually, but how much kinder and gentler we might be as a collaborative community in passionate pursuit of truth.

Yes, I know, I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.
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