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Truth in Religion – by Mortimer J. Adler

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Mortimer J. Adler wrote “Truth in Religion, The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth” in 1990 near the end of his long and fruitful life. He was a teacher and writer with a broad grasp of the history of philosophy, and an advocate of living the examined life through understanding the “Great Ideas“. He identified himself as an Aristotelian, which made him something of a throwback among modern academics. He also tried to write in plain English for a general audience which was a noble effort. The books he wrote in the last couple of decades of his life tend to be short and very focussed. He sometimes basically tells people to read a different book for more arguments on a specific point. This book is about truth in religion.

He points out that people tolerate and encourage pluralism of values and ideas in a few main ways. We practice pluralism on questions of taste – is the Sopranos a better show than Deadwood? He mentions the old idea of poetic truth – that a work of fiction can communicate meaning without being literally true. We also practice pluralism on questions where we believe that there is a real truth, but we realize that we can’t be sure of the truth with the existing evidence and our tools to assess the evidence.

He believes that there is one reality and one truth about reality, and that the truth can be discovered by rational enquiry. He also believes that people can be overconfident about what they know. The truth is real, but people don’t have the information and the tools to understand the real truth. We know something about math, and we know certain scientific facts to high degree of probability, but we don’t know that much for sure.

He doesn’t spend time on the question of whether the existence of God can be proved by logic alone (he wrote another book “How to Think about God”). He addresses the question of whether it is possible that some of the fundamental beliefs of any religion can be true. He deals with the many writers who say “it’s all myth” and none of it true. He begins by distinguishing between the evidence and the facts. He notes that Joseph Campbell’s studies of mythology claim to discredit religion by showing that all religions are based on myths which were incorrectly believed to be literally true. He thinks that Campbell, and other students of religion are making an unfounded generalizations to say that all mythologies and all religions are simply stories. He says Campbell and Eliade and others were being dogmatic about something they cannot prove.

He favours the position of St. Thomas Aquinas who, in debate with followers of the medieval Islamic philosopher Averroes, taught that religious truth is real, not poetic, even though religious writing is often in the form of myth and metaphor. He also notes that Aquinas (and St. Augustine) acknowledged that rational argument and factual evidence could disprove facts believed on faith in the value of revealed stories. He observes that St. Augustine himself demythologized the first chapter of Genesis by theological analysis without compromising his faith. Perhaps that’s why Catholics have not been bent out of shape by the contradictions between the facts of geology and evolutionary biology and the Creation story in Genesis.

It follows that he rejects to conventional wisdom of sociology and religions studies and implicitly rejects the post-modern perspective that religions are all equally valid narratives of meaning within cultural contexts. Religions teach truth and justice, and there are objective truth factors in play. Some religious beliefs and teachings are better because they respect the truth or present a more coherent vision of justice.

He touches on the way some modern thinkers have seized on quantum physics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to prove that Eastern religions founded on indeterminacy may be right. He has little patience for that kind of thinking. He thinks people are confusing uncertainty about scientific facts with proof that reality is indeterminate. He thinks that reality is determinate – that the world is real. He doesn’t think that religions that teach that reality is an illusion are grounded in a correct belief about reality – although he doesn’t say that they are wrong about morality and compassion.

He doesn’t conclude that any one religion has a better claim to be true in its teachings than any other. He thinks that some will be wrong about many questions, some will be closer to the truth on some issues, and a few may be getting closer to the truth. He doesn’t assess this by the numbers of believers, or by the number of religions that agree on any point. He is looking for rational proof, with a generous mind.

This book was clearly written, carefully reasoned, challenging, and thoughtful.

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About Brave Kelso

  • http://www.thegreatideas.org Max Weismann

    >in 1990 near the end of his long and fruitful life.

    My dearest friend and colleague lived another 11 years after he wrote that book–writing seven more books.

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2004/08/03/232849.php Rodney Welch

    Nice job, Tony; I’ve always wondered if anyone ever set the dogs on Joseph Campbell, and I’m pleased to hear Adler did.

  • Tony Dalmyn

    Thanks for the comments. I knew that Professor Adler continued to work and write. Thanks for the clarification.

    I don’t have the book at hand any more. I think Professor Adler referred to Campbell’s “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space” and to Campbell’s work as a scholar. I think someone should set the dogs on the other part of Campbell’s work when he turned into the guru of bliss and personal transformation. That part of his work was more in lectures and private papers which have been published after his death.

  • Mark Brawner

    Re Adler on Campbell’s “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space”, this might be of interest:

    http://radicalacademy.com/adlercampbell.htm

  • Michael Aussem

    Through the years I’ve read many of Dr. Adler’s books and articles, I even sold the dear man a cigar at one of Chicago’s finest restaurants; alas, no more Cigars, but that is another story.

    It is disconcerting to see Dr. Adler’s work being taken over by certain elements of the right in this country. I find this hard to stomach. On one site, in particular, all of Mr. Adler’s books are mentioned with the notable exception of Haves Without Have Nots.

    Either I have completely misunderstood the man, or serious distortion of his ideas is underway by certain elements of the Greed class in this country. I am in the process of reading as much as I can about Mr. Adler, I must get to the bottom of this. If I thought that for some unexplained reason, maybe my own incompetence, that all along Mr. Adler found comfort among the exploiters of the “lesser” among us, full disillusion would set in. His Radical Academy Group and Pepperdine University associations are raising red flags for me. Dr. Adler or no Dr. Adler, Aristotle and St. Thomas provide philosophical foundation for progressive, humanitarian, and liberal politics.

  • Tony Dalmyn

    I haven’t read enough of Dr. Adler’s books to understand his moral stance on the right to make money and to be free of laws and regulations that stand in the way of making money. The American business class claims that right as a fundamental human right and suggests that the free market is a fundamental law of nature. I suspect Dr. Adler, while he wrote a book called The Capitalist Manifesto, would have a great deal to say about the ethical obligations of the wealthy and the right of a just society to restrain the accumulation of wealth, and to regulate business for the common good. I know that Aquinas did.

    Dr. Adler is a noted interpreter of the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas, and Aquinas particularly has been claimed by the Catholic Church as a foundational thinker. This means that Dr. Adler, like Aquinas, may be appropriated to the use of various causes. There are many Catholics who are drawn to form political unions with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists behind Republican politicians to advance respect for religion in “the public square”. These unions then continue into support for social conservative issues and Republican economic policy, leaving the Catholics somewhat distant from the political theology of Aquinas and the modern social teachings of the Catholic Church. Also, and somewhat ironically, tolerance for discussion of all ideas based on personal religious vision in the public square also translates into an inability to speak reasonably about the truth and the public good.

    I think Dr. Adler and St. Thomas will have to let their written works speak for them, but it helps to have people remember what they actually wrote and carry on their ideas. Thanks for your comment.

  • Tristan

    Isn’t that an oxymoron:

    “TRUTH in religion” ????

    just like “Military Intelligence” ….

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    There is truth, Tristan, there is TRUTH — and then there is meta-truth, epistemology, how we know what we know.

    Adler does an adequate job of discussing the last, although I do not agree with all of his conclusions.

    One I do agree with: He thinks people are confusing uncertainty about scientific facts with proof that reality is indeterminate. He thinks that reality is determinate – that the world is real.

  • Geo

    Don’t confuse religion with faith, quite separate actually. I’ve always enjoyed reading Soren Keirkagard, he puts it all in perspective.

    I use a general rule in discerning whether a “church” is practicing faith or religion/churchianity; If they give you a program at the door, it’s religion

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Gosh, Geo, it’s nice to know that these things can be determined so simply. Funny, I don’t remember Kierkegaard writing anything about programs, though…

    😉

  • Robert Landbeck

    On the idea of religious truth, I quote from a discussion I have just come from:

    “A new scriptural synthesis and interpretation, [authorship unknown] entitled The Final Freedoms, which includes material from the OT/NT, Apocrypha, The Dead Sea Scrolls and The Nag Hammadi Library, to describe and teach the first wholly new Christian moral and spiritual paradigm for two thousand years is on the Net.”

    “And this is the first ever religious teaching, a gospel able to demonstrate by an act of faith, its own efficacy! That is to say, the first living and testable proof of the living God has been published and is circulating on the Web! However incredulous this may sound, if this teaching is confirmed, and there appear to be many who are attempting to do so, the implications defy the imagination!”

    The site where I found my copy of the manuscript [a 1.3mb pdf download] is at http://www.energon.uklinux.net

  • Tony Dalmyn

    Re that last comment which cites some of writings viewed favourably by modern self-styled Gnostics, and to the extent that it was remotely connected to the book, my review, or any comment thread: I think Dr. Adler was not any happier with Gnostic religion than with Eastern mystical religions. He was looking for truth and not especially happy with mystical insights.