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The new truth

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Post-modernity was open to any narrative, any ‘truth.’ If you wanted to say there were fairies at the bottom of your garden then that was ‘an interesting folk perspective worthy of narration’ (and worthy of a PhD or two exploring the polyvalence and intertextuality of this tradition). In fact post-modernism was suspicious of science because science was a power discourse like any other and, worse, was making objective truth claims (like revealed religion). The discourse of the fairy believers might well be a discourse of the oppressed, subverting the elite totalising scientific establishment and so well worth celebrating. Post-post-modernism, in contrast, has no time for fairies. It is in many ways a return to the modernist ideas of empiricism, naturalism and evolution over and against religious dogma. No more of this post-modern vagueness. We want hard truth again. And metanarrative is back. Post-modernism attacked any totalising, overarching story but now we have one again – evolution. On a funny little planet at the edge of one of billions of galaxies, life happened to emerge from non-living matter billions of years ago and has evolved into the complex life forms we see today. Everything is explicable within that framework. That’s the hard truth: can you handle it?

It seems that 9/11 was key to this shift to ‘hard truth.’ In the wake of that terrible day a group fiercely polemical atheist-materialist science and philosophy communicators rose to prominence, especially Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. “Before 9/11, many atheists kept a low profile. Something changed, though, after 9/11. They got loud” (John Blake, CNN). Richard Dawkins (an evolutionary biologist) had been arguing for the incompatibility of science and religion since The Selfish Gene (1976) but found it difficult to get a publisher for a full-frontal attack on religion until 2006 with The God Delusion, a book which manifested a step change both in terms of the ferocity of his anti-theistic language and in its penetration of popular culture (selling at least 3 million copies in English and being translated into 35 languages). Another of the New Atheists, A.C. Grayling, attributed the rise of the anti-religious genre directly to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001: “I think 9/11 has changed the nature of the debate tremendously” (The Guardian, 12/8/2007). Before 9/11 it was unacceptable to attack people’s religious beliefs; afterwards it was open season. Not everything is true. Not everyone is right. Some people are wrong.

Hitchens 9-11 quote

Admittedly, as Theo Hobson observes, the atheist’s anti-religious rhetoric has calmed down substantially since the very angry early months and years after 9/11, but the more mellow tone of the ‘new new atheists’ just shows that the movement has come of age and become mainstream, no longer fighting from the corner but the ‘obvious’ default position. Evolution is true. Climate change is true. The holocaust is fact. Fairies are not real. These are truisms that don’t need to be argued. ‘Faith groups’, as they are patronisingly labelled, are not necessarily complete monsters and can be given a small space in society as long as they just work at the soup kitchens and keep their mouths shut about fairies.

So hard truth is reborn. But what about ‘post-truth’? Aren’t we in an age of post-truth where no-one cares about whether something is actually true anymore? Clearly there is an aspect of that. But I would argue first that the very emergence of the word ‘post-truth’ (the O.E.D. word of 2016) shows that there is an accepted base concept of ‘truth.’ Under post-modernism, you cannot speak of post-truth or un-truth. There are just different truths, different discourses. Now, however, many people are very concerned about the accuracy of what they hear and read – witness the huge proliferation of ‘fact checking’ websites in the last couple of years.

But what is clear is that we are dealing with a particular sort of truth here.

  • For one thing, it is materialist (evolutionary) scientific truth. Anything beyond the physical and social world (i.e. ultimate questions, theology, spirit) is not the realm of truth or ‘reality.’ This was shown clearly in a recent court case (Feb. 2016 Bristol trial of Overd and Stockwell) where the crown prosecutor Ian Jackman said that statements about ‘the only God’ and Jesus being ‘the only way to God’ are “not a matter of truth” and “cannot be a truth.” Under post-modernism anything could be a truth but there was no absolute truth (so in fact the concept of truth became practically meaningless). Now there is truth but it is only that which can be scientifically proven to the satisfaction of the majority of the scientific community (and/or accepted by the majority of society).
  • Secondly, the concern of the post-post-modern is not so much for Truth in the modernist sense of an integrated, coherent understanding of reality, but rather for facts – that is discrete parcels of information. Admittedly there is the evolutionary metanarrative and some will attempt to integrate knowledge into this paradigm but in much popular discourse there is little attempt to integrate anything. Witness again the fact checking watch dogs – the concern is not so much to examine how Mr Trump’s statements (on immigration or transsexuals in the military or the border wall) mesh with other US government policies, fit within US constitution, law, historical trajectories or economic models. Rather the focus tends to be on checking whether the precise figures President Trump has given are accurate. This kind of fact checking, as a number of commentators have observed, rather misses the point that you can quite easily selectively provide genuinely accurate statistics to support a terrible policy while you can get your facts wrong here and there but still have a strong case.
  • This ask-Google-style atomisation makes ‘truth’ highly subject to manipulation by those who are have the power to present us with ‘the facts’ – whether media, scientists, politicians or search engines. But also, from the consumer side, there is a strong likelihood that we will seek out and find facts that confirm our preexisting understanding. So even if the Facebook algorithms were not serving me up with a particular diet of truth I would be well able, simply as a function of confirmation bias and the vastness of the twenty-first century internet, to find the facts to back up what I already know to be true.
  • Finally we should note the raised emotional temperature of this new truth age. Whereas the posture of post-modernism was generally playful or aloof, in post-post-modern discourse, whether it is the new atheism or immigration or identity politics, the debate is fiercely emotive. In many ways this is right and good and a natural consequence of the return of the category of truth. If things are genuinely true and false, if truth matters, if we are being lied to, then of course there is strong emotion there. The problem comes when emotion starts to replace truth itself. My feelings are the truth. I just shout louder or cry and that wins the argument. Hence the talk of ‘post-truth.’ We’ll think more about the privileging of emotion in the next post.

From a Christian point of view, on the one hand the post-post-modern return of Truth is a very welcome development. Christianity is founded on hard truth, True Truth, historical and metaphysical fact. This is the terrain on which we want to debate and engage. Christianity is well able to handle interrogation and analysis while false beliefs should be exposed as untrue.

But on the other hand the new truth is a selective, partial sort of materialist truth highly antagonistic towards a personal creator. It is truth as factoids, truth as I find it, emotive truth and truth with strong presuppositions which axiomatically disavows the possibility of non-material reality or a broader concept of truth – the legal-historical-witness truth demonstrated in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; Acts 26:26; 2 Pet. 1:16), truth from outside which convicts us of ignorance and wrong.

But the words of Mark Meynell are very encouraging:

“We can seek consolation… that we follow not a philosophy but a person who is truth personified. And when people encounter him (as opposed to it), there is magnetism… he draws us in and welcomes us, even in our weakest and darkest states… Worldly power executed Truth… But death could not hold him. Truth personified is also the resurrection and the life. Which means, in eternal terms, there can never ultimately be a time that is post-Truth.” (EN, April 2017)

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