Invited talk on the Fourth Principle of Unitarianism: “A free and responsible Search for meaning and Truth” from a secular perspective

I have to confess that this is the first time I have been to a Unitarian Fellowship meeting, and in fact the first time for many years I have been to a religious service of any kind. In 1947 my mother sent me to Church of England Sunday School, just to get me out of the house. I lasted about two weeks. So I hope you will be tolerant if I say the wrong thing and put it down to ignorance.

I was asked to speak on one of the seven principles. They are all excellent principles, all calculated to create a better world, but not exactly easy to put into practice. The only one I felt qualified to speak about was number four, because it specifies the search for truth and meaning, and not the actual discovery of those things which is a question way above my head. A search or a quest, like the quest for the Holy Grail, is one of the basic human stories. We are seekers by nature, and the most satisfying quest is the one that never quite ends. We don’t want it neatly packaged up like the last scene of an Indiana Jones movie, or even the Wizard of Oz. The search for truth and meaning can keep us going for a lifetime.

There is a labyrinth here, right in this room. A labyrinth is the perfect metaphor of the search for truth and meaning. Whenever you think you are going in the right direction you find you are going in the wrong direction. But if you keep following the path, you get there. That’s what we hope.

Meaning and truth are not my usual territory. There are three thousand years of philosophy behind those two words, and I’m no philosopher. Just to get up to date I asked a friend who is a philosopher how the search for truth and meaning was going, and he said “Nothing yet.” He pointed out that they are in a way two quite different questions: we can know the truth without knowing what it means and vice versa. But the professional philosophers have not got to the bottom of either one. More research is needed.

The question of meaning is the great, overarching question that covers everything: it’s the question that stays with us all the time. Recently I read a little book by Terry Eagleton simply called The Meaning of Life, in which he concluded, rather disappointingly, that the meaning of life is its profound meaninglessness, which he argued we can enjoy for its own sake the way we enjoy any other mystery. You can see that, on the grand scale, he has a point. The other night I was looking at an astronomy program on public TV and it had marvelous pictures from space of millions upon millions of stars from the Kepler telescope. And I sat and looked at all that and thought “What’s going on, what is all this?” and came up with not the faintest shadow of an answer. Our minds may just not be equipped to deal with these vast questions, like what is the origin of the universe, will there ever be term limits on congress, what’s the point of cats? Your guess is as good as mine.

So I will leave meaning as a wide-open question and stick to of truth and how we search for it, because that alone is hard enough on a Sunday morning. Truth is a lifetime project by itself. As we all know it comes in two varieties, as already mentioned in the opening words. 1. Truths we can be sure of as facts, through logic or scientific evidence (the laws of thermodynamics, the value of Pi to the 1,000th decimal) and 2. Truths that can’t be proved but that we believe in for one reason or another. I’ll focus on the second type, although even the first type of truth is problematic to some philosophers.

I was taught to tell the truth, it was the major moral rule in our family. What was not true was a lie, and lies were definitely against the rules. But I noticed at a young age that adults lie a lot, especially to children. I was told that spinach would taste great, that the cat wouldn’t scratch, that the doctor’s needle wouldn’t hurt, and that we would all be safe. Given that this was in London during the war and bombs were dropping all around us every night, this last was a real whopper. Then when I was older I noticed it wasn’t just children who got lied to. We are hammered by millions of advertisements that are indistinguishable from lies, telephone scams of every conceivable kind, and a deluge of trickery and criminality on the Internet. We are the daily target of credit card scams, time-share scams, tax scams, identity theft scams: you imagine it, and somebody else thought of it already, and tried it on you.

If we hope for truth our optimism takes a beating right across the board, from the bottom all the way to the top. For much of my life I assumed that scientific research must be impeccably honest, and that bankers were sober and trustworthy people. I believed implicitly that school grades, athletic performances, medications and company accounts were more or less what they appeared to be. Not anymore. TV programs like House of Cards and movies like the Wolf of Wall Street say “This is how it really is, these are your leaders, get used to it.” Only Pollyanna herself could fail to get the message. Deception is an industry and a way of life and has been ever since Odysseus and Machiavelli.

Most of the time we tolerate obvious lies, because we have learned to discount them, and even enjoy them as a sort of entertainment. Airline employees look us straight in the eye and tell us that the plane will be here in half an hour, when they know and we know that it is grounded in Calcutta for the foreseeable future. Doctors say, “You’re doing very well for your age,” although usually they avoid eye contact when they say it – something to do with the Hippocratic Oath I suppose. And every four years we have an election. I think it’s fair to say, to misquote Winston Churchill, that never have so many lies been told by so many to so many, and been so little believed.

Why all the deceit? Because it is so easy, and so useful. A lot of it is self-serving, like political and commercial lies. Other deceptions are self-protective, the lies we tell to our employers, our nearest and dearest, and ourselves. In all these cases the “truth” is simply the thing that we are trying to cover up, as for example in the airline ad that says “You will LOVE our service” when the correct word would be LOATHE, or whenever a politician says “The fact is that…” and goes on to deliver a total fantasy.

A lot of small lies are useful and practical. They smooth the rough edges of daily life, and help to reduce conflict. In past ages the elaborate forms of politeness served the same purpose. Even now when officials in France write to you they end the letter with an elaborate flourish and compliments and assurances of their undying dedication to your service. Do they mean any of this? No.

Even in terms of the truths we tell ourselves, we all have a built-in internal censor or truth-adjuster that makes life easier. We pass through stages of truth depending on circumstances. Some people switch from democrat to republican, or from catholic to protestant, believing sincerely all the time. Truth is a moveable feast, and it tends to keep moving. Or, as Krishnamurti expressed it, “Truth is a liquid, not a solid.”

There are plenty of statements about the nature of reality that are honestly believed but simply wrong. The Kastom people on the island of Tanna the South Pacific believe that the queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, is a god. Is this a lie? Obviously not, it is an honest mistake, probably (I have no idea). So mistakes are not lies, but they are not truths either.

I am not a paragon of truth, but I am a very bad liar and I am somewhat fascinated byall these lies, how people get away with them, and what effect they have on us. I’ve often thought of writing a book about lies. (That’s not true actually). So I became first a journalist (which was educational because we invented more lies) and them a sociologist where I spent twenty-five years researching issues of belief and ideology in different cultures. So my personal search for truth was really a search for the ways in which other people search for truth, what they find, and how they change as a result.

What I found or think I found (because I can’t be sure it is true) was the absolutely obvious. Sociologists specialize in discovering the obvious. Outside of science and mathematics our ideas of truth, however strongly held, are extremely personal, fragile, and variable. They blow like dust in the wind.

This seems to be heading towards absolute relativism: that there is no truth or, as Pontius Pilate implied that the truth is whatever you want it to be. But I don’t want to go there. I think we can distinguish as people have always done between small, inconsequential lies like the answer to: did you eat the last slice of the pizza? And important truths, Truth with a capital T – that do or may have consequences for others like the prospectus for a Ponzi scheme. It’s almost a question of vocabulary – we need a new word, or several new words, for half-truths, quarter truths, and so on.

Comedian Steve Colbert coined the word “truthiness” in 2005. This is a great example of a word we really needed, and it is now in the dictionary. Truthiness means claiming something is true because it just feels right, without any reference to logic or evidence. There’s a lot of truthiness about, masquerading as truth. A serious example is what happened on 9/11. Where did the terrorists some from? Answer: Saudi Arabia. Who don’t we like in the Middle East? Answer: Iraq? So it must be all the fault of Iraq. And perhaps the search for truth is really a search for these false truths, so that they can be exposed.

The good news is that this happens: in America, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and a few other places writers can write whatever they like without fear, and this is a very big thing indeed. It’s right there in the constitution, first amendment. That’s something to be thankful for. Censorship is growing all around the world, journalists and film makers, bloggers, and even cartoonists are being imprisoned and even killed every day. But we here can freely search for truth and write and teach what we like. Just as religious groups can believe and preach what they like and political groups can promote any ideology they like. We have complete freedom…almost.

When I say “almost” I’m thinking about the built-in reflex of writers and editors to avoid controversial and dangerous topics. I have written for various British papers and weekly magazines, and for US papers including the Atlanta Journal, NY Times, and in recent years for Public Radio. These are all very open and accepting media, but they all have their rules. Often the rules have to do with not offending certain groups that might give legal trouble or be dangerous – the Scientologists are an obvious case. We won’t even mention radical Islamists. Newspapers in Italy say very little about the Mafia, except to point out that it doesn’t exist. Often the unspoken rules about what not to say or write have to do with not offending powerful advertisers or sponsors – this is certainly the case with public radio. So there’s something insidious that goes on during the search for truth, something that comes from the inside rather than the outside, and from the culture rather than from the government – automatic self-censorship.

(I should say that there are areas of the media where literally anything goes – the internet for example, and late night shows of minor radio and TV channels – but mainstream media, naturally enough, have their inhibitions)

I’ve found as a writer and as a teacher in the mainstream that some truths have to be pursued carefully, in case you find them, like an old beagle I used to have that loved to chase rabbits but made sure never to catch them because the consequences might be unpleasant. In teaching or writing there are invisible lines around certain kinds of truth, and crossing them brings complaints to the editor or the Dean.

Every nation and culture has its own taboos, its own “Third Rails” that may be dangerous to touch. In Britain it would be the Royal family, for example. America has at least three such third rails: religion (in which I include sports), race, and patriotism. So writers and journalists make self-censorship decisions all the time, sometimes in every sentence – as do teachers faced with multi-cultural classes. Religion is a particular problem for writers. The United States is far more religious than any other developed country, with more churches, more churchgoers, and more people who say they believe in God (although fewer every year). Most Europeans are atheists by comparison, but America still has Christian fundamentalists who wouldn’t feel out of place at a fourteenth century witch burning, provided that the witch was a registered Democrat. This is minefield, especially when religious wars (also more appropriate to the fourteenth century) seem to be the new fashion.

When it comes to self-censorship, in Pogo’s immortal words, we have met the enemy and s/he is us. A solitary writer is so very isolated. All kinds of risks have to be considered – including the risk of alienating a friendly editor, and the risk of impossibly expensive lawsuits. Every writer, like every college teacher, now works on a knife-edge. A few words out of place will have the lawyers knocking on your door – and I could give you some true examples, but it wouldn’t be wise. Millions of groups and individuals are out there, poised on the edge of their chairs, just waiting to be offended. The brave thing would be to say: if they are offended by truth, then let them be offended. But the instinct is: Better to be safe than sorry.

But there is a new generation of young writers, journalists and film makers, many of them women, who are more adventurous about getting to the truth (the WikiLeaks episode is a good example). Things are really changing, especially on religion and race. Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins can publish their books, and become best sellers, appear on TV and so on. We can say what we like about Christianity, but not necessarily about other religions. Last week British TV viewers were watching a multi-racial television discussion called “Things We Won’t Say about Race That Are True.” It was highly controversial, but it was broadcast. So we can tell the truth, up to a point. There are just some disturbing signs.

We’ve seen a tendency lately for universities and colleges, which are surely the flag bearers of the search for truth, to “disinvite” certain speakers because some students don’t agree with their views. You have probably read the recent debate about protecting college students from unwelcome truths, creating “safe spaces” where they can hide from viewpoints or debates they find upsetting. That is the opposite of the Fourth Principle (“I don’t want to know”) and it is a sad development.

There have also been a lot of stories lately about a push back against science and scientific knowledge in education, and even against historical facts. Some states have tried to censor school books that deal with global warming or evolution. Last week there was a story that Oklahoma is trying to revise school history books to play down the fate of Native Americans in the westward expansion.

Every era produces radical conservative who want to turn the clock back – some as far as the 10th century – but it’s a fairly new thing in the west. This is where the search for truth becomes more the defense of truth, and True Believers can be scary, because they are not thinking at all. It’s easier to write about cats or fashion or health problems or family stories. Challenging and controversial material goes into the pending file.

In many places speaking truth takes great courage – if you are a journalist now in Egypt say, or Burma, or Russia, or Venezuela, the search for truth may be bad for your health. So I say again that we are very fortunate to have the freedom we have, and we need to guard it very carefully, and just keep going around that labyrinth, being curious, asking difficult questions, hoping it will lead us somewhere.

There’s much more to say, but that’s a good place to stop, so I’ll stop.

Given at Stony Brook, New York, April 12, 2015.