On Being Okay with the Truth

On January 11, 2007, I timidly whispered to myself: “There is no God.”

And with that, all my Christian dreams and hopes and purposes and moral systems came crashing down.

I wrote a defiant email to the host of an atheist radio show I’d been listening to:

I was coming from a lifetime high of surrendering… my life to Jesus, releasing myself from all cares and worries, and filling myself and others with love. Then I began an investigation of the historical Jesus… and since then I’ve been absolutely miserable. I do not think I am strong enough to be an atheist. Or brave enough. I have a broken leg, and my life is much better with a crutch… I’m going to seek genuine experience with God, to commune with God, and to reinforce my faith. I am going to avoid solid atheist arguments, because they are too compelling and cause for despair. I do not WANT to live in an empty, cold, ultimately purposeless universe in which I am worthless and inherently alone.

I was not okay with the truth. I had been taught that meaning and morality and hope depended on God. If God didn’t exist, then life was meaningless.

My tongue felt like cardboard for a week.

But when I pulled my head out of the sand, I noticed that millions of people were living lives of incredible meaning and morality and hope without gods. The only thing I had ‘lost’ was a lie, anyway.

This crisis taught me a lesson: that I could be okay with the truth.

When I realized that I am not an Unmoved Mover of my own actions, I was not much disturbed. I realized that ‘moral responsibility’ still mattered, because people still had reasons to condemn, praise, punish, and reward certain actions in others. And I realized that I could still deliberate about which actions were likely to achieve my goals, and that this deliberation would affect my actions. Apples didn’t stop falling from trees when Einstein’s equations replaced Newton’s, and humans didn’t stop making conscious choices that have consequences when we discovered that we are fully part of nature.

I didn’t freak out when I gave up moral absolutism, either. I had learned to be okay with the truth. Whatever is meant by ‘morality’, it remains the case that agents have reasons to praise and condemn certain desires and actions in other agents, and that there are more reasons to praise and condemn some actions than others.

I’ve gone through massive reversals in my metaethics twice now, and guess what? At no time did I spontaneously acquire the urge to rape people. At no time did I stop caring about the impoverished. At no time did I want to steal from the elderly. At no time did people stop having reasons to praise or condemn certain desires and actions of mine, and at no time did I stop having reasons to praise or condemn the desires and actions of others.

We humans have a tendency to ‘freak out’ when our model of the world changes drastically. But we get over it.

The love a mother has for her child does not disappear when we explain the brain processes that instantiate that love. Explaining something is not explaining it away. Showing that love and happiness and moral properties are made of atoms does not mean they are just atoms. They are also love and happiness and moral properties. Water was still water after we discovered which particular atoms it was made of.

When you understand this, you need not feel the threat of nihilism as science marches on. Instead, you can jump with excitement as science locates everything we care about in the natural world and tells us how it works. Along the way, you can take joy in the merely real.

Whenever you ‘lose’ something as a result of getting closer to the truth, you’ve only lost a lie. You can face reality, even the truth about morality.

People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

- Eugene Gendlin