The Relationship Between Religion and Truth

By Levi Brackman, 02-05-2016.

Many of my beliefs (as distinguished from things there is evidence for and therefore have knowledge of) have been influenced not just by intellectual arguments but in a large part also by exceptional teachers. Indeed, beliefs, by definition, cannot be verified with certainty by empirical evidence. Could it be that I have been deceived by charismatic teachers? Could the beliefs that have been inculcated in me since my youth be fantastical?

The question is a frightening one, because it turns the very things that most convince us into a reason for doubt. When we find a teacher inspiring and compelling, when we are enthused by people who seem spiritual and pious, how can we be sure that they are not just megalomaniac, demagogic charlatans who are playing on our vulnerability for their own selfish gain? Is there a way of ensuring that we do not become conned into accepting religious beliefs that are in fact false?

A fascinating insight by Judaism’s great codifier and philosopher, Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1138-1204), sheds light on this dilemma. After Adam, the primordial man, sinned, the Torah tells us that he was now able to differentiate between good and evil (Genesis 3:5). Maimonides asks a fundamental question: is it not absurd that after having sinned, Adam was rewarded with the power of differentiation? In answer, Maimonides makes a profound distinction: he explains that before the sin, by virtue of his intellect alone, without any experimental evidence, Adam was able to distinguish between eminently true facts and those that were false. After the sin, Adam lost this ability and was now capable of differentiating only between the morally good and the morally corrupt. This is why Adam and Eve now felt naked -- the innate immorality of being naked in public was now apparent to them, something to which they had been given immunity by their previous higher intellectual perception (Guide for the Perplexed 1:2).

This is now human nature: without empirical evidence it is impossible to discern truth from fiction. We can, however, differentiate between the morally good and the morally corrupt. This is a powerful barometer. We can easily detect moral corruption and be sure that it brings falsehood in its wake. Interestingly, in the Bible there is no prohibition against lying. Instead it says, “Keep away from falsehood” (Exodus 23:7). The reason for this seems clear: without empirical knowledge we cannot completely avoid falsehood, but by avoiding morally corrupt people we can "keep away" from it.

Unfortunately, history is littered with people who have hijacked holy teachings for their own mendacious gain. Since their teachings are based on the books of sublimity, the teachings themselves can be inspiring. However, one can be sure that eventually their inner sordidness will lead them to corrupt the teachings as well. The teachers that made the most powerful impression on me, the teachers who earned my trust and devotion, were those who not only were sincere but also lived in accordance with the teachings they preached and fled from any type of moral corruption as from the plague. In matters of faith, this is the best indicator of truth I am ever going to get in this lifetime. For now, this is good enough for me.