Why Preach Truth in a Post-Truth World? image

Why Preach Truth in a Post-Truth World?

It’s official. We are now living in a post-truth society. The Oxford Dictionary has selected ‘post-truth’ as its word of the year. The concept, it says, has been around for a decade, “but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.”

Its definition should ring some bells with those of you who read The Righteous Mind after Andrew and Matt’s recommendations: post-truth is “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’” (emphasis added).

If you’re not picturing an elephant1 galloping through the undergrowth with its rider clinging on for dear life, and rationalising away why he really wanted to be going that way anyway, you need to read the book. Suffice it to say that Haidt comprehensively demonstrates how our moral decision making is influenced almost entirely by our emotional (and physical – the stuff about hand-washing is mind-blowing) intuitive responses, and our reasoning is almost entirely post hoc rationalisation of why we believe and act the way we do. In effect, we don’t make up our minds, we follow our hearts.

We find facts less convincing, less compelling, than honesty.

That’s a controversial statement, and there’s still a large part of me that isn’t sure if I believe it – yet its evidence is all around me.

It is the key to understanding how a compulsive and comprehensive liar won the US election.

Back in September, Dara Lind wrote an article for Vox entitled, ‘Donald Trump lies. All the time. And a stunning number of people don’t seem to care.’ In the article she said:

Even though fact-checkers deploy their forces on Trump regularly, he never apologizes or retracts. Calling out his lies doesn’t make his supporters any less loyal to him. A substantial number of Americans still find him more “honest and trustworthy” than Hillary Clinton…

Donald Trump lies. It’s what he does.

His nonchalant dishonesty is horrifying. The fact that much of the American public simply doesn’t appear to care about his dishonesty — or that they don’t consider it a deal breaker for a potential president of the United States to tell several lies even on his most honest days — is more so.

His supporters may not believe everything he says — in fact, they often say they don’t even think he believes everything he says. They assume that he’s not going to do all the things he promises; the assumption that Trump is a liar is priced into their support of him. The literal things he says matter less to them as facts than as signals that he’s on their side.

Or as Alastair Roberts put it (in an article Andrew has already quoted other bits from):

Trump has his supporters’ trust because truth is a great deal more than factual accuracy; Trump is ‘true’ in a way that Clinton and other politicians don’t seem to be. Trump’s unreservedness, plain-spokenness, and preparedness to say politically incorrect things mark him out from the slipperiness most people have come to expect from politicians. Trump’s willingness to speak his mind—with all of its inconsistency, reactivity, dangerous impulsivity, and confusion—is a dimension of truthfulness that can be intoxicating to people accustomed to the rigorous self-censorship, spin and polish, and artful evasion of regular politicians. His preparedness to spark outrage and damage his reputation among the rich and powerful in going against political correctness can serve as an effective signal of his commitment to telling it as it is. People will forgive a great deal of inaccuracy when they think that you are being open and candid with them, unfeigned in your sentiments, and not purposefully trying to deceive or withhold your true opinion from them.

Just let that sink in.

“They assume that he’s not going to do all the things he promises.”

“The literal things he says matter less to them as facts than as signals that he’s on their side.”

“Truth is a great deal more than factual accuracy.”

“People will forgive a great deal of inaccuracy when they think that you are being open and candid with them.”

I think America is a little further down this road than the UK. It would be fascinating to hold the Brexit referendum again, however, to test that theory. My perception is that many people who voted ‘leave’ felt betrayed when it became clear immediately after the vote that promises such as £350m-per-week extra funding for the NHS would not be kept (and had never had any factual basis anyway), that we wouldn’t immediately be kicking out all immigrants, and that the economy would not ‘thrive’ – at least in the foreseeable future. But I may well be wrong. It may be that the people who voted to leave based on those promises (and I know that doesn’t account for all Brexiters) never really believed them either, and care more about the emotional reasons for leaving the EU than the economic ones anyway.

But fascinating though all this is, what does it mean for Christianity?

Last night my church held an evangelistic event in which the leader, Andrew Haslam, gave a short talk entitled ‘Can you ever be sure about God?’ then answered questions about it.

We had polled our friends to find out their big questions about God and the Christian faith and this was one of the most common. How can Christians be so sure they’ve found the truth? Is there even any such thing?

In a post-truth world, is there even any value in holding such events?

I think there is, and here’s why:

Firstly, people still enjoy debating and discussing ideas - the room was packed on a wet Wednesday evening when many people had lots of reasons to be anywhere else, and I know of at least two weekly philosophical discussion groups held within a fifteen minute walk from my house. Although the way ‘discussions’ are conducted online (and in Presidential debates) is aimed more at closing down discussion and vilifying the other, if we can model good discussion, good disagreement, we demonstrate the truth of God by showing that we are not personally threatened by opposing viewpoints. Our security in God and his love for us is as compelling a truth as any facts we can list ‘proving’ his existence.

Secondly, we believe that there is a truth and that it – that He – can be known. Declaring truth in a post-truth society may seem fruitless, but it is our mandate. We’ve never been called to do what is popular, to go along with the crowd, to adopt the world’s perspective on life. Events like these, and blogs like these, and sermons filled with the Bible are tentpegs, pinning down the canvas of truth against the winds of change that seek constantly to sweep it away.

And thirdly, although people will only come to Christ through a move of His Spirit opening their eyes and drawing them to him, and although most often that will happen in the context of their relationships with honest, open, struggling, non-hypocritical Christians – although they will follow their hearts – we are all called to be able to give a reason for the hope we profess. The heart will make the decision, but if it isn’t backed up with facts, people will make up their own rationalisations and reasons why they decided to follow, and when the storms come, those reasons won’t be sufficient to keep them dry, let alone give them shelter.

I don’t know how long the post-truth world will last. It doesn’t seem as though it would be sustainable for long, but equally I’m not sure how truth can be reclaimed for those to whom it seems so utterly irrelevant. In terms of our evangelism, though, it seems that nothing has really changed – after all, Pascal knew 350-odd years ago that people were persuaded by their hearts before their minds. His advice still rings true today: “make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.

Plus ça change…


    1. All associations with the Republican Party symbol are, as far as I understand it, entirely coincidental.

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