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Does truth matter?

Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence
United States government, public domain

A common reason given by atheists for rejecting religion is that they do not accept the claim that “there is a God.” If that claim is not true, their argument goes, we should argue against religion. The idea seems to be that if a fundamental truth claim on which an ideology or world view is based is false, the entire ideology or world view must be rejected. In fact, many of them argue that they have an obligation to reject it in its entirety, and to argue against it because they do not accept the truth claim.

It seems reasonable to ask, “Is that good policy”? Should we argue against an ideology which is based on a foundation that seems not to be true? Or should it be evaluated (at least in part) on some other basis?

Let’s take an example:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

American readers, at least, will probably recognize this sentence, and generally agree with it. Most would take it as a good foundation for the best parts of the political ideology on which America was founded.

But is it true? It contains at least the following truth claims:

1. Mankind has a Creator.
2. That Creator endowed mankind with certain rights.
3. Those rights are inalienable (universal).

For believers in a God who takes personal charge of the affairs of men, who gives us universal and eternal values, it is perfectly possible to agree that all three of those truth claims are true. But to many other people, some or all of them are thought not to be true. If you do not believe in God, believe in a deist God, believe in a god who has granted rights to some people differently than to others, or that rights are subject to change, you can easily conclude that some or all of those truth claims are false.

Does that mean that the political ideology based on those claims should be rejected and argued against because they are not “true”?

Perhaps. Certainly there will be those who disagree with the claimed rights for reasons other than a disbelief in a Creator. They may take them to be statements of cultural values, and to not be universally assented to in all cultures, for instance.

But it seems not at all clear that atheists or moral-relativist Americans should reject the political ideology based on those claimed rights simply because the foundational claim is false. The ideology, it seems, is either good or bad, useful or not, independent of whether or not rights were actually bestowed by God.

And in fact we see relatively few American atheists who routinely argue against the Declaration because of their belief that the foundational claims are false. Rather, they tend to ignore that inconvenient fact and judge the ideology on its own merits, not based on whether or not God was its source.

That is, a thing is good or it is bad because it is good or bad, not because of where it may or may not have come from.

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