A very healthy exchange between Bill Keller of the New York Times and Glenn Greenwald.
I would encourage you to read the whole thing.
The quote which forms the title of this post appears about 2/3 of the way through the lengthy piece. It is uttered, of course, by Keller. This mindset is what it takes to be considered “mainstream”: truth is fiction. There is no such thing.
We here at Lawyers on Strike just reviewed this whole idea a few days ago. The context was different – the legal profession and the academy – but the idea is exactly the same. Is anything really true?
There is an approach to reality that is so ancient and sensible that until quite recently (in historical terms that is, probably about the middle of the 19th century) it was taken for granted: we might not ever find out the whole truth about something, but then again we might. In any case, we get as close as we can.
This is compatible, of course, with a traditional Christian outlook on the world, but it is not incompatible with an agnostic, or atheist world view either. Indeed this idea pre-dates Christianity in the west. The Christian would simply say that the truth is there, that God knows it, and indeed God is its author and source, however close we come to it or however far we fall short. The sensible atheist, if that is not an oxymoron, would agree that reason and science and so on are in the truth finding business and get there sometimes, and would not lapse into a facile “nothing is really true” dogma. At least not necessarily.
But I guess atheism has always had that implication, kind of a corollary: if there is no God there is no truth either. Yet most atheists recognize that there has to be truth, and truths, and do not follow the line of reasoning out to its natural end because the results are observably absurd.
At least, most atheists don’t do that explicitly. But it’s like an intellectual instinct for an atheist to recoil somewhat at anyone or anything that purports to know or to have “the truth” about anything. So in our accomodation of this creed or that creed or no creed, we first tolerated, and then embraced, this institutional diffidence over whether anything can really be true.
What’s kind of funny about the exchange between Keller and Greenwald is that they both agree and disagree on this very point. But the main difference is that Keller, being “mainstream”, is dogmatic about it whereas Greenwald is really only paying lip service to the thought, and is otherwise more or less crusading for a recognition that some things are just true and others are just false, and faulting journalists for running away from that fundamental reality.
Here’s the problem: once you acknowledge truth as a real thing, you’re uncomfortably close to acknowledging God as a real thing. I happen to believe you can spend your life reasonably well doing one and not the other – not that I recommend that – but there are a lot of atheists who, although they might profess to agree with me, are not very confident about it.
So they squirm at the idea of ‘truth’. Which is really too bad, because to renounce the obligation to adhere to what is true results in incoherence, necessarily, and that is exactly where Mr. Keller is. Few people – even atheists – will explicitly renounce the obligation to find and adhere to the truth. Greenwald doesn’t, and I think he wouldn’t if he was pressed.
But I think Keller would, because if he didn’t he wouldn’t be ‘mainstream’ anymore.
It’s a curious thing that the self-described mainstream prefers a fundamental intellectual incoherence to acknowledging the obvious, simply because the latter would be insufficiently hostile to religion. It makes them functionally atheist.
And dogmatically atheist. As rigidly dogmatic as anything the Christian religion has ever been accused of.