Friday, November 24, 2006

Lies are the worst

George Will wrote a column about Pilgrims this week. In it he accepts the conclusions of an English author Godfrey Hodgson that there was no turkey at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. An article by an actual reporter was not as gullible, instead reviewing the back and forth of where such “debunking” came from.

Some look at the only two primary sources about this feast in 1621 and see plenty of evidence for turkeys. In his letter of December 11, 1621, Edward Winslow described hunting fowl for the feast. In his later memoir, Of Plimouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford writes of the great store of wild turkeys. Hodgson, among other “debunkers”, read the latter as not specifically linking turkeys to the feast with the Indians, while the former doesn’t say “turkey”, so of course, it can only mean ducks and geese.

On such wishful thinking people declare much about Thanksgiving to be a myth. Some put it absolutely that nothing but myth connects 1621 with modern celebrations of Thanksgiving. At the same time Texas nationalists proclaim the actual first Thanksgiving to have occurred in May, 1541 in the Texas panhandle, as Coronado found food along the way of his failure to find fortune in the Rocky Mountains and Plains. What a strange definition of “Thanksgiving” it takes to proclaim that.

People are that strange. I regularly write about the lies that fill politics, religion and life in general, so I have sympathy for debunking, yet so often debunking is just more lies, either out of carelessness or maliciousness. Those who proclaim loyalty only to the TRUTH are liable to launch into foolishness about how evolution is just an atheistic conspiracy or about whoever disagrees with them is wrong. It’s not about TRUTH. It’s about opinions dishonestly presented as reliable. It’s about lies.

I can’t prove absolutely that there was turkey at the first Thanksgiving any more than I can prove there is a God, but to dismiss everything over the years that points to either one as mere myth is certainly a lie. People want the truth to be what they want it to be, whether that’s no God or God being what one’s church says God is. Yet God is neither of those. God is whoever and whatever God is. So is history. So is reality. It’s a challenge for people to face that.

Hatred is not purely evil. Our anger can be protective. It can give us determination. Indifference is likewise not always evil. It might be best for something or someone to work out their problems without me sometimes. I don’t find a silver lining like that for lies. I want to say what I have to say without having to fit it to whatever lies have gone before. That’s one reason to embrace the truth. But I can’t embrace the truth by telling more lies, just substituting my lies for popular lies.

It’s so easy in science. Scientists tell lies all the time, even social scientists about Thanksgiving, but the way to undo that is clear. What is the claim? What is the data? How good is the data? Why conflict of interest might be skewing the process? It works. It doesn’t necessarily work at any one time by majority vote, but the lies will die off if the evidence shows the opposite.

I have great hope from my experience in science. It may not matter in the long run that people are such naturally born liars. For now, though, our culture is full of lies alongside what’s true. I don’t think anything is as oppressive as that.

Two things were obstacles to my becoming Christian in my twenties. One was that creationists said such silly things about science. The other was the problem of evil. Why does God allow all this hatred, indifference and falseness? I became convinced God isn’t responsible for any of that. He knows the truth of science. He didn’t create these evils of human nature. We choose them everyday. Some call that a lie, proof supposedly that there can be no concept of God that works.

It can be a subtle thing which is the lie and which is the truth. Encountering a God who always tells the truth makes that easier. The thing is I might have to admit my mistake in hearing God in a certain way. Words are ambiguous. Even concepts are. That makes liars of us all, as is our nature, but there is something bigger than that nature. That’s where so much of religion seems stuck now to me. People won’t give up their flawed ideas about God to reach for a better God, a real God. Atheists are dead set against that as a solution to their objections. Traditionalists deny any problem. Everyone lies about it. That’s where we are.

Thank God for biology that drives us forward as a species whether we know what we’re doing or not. Thank God for cultural evolution that comes up with things like the scientific method because they work. Someday we will be pulled out of the muck of our own nature. In the meantime we will lie left and right and for what? For our petty partisanships and for our egos. They will all die with us.

What lives is harder to see, but it is what God is made of.

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