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Supposing Truth Is Ugly -- What Then?

The debate between orthodox religion and atheism goes on and on and on.

In observing the argument, what strikes me more and more is not the deep divide separating the believers from the unbelievers -- not their radically incompatible views of truth -- but rather what they both share. Each side in the clash between reason and revelation follows Plato's Socrates in assuming that truth is good for human beings, and also that it is in some sense beautiful. Philosophers nearly always believe this, and so do modern scientists. And despite their very different views about the content of truth, devout religious believers assume it as well, since God's "truth will set you free" (John 8:32). And of course much of what motivates the "new" atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens) is their passionate conviction that human beings (at the level of the individual, society, and even the species) would benefit enormously if they accepted the beautiful truth of godlessness. 

What we need to liven up our theological debates is not another unambiguous champion of faith or doubt.  It is someone to take up a more complicated view of truth's relationship to goodness and beauty. Someone like Beckett. Or the O'Neill of The Iceman Cometh. Or -- to go to the source of the anti-Platonic tradition -- Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously declared, "For a philosopher to say ‘the good and the beautiful are one’ is infamy; if he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly.”

It was his conviction about the ugliness of truth that led Nietzsche to his stunningly original and fundamentally tragic position on the issue of atheism, which he summarized in a single, explosive sentence of the Genealogy of Morals:

Unconditional honest atheism . . . is the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.

In sum: Atheism is true. But it is an awe-inspiring catastrophe. Belief in God is a lie. But it's a lie that greatly benefits human beings.

Chew on that one, all you cheery apologists for the unalloyed goodness and beauty of truth.