In 2011 my wife and I found out we were having twin boys. I was excited to become a father, but there was one thing that troubled me. My relationship with my own parents had been strained by my rejection of their Catholic faith. Whenever I attempted to raise questions or criticisms they were promptly shut down, usually angrily. We eventually reached an uneasy truce by tacitly agreeing not to talk about it anymore. Still, that silence created a distance between us that nothing else could fill, and I worried about whether a similar distance would eventually grow between me and my own sons.
I had been an avid NPR listener for years, and one of my favorite segments was called “This I Believe,” when someone, usually a celebrity, was invited on air to talk about some conviction they held and why they held it. What if I wrote a kind of “This I Believe” essay for my sons, I thought, where I explain just what I feel about religion, and how I got there. They don’t have to have the same beliefs as me, but at least they wouldn’t resent my refusal to engage on the topic at all.
So I started gathering up all the books that had influenced my thinking about religion over the years, from classics like William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience and Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, to more contemporary works by evolutionary psychologists like Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. I avoided polemicists like Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens. My goal wasn’t to make religious belief look stupid, but to show why humans find the supernatural so, well, natural.
Eventually, my bibliography stretched to more than two dozens sources, though I would pare that back as my essay — initially titled “Why I am an Atheist” began to grow and I realized that I had to give it more focus at the expense of cutting some things. After months of researching and writing, I had a thirty page essay with a new title — “Made in Our Image” — that I felt better reflected my central thesis: that we created the supernatural out of our own cognitive heuristics and biases, and that by embedding our creations in stories or myths, we provided them vehicles to transmit themselves across time and space.
But as I said, the process of writing “Made in Our Image” got me reading books and articles on a whole range of topics only tangentially related to religion or the supernatural. I read books on morality to address questions about its relationship with religion, and whether it was possible to be “good without God.” I became interested in the experience of aesthetic pleasure, where it comes from, and how certain religious practices tap into it. And as much as it fascinated me, I despaired of tackling a subject like free will, though it remains a central topic in Christian theology.
In other words, I began to realize that in my notes I had the makings of further essays, should I ever wish to write them. One thing at a time, I said to myself. At that point I had done the most research on the topic of our moral instincts, so I decided to recast my notes into an outline for a new essay. But the topic of morality is so broad, I fretted over finding a hook to engage my readers. I found it with the topic of abortion. Having been raised Catholic, in a family that was active in the anti-abortion movement, I was well-versed in its arguments, and in their philosophical roots stretching back through Aquinas, Augustine, and Plato. But I had also undergone a change of heart on the issue in my early twenties, and now felt that there were some irremediable flaws in the pro-life case.
I began to write “Why I am Pro-Choice” sometime in 2012, but again, after a few months, the process of writing had focused my mind on my central thesis, and I changed the title to reflect the real subject of the essay. The result was “Personhood and the Scope of Moral Duty,” another roughly thirty-page essay that brought together insights from moral philosophy, evolutionary psychology, and the philosophy of language. You can read a short summary of my argument here, though.
After that, I began to feel like a poker player who’s pot-committed. I had all these ideas on all these other topics, certainly enough to fill a book, and if I didn’t write them it would be like I was leaving the first two essays stranded, a couple of intellectual orphans in need of a larger work to give them meaning and context. So I started writing, and three years later I self-published Truth Evolves using Amazon’s Digital Marketplace (paperback and Kindle versions).
The finished work is divided into two sections. Part One covers epistemology, or how we know what we know, and has chapters devoted to science, art, and religion. “Made in Our Image” was the first essay I wrote, but it ended up being the third and final essay of Part One, since I ultimately felt it flowed better logically to begin with basic cognition, symbolic thinking, and aesthetic experience before I could get into the construction of supernatural concepts and the myths they are embedded in.
Part Two covers ethics, or how we should live, with chapters on morality, politics, and free will. Here I led off with “Personhood and the Scope of Moral Duty,” as the in-depth discussions of our moral instincts in that essay are a necessary foundation for understanding the ideas in the essays that followed it.
Now I could write an entire essay on Medium about the process of self-publishing a book; editing, cover design, marketing, etc. But in this essay I wanted to simply introduce the book, to give you a feel for what you would be in for if you choose to read it (which I really hope you do).
The central idea that runs through every chapter of Truth Evolves is the concept of corrigibility, or the capacity for self-correction. The subtitle of this essay is “A Hopeful Philosophy for a Disillusioned Age,” because my takeaway from Truth Evolves was that we don’t have to give in to the cynicism that feeds a culture of conspiracy and a politics of division. We don’t have to choose between dogmatism on the one hand, or relativism on the other. By imbuing our communities and our institutions with the value of corrigibility, we can make concrete progress while keeping our minds open to new discoveries.
The philosopher of mathematics Imre Lakatos once said a mathematician never proves what he sets out to prove. The process of postulating and refuting ideas alters our preconceptions until we find ourselves working with a whole new catalog of concepts. I began the journey of writing Truth Evolves in order to explain my atheism, but in the process I discovered a new kind of faith. I don’t believe that Truth can ever be grasped in any complete and final sense, and yet I cannot do without it as the lodestar of all my intellectual strivings. It rests somewhere out there, like a kind of metaphysical asymptote.
Like the Christian’s relationship with God, I have to believe in values like Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, even if I can’t prove they refer to anything outside my own head. But in discovering this new conception of faith, I found my atheism transformed into a kind of ethical humanism. I was disillusioned of the supernatural, sure, but I had become all the more committed to transcendent values, and to taking action to bring those values into the world.