One of my favorite activities on campus is Philosophy for Lunch. The chair of the philosophy department invites up a bunch of students every week to read a passage of a philosophical text and discuss it. We get pizza, we get philosophy, we get to scratch our brains, everyone’s happy. It’s really casual and fun because I never feel like the participants are trying to puff themselves up. Everyone’s genuinely excited to engage with the material and discuss how it could be relevant to various concerns about life and society.
So last week’s text was from Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 book On Bullshit, about people who, well, bullshit. (Give a wild guess why you think talking about people who bullshit is relevant…) A quick dictionary check defines bullshit (v.) as “[to] talk nonsense to (someone), typically to be misleading or deceptive.” Frankfurt wants to complicate what it means to talk in a misleading fashion.
We were discussing the difference between producing a lie and producing bullshit. A lier must be conscious of his lie, to intentionally produce false claim, but for Frankfurt someone who bullshits does not actually care about what is true and what is false.
And this passage stuck out to me the most:
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to demonstrate what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.
People who bullshit can be very sincere about it. For example, I have no doubt that President Trump’s many statements, regardless of their level of falsehood, were made in sincerity. In fact, this sincerity made Trump endearing to many of his voters! This distinguishes bullshitting from lying, which is inherently insincere. Perhaps we tolerate bullshitting more than lying.
But I primarily thought about this passage in the context of religious pluralism. We live in a tremendously diverse world where people of different faiths interact on a daily basis. It is difficult to hold to exclusive religious claims in this kind of world. How can devout people assert that one religion is absolutely correct and that others are false? What if you believe other religions are even actively dangerous? For example, some Christians believe all other religions are literally the work of demonic forces. This mindset creates the urgency to proselytize every non-Christian at any cost. Using Frankfurt’s language, openly expressing (let alone enforcing) the Ideal of Correctness when it comes to religion is harmful in our contemporary context because it threatens the peace in our interpersonal relationships and in society.
So religious people today, realizing the risks of the Correctness Ideal when faced with devout Christians or Muslims or Hindus or whatnot, must retreat to the Ideal of Sincerity. Today, people who speak about their beliefs and their life of faith are careful to couch their statements in individual terms. “For me… my faith… I personally believe… this works for me…” Or maybe, when defending religion’s relevance, instead of arguing that religious beliefs are true, you argue that religious belief/practice is meaningful for their adherents. We all do this.
For most of us, the Sincerity Ideal sounds like the best bet. It is obviously distasteful and wrong to insist on the correctness of your religion and deeply alienate others who could otherwise be your friends and co-workers. But if we apply the Correctness/Sincerity framework to a societal scale I wonder if anything gets lost in the process. There’s often an implicit agreement between religious institutions and public society that these institutions can enforce and express the Correctness Ideal within their own circle, but in public the Sincerity Ideal reigns.
When religious institutions come together for public dialogue or to work together for a common ideal, perhaps the Sincerity Ideal comes up short because now there is no “accurate representation of a common world” (Frankfurt’s words) to agree upon and work toward. Interfaith efforts have to build a new notion of what is Correct, a New Correctness, to work together effectively. I don’t mean the dubious notion of “political correctness” but of a new ideology, a pluralist sense of what is true, that can make different religious people mutually intelligible. Maybe it is a new ideology that treats all religions as equally true (“many paths, one mountain”) or we identify a common goal of societal reform and social justice. Or perhaps spiritual seekers try to create an eclectic, personal spirituality outside of the bounds of a religious institution: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Syncretism is not “correct” in the eyes of these institutions, but for the Spiritual But Not Religious person it is much more important to be True to Myself than to be Correct.
Evangelical Protestants offer an alternative way out of the Sincerity Ideal. They enthusiastically embrace the Correctness Ideal but express it with the language of the Sincerity Ideal. Maybe that pairing paradoxically explains the success of evangelical Christianity. Yes, most evangelicals are “conservative” because they insist on converting non-Christians and often insist that non-Christian religions are false. But evangelicals also encourage their faithful to personally claim their faith for themselves. Evangelicals understand that a churchgoer’s faith cannot just be nominal – everybody needs to be born again. Everybody needs to have a personal testimony and personally experience Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Semantically this individualist language evokes the Sincerity Ideal. The mission to make disciples and spread the Gospel message becomes easier because evangelicals who have grown up in religious pluralism can couch their testimonies in the individual terms they take for granted in society. It’s a powerful draw. It has obviously become very successful. One could even argue that the Sincerity Ideal is enhanced in evangelicalism’s cousin pentecostalism because of the latter’s emphasis on individual revelation in the gifts of tongues and prophecy.
I do not want to push this dichotomy between Correctness and Sincerity too far, but I think it’s a useful way to navigate how religiously diverse societies can stay together while still holding onto what makes each religious tradition distinctive.