Better than true is just false


It becomes clear early on at University that the learning we do is very different from the kind of thing we did before we got here. Whilst A-levels involve the constant cramming of facts and figures learned with trust from a text book, HE requires a much bigger step: determining what is and what is not true.

Stories like David and Goliath have a value as metaphors but shouldn’t be taken literally

There is something special about the minds of very young people which gives them a unique gift at this; the gift to believe things which are demonstrably not true and which, upon closer inspection, are completely ridiculous notions.

A fine example here is the belief in that most jolly but absurd of all figures, Father Christmas. I think it is safe to say that his existence would be a nice thing. The man who, in one night, brings gifts to every child has to be one of the best ideas imaginable. And as children, we believe it. Why would we not, given that all of our authority figures (one or more parent[s]) have told us that it is so. And, on a very base level, S Claus’s key functions do happen- we are told he will bring presents and, lo, presents do indeed appear on Christmas morning. To the mind of a child, no more evidence could possibly be needed. Simply wanting to believe that is true makes it so.

And as a child, we do not need to think any further. It does not matter to us that reindeer cannot fly. Who cares that Santa couldn’t possibly reach every child in one night, or that children in other countries do not get presents on December 25? And of course Santa’s elves have permission to make iPods and Playstations and distribute them for free.

As we get older, and we shake our belief in Santa Claus, we learn two very valuable lessons. Firstly, that ‘authority figures’ lie, whether they be our parents or otherwise. And more importantly that there are, ultimately, two kinds of things: things with evidence which are true and things without evidence which, whilst they may be entertaining, should never be taken seriously in reality and should certainly not be believed in.

And this, for a large part, explains our fascination with fairy tales. From the classic Disney tales of magic and talking animals, to the more macabre Tim Burton-style offerings, young people enjoy nothing more than indulging in stories which, whilst set in a fictional setting, can often tell us more about ourselves and how we should live that boring reality can ever offer. And, importantly, these stories can teach us moral lessons. Their settings may be alien or foreign and their characters may be unusual, gifted with powers or wisdom beyond normal human abilities, but the stories carry lessons which teach us how to live our lives.

And this fascination continues. Over the last decade, JK Rowling has held millions of people across the world spellbound with her stories of adolescent witches and wizards. And people like these stories not just because they are entertaining but because they speak to us in simple terms. They speak about human emotion and the common ordeals we all face, whether in the real world or placed in these unusual situations.

But it is important that, as a species, we do not let this fascination become dangerous. There are many people who cannot or will not leave the first, childlike stage of thinking and will continue to believe in those things which are demonstrably not true, presumably because the morality behind the story is so important to them that, obviously, the mythology must be too. And whilst this is not in itself a danger, it has taken its toll on the world.

From prehistory to the modern day, many of our biggest conflicts and deadliest conspiracies have centred around the inability to divorce morality from fantasy and millions have been tortured and murdered in the name of their conflicting mythologies.

And at the end of the day, whilst the ideas that we may be absolved of our sins and that we might live forever in a glorious paradise may be things we want to be true, they are not. They are better than being true, which is something else entirely, but which leaves them, sadly, false.

Breaking with tradition

It seems by now tradition that in the final SCAN the outgoing LUSU President makes a last ditch scramble to set their mark on the political scene at Lancaster by offering suggestions as to what people might want to do once they’ve gone. This can range from one or two innocent words of encouragement and the odd policy to last year’s time travelling article written as though the following year had actually already happened.

Whilst this may be quite humorous, or serve as a good way for the individual to feel they may have secured their legacy, it is inevitably pointless. Events change so quickly it is immediately irrelevant (nobody would have guessed £9k fees this time last year) and, ultimately, nobody probably reads it anyway except perhaps the incoming President.

And really, if the incoming President doesn’t already know the sort of things that they are likely to be doing, no amount of SCAN comment pieces are going to help: the good ship LUSU is probably already careering into the iceberg.

However, in real life good intentions are not always matched by good actions. Or, in some cases (this one), any action at all. So whilst I intended to end this tradition for good (or at least for now- let’s not get carried away) by refraining from appearing in this last edition, I forgot the most important detail: telling the Editor.

And now, one day before print, I hardly dare report that the 900-word void still sitting on page 13 will go unfilled. So I just went ahead and wrote something else and will leave my thoughts for the future to wishing all of you the very best of luck. It’s been a pleasure.

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  1. I couldn?t believe my eyes when I read this article-I had to read it several times: how could someone who has been in charge of an organisation as diverse as LUSU make such a massive misjudgement! He apparently dismisses all religion as ?better than true?which leaves them, sadly, false?. He says: ?our biggest conflicts ?have centred around the inability to divorce morality from fantasy and millions have been tortured and murdered in the name of their conflicting mythologies?; clearly this is reference to the many wars and inhuman acts that have happened in the name of religion. Relegating religion to ?mythology? is a very dangerous ground to take. Whilst I?m sure many atheists might agree that religion is mythology it is worth being reminded of the fact that just 2.23% of the population of the world is atheist (ref: world fact book from Here, his obvious and unguarded ideas about religion show through as a lack of respect for others. While I admire the strength of his opinion and agree with much of the rest of article, the complete disregard shown to others by our outgoing president is, to say the least, disturbing. I believe that the ?religious wars? happened more due to an inability to respect other people?s so called ?mythologies? (of which this article shows a good example), than due to the religions in themselves.

  2. It’s not really a misjudgment, is it? There’s nothing wrong with being ‘religious’ in the grand scheme of things, and religious people do a great deal of good in communities all over the world.

    But all that Robbie has done here is suggest that although the lessons might be useful (which is probably a bit generous anyway given all of the violent, homophobic and misogynist bits of the bible), the ‘mythologies’ aren’t. Because. They aren’t. True. If you believe that they’re true you have to argue against solid science which proves that evolution happened, that the Earth wasn’t just ‘created’, that it’s chemically impossible to turn water in wine. Amongst other things.

    Love each other, do good deeds, but do it for the here and now, not because you think it’ll get you into a post-death cloud-based theme park.

    And on the war point – if we got rid of these mythologies, then there wouldn’t be misunderstandings to fight over, would there?

  3. Hi Josh,

    Whilst I accept that you may not agree with my views I fail to see why they might disturb you. At no point this year have I allowed by views to be put before genuine students wants and needs. In fact, I fought for and secured a huge investment in the Chaplaincy Centre and Muslim Prayer Room.

    I have a great deal of respect for every student, religious or otherwise. That does not mean I don’t have an opinion on their belief system. It would be quite disturbing, I feel, if the LUSU President had no opinions and was merely a bland automaton who had nothing of his own to say.

    Also, whilst there may only be a small atheist world population, that is no evidence of fact or fiction surrounding relgious mythology. Facts are not determined by how many people believe them to be true but whether they are or not- which is I believe the point of the article.

    As a final point, I do not specifically say that religion is or isn’t real, nor do I dismiss that they may one day be proven to be true. The article is saying that simply believing they are true doesn’t make them true.

  4. Myth: A traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.

    Seems to fit the bill.

    “Here, his obvious and unguarded ideas about religion show through as a lack of respect for others.”

    Paraphrased: “Here, him having different opinions about religion than me shows a lack of respect.” I’m pretty sure this is a statement that most people, religious or non-religious, would feel uneasy about.

  5. The prevalence of religion and the (relatively) small amount of atheists says absolutely nothing whatsoever about the truth of religion. The truth isn’t decided by vote. But your figure is nonetheless misleading – it makes no mention of the prevalence of religion in developed nations versus undeveloped nations or the tendency for religiosity to decrease amongst those with a scientific education.

    This article diplomatically avoids juxtaposing mythology with religion, so presumably the kind of destrictive blind-faith could extend to, say, quasi-religious personality cults a la Stalin, Kim Jong-Il, Mao Zedong or Nicolae Caecescu which are equally damaging and capable of brutality. That said, though, I find the claim Josh makes that religious belief itself is less problematic than lack of due respect for other people’s beliefs a bit hard to swallow because, in my opinion, the former causes the latter. Extremely fundamentalist religious sects place themselves as the highest form of truth or morality above all else and very often demand that adherents protect their faith with violence or aggressively expand their following. The al-Qaedas of this world derive their jihadist ideology from scripture, which can’t be questioned because it’s the word of God. Similarly, the educational problems caused in Britain and overseas by religious believers hostile to the scientific theory of evolution is stultifying children’s intellectual growth in the name of an uncritical reading of scripture. In both these cases, the belief in the revealed truth from a deity is the reason for so much damage – the Truth can’t be questioned.

    Finally, I find it troubling that someone would call a fairly modest criticism of a certain kind of religious belief ‘disturbing.’ I’ve read quite a few articles written by the LUSU President in which he criticises political parties, yet I’ve never seen anyone make the claim that in doing so he shirked his responsibility to represent, say, Conservative or Lib Dem voters. It therefore seems to me to be at the very least a double standard to say that there is something inherently wrong about a LUSU officer expressing a particular viewpoint on morality or metaphysics. I do understand that religious belief incorporates a lot more reverence and awe than one’s preference for a political party, but it doesn’t follow from that that elected Student Union officers should not be in a position to express an opinion on a matter of great (potentially cosmic) importance. If this article was a full-scale assault on Islam or Judaism then maybe there’d be cause for concern depending on the content of the article itself. But as this is a call for people not to suspend their critical thinking capacities with a recognition that religions often require that of their followers, I wouldn’t have considered it either discriminatory or offensive.

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