I have a lot of reasons for doing things, but the iron law that governs all the others is integrity. Things that help my friends are good, things that promote human flourishing and alleviate suffering are good, but when there’s even a whiff of embracing falsehood or ignoring the facts in an action, the gates slam shut against it.
But that just describes - it doesn’t explain. Why am I this way. Was I born with a commitment to the truth above all else? Is it in my genes? Or was I taught it? My parents seem hold other values like tradition or caring about equally, not assigning such an unique place of honor to epistemic integrity, which is evidence against both heredity and direct acculturation as explanations.
My hypothesis is that I have a basic impulse to systematize my understanding of things, and that when I learned about Jewish idolatry taboos, I generalized this into an abhorrence of falsehood.
The Torah is full of admonitions to destroy the idols of foreign nations. Jewish law is firm on the point that one of the worst things you can do is worship an idol - it is one of the three sins that a Jew is expected to die rather than commit. In that context, the story of Abraham destroying his father’s idols, from Genesis Rabbah, made a strong impression on me (adapted from the Hebrew by my father):
Rabbi Chiya grandson of Rav Adda of Jaffa related: Terach, Abraham’s father, was a maker of idols. One day Terach had to leave the shop, putting Abraham in charge. A man entered seeking to purchase an idol. Abraham asked him, “How old are you?” “I am sixty years old,” replied the man. “Woe to him,” said Abraham, “who at the age of sixty chooses to worship a god that my father made just yesterday!” The would-be customer retreated in shame.
On another occasion a woman came carrying a dish of fine flour which she left as an offering to the idols. Abraham grabbed a club and shattered all the idols but one. He then left the club in the hand of the idol that remained. It was the biggest one. When Terach returned, he asked, “Who did this to them?” Abraham replied: “We cannot lie to you. A woman brought some fine flour to be offered before them. And so when I offered it, one of them said, ‘Let me eat of it first!” and the other said, ‘No, I shall eat of it first!’ Then the biggest idol in the shop took a club and shattered the others.” “Don’t try to fool me,” said his father, “you know full well that they have no understanding!” To that statement Abraham responded, “Let your ears hear what your mouth declares.”
Abraham repudiates his father’s idols - the epitome of immorality - on an epistemic basis. Empirically, they do not behave like gods. Therefore, it is morally abhorrent to worship them. They are lies. It is morally abhorrent to make an image of a lie. It is morally abhorrent to have one in your house.
The Bible is a more authoritative source, and Psalm 115 similarly repudiates idol-worship on epistemic grounds - it is knowably false:
Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God? But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.
Generalizer that I was, I noticed the implicit argument was that idolatry was morally abhorrent because it was false, and accepted the underlying principle - that accepting a knowably false belief is morally abhorrent, that there is a moral duty to uncover the truth. Even if no one around you can see it. Even if it flies in the face of your own loving father’s faith. Idols are for smashing, not serving.
Is it any wonder that I became an atheist?