Sunday, November 09, 2008
The gulf between us
“All proof inevitably leads to propositions which have no proof. All things are known because we want to believe in them.”
—Bene Gesserit Azhar Book (Dune)
Last night, I had one of Those Conversations. I had run into the professor for an ethics class that I took a couple years ago, and we talked for a bit and my atheism came up. He’s a Christian, and he was interested in why I had changed my mind.
So we went to a coffee shop, and had the Conversation. It followed the script that it usually does when I talk with a Christian about why I no longer believe: We lay out our respective cases, argue back and forth, make concessions, agree on points, disagree on others. Then we reach a point where, while we agree on almost all the relevant facts, we still come to wildly different conclusions.
We had, I thought, a lot in common in our worldviews. He accepted common descent because of the evidence for it, as do I. He doubts dualism (surprising for a Christian, in my opinion), as do I. He finds the idea of someone suffering forever in hell simply for being born in the wrong time or place intolerable, as do I.
It came down to this: He had had a religious experience which made him think that God is real, and since then, he had not seen any evidence that would force him off of that position. He is more than willing to use science, reason and tradition to reinterpret the Bible and take the fire-and-brimstone edge off of it. He resolves many of the problems I have with Christianity simply by disagreeing with the doctrine in question.
And then there’s me. I’m not willing to do any of that. I see no point. Isn’t it, [I think to myself] obvious that the reason the old testament is filled with atrocities and genocides is because it’s just another book, written by men? Isn’t it obvious that the reason the doctrine of hell exists is because fear is powerful motivator, and religions which exploit that will be more successful than those that do not? Isn’t it obvious that moderate religion is just the projecting of the morals of modernity onto ancient books by picking and choosing which passages should be literal, and which should be metaphor?
But it’s not obvious. Not to him.
I am, it seems, essentially a fundamentalist. I see no point in half-measures, no point in trying to dress up a flawed and brutal document as the words of a benevolent god.
He is a liberal. He is willing to reinterpret, to use the findings of science and modernity to come to a different understanding of the Bible.
How can this gulf between us be bridged? How can our discourse ever rise about the level of each of us saying to the other “It’s obvious to me that you are wrong.”? How can we ever move beyond shouting to each other across a chasm, separated by presuppositions that we are apparently unwilling to reconsider? What evidence or argument, if any, could be brought to bear to make me change my interpretive framework? To make him change his?
My own view is not nearly as bleak and postmodern as the opening quote. I think that there are criteria than can be applied to standards of evidence. (For instance, if your standard of evidence leads you to a contradiction, it’s wrong.) But it’s very difficult to “step outside” your own beliefs to examine them. Think of the conspiracy nut who says that all contradictory evidence is obviously part of the conspiracy.
In the end, all I can do is strive to keep an open mind, try to honestly consider arguments and evidence, and seek to understand why someone else holds a different view then I do rather blindly dismissing or demonizing them.
I hope it’s enough.