Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Cures for the Healthy

I was recently invited to attend (as a guest, not a speaker) a debate entitled: "Belief: Poison or Cure? - An Atheist and a Christian present their case for or against faith". As the invitation put it, "The UCT Atheist & Agnostic society and the UCT Student Y present a public debate on the subject of faith. Jordan Pickering (Student Y Staff, BTh) will outline some key reasons why Biblical faith is essential to a satisfying worldview, and Tauriq 'Easton Ellis' (AAS, ex-Islamic agitator) will reveal some of the inadequacies of belief."

I declined because I thought that it was unlikely to be an intellectually useful experience. Debates of this nature generally involve blind zealotry on the part of the atheist community - saying things like "religion is the cause of all the death and suffering in the world over the past thousand years!" (which nicely ignores that under the firmly atheist rules of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, et. al., life was just swell and everyone got along great). On the religious side, there is often an ill-advised attempt to reason a justification of faith as a good thing for the human condition, or to employ poorly-presented and questionable science as evidence. I also had a strong suspicion that there would be very little persuasive discussion taking place - more like two groups of fervent ideologists lining up for a polite version of a street brawl.

But I've been thinking (as I am sometimes wont to do), and it occurs to me that a debate is perhaps not the best forum for such a discussion. Debates are best confined to contentious issues on which public opinion is moot. There is considerable support (from an ethical, sociological or whatever other perspective) for each point of view, so a debate is a useful way to allow both sides to have a public discussion and respond to each other's points. But it's important to realise the limitations of debate - its usefulness as a medium is strictly confined to matters of opinion.

Indulge me in a little tangent. For millenia, the Earth (or whatever small region of the planet the society was familiar with) was considered to be overwhelmingly the largest and most significant object in the universe. There was a small, very bright object (crazy people called it a ball of burning gasses, but the clever ones knew it was really the chariot of Apollo or whatever local custom held) which gave warmth and light and went across the sky each day. There was another object, about the same size but much less bright and of inconstant shape, which traversed the sky at odd times (though most noticably at night). There were other tiny lights which hung in the night sky, just out of reach. But Earth was the only real heavyweight in this arena.

Then something happened. People started to become aware that their view was flawed - for a start, the whole Sun-Earth rotation thing was the wrong way around. And wait, the moon is actually tiny compared with the sun, but the Sun is unimaginably far away. And as for the stars - not only are most of them actually bigger than the Sun, but we don't even have units to deal with how far away they are. Better invent some new ones quick. Wow, this is getting out of control. Oh, wait, now you say that our entire galaxy, which is massive beyond mortal comprehension, is in fact an inconsequential speck in the vastness of the Universe? I think I need to sit down.

No really, I do need a seat. And a drink - better make it a strong one. I mean, here I was, human society, master of the known world, and now I find that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, I'm a microscopic dot on a miroscopic dot on a miroscopic dot with a little sign saying "You Are Here". I feel so small. So insignificant. Do you have any idea what this does to my self-esteem?

I tell you what - maybe we should have a debate about whether or not the universe really is that big, or whether the Earth is big and important and the stars are actually little fairy lights floating just above our heads. I mean, sure there is some indicators pointing one way, but I don't really understand most of that, and anyway I liked it better the other way.

But, you see, having a debate won't influence any of that. The Universe is massive beyond comprehension, and the Earth, as dear as it is to all of us, really is miniscule in comparison. It's not open to discussion. It's just the way it is.

And whether you consciously accept Him or not, God doesn't cease to exist because of your opinion. He is, was, will be - you get the drift. It's not something open to discussion, either.


The Weaving Between said...

You'll get no argument from me there ...
In general I also find debates most useful when neither side is particularly inclined to believe its own point of view ... like orchestrated debates in schools where the aim was learning to reason and speak coherently in pubic and very often just to learn the details of a particular issue.

Apart from my particular issue with the usefulness of debating to solve problems I am especially upset with attempts to justify faith on the basis of its benefit to humanity. Faith is not right because it is useful, it is useful because it is right.

nic paton said...

Debate is better than one-sided diatribe, but conversation is better than debate.

I feel it is possible to apporoach every situation with a conversational attitude. It is in this way that jailers or even torturers are won over. Of course if the megalomania is already set in and the other is NOT listening, then the results will be limited. But crazy idealist that I am, I see love as never failing.

Approaching each other in conversation and with loving intent is the way forwards.

A thoughtful essay, as usual. But how does your intruiging title come into play?

timvictor said...

Blind and fundamentalist faith aside (equally applicable to atheists and theists), there is often not enough willingness of one side to "hear" the other side, to go deeper than quibbling about words and burning straw men.

Both positions are logical and grounded in evidence but the world is large enough to encompass both, the universe is large enough for some to experience Godde and others not to. Without mutual respect there is no meaningful communication and a debate does not always serve the end of communication.

Sentinel said...

re: nic,

I think my title comes from an oft-encountered attitude that believers are poor, deluded individuals who would be so much better off if they could be "cured" of their insistence in relying on the crutch of faith, and instead see the world as it "really" is...

Sentinel said...

also, I'm certainly in favour of conversation - chatting about stuff is what I do... But my feeling was that there simply wasn't going to be much in the way of useful conversation actually happening.

Andrew said...

The seed of faith is often sown by doubt. In other words, two sides can argue and walk away more convinced than before to their own points of view. This is normally the case. However, in not defending the case for faith and accepting the atheist with a cautionary as to your subconscious doubt/faith, you have subversively sown a seed.

Sentinel said...