Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Great Debate: Is there a God?

Tonight, our high school's spiritual life department hosted its annual debate: "Is there a God?" This is at least the third or fourth year now that they've had this debate, though I still haven't been able to attend and see what all the fuss was about. I like to imagine that one of our handful of Hindu students might be sitting there wondering "How about the debate 'are there gods?'" but that's really a digression on my part.

I just like the fact that our spiritual life department--which, after all, is made up of protestant and Catholic ministers--is committed to this event, to raising the question. The debate participants are all teachers, so there's a sense in which no matter what the actual content of the debate is, one of the messages is that there are intelligent, thoughtful, nice people on both sides of the issue--or perhaps I should say all sides because I gather at least one person on the panel answered the question as basically a believing agnostic or a deist. And a related implicit message is that it's possible to disagree about something that's fundamental to one's outlook and to still be civil and even friendly.

Now, that said, I heard some of my students talking about the debate--which, I would reiterate, I have never been able to attend--and one of them was particularly vehement about his dissatisfaction with the debate. As he said, there's nothing new, both sides just made the same arguments they always make. As I probed a bit more, there seemed to be a strong sense in what he was saying that there wasn't a lot of engagement between the two sides. One of the science teachers basically said that the scientific evidence is against God, or makes God an unnecessary hypothesis, or whatever he actually said, and the pro-God response was basically you can't prove God doesn't exist and I feel God's presence. Again, I'm paraphrasing from a 17-year-old's not-totally-coherent account of this debate. So any commentary I'm about to make--and I'm about to make some--is poorly informed. There's a good argument here for avoiding speculation until I have more information, but to meet my Holidailies obligation, I need to get something out and I've already got this much written, so....

My suspicion here is that one of the very strengths I cited earlier--the civil nature of the debate--also defangs both sides to some extent and makes for a less interesting, less convincing debate. You can argue in fairly abstract, non-confrontational terms, but when it comes down to it, the more compelling arguments are also significantly more threatening, in the sense of calling strongly into question a person's deep-held beliefs (and, for that matter, those of the student's parent, you might not appreciate a teacher precipitating a crisis of faith for their son/daughter). Also, if participants were to argue in the strongest terms, students might feel as though a teacher who is arguing the other side from what they believe is unsympathetic or even hostile to them and not just to their belief system. So I suspect it's a challenging line to walk for the participants, to make a case, but to do it in a way that tends more toward interesting than to threatening or uncomfortable.

For my part, I've always had considerable tolerance for strong argument on both sides of this subject, because I've always felt that truth was important. Weird, I know. Hearing the best arguments, the strongest arguments of people on the other side of the issue from me always seemed like an important exercise, because either result seemed positive: either I would be convinced and change my mind, presumably moving closer to the truth--whatever that is--than I was before, or else I would feel that I had refuted the opposing arguments and thus had even better reason than before to believe what I already believed. Of course, this places a lot of trust in my own judgment. The alternative--turning over responsibility for one's beliefs to someone else--seems very problematic to me (even though I could argue in the abstract that it's possible that one could be better off relying on the judgment of someone else). But I have a hard time really believing that argument.

All right, this entry has been a bit scattered and it's not really ending with much of a bang or with a bow on top, but there it is. I welcome your thoughts on any of the matters raised.


  1. I have found that there are few people in my life who have thought enough about religion or politics (or generally have to intellectual capacity) to substantively and productively discuss them, and that even fewer are able to separate the argument from their general feelings and mood towards me. Its hard because the discussions on these fundamental topics complicate people's otherwise simple but often hectic lives. Further, most people aren't in the business of changing their long held beliefs despite whatever arguments are presented. It takes courage and practice and the result is a pandora's box of questions to all aspects of one's life.

    If you are fortunate enough to befriend a fellow philosophical explorer, take advantage, because those conversations don't come around all that often.

  2. There is something to be said for some balance between the individual's thoughts, research, and judgment, and the traditions of a particular group. Of course groups can get things wrong, and keep them wrong for centuries. So can individuals.

    I don't advocate blind adherence to a group tradition. But in times of perplexity or lack of clarity, continuing in one's group's disciplines with some trust can be fruitful -- questioning everything all over again every time one is in a confused mood is disruptive.

    Sometimes the disruption is important and necessary. I guess some wisdom is needed to know when it is important to follow the disruption, explore further, question things -- and when it is important to trust in previously held convictions and patterns, trusting in part that if one is wrong, the disruption will return and there will be another opportunity to question.

    There is something called acedia in Christian spiritual tradition -- times of dryness, doubt, lack of motivation. It's cyclical / recurring. But many have found that it is a normal part of the spiritual life, and not the frantic call to wholesale doubt that it at first feels like.

    1. Oh, but since I don't plan to address it in my intended blog post, I would point out that acedia (a term I wasn't familiar with--thanks for introducing it) admits of at least two interpretations. One, as you suggested, is that it's a normal thing, nothing to worry about or take too seriously. The other interpretation would be that the doubt keeps returning because there's good reason to doubt.

    2. Exactly. And one has to decide one way or the other, and perhaps one goes with tradition for a fairly long time and then figures that it's time to do a deep reexamination after all, or perhaps one just starts there, and either way one might leave the tradition or stay in it, and either way one might have more or less confidence. There are reasons for doubt and reasons for belief, and there is no way to be 100% certain -- one can only weigh the reasons and the effects of belief or unbelief and other measures, and choose.

      I might point out that acedia has parallels in other life situations -- one might question one's vocation / career choice, or what about periods of dryness and boredom in marriage or friendship.

  3. Santa: I might summarize your comment as "Everyday life is not a liberal arts college," but I won't. I will say that I agree totally, and it seems like a shame that I don't get to hang out with you more often than every few years crashing at your apartment.

    Marcy: I've tried several times to start responding to your points, but I'm struggling. It might take a whole other post to do so, which wouldn't be a bad thing given that I'm trying to blog daily. :) You picked up the things that I was alluding to in my last paragraph and taken some of them in a similar direction as I would take them... and some in a different direction. In both cases, thank you for the thoughtful response.