Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Room Without Rants (Or, The Sorry State of Public Discourse)

They talk a lot, and loudly, and all at the same time. If they were your family during Thanksgiving, they’d be talking with their mouths full and the football game blaring in the background. It would be almost amusing if it weren’t in fact rather tragic.

I’m referring, of course, to the nonstop talking heads who can be found at almost any hour of the day, talking nonstop, all over television and radio. They talk about everything and nothing, so much so that they actually blur the distinction between talking about something and talking about nothing. They are, alas, the face – or perhaps I should say the food-stuffed mouth – of public discourse.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Not even when it comes to the more controversial topics of public discourse: politics, the economy, “death panels,” and in particular the crucible within which these all are raised beyond the melting point, namely the cluster of issues relating to religion, faith, and God. As I was researching my new book The God Question: What famous thinkers from Plato to Dawkins have said about the divine, in fact, I discovered a very appealing alternative. The religion debate shall serve as my example, but the points in fact generalize to all forms of debate.

There are primarily four sorts of people, it seems to me, who participate in debates about God: the reasonable theist, the reasonable atheist, and unreasonable versions of each.

By a “reasonable theist” I mean someone who believes (or is inclined towards belief) in God but who is open to exploring (and critiquing) that belief with all the normal tools of knowledge acquisition, including perception, experience more broadly construed, and most importantly reason. The reasonable theist desires not merely to believe in God, but to believe in God in the strongest and most coherent way he or she can – which requires investigating, in a genuinely open-minded and frequently critical way, the strongest and most coherent versions of theism available.

By a “reasonable atheist” I mean someone who believes (or is inclined to believe) that God does not exist but who is open to exploring that belief with all the normal tools of knowledge acquisition, including again, most importantly, reason. Such a person recognizes, in particular, that to reject belief in God in a reasonable way is to reject the strongest and most coherent versions of theism – which in turn also requires first investigating those theisms in a genuinely open-minded (if frequently critical) way.

“Unreasonable” people of either persuasion, meanwhile, are roughly everybody else (including, unfortunately, myself much of the time).

When you look at what the famous thinkers have said about God you are, generally, in the presence of very reasonable persons, both of the theist and atheist variety. But when you turn on your TV or listen to your radio or read most of today’s periodicals and even best-selling books, you are generally in the presence of not very reasonable persons, of both varieties. What you witness is often about as appealing as your uncle Fred’s screaming “Touchdown!” with his half-chewed turkey bulging from each cheek. There are the loud voices and the raving rants. There is the invoking of labels and the calling of names: theists are foolish, irrational, close-minded and crazy, while atheists are hedonistic heathens, selfish and soulless sinners. Mostly there are people talking – shouting – right past each other, there is lots of noise and very little significance, and there is definitely, most definitely, no listening.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Public discourse cannot generally be on the same level as scholarly discourse; of course not. But discourse can be reasonable even when it is widely accessible, even when it dispenses with jargon, Latin phrases, and little logical symbols. Public discourse in fact could learn a lot from the famous thinkers, not specifically about their therefores and reductios and if p then q’s, but about something more general. For when you enter the presence of the famous thinkers you are in a room dominated first and foremost by respect – not merely for the other occupants of the room, but for something more fundamental: respect above all for the norms of reason, of reasonable debate, and for the very act of inquiry itself.

This is a room where the conversation is at non-rock-concert decibels. This is room without rants, where points are made and defended and – here is the amazing part – there are actual pauses in speech where other people can get not just a word in but whole paragraphs, and respond, actually respond, in a relevant way, to the points the speaker is actually making. There is no name calling here. Or maybe there is some, for we may call what goes on, in this rant-less room, a name which has become increasingly irrelevant in public discourse in recent years: namely, a conversation.

This need not be imagined as a warm and mushy love-fest, of course, replete with herbal tea and frequent group hugs. The word “conversation” here characterizes only the genuinely participatory nature of the discourse. “Conversation” can, and in this case does, include many diverse kinds of content, even the kind more regularly associated with caffeinated beverages: argument, disagreement, and debate.

For to those people committed to the norms of reason, reasonable debate, and ultimately to the act of inquiry itself, one thing quickly becomes clear above all else: reasonable people may (and generally do) disagree about almost every important topic. What that means is as simple as it is profound: namely, the sheer fact that someone reaches a different conclusion from yours doesn’t itself mean that they are unreasonable.

And once you realize that you realize something else.

This: that you can learn a tremendous amount from people with whom you disagree, as long as they are as committed to the act of inquiry as are you. For if they disagree with you it is because they have reasons they find persuasive: arguments they find compelling, objections which seem to them to undermine your own positions, and so on. Well, if you really want to believe whatever it is you believe on the basis of genuinely good reasons, then who, we might ask, do you want to talk to: the person who already agrees with everything you believe, or the person who has discovered problems and objections and counter-arguments to your beliefs?

When you look at what the famous thinkers have said about God, the most startling thing you discover is precisely that: the widespread recognition that they can learn from those with whom they disagree even the most profoundly. Historically the famous thinkers from Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions have read each other’s works, debated each other’s positions, and learned from each other, even as they diverged in their conclusions about as radically as one can. The same goes for thinkers from competing denominations within any one of these traditions.

And the same goes too, most of all, for theistically-inclined thinkers and the atheistically-inclined.

Or rather, to return to my own labeling and name-calling above, it goes for the reasonable theist and the reasonable atheist. They may reach quite opposite conclusions in the end, but you can see, as you look at my description of each above, that they both will spend much of their time engaged in precisely the same activity: investigating, in a genuinely open-minded (and frequently critical) way, the strongest and most coherent versions of theism available. It is no accident that they each might well make each other’s best, most productive, study partners. For their goal isn’t to “score points,” or to “win” the argument -- but instead to reach the truth, or at least the best approximation to the truth of which we are capable. And that is something that just might best be accomplished precisely through genuine conversation amongst disagreeing parties – that is, conversation governed by the norms of rational inquiry and all that that entails.
The lesson for today’s world is obvious: much goodness ensues when those conversing are reasonable non-ranters who, as a bonus, often swallow before speaking.

But don’t just take my word for it: ask such thinkers as the Jewish Maimonides, the Christian Aquinas, and the Muslim Averroes.

Or don’t take anyone’s word for it. Think it through for yourself.

Though, of course, it is only in a room without rants, in the end, that you can even hear yourself think.

[Adapted from an essay originally appearing on www.religiondispatches.org.]

Monday, August 10, 2009

"The God Question" on tour

Much of the past week or so has been spent promoting my newly published book, The God Question: What famous thinkers from Plato to Dawkins have said about the divine. I've done a number of talks and signings at bookstores, churches, and synagogues, and, so far, about a dozen radio interviews -- with a bunch more scheduled, so check the website (www.god-question.com) to see if my mellifluous voice can be heard in your city any time soon.

One thing I've learned from the experience is there are a lot if interesting and interested people out there -- people who want to think more carefully and deeply about the idea of God, both those who are inclined and those who are disinclined to believe in the existence of a being fitting their idea.

A second thing I've learned is that many of these people are truly surprised to discover that the idea of God can be pushed in a lot more directions than they have imagined -- those inclined to believe discover that their belief becomes richer and more sophisticated as they explore what famous thinkers have said about God, while those disinclined to believe discover that the thing they reject is a lot more resilient than they had realized.

A third thing I've learned is that it's awfully hard to get people to even know this book exists unless I pretty much tell them directly about it myself. That's worked fine for my immediate circle of family and friends, but it sure would be nice to get some word of mouth going. So if you're reading this -- go out and tell someone!

And finally I've learned that almost everyone -- at the talks and signings, and the radio hosts interviewing me -- inevitably asks me whether I believe in God.

Ought one to assume that I do believe in God because I wrote this book?

I find myself presenting the following response. Generally one of the first questions my students ask me at the start of the semester is whether I believe in God; and generally one of the last questions of the semester is the same one. That reveals two things: first, that I didn't answer the question the first time, and second, more importantly, that they were not able to tell what my views were throughout an entire semester of discussing the issues.

That seems to me to be exactly right. I see my role -- in this inquiry in particular, but as a philosophy teacher in general -- as one of a facilitator: I aim to lay out the most interesting or important ideas and arguments, objections, responses, and so on, bringing out what is best or strongest about them, and then to let the student (or the reader) make up his or her own mind. I wouldn't want anyone to be influenced by my own opinions -- either to agree with me or to disagree with me -- since the terrain is rich and interesting and, like all philosophical issues, not one which is close to generating any sort of consensus. So it's not my business to tell you what to think. It's only my business to help you sharpen your thoughts, and provide you with as much relevant information as possible, in the clearest way I can.

So no, one doesn't have to believe in God in order to carefully explore, in a productive way, what famous religious thinkers have said about God. Nor does one have to disbelieve in God to carefully explore, in a productive way, what famous non-religious or anti-religious thinkers have said. Reason-oriented believers and reason-oriented disbelievers can learn an awful lot from reason-governed conversations on the subject.

For this is indeed the ideal of a life of reason: one reaches one's conclusions on the basis of the ideas and arguments themselves. Just who is making them does not matter.

Monday, August 3, 2009

In the beginning was the beginning

You can read in the Bible that in the beginning God made the heaven and earth. But unfortunately the Bible doesn’t quite explain what that means. The whole notion of the “beginning” is actually very problematic--for it invites the question, which many have raised: “What was God doing for all those eons before He created the world, and why did He wait so long?” The great early Christian thinker St Augustine (354-430) notes his own temptation to give the jesting answer: “He was getting Hell ready for people who pry too deep.” But he admits that the question deserves a genuine answer. He is quite sure that before God created the world He did nothing at all, as His creating occurred “in the beginning.” But that still leaves us with many problems.

For example, if prior to creation God spent vast ages doing nothing, then what could have suddenly moved Him to create? And could God, whom many conceive to be eternal and unchanging, even undergo the sort of change required to transition from not creating to creating? But if not, if one insists that God is eternally unchanging, then His will must also be eternally unchanging. But His will is that by which He acts; He does things by willing them. If His will (like He) is eternally unchanging, then shouldn’t the world created by His will also have existed eternally, as long as He has, in which case it has no beginning? In short, how could an eternal and unchanging God suddenly create the world at a given time, when prior to that act of creation there was nothing other than Him?

So what was God doing before He created the world?

Nothing. But not quite in the sense you might think.

For one must recognize, Augustine observes, that time itself is something created by God, and the “beginning” of the world is also the beginning of time. So understood, it’s not the case that countless ages passed before God’s creative activity; before God created the world--heaven, and earth, and time--there was simply no time at all. But then it makes no sense to ask what God was doing “before” He created anything since there was no “before.” And since time itself begins with the world, at all actual times, beginning with that first moment, God has been busy creating the world and keeping it in existence. We don’t have to say that God suddenly switched from first not creating to subsequently creating. There never was a moment when God wasn’t creating.

Of course this now raises a new problem. For if there was no time “before” the cosmos, then the world has existed at all times--and so itself seems to be as eternal as God! But wouldn’t that put the world on a level with God? Isn’t what makes God unique precisely that He is the only being that exists eternally, while all other things come and go?

True, Augustine replies, the world has existed at all times--since time itself arose with the creation of the world--but God Himself is eternal in a different, more profound sense: He is outside of time altogether. Every created thing comes and goes, waxes and wanes, with the passage of time, but the eternity of God is like His entire being existing unchangingly, permanently, all at once.

So the world has existed since the beginning, but only God simply exists, period, eternally immune from the ravages of passing time.

Source: Augustine, The Confessions of St Augustine, Book 11.