|The humble Irish Pub.|
But that's a story for another time.
Recently, I returned to Greenville to meet a friend of mine that I had not seen in ten years. When I arrived in Greenville, he informed me that he was stuck in horrible Atlanta traffic and was still an hour and a half out. I decided I would see how far our meeting spot was from the aforementioned Irish Pub for which I have gushing fondness. Only four minutes from here? Well, I know where I'm spending the next hour and a half.
The conversation turned to work, and activities outside the bar. The guys mentioned they were Bob Jones University students. Most people in South Carolina are familiar with Bob Jones University. However, for those who are not, here is your primer. Bob Jones University is an ultra-conservative Baptist University in Greenville. Students are taught a young-Earth science curriculum based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation account.
Students are also forced to sign statements of belief and ethics on threat of expulsion. BJU students are not allowed to have physical contact with the opposite sex... like, at all. No holding hands, no hugging, no kissing. Verboten! Students cannot watch R-rated movies, cannot participate in secular activities and most certainly cannot be at the Irish Pub drinking.
We then got into a discussion about God which I would like to dissect because it's an interesting one. The students indicated it would be fine for me to write the blog but requested anonymity because their lives could be ruined if anyone found out they were drinking. Thus, the two students will be referred to as "D" and "P".
Disclaimer: Often times I will argue for the existence of God. Other times I will argue against the existence of God. This helps me understand and invoke honest responses from other people about their beliefs. It's an exercise in understanding what people believe and why.
Me: So you guys believe the Earth is like 8,000 years old because Genesis says so?
P: Well, I'm slightly more open to an older Earth, but certainly no older than 12,000 years old.
Me: Why do you believe that?
D: Because the Bible says so.
Me: So you believe that, despite all the evidence to the contrary?
D: Like what?
Me: Like every discipline of natural science. Geology, archaeology, climatology, astronomy, physics, biology, oceanography, etc. All of these disciplines independently date the Earth way older than 8,000 years old.
P: I have heard that. I guess I just trust in the Bible.
P: Because it's God's inerrant word.
Me: Why do you believe that?
P: Oh. You don't? What do you believe about God?
Me: I'm certainly open to the idea of a god. I just don't see any good reason to believe in one over the other without sufficient evidence.
D: What kind of evidence would you accept?
Me: One that could not also confirm a different god.
D: What do you mean?
Me: Well, like if you told me because you had an experience where God revealed himself to you, if I accept that as evidence I would also have to accept a Muslim's experience too as evidence for Allah. If you told me you had a perfect, inerrant holy book, dozens and dozens of other religions also make the same claims about their books too. There's inaccuracies and inconsistencies in all of them, and scholars from each religion who painstakingly explain why those inaccuracies and contradictions aren't really inaccuracies and contradictions. If you told me I had to just believe on faith, well other religions claim that too. Judaism and Islam come to mind on the faith front, but also vastly different subsets of Christianity which you consider heretical like Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons. All tout truth on the basis of faith. Which one should I believe? They all make competing claims. That kind of thing.
D: Interesting. So how do you think all of this got here?
Me: I don't know. <drinks>
P: Do you think it's possible a god made everything?
Me: Sure. Totally possible. I've had Hindus tell me that existence in all its majesty, beauty, complexity and wonder attest to the power of Brahma the Creator. Also had Muslims tell me the same thing about Allah, Christians, Yahweh. That's the thing, I've yet to figure out why I should believe in one god over another, which is what I was saying at the beginning of the conversation.
D: Well, like how do you account for morality? I mean I get non-believers can be moral, but what I'm saying is where did we get this sense of morality?
Me: I don't know if anyone knows the answer to that for sure, however there is strong evidence that morality is an emergent property in social species. We can directly observe moral behavior in social mammals like dolphins, elephants, orcas, orangutans, chimps, that kind of thing. I have a feeling that at some point in the past, moral behavior benefited the group and then by de facto, the individual. At some point in the past it became beneficial to act morally. If members of the group fail and die, your odds for survival go down. Simple as that. You hunt, I tend the fields. It's in my best interest to see that you prosper. It's in your interest to see that I prosper. Like that. But I admit, I'm not certain about this, it just happens to be what I think.
P: Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?
Me: Everyday, all the time. I inspect and bang on my beliefs daily. I assert I spend more time asking myself "are my beliefs true?" in a single day, than most people will in a lifetime. The reason I'm a philosophical skeptic is because I consider the possibility that I'm wrong, everyday. My skepticism is a by-product of admitting to myself that I'm flawed cognitively, that I process information poorly like every other human. I don't know all the answers. The main difference between me and most people is that we are all equally flawed and don't have all the answers, it's just that I don't pretend like I have the answers. <drinks>
P: That's really interesting, and I must admit, thought-provoking. <drinks>
D: Well, I want you to consider this carefully. If I'm wrong and you're right, we both go into the grave and nothing happens. But if I'm right and you're wrong, you're eternally lost and have the greatest price to pay.
Me: Ah, yes. Pascal's wager, indeed. I have numerous problems with Pascal's wager that I'd like to mention. First, I do not have a choice as to what I believe. You nor I can will ourselves at this very moment to believe Santa Claus is real and delivers presents to children in a sleigh powered by flying reindeer. Belief is not voluntary, it's the result of your brain processing evidence and making an involuntary assessment of the evidence.
Secondly what if you're wrong and the Muslims right? You are going to Hell for committing the blasphemy of believing in Christ's divinity.
Finally, I don't find Pascal's wager a particularly compelling reason for belief. Belief simply for the purposes of avoiding Hell is essentially reducing God to fire insurance, which I imagine he would find somewhat insulting.
I've enjoyed the talk, but have to run so let me leave you with this. Let's say a parent takes two children into a grocery store. Before entering the store she says to one child, "if you behave, when we leave the store I will take you to buy ice cream for your good behavior!" She makes no promise to the other child or plea to be good. During the shopping trip, both children behave. Of the two, which one is the more moral? The one who was promised a reward for good behavior, or the one who was good despite having no promise of a reward?
D: (wide-eyed) Uh. The child who was promised nothing.
Me: Exactly. One day if I ever meet a god, regardless of which god it turns out to be, maybe even one you don't know about. I can confidently say, hey I never knew about you in order to believe in you, but look I was good and loving and selfless, and I did all of these things without being coaxed with some kind of promise or threat. And that's why I don't care for Pascal's wager
P: (silent, staring wide-eyed)
D: (silent for several seconds) Wow. That is actually a really, really good point.
Me: I appreciate it. I think about these things a lot. It was a pleasure meeting you both, I have to go. (shakes hands with both)
D: I'm not going to lie man, you have definitely given me some things to think about.
P: Yeah, same here.
Me: Good. I don't really care what people believe, I care why they believe it. Never questioning what you're told is dangerous and it leads to things like flying airplanes into buildings because you truly believe you're doing something righteous and honoring to your god's will. That's why I encourage everyone to ask questions, and hey if you ask questions and come back to your original conclusion, you're still a better person for having taken the journey.