21 January 2012

Lecture Notes

Last night I attended a lecture. A friend of a friend talked for about an hour about the science/atheism vs. religion divide. One of the key points he hammered was that this debate/dialogue has devolved to a place of waste. The conversation is being defined on both sides by people who are ignorant to the questions that need to be (and have been) asked. He briefly cited Hitchens, Harris, and others in the new atheist movement and discussed the typical "arguments" that come from the religious side. A lot of his angst seemed to be rooted in the state of this dialogue.

The lecturer, Keith, was well versed in history, philosophy, and religion and was adamant that this debate/dialogue could happen in a real and productive way. He talked about people he knew and some who he didn't, on both sides of the argument, who could engage in a way in which we could all get more informed, intelligent, and grounded on the issue of religion and science.

While his point was correct, I think we're beyond that. Keith talked about Nobel prize winning people who could engage this topic productively and all I could think was how un-entertaining nobel prize winning people *probably* are (I've never met any, but I have a stereotype in my head). I don't think we want to get smarter and more informed. This is even more true when we look at the idea of religion. The thing we want more than anything is to be entertained. There is nothing entertaining about being educated slowly over the course of time. The argument, as it is currently defined, is entertaining. We are getting what we want in this debate.

The second big theme from Keith's lecture focused on doctrine, creeds, councils, etc. This was the part of the talk when people started shifting awkwardly in their seats. Keith talked about many of the spiritual traditions (Native American, Buddhist, Judeo-Christian, etc.) and how there are many fundamental similarities when you look at life and material reality. While we typically have crazily different "doctrinal positions," when we look at the lives we say we want to be living, things start to level out.

During the Q&A time at the end, this was the point that seemed to rub people the wrong way. Questions were asked and re-asked about this. Universal Truth, Foundational Morality, etc. were discussed. As I was sitting there the question that seemed to be floating around the room, underlying the questions that were being asked, was "How do I know if I am winning?"

This question can be viewed in two ways: zero-sum or non-zeor-sum. While it was being phrased in a non-zero-sum way (we can all win!), I think it was really being experienced in a zero-sum way.

How do we know if we are winning? Well, I guess if we can figure out who is losing...right?

Keith drove the idea that doctrine, in and of itself, is impotent. While I agree with him, I would submit that doctrine is the mechanism we use to define the winners and losers on a cosmic scale. It's the basic way we have decided who's in and who's out.

Finally, Keith had a great beard. I give his beard two, enthusiastic thumbs up.