two ‘religious’ interactions

Hey blog readers, thought I’d share two interactions I had, from the last couple of days. I found them thought-provoking anyway, but not in a satisfying way. Guess the world is a bit broken, or something!   These are fairly typical kinds of things that seem to be happening more and more as I interact with people.

The first was in an official consultation with an academic as part of my MSc research; I approached an expert to check the experimental design I’m using for part of my project. I had had an earlier brief appointment with the expert last week, and had taken one of their small postgrad classes last year, so we were not complete strangers, but they are a very “direct” kind of person anyway (what you might call a hard case), so that doesn’t matter too much. I’ll keep the details a bit ambiguous, as I like to avoid too much detail that could identify people, on this blog. One of the expert’s very first utterances, as I sat down, was “Are you religious?”.  I was, to say the least, a little taken aback, but mumbled “yes … though it probably won’t be too relevant to my project …” The expert is someone who swears every second sentence (hardly an exaggeration), and it turns out that they like to be careful not to offend religious people with too much blasphemy, kindly giving me an example of the kind of phrase at issue. I just shrugged, and they asked if I was one of those who are a bit casual about such things, so I just said that “it’s not me saying it …”.

I wonder to myself if there were some more helpful things I could’ve said. In hindsight, I am tempted to think that it would’ve been interesting to pop out the Kalam cosmological argument (everything that begins to exist has a cause, the universe began to exist, therefore it had a cause, and the cause was transcendent and immaterial …) in response to the question “are you religious?” – I figure that heck, if you’re going to ask someone a question like that out of the blue, you can’t complain if your atheism is challenged;  but I only had an hour consultation to sort my experimental design and was already late as I’d misunderstood where the location would be, so I wasn’t quite in the frame of mind for a protracted discussion on the relative merits of Christian faith over atheism. I just wanted a “yes” or “no” answer on a particular procedure – fortunately, I got more than that, and am working on a nice statistical model with this expert.  I’m pleased the question was asked in any case, and also pleased that they were impressed with my work. I hope this might open an opportunity to revisit the question in later consultations. This expert has done quite a bit of work with an important surgeon who is an evangelical Christian (and I suspect that that’s not public knowledge), so if I’m brave I may bring up the topic next time – we shall see.  The desire not to offend religious people, combined with the idea that such people are quite easy to offend (and that faith is a very personal and touchy subject), is an interesting phenomenon.

The second was a Hare Krishna guy on Queen St, who tried to get me interested in the Bhagavad Ghita. I was very happy for the conversation, as I’d noticed the group a few minutes ago and was interested to hear what they’d say if I started asking them questions on their truth claims. Usually I’ve found they’re not very pushy, so I was thinking I’d have to walk up to them and ask them a question, but that didn’t turn out to be necessary, with one of them brandishing the book in my face as I walked past.  He tried to engage in awkward small talk first, but I went straight to asking about the book, and why I should read it. Apparently it has stuff in it about consciousness, and since everyone who is alive is conscious, we should all be interested in hearing what the book has to say on it. I found this line of reasoning a little dubious, so said that there are lots of books, and lots of people talk about consciousness – why should I read this one? “Why not read this one?” was his response, to which I repeated my general point – I can’t read everything! To this, he pointed me to the back of the book, which had commendatory blurbs from Mahatma Gandhi and others. I noted that they say positive things about lots of stuff (I was thinking of what Gandhi has said about Jesus), and that I was still wondering why this book is particularly trustworthy or valuable. Some kind of vague affirmation of the idea that everyone has their own truth was made, some point about how consciousness is important was repeated, and to this I noted that I’d rather go to an expert on consciousness, like a psychologist or philosopher (I was thinking of the study I’d done in the philosophy of mind) – just to see what he’d say. To this, the guy seemed slightly offended, and said “okay, go to a psychologist then – no-one’s forcing you”, then turned his back and walked a meter away to try to foist the book on someone less skeptical. Conversation over!

While I had hoped for a lengthier interaction, if nothing else this brief conversation cemented in my mind the conviction that appeals to personal experience or subjective truth make for rather poor apologetic methodology. Christian friends – we can do better than the Hare Krishna!   I also thought that a public interaction with a Hare Krishna could make for quite an entertaining and edifying event, so we’ll see what happens there!

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