Recently, one of my hardest working pupils, whose capacities have flowered tremendously over the past couple of years, sent me an e-mail about a long-running exchange she had been having with a friend. The subject of their parry and thrust was none other than the existence of God. Readers will see their articulate ideas below the fold, as well as the response that I gave to my interlocutor in this matter.
Though I wrote very much 'off the cuff,' and would hopefully speak with more discipline and coherence were this a forum in which we three and others were actively participating, I've decided to post this for a simple but plausibly important reason: instead of discouraging this sort of debate in the public schools, we should foster it and others equally tendentious at every possible opportunity, since the travails of the current age command us to contemplate difficult choices that at times seem almost impossible to disentangle. Youngsters thus need exactly this sort of argumentation in order to hone their real world skills for considering how to proceed in the face of delicate differences and unfathomable complexity.
My student wrote to me as follows.
Hi, Mr. H.
This is (your favorite student). My idiot friend and I always argue about the belief in the existence of god. Basically I'm agnostic. I don't know if there is a god, and I dont know if there isnt a god. My friend is an atheist. He ardently believes that there is no god, even when he admits that he doesnt have enough proof to prove his belief that there is no god. I said what you said in class once: there is no difference between christians and atheists because christians say there that there is definitely a god, and atheists say that there is definitely no god. I say that there is not sufficient enough proof for both sides, so Im not going to take a side. He agrees with me that he cannot prove that there is no god, but he just has faith in this belief, and he cannot see how he is similar to christians. It's simply something he believes in...he has faith with not enough proof. Can you please explain to him that he is essentially no different than a Christian? Below is his argument. Please excuse him if he sounds really stupid.
This was the forwarded note that I was to examine and to which I had the chance to respond. To say the least, its writer is a clever young thinker, though the text finesses the issue that my pupil asked me to address.
----- Forwarded Message ----
I believe that there is no God because there is a lack of proof. I know how stupid this sounds. There are two sides of this arguement, God or no God. When there is a person selling me that there is this "God" who is all powerful and all knowing, then he better have sufficient evidence to convince me of it. Otherwise, there is no reason to believe that there is a God. I dont' have to "prove" that there is no God, because I'm not the one trying to convince people otherwise.
It's the same with me going up to a friend and saying "hey, there is this all powerful being called Bobby and he can create universes and exist forever." I clearly do not have any proof of "Bobby" at all. Now my friend has two sides, to believe in Bobby, or to not believe in Bobby. We both don't have proof that Bobby exists or doesn't exist. What option would my friend be likely to side with? He would probably say that there is no "Bobby" at all.
My response is as follows. Again, this is fairly facile fluff, but it ought at the least to get these two thinking about what they hope to accomplish in their spirited back-and-forth dialog, apparently of longstanding duration.
What a cool and interesting exchange. Neither you nor your friend is an idiot, and if I understand what your buddy is saying correctly, he pretty much acknowledges the substance of your point about his similarity with Christians. However, he advances a spirited point that, whereas the Christians have nothing other than doctrine and holy writ with which to support their faiths, he has....what? A clear eyed view of the cosmos that sees nothing Godly there.
You might try something in this vein when you correspond or speak again: "Listen you! You've acknowledged that your position is a faith-based position. Technically, any debate judge in existence would award me the laurels in this little spat. The point is that, given a lack of dispositive proof, one has to make a leap of faith in order either to believe or not believe in God. You remind me of Blaise Pascal, only in a weird sort of obverse way.
He said that although the most reasonable position was uncertainty, belief in God was more rational than either agnosticism or atheism. His reasoning went something like this. The cost of a worshipful attitude is lowest, because the payoff to being lucky is so huge, an eternity in heaven, even if the odds are against you. On the other hand, the cost of disbelief or uncertainty if one is wrong about one's conclusion, an eternity in hell, makes this option unappealing, this time even if the odds are heavily in your favor.
Your POV, which uses rationality as a superior approach to questions such as this--a questionable assumption, let me tell you--basically supports a different version of Pascal. You think that because you've marshaled copious evidence of the cosmos that doesn't contain God's footprint, so to speak, you can make a cosmic bet on atheism and escape inevitable characterization of your opinion as faith-based. Since you admit this point, however, you are essentially standing Pascal's position in favor of Christianity on its head. If you understood polarity and dialectics, you would realize that yours is therefore a precisely similar position, whatever your protestations to the contrary. Your deity, the great God Ran-Dom is no more provable than is the holy trinity of the Catholics.
If you ever decide to celebrate the wonders of curiosity and uncertainty, you will join me in the agnostic camp. "I am drawn to those who seek the truth," says one of my teachers, "but I flee from those who have 'found' it." He means that any statement of utter certainty about any totality of being cannot help, coming from the partiality of human effort, but be uncertain, and hence, if maintained fiercely enough, absurd."
In any attempt to unravel epistemological issues, how we can ascertain the contours of our knowledge, interactions such as this can be helpful. DK readers may be able to bring to mind a few matters--Israel v. Palestine, nuke futures v. no-nuke scenarios, interventionist foreign policy v. cooperative international relations, among others--in which a training ground in how to consider such questions might serve to create a more collegial and useful exchange of views. Of course, if the purpose of our work is not to produce such utility, then we needn't worry about such preparations. Inquiring minds, in any event, as ever would like to know.