Wheen Lecture and God Debate Enlightening

WheenÂ’s delightful lecture poked fun at our species (I am speaking as a Homo sapien) and our tendency to submit to group hysteria over such things as Dutch tulip speculation, astrology and human rebirthing rituals (as practiced by Tony Blair and his wife), self-help gurus, and other myths and their makers. His theory boils down to the fact that we humans are all too willing to believe in just about anything, in the name of solidarity with our equally deluded brothers and sisters.

The debate following Wheen’s lecture proved to be exhibit A for his argument. A largely Christian crowd of believers cheered and applauded their speakers for their message of hope and forgiveness (made possible by a human sacrifice 2000 years ago), while the atheist speakers and their bleak message of “It’s reality…deal with it” elicited only polite applause from their smaller, rational fan-base. Reality rarely trumps fantasy and many in the audience seemed only too willing to accept the Biblical-based precepts of the Christian speakers while questioning the facts presented by the atheists. Wheen’s argument of “people believe the weirdest things” was played out like a two hour ad lib comedy show, only much of audience failed to realize the joke.

One of the reasons the Christians acquitted themselves well, however, in addition to the advantage of audience support, was the speaking style of one of the debaters. He was a skilled orator, using well-rehearsed simple parables and effective arm-waving, obviously learned from mentor priests, to dumb-down his message and make it easily accessible to all members of the audience. What made him even more convincing was the story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity; a real modern-day Benjamin Disraeli. There is nothing more powerful, convincing, and reassuring to believers than when a convert leads the choir.

The atheistsÂ’ argument, instead of being about hope and love, was about the realities of religiously-based ethnic cleansings, why did a loving God create parasites, why is slavery condoned in the Old Testament, etc. It is inherently difficult to win an argument when the opposition suggests that happiness is as simple as submitting to a loving sky-god, while the other side argues that happiness requires work, cooperation, and intellectual rigor, aka thinking. The former formula wins out over the later most of the time.

One of the parables by the aspiring reverend was in response to the question of why the devout feel it so necessary to “spread the word”. He maintained that just as adults need to warn children about walking onto a busy street, Christians feel a need, a calling, to warn non-Christians that they are going to miss out on the after-life. This parable brings to mind two questions: 1) Is belief in Jesus required for someone to know they should teach children not play in traffic or is this just one of many instinctive, moral behaviors with which we are born ? 2) Once a child is old enough to know that playing in traffic is a bad thing, is it still necessary for the child to subjugate their judgment (and their lives) to the dictates of an adult (or imaginary friend)?

One particularly spot-on question came from a student in a ski cap. “Why is it that the religious response to death, disease, catastrophes and tragedy is always ‘God works in mysterious ways’ while the response to the many great things that happen in life is ‘God made it happen’? The response by the believers was the typical catch-all answer, “…there are things in this universe we don’t and can’t understand.” I have a feeling this argument has been used quite often throughout history, possibly going back to when the first cavepersons posed the same question to their shamans. “We are not to know,” responded the shaman indignantly…“Now put that yam and a piece of bison on the collection plate and ask me no more questions.”

There were quite a few Muslim students at the event and surprisingly, they offered little rebuttal to either side of the debate. Was this out of respect for magical thinking, respect for open dialogue and freedom of thought, or was it out of fear that their faith would become part of the debate? A three-way debate would be an interesting follow-up event. And speaking of follow-up, the Christian group begged the audience to attend their lunch event the next day, keeping true to the idea of never missing an opportunity to witness and recruit. The atheists shook their shaggy heads and went home.

Francis WheenÂ’s lecture and the God debate that followed provided an enlightening evening. The fact that RMU, dedicated to developing the critical thinking skills of tens of thousands of people every year, still has legions of uncritical thinkers, speaks volumes to WheenÂ’s hypothesis. Will mumbo-jumbo continue to collect followers or will the 21st century see a re-emergence of reason, doubt and critical thinking? The debate continues.

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