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15 November 2015

Selling Religion Door to Door

One of the benefits of occasionally working from home is having the opportunity to engage in pleasant conversations with door-to-door missionaries. I know that for most people, seeing a pair of young men with matching ties and haircuts approaching their door will elicit a feeling somewhere between anger and resignation, but this particular intellectual pursuit is a hobby of mine, so for me it's an unexpected (and usually welcome) treat.

So when a couple of gentlemen from a local church stopped by a few weeks ago, I was delighted to take a break from improving Julia's stacktrace functionality to chat with them for a few minutes. And given that I'd just settled on "apologetics" as the topic for the next episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else (it's a podcast miracle!), I figured that this might provide a valuable opportunity to hear what arguments feet-on-the-street missionaries were using these days.

So if you're interested in this topic, we discuss it in more detail on tomorrow's episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else.

One of the things that I hear fairly often, from both the religious and the nonreligious alike, is that these sorts of metaphysical debates—the back and forth, argument and counterargument—are simply a waste of everyone's time. And I get that argument. If you don't want to spend time on it, if you don't feel that you get anything out of these conversations, by all means: don't. And if you're going into one of these conversations expecting to convince the other person that their god of choice doesn't exist, then you are wasting your time. You're definitely not going to do that immediately, and you're probably not going to convince them at all.

But as I said, I enjoy the point and counterpoint. But most importantly, it seems to me that being able to engage thoughtfully in highly charged discussions with people that we disagree with and actually attempting to understand other points of view... that's a very important life skill, and it's one that I try to cultivate. And if they want to come to my door, that's an invitation to a conversation, and it's one I'm (usually) happy to accept.

But my first rule is to be friendly. Because come on, friendliness is pleasant, and these people are also human beings.

A missionary. (Artist's impression.)

I have a hypothetical that I like to pose to missionaries who come to my door. Obviously they believe that God is an active presence in the world, tinkering here and there (you don't get many deist missionaries these days, unfortunately). But say that God suddenly stopped performing miracles and intervening in people's lives. What about the world would be different?

The way I see it, good things and bad things would still happen in the world. Athletes would still win sports games, people would still find their lost car keys, lotteries would still be won. People would still be good to each other now and again. Doctors would still save lives. Amputees who prayed would still not regrow their limbs.

I don't often get a very satisfactory answer.

The men who greeted me when I got up to get the door weren't Mormon: they were too mismatched. One was in his twenties, while another was older and bearded (I think), and neither was wearing a tie. It was the younger man who rang the doorbell, the older fellow content to watch from the walk.

"Many people are concerned about the state of the world," the younger man began, "what with refugees in Syria and all of the terrible things going on. I have a question for you, sir: Do you think that the world will get better?"

I thought about it for a moment, then I agreed that yeah, I was pretty confident that things were getting better, little by little, day by day. On most days (my brighter days), it seems to me that Reverend King was right about arc of the moral universe.

"That's great," he said, "that's very optimistic." Although to be honest he seemed a little put off by my answer. I think he was expecting more pessimism than he got. (They should have waited until November to stop by: NaNoWriMo was only a few days away.)

He moved on to the next point on his mental bullet-list: "Do you ever wonder what God's plan is for us, or why he allows suffering?"


"No? Why not?"

Because I don’t believe in any gods. I don't spend a lot of time speculating on the plans of fictional characters. (That last part was a lie, now that I think about it. Which reminds me: I should be working on my novel instead of writing this.)

The younger fellow's eyebrows shot up, and he glanced back at the older man. The bearded fellow stepped in, thinking (or so I imagine): Aha! An atheist! Don't worry, son. I'll handle this!

"Then who created all of this?" he said, gesturing expansively.

I pointed out that the way he phrased the question was a little unfair, because to say "who created" presupposes a creator. It's a loaded question.

"Okay, fine. You're right. But where did this all come from, then?"

I shrugged. I don't know, and I don't pretend to. But I asked him to imagine that I gave him a present, a sweater for example. Perhaps, enamoured with his gift, he wants to know where I got it, but alas I've forgotten. Perhaps he might announce, then, that he's sure I got it from Mars. I protest that I'm pretty sure that "Mars" isn't the right answer, but he insists that unless I can tell him exactly where I got it, and provide documentary proof, then he's going to go with "Mars" as his answer for where the sweater came from and I should, too.

Not a perfect analogy, but I've certainly made worse. Speculating as to the provenance of a boulder lying at the foot of a mountain would have maybe been a better analogy. I try not to bore people with l'esprit de l'escalier, but mentioning it here is better than trying to track the pair down to attempt to recreate the same conversation so that I can get it right.

Anyway, my point is that this is a classic "God of the Gaps" argument. Functionally, it's an appeal to ignorance.

"Well," the older man says, gesturing, "we see a house, and we know that it has a builder." He leaves it there, but but the implication is that the universe should be seen the same way.

I refrained from pointing out that this particular house seemed to have a pretty slipshod builder, and it was in pretty poor repair. He'd probably have responded with something about "original sin" anyway, and I don't think that's covered by homeowner's insurance (what with it arguably being an Act of God).

But the real question is: How? (Or maybe "Why?") When we look at a house, how do we know that it has a builder? Well, we see other houses being built. We see draughtsmen designing them, and construction workers building them.

At this point he started talking about tornados in junkyards and I may have blacked out for a few minutes. The next thing I remember, he was talking about fine tuning.

"But our world is so perfect for us. What are the chances? The angle of the earth's axis is exactly 23½ degrees..."

He trailed off here, and I assume he was expecting some response beyond, "Yeah, seasons are nice," so I quoted some Douglas Adams for him.

I also pointed out that his argument ignored the rather interesting fact that the vast majority of the universe is not only empty, but also instantaneously lethal to pretty much any form of life that we can name.

And finally, asking "What are the chances?" that conditions would be right for our kind of life rather seems to assume that our kind of life was the point all along. But if conditions had been different, perhaps another kind of life might have emerged. It's like someone winning the lottery, and taking that to mean that the lottery had been designed with that person in mind, when in fact (as we all understand) someone else might have won, or perhaps nobody at all, and maybe sometime down the line there would be another set of numbers drawn.

It was at this point that the younger missionary started tugging at the older one. "Come on, let's go," he said.

I told them that I was sorry if I was boring them or wasting their time, but they did come to talk to me after all. But the older one was starting to get a little riled up by then.

"So let me ask you this," he began. "What do you believe is Man's ultimate purpose?"

To begin with I took a bit of an issue with him referring to all of humanity simply as "Man", and he sputtered indignantly a bit. But I tried to find some common ground, telling him that I believed that it's important for everyone to feel that they have purpose and direction in their life. But as far as an ultimate purpose? I simply don't see any reason to think that some "ultimate" purpose exists.

"Then what’s to stop me from stealing and just doing whatever I want."

Nothing, I suppose. Well, maybe a few things. Boy, is stealing really what he wants to do?

I mean, some people do just do whatever they want. But if you're stealing and hurting others, then people probably won't like you very much. People wouldn't want you around, you wouldn't have very many friends, and you'd likely wind up in jail. There are plenty of reasons you might not to want that.

But I told him that to quite a large degree I do do whatever I want. (And, as an aside, I recognize that this puts me in a position of staggering privilege.) But I wouldn't want to hurt someone else. If stealing and hurting others is what you really want, then that's a rather sad existence, isn't it?

I have empathy for others. I wouldn't want to cause hurt.

"Aha! But where does that empathy come from?" (Okay, he may not have actually said "aha", but he definitely had a triumphant look on his face.)

I told him that seems likely to me that some of our empathy is innate, but I'm sure that my upbringing had a lot to do with it. As a parent, I can say that empathy is to a large degree a learned behaviour, and I'm grateful to have had some very good teachers, because when I was younger it wasn't always easy to imagine that other people were just as important and worthy of consideration as me.

Ultimately, we are a social species (as much as that's hard for some of us, sometimes). It's important that we all have supportive communities. I told him that I was confident that his church provides its congregants with exactly that. And while I wished him well with it, I didn't think it likely that I'd be joining that particular community today.

The older fellow shook my hand, the younger fellow finally succeeded in pulling him away, and I went back to my work.

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