Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Better Discussion

So yesterday in Toronto, Mr. Famous Atheist Journalist debated Mr. Famous Former Poltician: "Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world." To read the transcript, go here. Get a cup of coffee first, though. It's long.

And no, I didn't get through it all. Partly I'm an intellectual lightweight. Partly I am less impressed with Christopher Hitchens than most people are--and far less impressed with him than he is. Ditto Blair.

And partly, I think it's the wrong question. This statement is never debated: "Be it resolved, atheism is a force for good in the world." Possibly, atheists would say that they don't claim to be a force for good in the world. Except that they do, increasingly. Hitchens and Dawkins and their ilk make this claim when they describe people of belief as unintelligent and dangerous--when they equate all people of belief with religious extremists.

But actually, I don't think a defense of atheism as a force for good is the right question for debate, either. In fact, I don't see a need for debate. And that may itself explain my antipathy: I don't like shouting to no purpose. I don't like shouting in general. And I'm not a fan of either-or. I am all about the both-and.

So here's a better approach, in my opinion. It's from the world of security, but it works in the atheism/religion "debate" as well.

Alex Epstein, on his screenwriting blog "Complications Ensue," talks today about the difference between security (as in, airport security) and security theatre. He himself is addressing an article by Bruce Schneier in the New York Times's "Room for Debate" section, entitled "A Waste of Money and Time." Schneier makes the case that the current approach to airport security isn't working. Epstein characterizes today's security as a story-based approach, instead of a numbers-based approach.

Epstein concludes his post about security by saying that he believes that humans are hard-wired to understand and make stories. He continues

Stories are wonderful. They help us understand the world. You watch a movie about a relationship and maybe you take away an insight about your own relationship. But they are not a substitute for rational thought.

I would say it similarly but slightly differently. I think scientific facts tell us one kind of truth about our world. Stories tell us another kind of truth.

Here's some science: The cliffs outside my window are made of basalt. They've been there for about 1.5 billion years, in some form or other, emerging first from a rift as lava and solidifying into a sheet that eventually imploded. The cliffs are characteristic of the geology of this area--you can see them repeated in Mount McKay, in Caribou Island, even on the Sibley peninsula.

Here's some story: At the base of those cliffs, just outside my window here, my grandfather planted a vegetable garden some 75 years ago. He put a fence around it but was largely unsuccessful in keeping out the deer. He also built a road: using a block and tackle and his engineering ingenuity, he created a ledge around the cliff just wide enough to hold one car. Every time we walk past the garden, we look for the remnants of the fencing. When we walk down the road, we try to figure out which boulders he had to move.

Same place. Two kinds of enduring knowledge. Neither better than the other, neither more accurate. So why do people like Hitchens and Blair, and those who put them into ring, keep trying to make us choose between them? Why can't we have both kinds of knowledge?

Yes, we have to know which arena is most appropriate for which kind of knowledge. And another time, I might argue that science is itself a story--one we humans are constantly rewriting as we learn more.

But there's been enough arguing. Here's a story. Once up on a time, two powerful, intelligent men stopped taking money for pretend-arguing in a meaningless debate and instead turned their considerable powers of mind and money to fixing problems for the people in the world they care about. And those people did the same. And they did the same. Over time, starving people ate. Sick people received care. And little by little, person by person, the world became better. Less hostile.

Thanks to religion? Thanks to atheism? Who cares, really, who's responsible, if the world is getting better. And if the world isn't getting better--well, maybe we should stop arguing and get to work.

Even if, or perhaps especially if, our work is storytelling.