When They Stand at the Edge of Non-Belief It’s so Hard Not to Push

The questionnaire that I have my students fill out at the beginning of every semester includes questions designed with a view to getting to know who my students are. I always find the answers interesting and revealing, and occasionally alarming.

 

One of the questions I ask is, “What is the biggest idea you’ve ever had to come to terms with?” As you can no doubt imagine, I see quite a range of answers to this one: everything from “what goes on inside a black hole?” to “I’ll soon have to move out of my parents’ basement,” with a smattering of references to mortality and religion in between. A few students leave that one blank – just don’t care to touch it. (Have they never wrestled with a big idea?) A few semesters ago, one student responded with, “fucking magnets – how do they work?

 

Among last semester’s crop of students was a young woman from a small Oklahoma town who wrote the following in response to my nosy question: “Everyone does not believe what I do from a religious perspective. It’s hard for me to understand why others believe what they do. I am Southern Baptist.”

 

Believe it or not, I understand her predicament and sympathize. I’ve been there.

 

What I wish I could have said to her, and of course didn’t and never will on principle, is something like the following:

“It’s really pretty easy to understand. Other people believe the weird things they believe for precisely the same reason that you believe what you believe: they, like you, were indoctrinated in those beliefs when they were very young children, unable to think for themselves and evaluate truth claims. That’s why some of your classmates believe that Mohammed ascended to heaven on a white horse, which, as you understand full well, is preposterous; on the other hand, you have no trouble at all believing that Elijah went there in a whirlwind, since that’s recorded in the Word of God.

 

“If you’ll give it a little thought, you’ll see that your reasons for believing that Elijah was swept up to heaven in a whirlwind have nothing to do with the event’s being any more plausible than the claim that Mohammed went there on a white horse: in fact, either of those incidents has precisely the same likelihood of being true as the other (which is, no likelihood at all), and the only real difference between those fanciful stories lies in their having been recorded in two different Iron-Age books.

 

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“If you understand the point I’ve made, you’ll now have to decide what you’re going to do about it.”

But I didn’t say that to her. If she wants to understand, she’ll have to keep groping her own way toward the light. I know how hard that is: I’ve made that journey, but I can’t make it for anyone else, and the attempt to do so would no doubt be resented – and like as not, challenged (in the “Ima report my commie professor to the Dean” sense).

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