Professor Kirke Was Right

This past week I got to do something really cool: I was a guest speaker for a Religion and Philosophy class at Sunset High School. Before the semester is over they will hear from Jewish, Muslim, Christian Science, and Hindu speakers, and more. My task was to explain Christianity to these 40 or so high school students, and answer their questions. What a blast! I didn't really feel like I had the time to prepare with everything else in my schedule, but some opportunities you just don't pass up. So I said yes.

The first half was my time to present. So, given 45 minutes to explain Christianity to a room full of mostly not-Christian students, what would you say?

Well, as interesting a question as that is, it's what happened next that was really fun. That's when they had the chance to ask questions. I was a little surprised by how this part went. Not that they asked me anything I didn't expect; to the contrary, I anticipated most of the topics they brought up. But it was interesting to see how "stuck" they were on a couple items. Tops on the "stuck" list was the idea that Jesus/Christianity is the only correct religion.

After answering several versions of this question a number of different times, I got the question yet again from one young lady. So I took a little different approach. The conversation went something like this:

Student #1: So, lots of people have lots of different beliefs, and they hold those beliefs strongly,

Me: Certainly,

Student #1: so... are you saying that you believe their beliefs aren't true?

Me: Let's think about this for a moment. {Pointing at the shcedule of speakers on the whiteboard} You've already heard from a Jewish speaker, from a Christian today, and next week you'll hear from a Muslim speaker.

Judaism believes Jesus was a rabbi (religious teacher) at best. Christians, to the contrary, think he is God Almighty in human flesh and we worship him. Muslims think something different from these two: that Jesus was a significant prophet from God who pointed to the coming of God's true prophet Muhammad. Make sense so far?

Student #1: {nods her head in comprehension}

Me: OK, then I have one simple question. Could you help me understand how they can all three be right?

Student #1: hmmmm... {brow furrows in thought. After 2-3 seconds of silence, her mouth opens as if to speak, then closes again. 3-4 more seconds of silence ensue as she fishes for an answer to my question}

Student #2: It's impossible.

Student #1: Well, I think that... {stops again, as if considering the words she was about to speak. After another brief pause...} It's difficult to explain.

Me: {smiling} It's difficult to explain because it's impossible.

Throughout this discussion I felt a strong empathy with the fictional Professor Kirke in CS Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When Peter and Susan dismiss their sister Lucy's story of travelling to Narnia by magic, Professor Kirke challenges their thinking:

"Logic! Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

The professor was challenging Peter and Susan to use their brains and ignore their built-in biases. Their minds were closed to even the simplest logic when it didn't fit their pre-conceived notions. Many of the students I spoke to last week were in a similar boat (several were not, of course, but most were). As illustrated by the young lady in my example, many of them simply could not get their minds around a conclusion that was actually quite simple -- so simple in fact that a child much younger than them could follow the logic. Why couldn't they? Were these students unintelligent? Not at all. Rather, some of them have a built-in bias filter that is so strong it shuts even simple logic completely down.

The built-in bias filter in this case is the modern notion of Tolerance, which insists that all views are equally valid (not true, but valid... "true" is a meaningless concept in this view) before any evaluative thinking can take place. The result is that no truly evaluative thinking actually takes place at all, which of course is the death of logic. When we become convinced that evaluating beliefs is a hostile action against another person, we will never actually evaluate beliefs, and critical thinking stays safely locked up in a box and put on a shelf in our minds. The result oftentimes is absurd, almost humorously so. Such as when otherwise bright High School students get stumped by a second-grade logic problem.

There was much more to both my presentation and to the Q&A session, and the whole thing was a privilege and an absolute blast. I had a 30-minute conversation with a bright atheist student after class, and many other great interactions. Hopefully the challenge of logic makes some of these kids really think about why they believe what they believe, and not just assimilate whatever their culture is throwing at them uncritically. Too much is at stake for them to just be a mindless sheep and follow the crowd on this stuff.

In Lewis' story, when Peter and Susan persist in their unbelief Professor Kirke mutters to himself "I wonder what they do teach them at these schools." Well, these days they teach them Tolerance. And common sense is the first casualty.

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