Wednesday, May 6, 2015

TEDx Texas Tech University: What if everyone searched before belief?

I gave a TEDx Talk at the recent TEDx Texas Tech University 2015 event. The following is the manuscript I used to practice for my talk, along with a few photos from the event. I am writing this to spread the word about my talk in the hope that it will help others who are going on a search for truth, and to decrease social push-back against those who seek real answers to questions about belief.

What if everyone searched before belief?
Hi my name is Josh, and I am a 1st year MD/PhD student at TTUHSC, and that just means that I like medicine, I like science, and I like Lubbock. I also did my undergrad at Tech, and one of the things my friends and I used to do is we would drive around town, hold our breaths, and we would only take a breath when we saw a church. Having gone through about a year in medical school, I’ve learned that this was probably not a good idea. But the thing about Lubbock, is that this game really wasn’t hard.

And the reason for this is that Lubbock has the highest number of churches per capita in the United States.

Today I’m going to examine religious belief, or probably a better way to say it is worldview, and my goal is to get you to seriously question all of your deepest and most dearly held convictions.
But my hope is not that you would necessarily leave your beliefs, and it is also not that you would affirm your beliefs. My hope is that through a process of genuine inquiry you would learn enough about your beliefs and the beliefs of others that the place you arrive at is a place of your design, be decision, not by default.

And fair warning: Some of the things I’m going to talk about wouldn’t make the best ice breakers at your next Thanksgiving dinner. 

Like many here in Lubbock, I grew up as a Christian in a Christian home. My beliefs meant so much to me, that I had my entire life planned out in 2 steps. Step one was to become a doctor, and step two was to become a medical missionary in Africa for the rest of my life.

Because of this, it came as a particular shock to me, when my dad, who was a leader in our church, left his faith. To me this was a worst nightmare situation, because one of the things I believed at that time, was that anyone who wasn’t a Christian was going to go to hell. Because I loved my dad, I did everything I could to bring him back. But it wasn’t a matter of simply having a ‘come to Jesus’ conversation, (and I certainly tried that). It was a matter of whether or not Christianity was actually true. But it was impossible for me to have a meaningful conversation with him, because he was so, so much smarter than me. And I realized that I needed to level the playing field. So from a very early age I started delving into any kind of science or philosophy that had anything to do with whether or not God existed, because I loved my dad, and I wanted to do anything I could to help him.
So when I got to college I started interacting with people from many different backgrounds. And just like with my dad, I cared about them, and because I cared about them, I tried to convert them to Christianity.

I generally did my homework first, and when I compared some their worldviews to science, philosophy, history, or general reason, it was abundantly clear that some of them, just, weren’t true. But when I tried to share this, one of the most common responses was “you just have to have faith” or “this isn’t about whether or not it is true, it is just something we believe”.

To me, seeing this belief without evidence, or even in the face of evidence, was deeply disturbing, because again, I thought that if someone wasn’t a Christian they were going to go to hell. So it broke my heart, and it broke my heart because just like with my dad, I loved these people and wanted to do anything I could to help them.

It was during a pivotal conversation with one of my college roommates, however, that I realized that I had been going about this in the wrong way. We were actually having a debate on what the Bible really taught about hell.

I realized that I was only looking for arguments that supported what I already believed, and while listening to my roommate, I was only looking for ways to show that he was wrong. And then I thought, what if other people treated my thoughts this way? Would we make any progress? What were the odds that I happened to grow up in not only the right religion, but in the specific denomination of the right religion that just happened to have a monopoly on truth.

I realized this was colossally unlikely.

And so I decided to adopt a new golden rule: treat other’s arguments the way you want yours to be treated, and weigh other worldviews the way you would want yours to be weighed.

So I spent a year learning a much as I could about 35 world religions. And I learned about them, as much as possible, from the people that actually practiced them. I wanted to learn their perspective for the sake of learning their perspective—not to find out why they were wrong.

In addition to my new golden rule, I made use of what has been termed a “outsider test for faith”, a test advocated by Christian turned atheist, John Loftus. And the outsider test just means that you examine a worldview with the same amount of skepticism and fairness as someone who didn’t grow up believing that particular view.

This process of searching, came to a major turning point during my junior year of college. It was then that I realized that each argument I had used in support of Christianity wasn’t actually true. And because of this, I left my faith.

This was no easy task for me, and it came with great loss. It was terrifying to look at the world, and be forced to see it from a completely different perspective. I also lost some of my closest friends, even ones whom had known me for my entire life. But I wasn’t willing to trade my intellectual integrity for social acceptance. And it didn’t make any sense to follow a God if I didn’t have reasons to follow.

But the search didn’t end there for me. I knew enough to know that there was still a vast amount to learn. I redoubled my efforts, I added a classics major to my biology major so I could understand both science and the humanities, I completed an honors thesis in the philosophy of physics on one of the strongest arguments in favor of God’s existence, I sought out mentors who were older and wiser than me to make the path easier, until now, six years after beginning my search, I’ve come to a conclusion.

And I’ve written that conclusion on the next slide.

(Ok, you really want to know? Its Zeus)

I’m sorry, but I’m not going to tell you what my conclusion is. Because to you, it really shouldn’t matter. What matters is that you, personally, go on a search of your own to determine what you think.
But why go on such a journe?. After all, it cost me a huge amount of time, and I even lost some of my closest friends. And in some cultures doing so can result in severe persecution. So why do it?

Well first, let me establish that the majority of people don’t go on a search. Here is a map of the world broken down by religious belief. And it seems to me that if you grew up in Russia, you would probably be an Orthodox Christian. If you grew up in China, you would probably be an atheist, or, non-religious. If you grew up in India, you would most likely be Hindu. If you grew up in the Middle East, you would probably be Muslim, and if you grew up in America, you would probably be a Christian.  

Second, I think there are instances where you can end up believing things that are completely ridiculous by choosing to default to what your culture teaches. Take, for example, all those ridiculous people who think that the dress is black and blue. It’s clearly white and gold.

And to me, what you think about the big questions in life are some of the most important things about you—where we came from, do we have a purpose, what happens after we die, I don’t think any of us really wants to leave what we think about those things up to random factors, such as where we were born. Why leave those things up to a geographic lottery?

And further, I think all of us just, really want to know. If some all-powerful being created the universe, I would want to know about it. If there’s an afterlife, I would want to know about that. If there’s only one life to live and nothing happens after you die, I would also want to know about that. If there is an invisible and undetectable flying spaghetti monster that created the universe, I would definitely want to know about that.

So, we want answers to those big questions. We want answers that are both emotionally and mentally satisfying, we don’t want to be told to believe things “just because”, and above all else, I think that we want answers that are actually true.

Before I conclude, let me briefly touch on two possible counters to the arguments I have made.
First, why not just say that all worldviews have equal access to truth?

Well, the view that all worldviews have equal access to truth is itself a worldview that needs to be fairly examined using the golden rule and the outsider test. And also, it makes an exclusive claim, a claim that cannot simultaneously be true while belief systems exist that make opposing exclusive claims. By basic logic, it shoots itself in the foot.

Second, the kind of evidence we would need doesn’t exist, or, science can’t talk about God or morality, the search is ultimately futile and will just go on forever. Basically, it’s impossible to know.
To this I would say that you may be thinking about it the wrong way. It is true, you can’t put God or morality in a test tube, make a hypothesis, and run tests to see what will happen.

However, to quote Christian scholar William Lane Craig, “Contemporary cosmology provides significant evidence in support of premises in philosophical arguments for conclusions having theological significance.” Basically, we need to combine our tools for thinking about the world. We need to use philosophy to inform our science, and we need to use science to inform our philosophy.
And if we do so, we have the privilege of access to an unprecedented amount of information such that anyone with an internet connection and caffeinated beverages, can go online and watch the best scholars from around the world debate and dialogue on the very issues we are talking about.

And now I would like to answer the question. What if everyone searched for belief? Or even, what if everyone searched before belief?

I think that the minority of people that decide to do so right now wouldn’t receive so much societal backlash. In addition, even if no one changed their beliefs, genuine understanding is a cross-cultural olive branch that, at the very least, dispels a fear of the unknown.

And so in, conclusion:

If your worldview really matters to you, and I think that it should, don’t let it be dictated by accidental factors such as where you grew up. Genuinely consider worldviews other than your own, and when you do so, make use of the golden rule as well as the outsider test.

My hope is not that you would confirm your current beliefs. And its also not that you would deny your current beliefs. My hope is that somewhere along the way, you would learn enough about your beliefs and the beliefs of others that the place you arrive at is a place of your design, by decision, not by default.

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