Monday, October 27, 2008

Solid Review from Publishers Weekly

For those interested, my book received the following review today from Publishers Weekly (in their Religion Update):

Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion's Cultured Despisers Eric Reitan. Wiley-Blackwell, cloth $89.95 ISBN 978-1-4051-8362-8; paper $24.95 (256p); ISBN 978-1-4051-8361-1

Atheism—and contra-atheism—is a much overpublished topic, and Reitan, a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University, is late to the party. Nonetheless, he makes an elegantly argued response to Christopher Hitchens et al. that is refreshing in several respects. Neither polemical nor defensive, he writes primarily as a logician, rather than a believer. He brings into the contemporary fray many philosophers who reasoned well about God long ago: Anselm, Aquinas, Leibniz, Schleiermacher. He explains so many arguments so clearly that the book could function as an introductory philosophical text on the perennial subject of God's existence. He also looks squarely in the face of the contemporary horrors that many have used to argue for God's non-existence and still comes off the theodicy battleground with a sense of God as ethico-religious hope, “the substance of things hoped for.” The clarity of his presentation should make this book useful after atheism has finished its moment in the sun. (Dec.)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Wemmicks, Hellfire, and Little Children

Last night at bedtime, I read to my son the lyrical allegory told by Max Lucado in the beautifully illustrated children’s book, “You are Special.” For those unfamiliar with the story, it runs along the following lines.

Punchinello, a wooden man, lives in a village of wooden people. These wooden people are called Wemmicks, and all of them were carved by the same craftsman, a man named Eli who lives in his workshop on a hill looking down on the village. The Wemmicks are all in the habit of putting stickers on each other: gold stars on those who impress them with their good looks or talents, dots on those who fall short, who are scratched or clumsy or awkward. Punchinello is one of the latter. He’ s covered in dots.

But one day he meets a Wemmick who has neither stars nor dots on her; and when he asks her why, she smiles and tell him that the stickers don’t stick on her because she visits Eli every day. And so Punchinello goes to see his maker. Eli is delighted by Punchinello’s visit, and offers him a warm welcome, as well as words of wisdom: What the other Wemmicks think of Punchinello doesn’t matter. What matters is that Eli loves Punchinello just the way he is, without conditions or qualifications. The stickers, Eli says, only stick if they matter to you. And once Punchinello is secure in Eli’s love, they won’t matter at all. Punchinello hears, and believes. And a dot falls to the ground.

I tried to tell my son once that this is story about how divine love isn’t conditioned on our achievements, and that we shouldn’t be obsessed with what other people think about us. After I finished, he looked at me with a puzzled face and told me that, no, this was a story about wooden people and a wood carver. He likes the story a lot, but the concept of a parable still escapes him.

But the message contained in the story matters to me. And part of what matters to me is what this Christian parable doesn’t say.

In this story, Eli doesn’t have a furnace where he's seen tossing the screaming bodies of those Wemmicks who delight a bit too much in putting dots on their fellows. He doesn’t tell Punchinello that, should Punchinello fail to believe Eli’s assurances of love, Punchinello will be cast into the furnace himself. Eli doesn’t tell Punchinello that all Wemmicks, because they are limited creatures, really deserve endless anguish of the most horrible kind, but that Eli in his mercy has decided to spare those—and only those—who wander up to his workshop as Punchinello has done. Those who wander with all sincerity up to a different house on the hill—and there are several, each occupied by someone who claims to be the Wemmicks’ maker—will be dealt with harshly and decisively. Eli is a jealous maker, after all, and won’t put up with his Wemmicks making that kind of mistake. In the story, Eli doesn’t say, “I love you just the way you are, because that’s how I made you…unless you’re gay. If you’re gay, that’s not my doing. It’s your fault, and you’re a vile sinner who will burn in my furnace unless you repent.”

I can assure you that, were any of these elements part of the story, I wouldn’t be reading it to my children at bedtime. After all, I wouldn’t want them to have nightmares. “You Are Special” is a popular children’s story among Christians of every denomination, including those that believe unrepentant gays and devout Hindus will burn in hell. And I doubt that the story would be nearly as popular, even among these denominations, if the story had any of the dreadful elements listed above. Why? Because people in general--even most of those who attend hell-obsessed churches--don't want their children to have nightmares.

Why do so many Christians insist on telling stories to other adults that they would never tell their children? Perhaps we have misunderstood Jesus’ meaning when he is reported to say, in Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” The kingdom of heaven belongs to children, to those we’d never tell the horrible tales we dare tell our peers. The kingdom of heaven belongs to fragile souls who need reassurance and unconditional love. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persistently testing boundaries, breaking rules, violating etiquette, those who are na├»ve and selfish, whose favorite words are “mine” and “unfair,” who throw tantrums when they don’t get their way, but who are precious even so in their parents’ eyes, loved fiercely and unconditionally, and who need stories of hope, not stories of fear.

The kingdom of heaven belongs, in short, to all of us.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Gratitude and Grace

A few weeks ago I wrote in this blog about my daughter’s “Ariel sighting” in a splat of bird poop, and I used the incident as a chance to reflect on the significance (or lack thereof) of Virgin Mary sightings. The job of preparing a sermon on gratitude, which I’ll be delivering this Sunday in my role as chair of the Stewardship Committee, has given me the opportunity to think again about such “miraculous” sightings—but this time in a way that connects to the question of what it means to live one’s life in a spirit of gratitude. While the full sermon is too long to reproduce here (and probably too long to read on Sunday morning—but, well, they’ll live), I wanted to share here a core section of that sermon. The excerpt appears below:

Now, I don’t want to debate the plausibility of interpreting such images as signs from God. That’s not my objective here this morning. What I want to think about instead is what happens to our relationship with God when we become obsessed with finding the stamp of the divine in such things as toasted cheese sandwiches, or in chocolate drippings (as happened in California a few years ago), or in a swirl of marble on a chapel wall (as happened not long ago in Ghana).

And I don’t want to limit my attention to this fixation on Virgin Mary sightings and the like—because something very similar is going on with what’s come to be called “Intelligent Design” or “ID” theory. ID theorists are determined to find evidence of the divine in biological structures that are supposedly “irreducibly complex” and hence can’t be explained in Darwinian terms. And when they find something that they think fits the bill, they hold it up and declare, “Must be God!” These ID theorists are really doing the same kind of thing as those obsessed with Virgin Mary sightings: They’re scouring the world, sifting through the ocean of human experience, looking for miracles.

As if life itself weren’t a miracle. As if every breath I take isn’t a miracle. As if the astonishing fact of existence weren’t a miracle.

The poet and scholar, Frederick Turner, puts the point this way: “It is easy to deceive ourselves that something strange, something supernatural, is happening, as we know well from accounts of flying saucer enthusiasts, superstitious cultists, and ghost hunters. But perhaps our greater danger, our greater credulity, lies in deceiving ourselves that something strange and marvelous is not happening.”

In fact, I think that the first sort of deception contributes to the second. When we begin to fool ourselves into thinking that this unusual chocolate dripping or that complex molecule is a special revelation of God, we magnify the risk of losing sight of the miraculous character of what’s always there, all around us.

As Kahlil Gibran puts it in The Prophet,

…if you would know God be not therefore a solver of
riddles.

Rather, look about you and you shall see Him playing with
your children.

And look into space; you shall see Him walking in
the clouds, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending
rain.

You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving
His hands in trees.

In this passage, Gibran isn’t trying to prove God’s existence by arguing that clouds and lightning, flowers and trees, can’t be explained in scientific terms. Rather, he’s saying that if we open ourselves up to the fullness of life and reality all around us, we’ll experience the divine moving in it all.

The quest to find God in distinctive images burned onto toasted cheese, or in biochemical systems that can’t be explained in evolutionary terms—such a quest is a distraction from the religious life as Gibran describes it. When we get caught up in such a quest, we become “solvers of riddles,” rather than children of God living in the light of God’s grace. We become so focused on finding fireworks in the night sky that we lose sight of the sky itself and the beauty of the scattered stars.

And so we forget to be grateful for the miracle of existence that surrounds us and fills us up at every moment. The constancy of the sky leads us to ignore it, and we attach our hopes and joys to the ephemeral bursts of colored sparks that splash for just a moment across our vision and are gone. The sky’s very constancy, which should magnify our gratitude, leads us instead to take it for granted.

Part of what it means to live in a spirit of gratitude is to resist this tendency. It means seeing and taking joy in the deep and abiding miracles: life; our capacity to love and to be present in the world; the spray of stars across a blue-black sky.

But there’s something else as well. As the mystic philosopher Simone Weil points out in today’s meditation, the universe is filled to the brim with everything we have ever thought to wish for. But because I don’t possess this thing at this moment, I curse the universe. I define the good as my good, and all the wonders of the universe therefore count as nothing unless I hold them in my clutches.

But I don’t need to make the universe as small as I am. I can, instead, expand myself so that my sense of self sweeps outward across the heavens, and every good that exists can be for me a source of joy. When I do that I’ve left the confines of my narrow ego and chosen instead to abide in the dwelling place of the living God (Psalm 84).

In this place, gratitude and generosity are part of the same whole. To be grateful is to feel the grace of God flowing through you. To be generous is to let it flow, unimpeded. In this place, authentic gratitude has no contact with its dark pretender, that burden of indebtedness Kahlil Gibran warns against when he tells us to “assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.” In the dwelling place of God, generosity is a gift that makes no demands on the receiver. Gratitude is a joyous response, not the burden of reciprocal obligation. The grateful are generous, not out of duty, but because possessiveness would amount to leaving the dwelling place of God behind. It would mean a return to that lonely little universe, as tiny as a single ego.

My sermon goes on to exemplify what it means to live a human life in this spiritual space of gratitude and generosity by (no surprise here) looking at the life of Friedrich Schleiermacher. More specifically, I look at the words he spoke at the graveside of his youngest son, his beloved Nathaniel. But a discussion of that heart-wrenching sermon will have to be the subject of a later post.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Selling Christianity

The other night I was channel-surfing, and I came across an old episode of South Park in which the South Park kids start up a Christian rock band, “Faith + 1,” and try to make it big. The South Park writers clearly took delight in displaying the Christian music industry as exactly like any other big business, driven by the same capitalist impulses. As the episode portrayed it, the only difference between it and the wider music industry was that the “product” being packaged and marketed had Christian content (even if it so happened to be a heavy metal band that was delivering the Christian lyrics in nearly incoherent screams amidst raging guitar riffs).

The episode inspired me to reflect on this business of selling Christianity, of turning the Christian faith into a marketplace commodity. For all of Christian history, of course, Christians have been called to evangelize—to preach the gospel, by which is meant good news. But can evangelism really be reduced to selling a product? Can such salesmanship really be a form of evangelism?

Evangelism and product marketing do bear a superficial resemblance to one another, but at the deepest level I believe they are profoundly opposed. Surface similarity can, however, breed confusion. In the history of Christianity, I think this danger has too often become a reality. The evangelical mission has been confused with the task of selling a product. So-called evangelism has adopted the basic advertising paradigm perfected in recent history on Madison Avenue.

By “the basic advertising paradigm,” I mean the following strategy for selling products: first, ramp up your audience’s insecurities and anxieties, convincing them on an emotional level that they have a terrible problem which fundamentally compromises their prospects for happiness; and then convince them that only if they buy your product will they experience relief from this problem.

Announcing good news is a very different thing. Of course, if we experienced the world as perfect, as free of bad news, there’d be no such thing as good news. There’d be lots of good things to say, but none of it would be news. Good news is news because it tells us that the dangers which worry us needn’t do so, that the losses which grieve us needn’t grieve us anymore. The news is good because it replaces fear and anguish with a message of hope and joy.

The ultimate good news would tell us not merely that this danger has been overcome or that lost treasure restored to us. It would tell us that all sources of anxiety and grief have lost their sting, that the bad news in the world is not and never will be the final word in our lives, that it is not and never will be the deepest truth. The ultimate good news would be the proclamation that the deepest truth is so extraordinary that, despite all the tragedy and cruelty and suffering, every life is redeemed.

There is an enormous difference between announcing good news in the midst of bad news and playing up or fabricating bad news in order to get you to buy a product. But far too often, Christian “evangelists” have followed the latter path, “selling” Christianity the way that the cosmetics industry sells beauty products.

They lead with fear. They identify common human fears--some of them quite natural, others born of ignorance and prejudice--and they heighten those fears. For the sales tactic to work, they have to first assure us that we have reason to be afraid, that everything we fear will become a life-shattering reality...unless we buy their product.

One does not sell a product by announcing that all is right with the world. One does not sell a product by offering words of comfort, by telling consumers that their fears are rooted in unjustified beliefs or prejudices, or by assuring them that they have nothing to worry about because the problem has already been solved for them. One does not, in short, sell a product by proclaiming good news. One sells a product by proclaiming bad news, by highlighting dangers and unpleasant possibilities, by taking advantage of irrational worries, by intensifying rather than alleviating the prejudices and stereotypes that magnify our anxieties. Use their existing fears to put them into a state of heightened dread. And then introduce your product as the cure.

If you want to sell Christianity in this way, of course, you start with hell. You begin with the fear of death and then raise the stakes: death won’t be mere oblivion. If you don’t buy our product, it’ll be hell.

But there are other ways to sell Christianity as a product. One of the great sources of human anxiety is uncertainty. We are often confused, without a clear sense of how we should make decisions, how we should live, what we should believe. Rather than telling us that it's okay to be uncertain, that this is an acceptable and inevitable part of what it means to be a finite human being, Christian salesmen have played up the idea that uncertainty is something awful, because our eternal destinies are decided by the choices we make in the midst of uncertainty. If we make the wrong choice, they tell us, we’re doomed.

Thus, the uncertainty that seems an inevitable concomitant of the human condition is portrayed as a terrible plight, something we need to flee from as fast as we can. And then they hold up Christianity as the product that will eliminate uncertainty as decisively as Arrid Extra Dry will eliminate sweaty armpits. Their brand of Christianity is the simple, no-nonsense fix. The Bible has the answers to all your problems! No more confusion, no more doubt! We’ve got the rulebook that will take away all guessing and make you confident that you are always making the right choice. Just live by the rulebook (as interpreted by Pastor Bob or Pastor Jerry, or by the Church of Recent Schism), and your life will be fixed!

By contrast, if you don’t buy our product, our easy answers, you’ll be lost. You’ll flounder in the dark and end up in a gutter somewhere, homeless and alone, strung out on drugs or dying of AIDS, before ultimately descending into eternal torment. If more people don’t buy our product, our society will fall into chaos, with crime and depravity on every street, before finally falling into apocalypse. And if you don’t buy our product, you’ll endure this Armageddon in all its horrors. It’s coming soon. Any day. And so is your death. This is a limited time offer. Buy now or forever pay the price.

As powerful as these sales gimmicks are, Christian salesmen have recently stumbled into tactics that are even more powerful. It's long been known that one of the best ways to get people to buy into a communal ideology is to identify an enemy, a personification of our fears, and then present allegiance to the communal ideology as essential for the enemy's defeat. Thus, the Nazis had the Jews, and the religious right in America has the homosexuals.

It is stunning how such a small minority can be represented as so deadly. James Dobson, head of the right-wing Christian group, Focus on the Family, accuses “the homosexual activist movement” of having as its aim “the utter destruction of the family.” He sees it as “the greatest threat to your children” (apparently more serious that drugs or poor education systems or environmental degradation).

Once homosexuals are portrayed as this central threat to values we hold dear, solving some of our worst problems becomes easy. It becomes simply a matter of defeating the enemy. But the religious right in America does not generally endorse violence as a means of defeating the “homosexual threat.” Instead, universal conversion to Christianity is their solution. This is a sales pitch, after all.

It is therefore an essential piece of their rhetoric that homosexuals can be “cured,” that (contrary to the best available evidence) homosexuality is a perverse choice and that people can be saved from the “homosexual lifestyle” if only they accept Jesus as Lord. It is no accident that they vehemently insist that it is impossible to be gay or lesbian and a Christian at the same time. These beliefs are crucial to their program of selling Christianity as the solution to the “homosexual threat.” In order to leverage anti-gay prejudice into a reason to embrace their product, Christianity must actually serve as the cure for homosexuality.

And so, piece by piece, a sales campaign for Christianity emerges, one that sees fears as opportunities, and prejudice as something to be used.

But for all of this to work, Christianity must not be represented as unconditioned good news. It cannot be put forward as a joyous proclamation. It must, instead, but put forward in the context of a conditional threat: unless and until you buy our product, you will be mired in devastating problems. Your armpits will stink. Your dry scalp will dust your clothes with off-putting flakes. You’ll be so fat and ugly nobody will ever fall in love with you. The gays will shatter your family. You’ll burn eternally in the unquenchable fires of hell.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Passing Mention in Newsweek

Thanks to a friend of mine, I was directed towards a recent Newsweek article in which my forthcoming book is briefly mentioned (without, I might note, any mention of my name). The article, “Arguing Against the Atheists,” can be found online at http://www.newsweek.com/id/161225.

The article’s author, Lisa Miller, discusses various attempts to respond to angry atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens, and mentions several books including mine. Insofar as she specifically identifies what she takes to be the chief value of such books, the article inspired me to reflect on what I hope my book will accomplish. My hope isn’t that I will convert atheists, or even that I will deepen the faith of believers (the two things Miller mentions, her focus being on the latter). Instead, it’s something else. And so I wrote a reply to her essay, which I posted as an online comment to her article. Since readers of my blog may be interested in what I have to say, here is that post:

In this essay, Miller identifies the chief value of books responding to the recent spate of "angry atheist" bestsellers in the following terms: "The value of these books lies in their unique and demanding arguments and the way those arguments resonate with the faithful. They may provoke in believers a better, or deeper faith, but the number of converts they—or the atheists—can claim is undoubtedly small."

This strikes me as one important function of these responses. But as the author of one of the forthcoming books she mentions ("Is God a Delusion?"), I find myself prompted by Ms. Miller's comment to reflect on what I was hoping to achieve in writing such a book. Let me say that I only speak for myself. Authors have different purposes. But a main goal of my book was to demonstrate that reasonable and morally sensitive people can disagree about fundamental questions. This is not to say that any old view is reasonable. It certainly doesn't mean that any possible way of being religious is in tune with reason and our moral obligations. Rather, it is to say that there are parameters that reason and morality impose on all of us when we form our worldviews. My aim was to show that theistic religion can fall within those parameters. So can atheism. But on both sides of the atheistic/theistic divide, one can also find irrational and morally pernicious systems of belief.

To be blunt, I am frustrated with the tendency to identify the good/evil and rational/irrational divides with the religious/nonreligious or theistic/atheistic distinctions. It is far too simple to equate being either religious or non-religious with being bad or intellectually irresponsible. Part of what I hope my book will do is challenge the tendency to do this--and if my book succeeds in that aim, I will view it as a success regardless of whether or not anyone's faith is deepened.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Why I Believe in a Personal God

“God,” as I understand that term, names something that is not the least bit anthropomorphic but is deeply and profoundly personal. When I say that something is personal, I mean that it is both a subject and an agent. In other words, a person is a conscious self that acts.

And love cannot happen without such personhood, because love is really about a self that says YES to the other in all its otherness. To say that God’s essence is love is to say, I think, that “God” names that fundamental reality which is constantly and endlessly saying YES to all of us and everything around us. Even if such a reality is unlike anything remotely human, even if it is otherwise shrouded in a cloud of impenetrable mystery, it cannot affirm and value and care unless it is personal.

I believe in a personal God because, when I clear my mind of all my fears and frustrations and preoccupations, I can feel that YES affirming me and resounding in every particle of the universe, coming as if from the very root of it all.

The YES feels like more than just an endorsement or an attitude of approval. It is more fundamentally active than that. It is a performative YES, a YES that sustains. The YES resounds through it all as if it were the source of it all, the limitless being from which all bounded realities flow. It is the YES of the Infinite that cradles the finite, keeping it from descending back into non-existence, from being swallowed up by “the abyss in which it must inevitably sink, the ocean by whose waves it must inevitably be overwhelmed, if He who created it did not also preserve and sustain it” (to quote Karl Barth). It is, in short, a love that preserves.

The encounter with that YES is always transitory. Anxieties and the preoccupations of ordinary life flood back in, drowning it out. The dread of the abyss returns, and all that is left is the memory of a YES that, for the brief moment that it sounded clearly, was more potent than any no could ever be.

The experience of that YES could be delusional. It could be nothing but my deepest hopes projected onto the field of experience. It could just be the power of suggestion, or a side-effect of neural misfirings.

But it feels real. And I can decide to live as if it is real. For there is not a single empirical fact which precludes the reality of something like what I am experiencing—even if, as must be admitted, there are ways of elaborating on the concept of God that do clash with the empirical facts. Such elaborations must be rejected, but not the reality of that which loves from beyond the world.

Believing that my experience of a personal God is veridical doesn’t change what I would expect to observe with my ordinary senses. I wouldn’t expect the empirical world to look different were my experience authentic rather than delusional. But even if believing in the veridicality of that experience makes no difference for what I would expect the empirical world to be like, it makes an enormous practical difference for my life. When I embrace it, when I don’t explain it away but instead accept its substance—when I really come to trust that the fundamental reality in the universe is saying YES to me and everything that is, treasuring and sustaining it all, I find myself saying YES so much more.

And this means that my capacity for joy and gratitude expands, and it means that my capacity for love expands. I live, not in an indifferent universe of blind mechanism and chance, but in a universe that says YES. So long as I can sustain the hope that this is true, I find that I can love more fully and richly, without the usual limitations and conditions. In a universe where that YES is the fundamental truth, to join in the joyous affirmation is to be in tune with the voice of God.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Parable of the Spaceship

Imagine that you abruptly wake up to find yourself on an enormous spaceship. Earth appears through one of the viewports as a diminishing globe—only less blue than it looks in the photos you’ve seen, as if you’re looking at it through a brownish film. You have no idea how you got here. You begin to explore, opening doors at random. You find a kitchen, an exercise room, several bedrooms, and other rooms with strange equipment. Some doors are locked.

As you explore, you begin to meet others who, like yourself, have no memory of how they got here. The first people you meet are a middle-aged woman named Jane, who reminds you of your favorite aunt, and a young man named Paul. Together you follow the sound of voices to what looks almost like a classroom. A dozen people have gathered there. You join them. More people trickle in, until your numbers swell to about fifty.

Eventually, several groups of intrepid explorers head off to see if they can learn more. Your own explorations are interrupted by a scream. Following the sound, you find a smashed-in door leading to a deep shaft. At the bottom is Paul, his neck obviously broken.

Having no way to reach him, you gather in the classroom with others who were close enough to hear the scream, and you await the return of the rest. After a time, one of them—whom you’ve learned is a college student named Joe—returns. He says he’s done a complete circuit of every level and found nobody else, certain nothing like a crew. “If there are space aliens flying this thing, they’re hiding behind the locked doors.”

But then, a few minutes later, Jane returns, full of excitement. “I’ve met them!” she announces. People gather around. “Well, I didn’t actually see them. It’s like they exist in another dimension. But they were able to…talk to me…sort of. What they did was make pictures in my head. From what I could gather, there’s been some kind of catastrophe. A nuclear war, maybe. I think the aliens were studying Earth when it happened and decided to save as many of us as they could. There are dozens of ships, and they…beamed us up. I guess the process is disorienting. Wipes your short-term memory. Anyway, we’re being transported to a new home. They’ve used their technology to make the ship as comfortable as they could. But some doors are locked for our safety. We shouldn’t try to go in them.” Jane pauses and shrugs. “That’s it. And I’m not sure I got it all right. It was weird, all these pictures in my head.”

Her story elicits considerable heated discussion. Jane is shocked to hear about Paul’s fate, but takes it as evidence that her visions were honest. Someone points out that her experience sounds suspiciously like hallucinating. Someone else asks if she’s ever taken LSD, which elicits a few chuckles. Jane looks away, turning red, but doesn’t answer.

More explorers return without much to report. And then a frazzled young man, Chris, stumbles in. His story is similar to Jane’s, but with important differences. “They were getting in my head, man. Putting pictures there. Forcing me to see stuff I didn’t want to see. It’s like, I saw explosions, all over the planet. And then their ships were swooping down and suckin’ people up with beams of light. They destroyed the planet, man. Alien invasion! And now they’ve snagged a few of us and they’re taking us to some other place. We’re gonna be zoo exhibits.”

Jane shakes her head. “No, no. You’ve misunderstood.”

“This is nuts,” says Steve, a chemistry professor. “Space aliens? I doubt it. This is some kind of experiment. Someone perfectly human has built this thing to test our psychological reactions or something. These…visions…are probably some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion.”

As hours stretch into days, people stake out bedrooms and establish routines. Steve leads a cadre of “investigators” in a systematic exploration of the ship. They map and describe it, and eventually call a meeting where they report their discoveries. One significant discovery is a room where they can regulate the ship’s temperature, humidity, and light levels. They also note that some of the unlocked rooms contain dangerous machines. “Joe nearly got electrocuted,” Steve explains. “And the nearest kitchen is running low on food. We’re gonna need to find some other food source pretty soon.”

“But what does it mean?” you ask. “Why are we here? Are we zoo specimens taken by hostile aliens, or refugees rescued by friendly ones? Or lab rats in some experiment?”

Joe shrugs. “Who knows? All we can do is describe what this place is like. If you want to know what it all means, ask the mystics over there.” He points to Jane and Chris.

“The mystics are idiots,” Steve snaps. “If we’re gonna survive we need to figure this out.”

“Maybe we can’t,” says Jane.

“Yes, we can. There’s a perfectly…human explanation for all this. We just need more information. We need to break down those locked doors.’”

“No way, man!” Chris rises to his feet, looking fierce.

“Chris is right,” says Jane. “They’re locked for our safety.”

“So says mystic Jane.”

“But remember what happened the first day. That young man who broke his neck.”

“Paul was a reckless idiot. We’ll be careful. We’ve got to figure out what’s going on.”

“I’ve told you what’s going on. They talked to me.”

“Convenient that they only talked to you.”

“Chris, too. Maybe only some minds are receptive.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Let’s suppose they did communicate with you. Some kind of woo-woo ESP. Why should we trust them? They sucked us from our homes.”

“To save our lives.”

“So says mystic Jane. Mystic Chris has a different interpretation, as I recall.”

“If we need more information,” Jane says, “let’s try to communicate with them again. I was in that room with all the pillows—the meditation room—when they first contacted me. Let’s go back there, try talking to them.”

“A waste of time,” Steve huffs. “If they exist at all, they obviously can’t or won’t do more than put pictures in the heads of a couple of screwballs.”

Jane sighs in frustration. “It’s hard to understand them, but I think they exhausted their ability to affect our dimension when they altered the ship to make it suitable for us. But that doesn’t mean they’re not helping. They can still get the ship to its destination. The drive systems operate in both their dimension and ours.”

“How convenient.” Joe shakes his head. “If you’re right, they might as well not exist as far as life on this ship is concerned. If we’re going to deal with that, we need to help ourselves. Let’s figure out how the ship works, what the dangers are, how to control them. I’m with Steve. We gotta start breaking down doors.”

“They’ll kill us, man,” Chris says. “Just like they took out Paul. You start going where they don’t want us to go, they’ll get mad. They’ll blast us. Not just you. These bastards are nasty. They’ll take it out on all of us.”

“Yeah, right,” says Steve.

“I’m serious, man. We gotta keep these buggers happy. We’re in their power. You start opening doors, I’m gonna have to stop you, man.”

“Just try it.” Steve looks around the room. “Who’s with me?” he says again.

And now, finally, the moment is here. You have to decide what to do. Do you join Steve and start breaking down doors? Do you join Jane in the meditation room? Do you join Chris in trying to stop Steve? Do you decide to ignore all of them and head to the kitchen for some soup?

Let’s suppose you like Jane. She seems a decent person, and her story of what is happening is certainly more attractive than Chris’s. If she’s right, then going to the meditation room with her might uncover some new insight. And so you decide to go, in the hope that her story is on the right track, that there are benevolent aliens guiding the ship, aliens you can trust.

Suppose you go with Jane. Suppose that while you’re sitting in the meditation room, silently asking for the aliens to speak to you, you experience a momentary glimmer of something. It feels like someone is there, except that you can’t see or hear anything. Jane, meanwhile, is ecstatic. “They’re talking!” she says. “They’re worried about Steve and Chris. They don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

The feeling you have might just be the power of suggestion. Jane might be hallucinating. For all you know, Steve might be right about things, or Chris. There’s no evidence that clearly speaks one way or the other. But you’ve sensed something. You trusted Jane enough to follow her to the meditation room, and it produced what felt like contact with someone. You could shrug and walk away. Go get soup. Maybe Jane’s delusion is just rubbing off on you. But you hope otherwise.

You turn to Jane. “What’s it like? Talking to them?”

“Wonderful,” she says. “They want to know us, to be our friends. And it makes it so much better, knowing they’re there and mean us well. You know? It’s all so frightening, otherwise.” She sighs. “Do you hear them at all?”

“I thought, maybe, a little.”

She smiles. “It’s a start. Keep listening for them. In the meantime, just know you can trust them.”

Let’s suppose you do just as she says. Suppose that you orient your life aboard ship in terms of Jane’s teachings, in the hope that she’s right. You decide, out of hope, to live as if her teachings are true. But since her teachings are about benevolent aliens who are looking out for the denizens of the ship, orienting your life in terms of those teachings means trusting the aliens Jane says are there.

And this means rejecting Chris’ claims about nasty aliens that need to be appeased on pain of retaliation. While it doesn’t mean blocking Steve and his group from finding out what they can about the ship, and while it certainly doesn't mean rejecting their findings, it might mean taking seriously the idea that the locked doors are locked for a good reason. But mostly, it means two things: continuing the practice of listening for their voices in the hope that a relationship with them will be possible, and finding some comfort in the promise that the ship is taking you, in the end, to a safe harbor.

And here is the question: Could a morally decent, reasonable person follow this path? If you apply the reasoning of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to this parable, the answer would seem to be no. After all, Jane is training people to believe beyond the evidence, and therefore priming them to become followers of Chris and his extremism. Right?

Or have Dawkins and Harris missed something important?