XFiles Friday: Setting the stage for superstitionAugust 10, 2007 — Deacon Duncan
The story is told by Frank Turek. It’s an intimate, personal account, but the main point comes through loud and clear: Frank just wanted to know whether God was real, but when he asked his highly educated, skeptical, intelligent professor whether God exists, his professor could not answer the question.
Actually, the author is making two points. The obvious point is that “all them edjeekated college folks don’t know nuthin’ worth knowin’.” A lot of Christians seem naturally prejudiced against scholars and other highly-educated people, and the opening anecdote plays straight to that prejudice. The author could have learned a valuable lesson about open-mindedness and the value of not stretching a conclusion beyond what the evidence will bear, but the way the story is told makes it plain that this is not what the author got out of that experience.
Instead, the professor is made to look hypocritical, and even malicious, a man who deliberately mocks God knowing full well that he doesn’t have a valid reason to reject Him. The author makes much of his own alleged skepticism and sympathy for the professor (in line with the typical “once I was lost, now I am found” pattern common to evangelical “testimonies”), and the professor’s steady assault on the Christian faith builds and builds to a predictably atheistic climax.
Only the climax never happens. Step by step, the story leads you to the conclusion that modern scholarship has built an ironclad case against God’s existence, only to have the whole thing fall apart when the student, in the role of cross-examining attorney, forces the professor to admit that he does not actually know whether or not God exists.
The implication could hardly be clearer: you, dear Christian reader, can’t trust educated people to find out the truth of whether or not God exists. You need some other source of truth, something else you can trust in–and the authors are naturally going to tell you what that is in just a minute.
There’s a deeper and more subtle implication here, however. Gosh, if these highly intelligent and highly educated guys can’t figure it out by studying the real world, what chance do the rest of us have? The real world is a complicated and scary place. It’s to difficult for mere mortals to understand by reason alone. We have to turn to superstition for answers! There’s no alternative. Scholars and scientists try their best, and they still fail! It can’t be done. We need to invoke religion to tell us the real truth. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to make sense of it all.
Naturally, this aspect of the story is more subliminal, but the “feel” of it is there. Geisler and Turok didn’t start off with an “amusing anecdote” just to make their prose easier and more enjoyable to read. This story sets the stage for an appeal to superstition by stimulating the kind of fears that drive people into superstition in the first place. Yes, the world is complex and incomprehensible, and yes, intelligent and educated people do still have problems making sense of it all. It is indeed scary that our best minds, with access to the best information, ultimately cannot make everything clear and unambiguous by reason alone.
I doubt that Geisler and Turok have thought things through to this level. They just know, intuitively, that a lot of the persuasive power of their beliefs comes from the fear people feel when they realize just how hard it is to comprehend the full complexity and unpredictability of life. The authors know intuitively that if they can arouse this same disquiet in their readers as they feel themselves, it improves their chances of getting their readers to trust in the same superstitions as they do.
So the authors’ choice of opening stories is no mere frivolous recollection to pass the time. It has a very important role in setting up an emotional context in which their readers will be easier to sway in superstition’s favor. This is a fairly common ingredient in most Christian apologetics, and it is well worth our time to understand it and recognize it when we see it. If we gloss over it because we ourselves aren’t susceptible to this sort of fear-mongering, we may well be surprised at how much influence it exerts on the minds of believers.