Friday, April 17, 2009

Selective Skeptical Debate – Or, Pushing Emotional Buttons

Over Yom Tov I found myself drawn into a theological debate with my brother-in-law. He is the ‘inspired’ type: he finds meaning in everything and marvels at the wonders of Hashem. For some reason he always wants to know my opinion on everything, which while flattering, leaves me in an uncomfortable position when he is asking about religion. I really prefer not to burst his bubbles, but he insists on talking about theology, and he always seems so disappointed when I poke holes in his arguments.

This time the discussion grew to include the whole family. While I think I explained my position well, it got me thinking. Why did I respond to him? Why did I allow him to draw in other family members, and why did I feel the need to explain myself to them? And while I don’t normally have drawn-out theological discussions at the table, I often give in to the urge to critique divrie torah and to challenge statements about religion that I find questionable. Why do I do this? It puts me in situations like arguing theology with my in-laws. Is it an urge to challenge irrationality wherever I encounter it?

There’s a guy I know, a friend of a friend, who is studying to be an acupuncturist. Whenever I see him the conversation always turns eventually to the “ancient Chinese” techniques that he is studying and how they are superior to modern medicine. For example, he once claimed that acupuncture is superior because practitioners take into account what the season is, while medical doctors will prescribe the same medications without regard to the time of year. He discounts the many studies that have shown acupuncture to be effective mostly for pain management, and then only equally effective to random placement of needles. He believes it works for the traditional reason, redirecting Chi, and that it can cure nearly anything.

While I think his beliefs about acupuncture are irrational, I’ve never challenged him. I just grit my teeth and do my best to ignore his statements. He has a lot invested in acupuncture, and he is never going to agree with me that “ancient” and “Chinese” do not automatically equal profound knowledge superior to modern science. So why bother challenging him and getting him upset?

Yet his beliefs about acupuncture are very similar to religious beliefs. He has an irrational belief in undetectable energy because an ancient source says that it is so, and he discounts the evidence provided by science that shows this probably isn’t true. So why do I respond to religious claims and ignore the acupuncturist?

The answer, of course, is that I don’t really care whether or not acupuncture is true. I think it isn’t, and so won’t use it. But if studies came out that showed I was wrong and acupuncture really worked by affecting Chi it wouldn’t really make a difference in my life. I just don’t care enough about acupuncture to make the discomfort of offending someone worthwhile.

Religion, on the other hand, has and does play an important part in my life. If I’m wrong about religion I’ll have to reevaluate my entire understanding of how the world functions. So while I’m no more likely to convince a frum person that yiddishkeit is full of holes than I am likely to convince the acupuncturist that Chi doesn’t exist, religion pushes my buttons and acupuncture doesn’t. I critique divrei torah because religious inconsistencies and absurdities bug me. Chi is just good for a laugh when the acupuncturist is no longer there to be offended.

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