SATURDAY, 24 AUGUST 2013
This morning I thought of how an acquaintance of mine responded to something I had posted on Facebook a year ago. His response can be more or less summarised as, “Who does this guy think he is?”
For a minute or so I reflected on who and what I was in high school: that I did not make much of an impression on people; that my peers probably didn’t expect me of all people to have one or two interesting thoughts that I would write down and feel the need to share with other people.
As one’s brain crackles and groans to turn one thought into another, I wondered about this thing that some people become personal if they don’t like your argument. I always want to say: Don’t look at me; look at the argument. My person doesn’t matter here. The argument must stand or fall on its own value.
I realised that the response of my acquaintance probably wasn’t just about me. Some people simply believe that advice and insights and opinions about matters existential must emanate from the mouths of authority figures. If these people cherish a religious identity, it is to be expected that the figures whose word matters will have religious authority.
What this acquaintance probably meant was: “What authority do you have to say what you are saying? Are you God? Are you Jesus? Are you a writer of a Bible book?”
My response to such a position: Does my argument not make sense? Or: I think my opinion deserves to at least be considered because it is relatively well-laid out, and it makes more or less sense.
But I would imagine the man quivering his hand in a gesture that says: “Silence! Logical arguments are cheap! Every second man or woman on the street can come up with a logical argument! I am talking about authority!”
Then I thought, if something was wrong with my stomach or with my head, or if I got a rash somewhere on my skin, I would want to see a medical professional. I may ask my mother’s advice, or my wife’s or a colleague’s, but it is the person with authority whose opinion will really bear weight.
Is it not the same with matters about what one should do with your life? Does it not make sense that this acquaintance of mine would shake his head, shrug, and ask, “Who are you?”
The difference is science versus opinion; more specifically, if science provides me with an answer to a question or a problem, I will give more weight to that than to someone’s opinion. For example, if I had a virus, my blood can be tested a hundred times, and the tests would give almost exactly the same result every time. On the other hand, when it comes to the question of what to do with my life, science, as far as I know, cannot help me that much. If I turn to someone with religious authority and ask him what to do with my life, what will he do? He will consult writings written more than a thousand years ago in the case of Islam, and almost two thousand years ago or more than two thousand years ago in the cases of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The writers of these texts certainly had authority in the communities to which they belonged two thousand years ago, but is it reasonable to accept their opinion in today’s world without thinking critically about it or considering one or two alternatives?
To go back to my example: If something is wrong with my stomach or if I get a rash somewhere, will I consult a medical tractate that dates from Julius Caesar’s time, or even further back to the time of Plato or Socrates? Suppose I discover exactly such a piece of literature somewhere in a dusty corner of my bookshelves, I may browse through it if I am desperate or curious enough. There is certainly a chance that there may be a few bits of useful advice. But before I apply coagulated ostrich blood to my eyes, or smear the fresh intestines of a baby crocodile on my sore knee, I would definitely get a second opinion.
So I am not saying the person who is referring to religious writings when looking for an answer to the question of what to do with their lives is primitive. After all, the authors of these texts were respected in their day as authoritative figures. I simply ask: Why not consider a second opinion, especially if the opinion is reasonable and perhaps relatively logical?