Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Children at the Ball: A Parable for Atheists

Imagine a grand 19th century ball, with the women each trying to make the most striking impression, the men each trying to cut the most dashing figure; that during the ball a fight breaks out between some of the men, a scandalous scene ensues, but finally all is made up and the ball continues for a time, then ends.

Now imagine that for the duration of the ball there were fifty 6-year-olds watching from a mezzanine balcony, fifty children of different cultures, and that after the ball they all went back to their countries and were asked each to draw in colored pencils what happened at the ball.

You would get fifty very different drawings, from artists of very different talents, each doing a drawing focused on the aspects of the ball he or she thought most important.

And which of the children would be right? Which wrong? Only if we'd seen the ball with our own eyes could we have any basis to judge, but still--would it be right to argue which child was "right" or "wrong" in any case? Could we argue for rightness in any absolute sense, given that in each case the experience of the ball was mediated through a drawing?

I'm frequently told that one of the main arguments against religion and the existence of God or gods is that there are so many different religions in the world. That the divine must be an illusion because it has been represented in so many different ways. And I think of my fifty children at the ball. Do their different drawings prove that there was no ball? Is that what you'd conclude after collecting all the drawings in a museum and comparing them? You'd conclude that the ball was all just in the children's imagination?

Knowing children's art, and how radically different one child's perspective might be from another's, and knowing the difference in artistic styles and whatnot, that certainly wouldn't be my own conclusion. I'd feel that something had certainly taken place, and that the drawings I was looking at were different pieces of evidence as to what that actually was. I'd also notice how many striking elements were similar from drawing to drawing, regardless of the striking differences. I would never conclude that the ball hadn't taken place.

Knowing the varieties of religious experience, how often it has been a matter of encountering the ineffable, or sensing the breaking in of another and partly foreign realm, of voices heard clearly or not, I likewise don't think the many world religions are evidence against God's existence.

The inspired prophets and seers of different religions are like children trying to transmit truths they themselves can only partly understand. They do their best based on the acuity of their vision and the modalities of understanding their cultures have given them. They leave us records of something that is real, and we must do our best to seek out which "drawings" most closely correspond to this Real. This seeking out is well worth the effort because in this case it's not simply a ball that is at issue, but the meaning of our lives.

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