Healthy Democracy Requires We Ask Helpful Questions — “Does God Exist?” Is Not One Of Them
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
I like questions that keep on giving. I study philosophy in part for this reason. The questions never end. What’s also fun is trying to figure out which questions are worth pursuing and how certain questions force us to think when we attempt to answer them. Questions fuel and frame all our conversations, they determine how debates proceed, they control the narrative.
I love questions, but worthwhile ones can be hard to come by.
Questions are powerful, though we often fail to treat them as such. There is no such thing as “just a question.” Beware of anyone and their motives who insists “it’s just a question.” There is no such thing. Beware, too, when someone insists a question must be answered a certain way. Many questions do not.
Each and every question posed to us is posed for a purpose. There are hints as to what that purpose is within the question itself. Take for example: “Would you like fries with that?” is a question about your food order, and the answer helps the cashier to fulfill it for you, but the question also acts to remind you fries are an option. In asking you this question, you’re primed to add fries to your order. You’ll spend more money that way. This question serves to make more money off of you.
“Is there a God?” is a loaded, divisive question. It presupposes a lot. It’s framed as a yes or no question, it assumes we all know what is meant by ‘God,’ and it only asks if God exists now in the present moment. If I answered this question with “sort of,” you might smile or be annoyed because you know I haven’t answered the question on its own terms. This is, after all, a yes or no question. “Sorta” doesn’t count. This question serves to establish a dual (and possibly false) dilemma. There is a God or there isn't, he either exists now or not at all, and there is no in between, no room for alternatives.
But do we want to ask such restrictive questions about the divine? Perhaps we haven’t gotten anywhere with this question because it misses the point.
I worry a lot of questions we ask miss the point.
As a graduate student, I was asked to lead discussion groups once a week for a larger class lead by another instructor. The theme of the class was Science, Technology, and Society (STS), a field I do scholarship in as a philosopher. I went into it with the goal of teaching my students about the power and value of questions. I wanted them to walk away with at least one thing: not all questions are worth answering, and they can ask better ones.
The lead instructor gave his TAs recommendations for leading our discussion groups. He kindly provided the notes he would use to lead his own groups. These notes usually included questions to pose to our students.
I usually didn't use them.
Because questions matter. A question that creates engagement is not necessarily a good question to use as an instructor. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite. Debates over the question “does God exist?” might be the best contemporary example. It creates engagement — oh, it has created engagement for centuries — but has the engagement been quality engagement? What has it achieved for all the energy that’s been poured into it? Actually answering this question would require more time. For now, I simply want to suggest it’s been more harmful than helpful.
Two questions from that STS class stand out in my mind. I’ll give them here as given to me:
(1) Is evolution real? - Split students into teams and have them debate this question. Judge which team won at the end. This is a delicious opportunity to reenact debates that have been ongoing since Darwin originally proposed his dangerous idea.
(2) Was the industrial revolution worth it? - Have students weigh its pros and cons to decide.
I had 50min with my students each week. I didn’t have much time for nuance and most topics I wouldn’t be able to revisit again. I felt responsible for how I framed each class discussion. When I spotted the issue with these sorts of questions, I spent a small amount of energy and time to create what I felt would be better questions. It paid off.
I’ll briefly explain what issues I had with questions (1) and (2), then mention what I and my students discussed instead. One lesson to be gained from this is that we often underestimate our own ability as groups to spot bullshit and move on to discussions that are more productive. Spend enough time on social media and you might assume people cannot have fruitful discussions, but my experience as an educator gives me hope.
Classes like the ones I describe below are why I have hope:
(1) Is evolution real?
When I shared this class discussion exercise idea with another philosopher in my department, he immediately said, hands thrown into the air, “let’s have them debate whether women can vote, too, while we’re at it! Heck, let’s have them debate whether or not women are full persons!” His point: If I were to teach my students about the debates over woman suffrage and a woman’s status as a person, I would not do so by having them actually debate the issue and then judge who “won” the debate. There is something very wrong about this exercise. There are some questions which should not be staged in this way.
Similar to “is God real?,” question (1) bears minimal fruit. It’s an old debate and one that is yet to be resolved in the United States' public discourse. (The issue is resolved among scientists: they say yes.) Both sides have said their piece. It isn’t moving forward. To have my students reenact this debate when the science is decided serves to legitimize the debate. To stage this debate would suggest to my students it’s a live issue. It would also suggest the debate is pressing and still worth having. These were not the lessons I wanted to impart onto my students. To make matters worse, this was the only humanities course many of my students would ever take. What lesson should I have them walk away with? It was now or never.
I had to come up with something else.
So, when I walked into class that day, I had them discuss why it is the debate mattered to so many people. What, I asked them, is at stake when this question is debated? People in the United States are still having this debate, so something is up that goes beyond what the science can speak to.
I had them use a watered down version of Quine’s “web of belief” to approach the problem. In those 50min, my students were taught through their own discussions with one another there is more going on in the evolution debate than mere “science vs. religion.” It was no longer about sides, but about what mattered to real people and why. My students went on to ask themselves how it is we can move forward with science education, given certain people distrust science for reasons fundamental to their worldview.
(2) Was the industrial revolution worth it?
This question is in some ways better, but in other ways much worse. Notice this is also a yes or no question which can easily create sides and then subsequently go nowhere. Its use-value is limited.
Discussing whether or not the industrial revolution was #worthit smacks of “do the ends justify the means?” This was not an ethics class and, again, I only had 50min to discuss the impact the industrial evolution had on how we live today as well as its implications are for our future.
So I let them discuss the original question together in their small break out groups, but only for 5min. One student claimed that because it ruined the environment, it wasn’t worth it. But because it improved medicine, said another, made the industrial revolution worth it. They could not reconcile their values over the question of “was it worth it?” I stopped them short before their voices rose to shouts.
When I stopped the class and asked them how fruitful the discussion seemed to be, they admitted the discussion got them nowhere. It did bring out the idea both good and bad things came out of the industrial revolution, but asking whether or not it was worth it proved irreconcilably divisive.
They weren’t sure why they should bother having this #worthit discussion in the first place.
What good, they asked, was this question?
I had them move on by coming up with different sorts of questions they thought might produce more helpful dialogue in light of the challenges we now face with climate change. The questions they created all came out to something that falls under the umbrella of “given what’s happened since the industrial revolution, good and bad, how do we want to move forward?”
No sides. No debates to be won. Cooperative problem solving.
My students came into a more fruitful line of inquiry when I framed issues differently. What questions (1) and (2) do is create irreconcilable sides. We cannot do democracy this way.
If we are to move forward as a society in a way that’s good for all, we must talk and solve real, tangible problems together. Pointlessly divisive questions cannot dominate our discourse. Questions like (1) and (2) have their place, but we can’t allow them to lead the discussion. It won’t go anywhere. If our discussions can't go anywhere, our democracy won't go anywhere, and we'll wonder what the point is in having a democracy to begin with.
What good, we'll ask, is democracy?
Healthy democracy requires productive questions we can work on together. To find them, we must ask ourselves what our goals are and what discussions would best help us achieve them. Our energies are limited. I challenge us all to be more responsible with what questions we ask and what questions we bother trying to answer.
Let’s not waste our breath — there are only so many breathes to take. Our time together is short and precious. Let's use it wisely.