Monday, March 24, 2014

The People at the City Club of Cleveland are Absolutely Crazy

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a wildly over- reasonably priced luncheon at the City Club of Cleveland to hear Professor Ahmed Ragab, of the Harvard School of Divinity, speak about the modern relationship between the disciplines of science and religious studies. He spoke for about 45 minutes, he was very engaging (I'll get to most of what he said in a minute), and basically gave the message that the two fields need to be working together to solve real-world problems. It was a good talk, it was an interesting talk, and then the Q & A session began and people went shithouse crazy.

The first guy to speak was at my table, and I don't remember the exact wording of what he said, but it was something like "So, given the Communist Fascist wars against religion that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in the past century, how does that square with your cooperation thesis, Professor?", followed it with "There are numerous scientists that doubt Darwinism, it's not fact," (around 29 minutes in) and then sat down.

Professor Ragab did what good professors do, which is to pretend that the crazy questions** people ask are not crazy at all, and gave some kind of charitable answer that let the guy down as nicely as possible. Fine. Done. Next question. It was my boss, actually, who asked a rather more lucid question.*** The next guy was fine, and the guy after him was okay, and we made it through most of the rest of the session without incident (except for this poor old guy who asked, in essence, 'So, what did you talk about?'. It was okay though because Prof. Ragab turned his answer, through some magic, into a plug of some real-world applications of his ideas that he'd done). I was getting a sense of how this club worked from the fact that the guy with the microphone for the questioners didn't let them actually hold it--he held it for them himself, presumably so he could yank it away in the event of too much crazy. But everything was going juuust fiiine.

And then came the last guy. 

He was sitting right next to me, and we'd chatted some through the first course, but not all that much. He was in his silver-hair years, Jewish I think, and said he'd come to find out how X and Y religions could coexist (too bad for him, that subject was not addressed). The guy held up the microphone, my neighbor leaned forward, and said "Given your background in science and religion," blah blah something about evolution, "If aliens exist, what do you think they will look like?" (54 minutes into the above link. Try it. It's magical.)

This is a true occurrence. It happened next to me. In life. Prof. Ragab, again, pretended like the guy's question did not evince something warped in the head, and the Q & A session ended. As we were packing up, I told my neighbor "You do realize that that's a question for a hypothetical future xenobiologist, not a science/religion professor, right?" He responded with something like "Well, I'm an engineer, and based on my engineering studies I think I know that the human form is optimal and I know what extraterrestrials will look like," in response to which I had a small stroke and headed for the door.

I told these stories to three different people at my workplace, all of whom are over 40 and native, reasonably well-connected Clevelanders, and all of them said basically "Yup, that was a normal day at the City Club."

Never. Again.

(Oh, yeah, I promised to tell you about his thesis. That was fascinating. His entire theory was based on getting rid of theories. His proposals were 1) to study science and religion in the lives of ordinary people, and how the two interact and commingle with the rest of a person's life and can't be just separated out academically, and 2) that science and religion scholars should use their disciplines to help inform and reform things like end-of-life care that both have a perspective on. Which is cool. But in calling for scholars to read sci-rel relations in the minutiae of peoples' lives, he's basically saying that life is too complex to be modeled by these abstract academic theories that we have now... which is true... but theories are a necessary tool in the social sciences to generalize large masses of personal experience into things we can work with in order to draw conclusions about society. Take that away and academics have to get into the policy underbrush and start working with people, which I wouldn't mind, I guess. The implications were very interesting to me.)

*Also, first reaction: "If you think Communism and Fascism are the same ideology, your question is probably going to be worthless."

**I don't think this is worthy of its own blog post, but I have believed this for years: When teachers say 'there are no stupid questions', what they mean is that the impulse to ask a question is never a bad one. It means the questioner wants to learn something. You want to encourage people to seek knowledge, you want to encourage people to take risks and challenge their own beliefs, and you want somebody to ask the questions that everybody might be thinking so you can enlighten a bunch of people at once. That is all fine. But there are absolutely stupid or banal or ideologically-motivated-to-destructive-ends or reveals-that-the-listener-was-asleep questions, and this was one of them.

***Yes, if my boss had said something boneheaded there's no way I would tell you (in public), but hers was cogent. When you put it into the context of the Club it was downright stupendous.

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