The Veritas Forum at Williams used to perform a great service to our campus’s intellectual life. It invited articulate professors to publicly grapple over the issue of faith. Traditionally a debate between an atheist and a Christian, the Forum was a chance to respectfully probe cherished beliefs in search of more accurate ones. In 2010, MIT Professor of Physics Ian Hutchinson and our own Professor of Mathematics Colin Adams grappled over “Religious Belief and Reason.” In 2011, Associate Professor of Mathematics Satyan Devadoss and Professor of Mathematics Thomas Garrity discussed “Universal Truths and Personal Proofs.” Both talks, which are available online, brought two sides of an uncomfortable subject into direct confrontation. In each case, there was none of the smug fuzziness that an environment of constant agreement breeds.
But now, we are scuttling a little further back into our self-contained worldviews. The Veritas Forum last year was a “debate” between two Christians. This year only one Christian, Wesleyan’s Professor of History Richard Elphick, will be giving a lecture on whether religion is dangerous, to be followed by a Q-and-A session. They apparently tried to have a debate, but when the second potential speaker proved unable to participate, they chose to just have one speaker.
The loss of the Veritas Forum as a platform for debate over faith is a sign that we are entering an intellectual feedback loop. The fewer opportunities there are to evenhandedly argue over belief in God, the weaker, ironically, each side’s arguments will become. John Stuart Mill summed it up when he wrote, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” It is a trivial feat to strengthen our resolve in what we already believe in among people we already agree with. The fact that a belief is “fundamental” or “deeply held” is not evidence for its accuracy. If over Thanksgiving you wondered why your climate change-skeptic uncle (why is it always an uncle?) was so frustratingly unmoved by the facts you flung at him, it could very well be that he never had the chance to live with people who dragged the reasoning behind his views into the daylight. Williams cannot be a healthy academic environment unless we all subject our deeply-held beliefs to this kind of rigorous cross-examination. I thriftily remind anyone who does not feel this way that it does not cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to have Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reily reassure you that you have been right all along.
As someone who has changed his mind on the subject of faith, I hold a great deal of respect for the people who told me in plain terms why they believed I was wrong. I could not have done it without them. It is a devilishly thrilling feeling to switch sides, and it rarely happens in an echo chamber. Without outside prodding, a mind can easily succumb to comfortable dullness. So maybe instead of a carnation this Valentine’s Day, you could show you really care by asking your friends to clarify what they mean by the word “God.” You might offend them at the time, but the crisis of faith you trigger could last them many a productive sleepless night.
I mean no personal offense to the organizers of the Veritas Forum, In fact, I mean the opposite. They have been planning the event with striking openness and candor. And of course, they are free to do whatever they want. They could turn the Forum into a discussion of President Falk’s workout attire and no one would call the police.
But the replacement of a vibrant debate with a one-sided lecture is nevertheless a net intellectual loss. In any argument, limited interaction between both sides allows the actual points of contention to slip into vagueness. We do not secretly agree on everything. But once we clarify what we disagree on, the gulf between two sides can appear to shrink considerably. Which is why it is a shame that the Veritas Forum will no longer offer this clarification. Believers and atheists have more in common than the insular rhetoric of either group lets on, and the change in the Forum’s format denies everyone the chance to break out of this insularity. At Williams, we have a nearly unmatched opportunity to subject choices of faith to the gauntlet of keen and articulate criticism on a public stage. In other words, we have perfect conditions for believers and atheists to explain themselves to each other. Why not take full advantage?
Benjamin Nathan ’15 is from New York, N.Y. He lives in Gladden.