One morning in the spring of my senior year at Andrews University, I found a note in my mail cubby at the dorm from the associate dean of students. She wanted to see me. Nearly 50 years later, I can no longer recall the dean’s name, but I can clearly recall our conversation. What I learned from it can be summarized in one sentence: The evidence and process we use to form our beliefs are as important as the beliefs that we form.
I hadn’t actually met the dean before, but I liked her. I had heard her speak a few times and she seemed like an authentic and reasonable person. Perhaps I should have been concerned why she wanted to meet with me, but in fact I wasn’t. I had pretty much figured out what the meeting was about. During my first three years at Andrews, a small college run by the Seventh-day Adventist church, I had generally kept my religious doubts to myself, sharing them only with those classmates who I knew would not be offended and who would keep our conversations confidential. Things changed my senior year, maybe because I had gained more confidence in my beliefs and myself, and I began expressing my views more openly.
At our meeting the dean said, as she put it, that she had received reports that I had raised questions about church teachings. I had questioned whether Ellen G. White was a true prophet and whether the Garden of Eden and Flood stories were true. She smiled when she said this, I think to put me at ease. Her concern, she said, was not that I was speaking openly about my doubts, that I was a “corrupting influence” on other students. Rather, she said, she was concerned for my own spiritual welfare.
Her advice? Avoid reading anything that was contrary to church teachings. Really, that’s what she said. I read all sorts of things, I said, some consistent with church teachings, some not. I was reading Fyodor Dostoyevski, Bertrand Russell, and Martin Gardner, all of whom would have been banned from the school’s approved reading list, had there been one. I said that my reading had led me to question all kinds of things. That was just who I was. What was wrong with reading different ideas? What was wrong with questioning? I thought that was what education was all about.
Then she told me a little anecdote. She said that when government agents were trained to detect counterfeit coins, they spent most of their time just handling genuine coins. They became so familiar with the real thing that it became easy for them to spot the counterfeit. She gestured with her hand to show how an agent would handle coins laid out on a table and how, when they spotted a counterfeit, they would simply flick it aside.
Frankly, her story sounded like something she had heard in a sermon or at some sort of faith conference. I didn’t believe it, and I suspected that she didn’t believe it either. I told her that I thought ideas were different from coins, that, while there might be a simple and mechanical way to determine whether a coin was genuine or counterfeit, there was no such simple way to determine whether an idea was genuine or not. Each idea needed to be judged on its own merit, based on a review of all the evidence.
She smiled again and I smiled and, essentially, that was how the meeting ended. It was all very cordial. She knew that she had no leverage over me, either in terms of what I read or in terms of the doubts that I might express. Maybe one of her goals, after all, was to discourage me from being too public with my comments. And maybe she succeeded in that.
But here’s the thing. What the dean said certainly didn’t change my view of the world. I had abandoned my faith five or six years before and our meeting did nothing to alter that. Even so, our little conversation did trigger an epiphany of sorts. Previously, I hadn’t realized how fundamental a questioning attitude was to assessing the credibility of evidence. Until then I had employed a skeptical approach without really thinking about it. It was just who I was. Now I understood how integral that skepticism was. We all come to have beliefs. But now I realized that how we approach the formation of beliefs—either with a skepticism grounded in objective evidence or with an acceptance based simply on so-called received authority—is just as important as the beliefs we come to form.
© 2016 John M. Phillips