In the original 2005 address, there’s an additional story that’s been cut out of the print version.
Here’s another didactic little story: there are these two guys sitting in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious and the other is an atheist and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from camp in that terrible blizzard and I was terribly lost and couldn’t see a thing and it was 50 below. So I tried it. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out, Oh God if there is a God, I”m lost in this blizzard and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me. The religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled, well then you must believe now he says, after all you are here alive. The atheist just rolls his eyes - no man, all that was was a couple eskimos happened to come on by and showed me the way back to camp.
It’s easy to run the story through a kind of standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people given those peoples’ two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, no where in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is True and the other guy’s is False or Bad, which is fine except we also never end up talking about just where these individual belief templates come from. Meaning where they come from inside the two guys, as if a person’s most basic orientation towards the world and the meaning of experience were just hard wired like height or shoe size, or automatically absorbed from a culture like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice.
Plus there’s the matter of arrogance. The non-religious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogantly certain of their own interpretations too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogma’s problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty. A closed-minded that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up. The point here is that this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean: to be just a little bit less arrogant, to have just a little critical awareness of myself and my certainties.