Really, Dennett is great. go YouTube and run a search (bear in mind that some good lectures are under Dan Dennet). Go to Ted and see. In this lecture, given while Dennett received the “Richard Dawkins Award” at the AAI 07 conference in Washington, D.C., he makes some interesting claims regarding religious beliefs. I won’t get into detail (just go and hear the man) – but for this one thing that bugs me:
How do you, an atheist, approach a person who just had a divine revelation? What can you say to him?
Now let’s be specific about it. The following is a real story. I know these people. Here goes.
The St. Petersburg Revelation 2000
I have some distant relatives who came from Russia in the 1990’s, and settled in Israel. In Nazareth, to be more precise. This was back just before the turn of the millennium. Their child was four years old at the time. A little angel, was he. Blond, curly, blue-eyed… just as if you took him off a Botticelli painting. The parents were reluctant to see their darling little angel degrade into a normal uncultured Israeli youth (and I’m not judging them!), so they taught him Russian. He could quote full passages of classical Russian poetry at 4 – which made him all the more cuddly and cute.
So, when the wuderkind turned four, they took him to visit the family elders, who remained in St. Petersburg. The grandfathers and grandmothers, and all the aunts and uncles were – it is almost needless to say – absolutely charmed with the little angel. You see, he had this tint of foreign accent when he spoke Russian, which made him, in short, obnoxiously irresistible.
A couple of days into the visit, the grandfather took the little child to visit a park, and let him roam free on the lawns. There, in the middle of the park, the kid found an old Russian lady speaking to herself. She was a bag-hag, a lonesome Russian old lady, mumbling loudly into thin air about her horrible troubles, about the carelessness of the young, about the illnesses that betook her, about the government and the doctors and the lawyers and all the rest of these horrible stuff that made her life so miserable.
The child stopped in front of her. He has never seen an old mad bag-hag before. None in Nazareth, you see. So he stopped and listened, and asked her if she was in pain, or needed any help. The bag-hag responded with such an outpouring of complaints, that would have made an elephant cringe. And she ended it all with “Ah! This wretched life! Only in the grave will I find any solace”. The child was in tears. And he responded “No, don’t say that, granny. Really. May you live to a 120 years!”.
Now “May you live to a 120 years!” is a usual Jewish greeting. But it is not a Russian greeting. The bag-hag, hearing such a strange message, took a good look at her audience, and to her utter astonishment discovered that there actually was someone listening to her all this time! And he was crying! And he was such an adorable little child!
“My dear dear child!” she exclaimed, astounded, “where have you come from?!”
To which the boy promptly replied: “from Nazareth”.
The old hag collapsed on the spot. The grandfather quietly ushered the boy away, and took him back home, where everybody had a very good laugh.
Now comes the part that bugged me all these years. Think about this from the bag-hag’s perspective. Remember that this is the turn of the millennium, and that she is probably a devout orthodox Christian. In the middle of the park, on a beautiful sunny day, there comes a beautiful little boy, coming all the way from holy Nazareth, cries for her wows, and prophesies that she will live to one hundred and twenty years of age, then vanishes into thin air. This woman just had the real thing. She just saw the baby Jesus Christ! And he wept for her wows! Now I ask you: what more do you want for a divine revelation? Thunder and lighting?
So, what can you say to such a woman? How can you possibly respond to her story? It is true in every detail, and yet entirely misguided.