The Bullet and the Foot: April 6, 2010

Every great thinker has his or her "aha" moment, at least once in their career. Newton with his fabled Apple. Siddhartha as he sat on the banks, overhearing a music lesson on the river.

I was sipping beer in an open air cafe as a lunatic was ranting on the corner about the Gospel. Over a megaphone.

Wisdom tends to come to me like the punchline comes at the end of a joke. To put this in context, let me rewind the events of the evening. I was finishing up at work. I was all dressed up for a date that was canceled, so I hopped on the CL to see if anyone was up to anything interesting that evening. Lo and behold, there was a talk that evening about a new book that was coming out, and if I dropped everything and headed there I might just make it. From Warrenton, VA to the Shakespear theater in DC. Ok, it was a longshot. But hey, what else was I going to do that evening.

So I race home, hop on the train, and make my way over to Theater. Arriving late, with no ticket or reservation to a sold out show, I managed to plead stupidity and scored a seat, stage left, three rows from the speaker. (Don't ask me how, I just managed to be in the right spot at the right time.)

So I am moved by the talk. Perhaps more moved by the fact that "Hey, I'm not totally off my rocker, someone else was thinking that!" So I decided to grab a beer at a Mexican restaurant on the corner, and contemplate life the universe and everything. I grabbed an outside table. Put in my order. And just when some choice ideas are bubbling up...

...the lunatic starts ranting.

I went through the range of reactions one might expect at being in a fancy resteraunt, having listened, at length, about free thinking religion, and then having someone try to shove their amplified version of theology down one's throat. While one was otherwise trying to enjoy a quiet beer in peace.

So, as I mulled the situation, I thought to myself, everything this evening seems to have been designed to put me in the right place, at the right time, at the right frame of mind...

And then it hit me. This even tied in with work, my troubles with dating, everything. For a brief moment, I felt like the world made sense. Why I was working on Agent based modeling. Even the fact that on the metro ride down, I was sitting behind a lady studying marketing from a printout of arguably the worst powerpoint ever created on the subject of marketing.

I was here to see how important "buy in" is to civilization. An hour before that moment, I was listening to someone speaking on an amplifier about her views, and the views of historical people, could explain the role of religion in everyday life. Even to those who don't have a religion.

And... just this second, I was seeing a less effective version of the same thing. Someone on an amplifier, trying to explain the role of religion in everyday life.

What was the difference? Was it the level of preparation? Was it the venue? No. I concluded, it was the degree to which I already agreed with the speaker before the "presentation" began.

It's basic marketing. The ideal sales pitch is no sales pitch at all. It's simply the pairing of a consumer with a need. Why did I sit patiently through a few hours of one person talking about religion, while I couldn't tolerate 15 minutes of another? I was in the right frame of mind, in the right setting, at the right time. In one case, I literally transported myself 40 miles to see one presentation. In the other, the presentation came to me. In one case, it was a discussion about something I was already curious about. In the other, I was hearing an ill-considered rant, delivered with great conviction, about a subject that really wasn't up for discussion in my mind.

And I realized, at the end of this insight, that discussions of faith should never be about converting the other party to your viewpoint. It's about comparing your doubts about the world to another person's doubts about the world.

Faith is about doubt. Not certainty.

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