The Ability to Disagree

I’ve been thinking more and more about how much I appreciate being able to disagree – or, more specifically, being able to disagree without having people flip out.

Growing up on the line between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, in a family influenced by the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, disagreement was not allowed. Or to be more specific, disagreement simply did not happen. I have to be completely honest, the first time I learned that mainstream couples are okay with not agreeing with each other on everything regarding religion or politics I was shocked. Coming from my background, that made no sense.

As a child and teen, I never disagreed with my parents, or with my church. Why would I? What we had was truth. When I reached college and began asking questions, my parents and my church had no ability to agree to disagree. Why? Because if I disagreed with them, then I disagreed with truth, and that meant I was flat wrong.

Conservative Christians believe that they have the absolute truth. Further, they believe that those who believe differently are misled or worse, even heretics or bound for hell. Growing up, everyone I knew believed the same thing. If someone had decided to vote Democrat, they would have faced censure. If someone had suddenly announced that they believed God created the world using evolution, they would have been accused of heresy. If someone had declared themselves pro-choice, they would have faced rejection.

This is a big part of why you see churches and denominations split so often. If you hold truth up as absolute, you cannot have disagreements. Churches split over how to hold communion, how salvation takes place, or whether to baptize infants. When your eternal security is at stake, disagreement cannot be accepted.

When you believe you have absolute and final truth, and that having that truth is necessary to keep you from eternal torture and send you to the bliss of heaven, you lose the ability to agree to disagree. You also lose the ability to look beyond what you have and consider other ideas.

This was one of the biggest problems I faced when I started to question the things I’d been taught. Disagreement was not accepted. It was not okay. It could not be tolerated. This put me on a collision course not only with my family but also with the friends I grew up with and the church I grew up in. I had gone from one of them to an outsider overnight.

As I walked away from the pain, I have been amazed again and again by the beauty and freedom of being allowed to disagree. Like I’ve said before, I was no longer expected to stay inside a box. I was no longer being judged, censured. Instead, the sky was the limit.

My husband and I don’t agree on everything, especially when it comes to politics. But you know what? That’s okay. We agree to disagree. Sometimes we discuss a given point of disagreement, each trying to get the other to understand and each trying to understand the other, but sometimes that becomes frustrating and we put it aside. Because you know what? It doesn’t really matter whether what companies like Bain Capital do is good or bad. It doesn’t really matter whether jails should focus on punishing or rehabilitating. It doesn’t really matter. And we know that. Neither of us claims to hold absolute truth – this is a complicated world, after all – so disagreement is okay. And normal. And healthy. Actually, if my husband and I always agreed on everything, I would be a bit concerned.

The other graduate students in my program generally assume that those in the program are politically liberal, but there are some who aren’t, and no one cares. I very much disagree with some of my fellow graduate students on the issue of home birthing, and that’s okay. One graduate student is ardently pro-homeschooling and some are extremely religions, but no one cares because no one expects uniformity. Disagreement is okay, and it is respected.

I love being able to try out new ideas. I love being able to explore. I love being free to disagree. I love not having to face consequences or censure for disagreeing. I love it.

Anonymous Tip: In Which Gwen Loses Casey
Convention on the Rights of the Child, Articles 6-10: The Child’s Right to Know and Be Cared for by Their Parents
“Women’s Cultures” Reminds Us that the Catholic Church Is Still Out of Touch with Women
Fifty Shades of Evangelical Justifications for Patriarchy
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Christine

    My father and I have an ongoing argument/discussion that will be never ending. He belives in destiny, and I do not. We argue over what destiny really is, and I keep telling him that I have control over my own life and make my own decisions. We fight all the time about it… we both love it… and we still get along and love each other. If everyone believed the same things and no one ever argued the world would be very boring.

  • kisekileia

    Libby, I've been curious about this for a while: why do you describe your family as on the border between fundamentalism and evangelicalism? I would have thought that being Quiverfull pretty much automatically slots a family into the fundamentalist category, especially when it goes along with everything else you've described. I'm not really sure how a family could be significantly more fundamentalist than yours.

  • College At Thirty

    My co-worker just said something really similar to this. She said that her sisters were all coming over for the super bowl, and that she loved it because they would all be fighting. She said that fighting was how they had something to talk about. Differing opinions are fine. It's when someone takes the stand of "I'm right, you're wrong, end of story" that things can turn ugly.

  • Libby Anne

    Good question! Because my family went to an evangelical church (not an IFB or all-homeschool or repressively hierarchical church), because my family dressed normally (yes, modest, but long hair and ankle length jean skirts were not mandated), because my family calls themselves evangelical and rejects the idea that they are fundamentalist, and because leading evangelical groups (Focus on the Family, the National Association of Evangelicals) did have a significant influence on my parents. Also, I was never taught that dancing, movies, alcohol, or rock music were de facto sinful (though alcohol and rock music were presented as potentially problematic).When it comes down to it, the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals is a matter of degree. Evangelicals and fundamentalists generally believe the same thing, but there seem to be three points of difference: (1) fundamentalists hold to specific doctrines (premillenial dispensationalism or KJV only, for instance) much more dogmatically than evangelicals; (2) fundamentalists separate themselves from the world more than evangelicals do; and (3) fundamentalists set more rules on behavior than evangelicals do. But like I said, I see it as a sort of continuum rather than a bright line. Therefore, it seems to me that my parents are somewhere in between. In some ways they are very evangelical and not fundamentalist at all, and in other areas they are very fundamentalist and not evangelical at all. I think sometimes that my parents see themselves as evangelicals and want to be evangelicals, but don't realize how fundamentalist some of the things they do and believe are (especially when it comes to gender). It's like they just accidentally picked those fundamentalist aspects up from the subculture that is the Christian homeschool world, but it wasn't on purpose or with much introspection. Does that answer your question?

  • Wendy

    We have a family story on my Southern Baptist (late) mother-in-law. When my husband told her, years ago, that he had voted Democrat, she left the dinner table and went to her room to cry. I don't think I ever realized before what that must have meant to her, bless her heart.Interestingly, she coped okay with the evolution and Unitarian Church issues, which she disagreed with (but didn't make her cry!)

  • kisekileia

    Yes, it does, and it's a more than reasonable argument. Thank you.

  • Jaimie

    Hoo boy I remember the not-allowed-to-disagree rule. And did you ever just ask the wrong question? They get MAD if you ask certain questions. I learned that in high school when I began to see all the contradictions in what the gospels say verses how we lived. I was in trouble often!

  • Ada-Jean

    Am I allowed to disagree with this post? ;)When you say that stuff like whether prison is for punishment doesn't matter, I THINK you mean that this isn't something you and your partner have to agree on in order to make decisions or any other reason. Cause to people affected by the prison system – it matters a lot. Sometimes I just get sick of ppl saying that "politics doesn't matter" when these questions directly affect lots of people's lives.I loved the post though. I've often noticed that groups – families; workgroups; friendship circles; volunteer groups – enforce a kind of conformity on stuff they don't need to agree on at all, they are also really crappy at resolving differences around stuff that they do have to decide on. So a work group where everyone feels like they need to affirm the same worldview (Oh, all sane people support public healthcare), struggle to make informed decisions about what goals are for this year as well. With my family, I've had to learn a series of set phrases : "well, that's not really the way I see it, but I doubt we're going to change our minds here!" and "I understand that you feel strongly about it, and I'd probably rather not go into it now". They sound as corny as they read, honestly, buts it been a lifesaver for me in indicating that a) I intend to keep my own opinion; and b) Disagreement doesn't threaten the way i feel about them, or how our relationship works.

  • JW

    I have to say that I wholeheartedly hold to this concept. If you ever notice in my other posts I share my opinions but I don't make it a point to get in someone's "face" and shout them down because I think they are wrong.Yes, I am a christian but I would not call myself a fundamentalist in the traditional sense. I am conservative to moderate. When in those camps, whether in person or on a discussion boards, My mode of conversations is questions and inquiries. I am every learning in life and I don't have all the answers.I have even begun listening to more liberal radio to understand the viewpoints of 'liberal-minded' people. It has been a rude awakening for me on that but I have learned a few things. Some things I can understand and other things which I considered stinking thinking. Yet, I do see ALOT of bias on liberal thinking but there is also ALOT of bias on conservative thinking as well, I push myself towards to middle to understand the balance otherwise I find myself in a trap along the line.Conversations that involve questioning of statements to find out why a persons believes certain things is where constructive criticism and constructive conversations begin. I can't tell you how many times I have been in conversations where I asked questions and even gave my opinions on certain things and explained why I believe in certain ways. Kind of like a teaching or expository type of thing. When polar opposites comes together and have their minds made up and they don' want to know why the other side is thinking the way they are then it spells trouble. So is the case with politics-no give there. One side must win at all costs. So is religious systems- the "competition" is rabit at times and there are casualties all along the way. Hence many become disillusioned and eventually atheists as a result.My Peace…….JW

  • Peter and Nancy

    I'm thinking of the phrase (often attributed to Augustine, but I don't know if it was really his) that speaks to what you're saying here . . . The gist of it is: for the most important things, let us have unity; for things that don't matter as much, liberty; in all else, charity. Meaning exactly what this post is about — a charitable, grace-filled view of others, even when we disagree.

  • asmallcontempt

    Oh, this post really resonated with me. I grew up in a church that sounds similar to what you described upthread – evangelical roots/leanings, but not the rigid fundamentalism that one would associate with the Pearls et al – and man oh man was I ever discouraged from disagreeing!"Disagreeing" meant the same thing as "disobeying" in my parents house. Granted, I could get my grump on with the best of teenagers, but you kind of throw in the towel in terms of civility if you KNOW your opinion or request isn't going to be taken seriously. I spent nearly every other weekend grounded, sans car, TV, phone, or (later) internet for thus-or-such infraction.The unfairness came to a head my last summer at their house, between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college. I just loathed the dogmatic and sexist youth pastor at that church, but I had no choice but to attend three days a week, listening to messages that I certainly didn't find convincing (if not outright immoral). I had no friends there at all – I was routinely ostracized from the kids at that youth group since I went to a high school in a different county – and so I asked my mom if it would be ok to check out a small, in-home youth group that a close friend had invited me to.You would have thought I had asked for a pentagram stencil and a live chicken. Seriously, WEEKS of freaking out and threats and on and on…and I WAS ASKING TO GO TO CHURCH.Unfortunately, the "disagree=disobeying" thing continues to this day, and completely colors my ability to communicate with my parents. There's no way to get around it, and all I can do is gently nudge them toward civil discourse until, ironically, they grow up enough to deal with having a daughter who disagrees.

  • mae

    I know I’m a late commenter here, but this has been a HUGE eye-opener to me lately. I was raised in such a narrow-minded church that CLAIMED to be open-minded, that I’ve been really shocked lately when I discovered an ACTUAL open-minded church.

    I’ve also been shocked by discovering that REAL Christians could, in fact, be democrat, liberal and pro-choice.

    I haven’t attended church for the past two years, and I was recently invited by a mother of my son’s best friend, to attend her Methodist church to come and discuss politics. I was stunned. I couldn’t resist the offer, I actually LOVE politics, so I went. I discovered an entire ROOM FULL of Christian people, who openly debate homosexuality, premarital sex, healthcare, economics, reform in all of the above areas, and don’t get ANGRY at each other, or make wild accusations of the other party not being a “real” Christian if they disagree etc. They have civil and open debates differing Christian perspectives and they come into class as friends and leave class as friends.

    In the movement I grew up in, this sort of independent free-thinking was entirely unacceptable. EVERYONE agreed with one person’s statement and fear-mongering tactics which promoted hatred and discrimination and psychotic political perspectives (like Santorum!)

    Discovering this church, and this open political discussion where Muslims aren’t the devil, homosexuals are allowed to be Christians, and women are allowed to speak, has renewed my faith in the church and that there IS a body of Christ out there for intelligent people to talk and be a part of.

    They’ve really surprised me. I’ve been given hope for the Christian church because of this place!