Our manner of public discourse really stinks, you know it? I’m willing to own my own share of the problem, but I also know I work harder than most at showing patience and empathy toward people who think differently from me. I want to talk about how we can do better at that, particularly when it comes to religion, although I don’t think this is a problem unique to religion alone.
Half a century ago, most people in your community had roughly the same background and they probably saw eye-to-eye on big things even if they often feuded over the little things. The character of our disagreements was different, less bitter, less desperate. There’s an edge to our quarrels today that suggests people feel at risk in a way we didn’t feel before, as if we fear our core indentities are being threatened.
Some of that is because the internet has thrown people together who didn’t previously have to hear from one another. Ultimately that’s a good thing because these are the growing pains of a maturing global civilization. But I also suspect several developments in media delivery have made things worse instead of better. Partisan news outlets and customizable social media have built echo chambers around people until we find ourselves paradoxically bumping elbows against all kinds of people while only really listening to our kind of people, those people who keep reminding us why all those other cats are just doing it all wrong.
On top of all that, since we can’t see the facial expressions of the people with whom we interact on social networks, we find it all too easy to make snap judgments and even hurl insults at people we hardly know, sometimes even behaving more rudely to the people we do know than we ever would if we were speaking to them face-to-face.
This matters whether you personally care about it or not. There’s value in learning to get along because as a people we thrive best when we’re working together to solve our problems. It behooves us to raise the level of our dialogue if we hope to ever progress as a species. But even on a more personal level, if you harbor any hopes that people who think differently from you will embrace rationalism and scientific and social progress, it only makes sense that you should endeavor to improve your own ability to inspire that in others. That ain’t gonna happen as long as you’re calling them names and talking smack about their mamas, metaphorically speaking. We’ve got to learn to do that better, even if it does take a lot of effort.
I’ve put a lot of time and thought into bridging the gap between belief and unbelief because I myself live on the boundary between these two worlds. As an openly secular atheist in the heart of the Bible Belt, I feel like a bit of an ambassador for skepticism amidst a sometimes hostile nation of believers. To be sure, I level my own share of criticisms when the need arises, but I also spend a good deal of time looking for ways to translate the thoughts and concerns of each group to the other. It often doesn’t work, but every once in a while it does, and I feel like just a little progress has been made.
Many of my most popular blog posts have been the ones designed to help Christians understand atheists better:
- What I Learned about Atheists from God’s Not Dead
- What Atheists Wish Christians Knew About Them
- What Christians Mean When They Use the Word “Atheist”
- How to Love an Atheist (If You’re Very Religious)
- What’s Wrong with Telling an Atheist You’ll Pray for Her?
- Your Love is Toxic
I’ve also had to occasionally clarify for my fellow atheists what they aren’t getting about Christians:
- What Too Many Atheists Don’t Get About Christians (part one)
- What Too Many Atheists Don’t Get About Christians (part two)
My interview with a pastor at a local church here in Jackson, Mississippi remains one of my most widely appreciated posts ever (see that here), and just this past weekend I had the privilege of sitting down to chat with Skye Jethani, senior editor of Christianity Today‘s Leadership Journal, and Phil Vischer, the creator of one of my children’s favorite shows, Veggie Tales. We had a great talk, and you can catch that podcast here:
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one other great resource for bridging this divide: Dale McGowan’s In Faith and In Doubt. While Dale wrote this book to aid couples in forging stronger alliances across the sacred/secular divide (as well as between members of any two differing faith traditions), I’m convinced the principles he lays out for couples can be generalized to relationships of every kind. Readers of that book will recognize several of his practical suggestions in the following list of tips:
Ten Tips to Becoming a Better Bridge Builder
1) Make an effort to stay in touch with how “the other” thinks. Don’t only read your own preferred news sources, but sometimes check out where others get their information. Visit the favorite websites of people who think differently from you. Do you even know what those are? Maybe that’s a good place to start.
3) Learn to state their views so well that even they would confess they couldn’t put it any better. Daniel Dennett advises that this is one of the most effective ways to influence another person’s thinking. If you can state the other person’s view so well that even he admits you’ve nailed it, you’ve just won the right to be heard by the person whose mindset you’d like to influence. People become far less defensive after they realize you truly understand where they’re coming from.
4) Do what you can to identify common ground, taking care to distinguish between values and beliefs. I’ve written about this before (see my “Character vs. Belief”) because I think it’s a crucial distinction to make. Two people can have the same belief system while exhibiting wildly different character traits, just as two others can have similar character while holding to differing belief systems. The most practical goal would be to locate those common values upon which a cooperative relationship can be built and nurtured rather than focusing on the differences of ideology keeping them apart.
5) Pick your battles. Not everything is important. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and learn to choose which matters really matter so much that they’re worth fighting over. Some things are worth it, mind you. But some things really can be let go for the sake of saving emotional energy for other, weightier things.
6) Drop the conversion mentality. For those of us purporting to be “freethinkers,” it’s not consistent of us to try to persuade others to replace one set of beliefs with another set of beliefs wholesale. The goal is to teach critical thinking, and to encourage others to think for themselves. When I talk to people who believe differently from me, I don’t think it’s productive to “swipe the leg” (so to speak) by criticizing the entire framework that makes up their worldview all at once because minds don’t usually change instantly. The way we speak to each other should take that into account. And I don’t think it’s healthy or realistic to expect others to come the entire way from their “side” to ours. Ultimately I’d love for us to get past such binary thinking. I don’t need the whole world to think the same as me.
7) Show people respect even as you disagree with their ideas. There is a difference between disagreement and disrespect. People deserve respect; ideas do not. But some beliefs are so central to people’s identities that hearing them criticized feels like a personal attack. We would do well to try to move past that, but it certainly doesn’t help when we call each other derogatory names, leveling personal attacks on people’s character and intelligence. Stick to the ideas and lay off the personal attacks.
8) Appreciate the diversity of belief that exists from group to group and even between the younger and older versions of the same person. A lot of miscommunication stems from assuming we know what the other person thinks simply because we know what their “tribe” believes. But people don’t always subscribe to every tenet of the belief system to which they hold. There’s a lot of room in any ideology for a difference of emphasis and opinion on non-essential details. Even within a single person’s lifetime, he may run the gamut of his own religion. We should remember how much our own views have grown and changed over time, and give the other person the basic respect of allowing that he or she may change his or her mind over time as well.
9) Take up for “the other” when representatives of your group don’t show him or her respect. If you see someone from your tribe mistreating someone from another, speak up about it. Hold your own team accountable for how they behave toward the other. What goes around comes around, and if you don’t fight to raise the level of discourse, all the most helpful people will leave the conversation and everyone loses when that happens.
10) Learn to recognize when it’s the wrong time to build a bridge between yourself and others. Only a fool would build a bridge between himself and the people who are actively trying to hurt him. Well, a fool or else a masochist. My default impulse is to play ambassador and take the diplomatic approach. I always try to be accommodating and conciliatory, but there are circumstances under which “building bridges” is a bad idea because certain people will only use that opportunity to hurt others. When those people are identified, the best thing to do is to cut them off and to end conversation. Sometimes the entire relationship needs to come to a close because some people won’t respect personal boundaries no matter how hard you fight for them. Once those people are identified, just walk away and get about the business of living your life. Nothing productive or healthy has been lost.
All of this is easier said than done, and it takes practice. It helps to have others to talk to about these things, and they can show you by example what it looks like to do the things described herein. Identify those people who know how to move conversation in a productive direction and learn to pick up the habits you see them putting into practice.
Incidentally, the content of this post makes up the framework for a talk I gave this past weekend in Springfield, Illinois. You can watch that here:
[Image source: commons.wikimedia.org]