Dueling dogma isn’t dialogue

Dueling dogma isn’t dialogue November 18, 2011

Another part of my complaint about “debates” like the one we discussed yesterday (on “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion“) is that I think such point-scoring face-offs wind up replacing the conversations that ought to be happening instead.

Such debates are framed as having something to do with persuasion, but there’s little reason to think that really has anything to do with what’s going on in such forums. No skeptic has ever left such a stage saying, “Gee, an uncaused cause — I’d never thought of that.” And no religious believer has ever been brought up short, saying, “Why, yes, an impersonal, not-at-all transcendent tea kettle in space also can’t be disproved and thus is a perfect analogy for belief in God. How silly I’ve been.”

A debate forum, in other words, tends to produce the opposite of what people with radically different perspectives need from each other, which is a mutual openness to learning what might be seen from the perspective of another.

Again, a main reason I’m committed to pluralism is because I think it’s necessary to protect freedom of conscience and to prevent coercion. A duel of dogmas suggests that one dogma will, or could, “win” and thus, triumphant, become the reigning dogma. I don’t want there to be a reigning dogma. The idea of such a thing prompts a viscerally Reynoldsian response from me (“I aim to misbehave”).

But I’m also committed to a robust pluralism for what might be called epistemic reasons. Old fish swims past the young fish, says, “Hey, kids, hows the water?” Young fish says, “What’s water?” I do not wish to be the young fish, blind to the very thing I’m swimming in.

The way to avoid that is to regularly engage with others who do not share my own perspectives, others who view the world differently, from a different place — be that religious, political, ideological, cultural, power-wise, etc. And I need to be able to engage them with openness, honesty, vulnerability, empathy and imagination — the very traits that the polemic duel of a debate doesn’t encourage. So when it comes to a question like the value of religion in the world, I have no desire to get on a stage somewhere and rehash my differences with someone like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens in a “debate.” But I would jump at the chance to sit and talk with either of them over a meal or the beverage of their choice.

That’s why I read, and value, the views and insights of people like PZ Myers and Ed Brayton and many others in the skeptical blogosphere.

And that’s also, in a different arena of difference, why I find Fox News so frustrating. I’m a liberal. That’s the political water I swim in. If there existed a conservative news outlet providing a conservative perspective in good faith, I would value that and benefit from it. It would be, for me, a helpful and necessary way of seeing the world from an alternative perspective.

The problem with Fox is that one can’t view the world through another’s eyes if their eyes are clamped shut. I could tune in to Fox News, for example, and learn that Justice Elena Kagan must recuse herself from important cases because of “Article 28, Section 144” of the U.S. Constitution. And I might then initially think, “Ah, my conservative neighbors are making a constitutional argument that we liberals seem to have overlooked. I shall have to give that some thought.”

But then it turns out that there is no “Article 28, Section 144” of the Constitution. Fox is just making stuff up rather than arguing an actual perspective in good faith. That’s of no use to me. It’s not an alternative perspective, just partisan propaganda designed to score points in a duel of dogmas. I learn nothing about an actual, good-faith conservative perspective watching Fox, and thus gain no insight into my own liberal perspective either.

Engaging in a “debate” with those who are not honest and who are not acting in good faith is useless and pointless. And that’s one more reason that staged debates bore and depress me. They tend to attract people like Dinesh D’Souza or David Barton or Ken Ham — people who cannot be trusted to act in good faith or to tell the truth.


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