Arguing About Religion

I used to think it didn’t make sense to argue about religion, because it was impossible to convince anybody and, perhaps more importantly, disrespectful to try.

After all, religion is about someone’s relationship to his or her own soul and to matters of ultimate concern (G-d, the Tao, the Dharmakaya and such like) and those are the most deep and intimate issues, and nobody else’s business.

But I just read the Washington Post article about evangelical support for Trump, and it seems like the only way to engage is to talk about religion. For example they think everyone is a sinner and it’s self-righteous of progressives to criticize Trump. They think that science is opposed to religion and the only way to avoid thinking that life is a meaningless joke is to endorse a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. It seems like the only way to argue with these ideas is to get in a religious argument about the true meaning of the Bible, who/what G-d is and how we should think about Him, sin, mitzvot, the purpose of life etc. 

And yet I think my first point is valid too — it’s disrespectful and a waste of time to argue about religion! People have a bad track record of answering these questions, and it is obnoxious to expect people to agree on them.

It’s a puzzler.


6 thoughts on “Arguing About Religion

  1. I agree that arguing about religion is difficult.

    Most important is the adage: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

    The only way to win an argument is to give up the idea of “winning” it. People must be led to new conclusions, not bludgeoned or intimidated into accepting them.

    People’s beliefs are part of their sense of self. To attack their foundational beliefs is to attack their sense of self. It rarely works:

    “If as a child you went to church or synagogue with your parents every week, prayed with family, friends, and loved ones, those experiences were not only pleasant but were also an important formative influence in your life. They’ve become part of who you are as a person. When anyone suggests that you reject the beliefs associated with all that behavior and life experience, it feels like you’re being asked to reject your family, your loved ones, all those wonderful moments, and even important parts of yourself. Is it any wonder that so many people can’t do it and don’t even *want* to do it?” (– me, *Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things*, forthcoming)

    I would also be cautious about two things. First, The Washington Post is not an unbiased news source, and for the record, the same is true of the right-wing Washington Times. Both newspapers let their agenda guide their news coverage. The Post is the house organ of a DC establishment that hates Trump and regards Christians with contempt. The Times might give similar treatment to, say, the ACLU or Black Lives Matter.

    Second, evangelicals are not all alike. I know plenty of them. Some are as you described, but others — such as geneticist Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health — are highly educated and scientifically literate. One of my college roommates became a Pentecostal minister, and though he believes I’m going straight to Hell, he wouldn’t *wish* harm to me or anyone else.

    It seems to me that belief about the transcendent has almost no direct implications for morality or politics. Two people can look at the same Biblical passages and draw opposite conclusions, which — I hate to say it — makes the Biblical text by itself rather unhelpful. That’s why we need both the written Torah and the Oral Torah.

    When we argue about morality and politics, we’re not arguing about religion at all. We’re arguing about how we feel, how we want other people to feel, and what kind of society we want. We only invoke religion to support what we’ve already decided. To change people’s opinions, you need to change how they *feel* about the relevant issues.

    • We only invoke religion to support what we’ve already decided. To change people’s opinions, you need to change how they *feel* about the relevant issues.

      Interesting point there!

  2. While I am not sure about the Palmer commentary on media bias — it does not follow that polar opposites must be equally biased — the reflections on religion are acute and sensitive. But there are usually two distinct claims going on simultaneously when people talk about God, and it is a mistake to suppose they must be accorded equal respect.
    The first claim is that somebody feels an urge to bridge the longings of the soul and the vasty depths of the cosmos and eternity. The second claim is that theistic religions have presented themselves, and some God as their most obvious manifestation, as the answer to those longings AND that having been so presented, they must be true for anyone who believes in them.
    The first claim deserves respect, for sure. Respect for the second claim is more problematic, absent the evidence. When people demanding respect for their belief in an entity whose existence is at best unproven go further in their demands upon non-believers in terms of social contracts, educational practice, and our evolving understanding those vasty depths based upon what science is telling us, then any vestigial respect vanishes to the same ancient cupboards that store the myths from the infancy of our species: flying horses, dragons in the oceans, and plagues sent as punishments of miscreant monkeys.

    • Tam, thanks for your thoughtful reply. Permit me to enter a couple of clarifications.

      First, I agree that opposites need not be equally biased. I wasn’t making that inference, only an observation. I worked as a DC news reporter for a couple of years, so I saw a lot of it up close. We don’t get unbiased news reporting because most people don’t want it. I could get away with doing it because I didn’t report on politics.

      Second, regarding your second kind of belief, I see it less as respect for the beliefs than as respect for people and awareness of the social functions of belief. Shared beliefs help people trust and cooperate with each other, even if the beliefs are dubious. Science has the last word only about the physical universe. What it all means is not a scientific question.

      I do think that the miscreant monkeys were in “The Wizard of Oz” rather than the Bible.

  3. Is being disrespectful a sin?

    Also a quote from our prophet, Lovecraft “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

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