I am deeply saddened and worried by certain posts that have been filling my social media feeds these days. It seems we have lost our capacity to respectfully disagree. Both in Quebec, where I grew up, and in Australia, where I currently live, worldviews have been clashing on the political scene. Sadly, these collisions are leaving behind a trail of hurt that could take a long time to mend. The repercussions on these diverse societies are profound. Authoritative imposition of a given worldview prevents public discussions of ideas, but the latter underpins democracy…
While I do not wish to have a debate on these issues now, I do want to point out that the way they are discussed, especially on social media, is very toxic. How can we instead foster respect and inclusion when worldviews collide?
I have had countless pleasant disagreements at the intersection between science and faith. By pleasant disagreement, I mean a conversation that despite disagreeing sometimes profoundly both parties left the conversation feeling heard and valued. What made those discussions pleasant? Conversely, unpleasant disagreements usually involved some unfair dismissal of someone’s views.
I DISAPPROVE OF WHAT YOU SAY, BUT I WILL DEFEND TO DEATH YOUR RIGHT TO SAY IT — Evelyn Beatrice Hall
There are two simple axioms I take as self-evident to justify why I personally try to not dismiss anyone off hand.
First axiom: “nobody knows everything”. I cannot prove this, but I believe it to be true. If we accept this axiom, then logically: 1. I don’t know everything, and 2. others don’t know everything.
It also follows that there is potential for two people to actually learn something and benefit intellectually from each other on topics where their knowledge may not intersect.
Second axiom: “nobody has proven or disproven the existence of God”. I guess people have vastly different ideas about who/what “God” is and some look at the same piece of evidence and come to opposing conclusions. Even my own understanding has changed as my relationship with the divine, christianity, the bible and science have evolved and matured over the years. So although mutually exclusive, both “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” require faith, neither is proven fact. The only position that doesn’t require faith is agnosticism.
I also note that christians don’t always agree with other christians (this is also true of scientists). I think this is normal and perfectly healthy. By axiom 1, if there is a God who created everything, and nobody knows everything, it follows that nobody fully knows God. In other words, if God created everything, he/she/it cannot fit inside a box (or book) small enough to be fully understood by human thought.
My recipe for pleasant disagreements
Sifting through my memories, I have identified 4 ingredients that I think foster pleasant disagreements. As usual, these ideas stem from my experience (so far) and may not apply to everyone. As with cookbooks, feel free to experiment, substitute ingredients and improve as you see fit to make it your own. I also note that these ideas easily apply to any discussion on a contentious issue.
First ingredient: humility
One thing that both scientists and christians usually agree on is that there are facts and truth. Since nobody knows everything, it is possible others may know something I don’t know. In fact, I know others know many things I don’t know as I learn from others daily. While it is unproductive to argue about a fact, it is perfectly reasonable for two people to hold contradictory opinions based on their separate knowledge, experience and interpretation/thought process. So even when disagreeing, one may learn something from the other person’s viewpoint.
Second ingredient: stick to the arguments
… or “don’t make it personal.” In other words, if you disagree, offer a valid counter-argument or simply say why you disagree. I think it is common practice to discredit witnesses in court in order to invalidate their testimony, but a discussion isn’t a trial or a debate to be won. In my previous post, I highlighted that many arguments against scientists of faith are logical fallacies, these should be avoided.
Furthermore, assuming someone needs rescuing, is brainwashed, immature or stupid sets up a false hierarchy where one person feels that somehow their thought process is superior. A conversation is moot under such patronising assumptions.
Third ingredient: embrace the tension
As a young christian, a fellow believer once explained to me that the bible is full of grey areas. Many years later, I am still unpacking the multiple layers of this very wise statement. Likewise, for most of life’s problems, there isn’t a simple right or wrong answer; there is a spectrum of grey possibilities. The same is true with worldviews: there is sometimes no way to determine which (if any) is right, yet we all believe our own is somehow better. What’s more, people evolve. The same approach may work one day, but not the next day (those of you reading this who have raised children know exactly what I mean). I have learned to embrace the grey areas of life as opportunities for growth.
Fourth ingredient: empathy
Pleasant disagreements for me have usually involved (care)full listening, a willingness to see the matter from each other’s perspective and open acknowledgement of the other’s thought process. We don’t necessarily agree with every decision that has led to a given conclusion, but it is helpful to retrace the logic behind it. Simple affirmations like: “I hear you” or “I get it” validate the other’s experience. This usually leaves room to respectfully explore other possibilities together. I found statements like “have you thought of…” or “what if…” are good ways to open up respectful discussions.
I’d like to hear from you. Please let me know if you agree, disagree or would like to add something, I welcome all respectful comments on this blog.
DISAGREEMENT IS SOMETHING NORMAL — Dalai Lama