Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Nature of the Debate

Recently, one of my friends on Facebook shared a picture, showing a copy of the Bible, the Koran and Mr Tickle.  Next to each one respectively, it said ‘Proof that God exists’, ‘Proof that Allah exists’, and ‘Proof that Mr. Tickle exists’.  At the bottom, in large letters was the caption ‘Religious Logic’.

Even ignoring the obvious theological inaccuracy, I took issue with this, and commented on the picture saying “Replace the word ‘Religious’ with ‘Fundamentalist’ and I might agree.  Assuming or implying that fundamentalism and extremism are representative of religion as a whole, or that ‘religion’ is at all homogenous’ is helpful to no-one.”

However, this does indeed seem to be the primary tactic that evangelical atheists (not that the friend in question is one of these) are using.  Another (particularly objectionable) image I’ve seen online, and which I’ve seen quoted elsewhere reads ‘Science flies men to the moon.  Religion flies them into buildings’.  In this case ‘religion’ is equated with hyper-extremist Islam.  In this case not even ‘Fundamentalism flies them into buildings’ would be even slightly accurate.  One may as well say ‘Religion builds homeless shelters.  Science builds gas-chambers’. 

However, it is very important to remember that the opposite is also true, and something like the above may well be floating around the internet somewhere.  Many theists hear the word ‘atheist’ and instantly assume Dawkinsian ranting, ignorance and offensiveness.  I have no doubt that some people hear the word ‘Muslim’ and instantly think ‘Al-Quaeda’.

Increasingly everybody is being persuaded that there are ‘Them’ and there are ‘Us’, and all of Them are at the uttermost extreme end of the Them spectrum.  These are deeply harmful assumptions that make what should be an intelligent and earnest debate into a scornful and dismissive slanging match.

I have been spoiled somewhat by being fortunate enough to have been able to mix with pleasant, deeply intelligent people with a wide spectrum of well thought-out, sincerely held beliefs, and who were capable of discussing these beliefs with others who strongly disagreed with them in a spirit of amiable, intelligent debate.  At university, I mixed with Christians of various denominations, agnostics of every shade, atheists, Buddhists, pagans and occultists.  It was during these discussions that I fully came to grips with exactly what it is that I myself believe, and why.  My beliefs were proofed and tested.  Some were found wanting, and modified or discarded.  Others were refined, tempered and polished.  I hope that I provided the same service for the people that I was discussing with.

I left university expecting to be able to have the same level of discussion about things like religion that I enjoyed previously, and it was something of a shock to discover that not only are many people apparently incapable of holding such discussions, they do not seem to even want to.  They would prefer to pour scorn and vitriol on their opponents, and willingly generalise them as all being like the most extreme and unpleasant aspects of their chosen groups, and completely refuse to acknowledge that any of their beliefs could possibly require modification or re-thinking, on any level at all.

Unhappily, it is also often these extremes that are the most visible and shout the loudest, and which are the most unpleasant to any dissenters, discouraging the more moderate, tolerant people from becoming involved at all.

Thus, rather than each debate being a bridge over a wide chasm, leading to deeper understanding and a mutual respect of the positions held, and an appreciation of a different point of view, each one serves to widen the gap, hurt feelings and make the discussions I enjoyed at university ever less likely, and that saddens me deeply.

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