I am right. At least I think I am. If I did not believe myself to be right then how could I keep on going? Would it not be necessary to change everything and adapt accordingly if I found myself to be wrong? And so it is with everybody. We continue living the way we do, thinking the way we do and acting/reacting in the way we do because we believe ourselves to be basically right. This is all well and good for the hermit on the hills but what of those of us who choose to interact with others, others who perhaps think they are right too? To state my thesis bluntly, passion and tolerance are two ends of the same emotion and, as ever, the best way to be is somewhere in the middle.
As a man who regularly dabbles in debate which are often of a deeply personal nature I have witnessed many different styles of argument and have observed with no small interest how these styles have been received. On the one hand there are people who push their views with such ferocity that little thought or care is given for feelings. On the other hand there are those who present their views with such humility and patience that the importance and intensity of the argument may be lost completely.
Perhaps the most personal and (certainly for one camp) important debate that can be had, is that between theism and anti-theism. This is a debate which cuts through the stifled and emotionless heart of the academic because each of us are inescapably bound to one world-view or the other and the impact of virtually every aspect of one’s life is dictated accordingly. The theist believes that human life is intrinsically linked to a spiritual dimension and that the borders of this universe and the sum total of matter are not the limits of transcendental experience. The anti-theist holds that there is nothing outside of time and space and that all the answers of existence can be scientifically explained and in time most likely they will be.
In my debating career and in the vigorous philosophical discussions I have chosen to engage in which this topic is concerned I have experienced two kinds of insult that cut rather deeply. I am happy enough to call them with no undue exaggeration the two most hurtful insults I have ever received and one has come courtesy of the theist and the other from the anti-theist.
From the theist I have been told that the Christian tradition to which I belong (Roman Catholic) is evil, its members are not ‘saved’ and that I needed to repent of my Catholicism. As a matter of course, I honestly can say, to use a football analogy, I try to play the ball and not the man. When you are faced with a comment along those personal lines, however, it is very hard not to instinctively want to fight back. It may well be asked also, what does the person who makes such a comment hope to achieve? On the one hand there is something admirable about how strongly they stand for their beliefs but at the same time it is also horrendously pig-headed and just plain rude. When dealing with issues so intensely personal surely an attacking constitution will only serve to alienate people and to grow intense and bitter rivalries.
Being attacked like that has certainly given me great empathy for the atheist. It must be truly annoying if not outright upsetting to be told that you lack morality, that you are inherently evil and that you need to instantly repent of your ways. Of course the theist may genuinely believe what they are saying is true, they may indeed be acting out of love, nonetheless, compassion and consideration are never useless values. At the end of a day a person will never be attracted to a camp which is seen as arrogant and insulting. There is literally no point in aggressively proselytizing your beliefs and condemning others who hold different beliefs. If a person is questioning their worldview and looking to explore others they will be attracted to those who seem content and quietly confident not to those who seem to be theological bullies.
The other insult which cut particularly deeply was from the anti-theistic camp. It is not so much a particular insult so much as a long-running insinuation that theists are less intelligent than their anti-theistic counterparts. This insult is revealed in many forms. G-D is often referred to as an imaginary friend. Bertrand Russell’s beloved flying teapot had been joined by a pink unicorn and a flying spaghetti monster in ridiculing theistic belief. Beyond that, a false dichotomy is made between science and faith with the implication that theists are necessarily opposed to scientific advances.
The real frustration here arises from having untrue assertions made simply because someone holds the belief that G-D may exist. There is so much variation within the realms of theism. From new age spiritualism to voodoo and the myriad polytheistic beliefs, theism is nothing if not a broad church. Usually when poking fun, anti-theists focus on fundamentalist Christians and Muslims who read the Bible and Koran respectively as literally true. There are two problems here.
Firstly, it is unfair and academically lazy to lump together Christian freethinkers and fundamentalists, orthodox and non-orthodox Jews, Jihadist and progressive Muslims in the same unintelligent basket. Secondly, even when dealing with the more extreme theists, it is unhelpful and plain rude to presume superior intelligence based on a difference of philosophical belief. Those who would like to term themselves and their anti-theistic counterparts as ‘brights’ are doing little more than revealing their own arrogance and most likely insecurities also. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, ‘you may have genius, the contrary, however, is more probable.’
So where does that leave us? We all have issues that are deeply important to us. It is not at all limited to spirituality but may well be politics or an ethical issue, even sports. Whatever the case, to be passionate is a wonderful virtue, to be rude and obnoxious is not. From the two examples of things that have insulted me personally, I would suggest then two rules. I note humbly that I am probably guilty of both in the past. Firstly, do not when presenting your case infer or state that the opposing view is evil or wrong. If your case is strong and your example is valid that will be enough to win over those who can be won over. Secondly, do not infer or state that those who disagree with you are unintelligent. This is perhaps the lowest form of argument available and is in fact not an argument at all. Ridiculing and humiliating other people is a form of cowardice. It is rude, patronising and rather unlikely to win any converts to your way of thinking.
By all means argue the case that you believe in. Fight with vigour but also with valour for what you believe to be true and just. At the same time you must acknowledge that the world is not uniform and homogenous. There is beauty in diversity and I don’t think anyone truly desires to see a world where we all think the same way. So blend your passion with tolerance. Accept from the start that not everyone will accept your argument and your position. Resign yourself to the fact that we are different and all the more beautiful for it. After all, If the argument cannot be won with grace and dignity, it is not worth winning at all.