I’ve been doing a lot of philosophical soul searching lately, and am in the process of reevaluating my approach to writing and conversation. It has been noted that when someone leaves their religion, they often become bitter; at least for a season. For some this season can last for months, for others it can take years, and for some the negative outlook may never be replaced.
Since I left Christianity, sometime between mid-October and early November last year, I have dealt with my share of bitterness and angst. Most of this has not been directed against people, but can be seen in my negative, deconstructionist approach to writing. I don’t insult Christians (at least intentionally) or try to mock them, nor have I tried to take anyone away from the faith; but I have engaged in what could be construed as intellectual warfare against my former belief system. My purpose has never been to attack Christianity, but there is not much of a practical difference between running a blog devoted almost exclusively to criticizing a belief system and the former. I’m sure this deconstructionist attitude serves a psychological purpose (such as increasing confidence in one’s new worldview), but I am not convinced it is a healthy or beneficial outlook to have for sustained periods of time.
I feel like I am heading in the right direction. And I attribute this to several factors, including the positive influence of non-dogmatic Christian and non-Christian friends both online and in person. They have reminded me that most of us hold core values in common, even if we differ with regard to approach or beliefs. I would also credit a conscious decision of mine to shift from negative to positive studies. This includes increased study of subjects such as humanism, philosophy, psychology, etc. as opposed to my previous areas of study such as biblical criticism and religious philosophy. The old native american proverb comes to mind: “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.”
Lately I’ve been reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. His thoughts on humility and non-dogmatism are insightful and inspiring to me, I will quote him at length here.
My list of virtues contained at first but twelve ; but a
Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was
generally thought proud ; that my pride showed itself fre-
quently in conversation ; that I was not content with being
in the right when discussing any point, but was overbear-
ing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by
mentioning several instances ; I determined to endeavour
to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the
rest ; and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive
meaning to the word.
I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of
this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the
appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct
contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all p0sitive
assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to
the old laws of our Jiinto, the use of every word or expres-
sion in the language that imported a fixed opinion ; such as
certainly, undoubtedly, &c., and I adopted instead of them,
I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine, a thing to be so or so ;
or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted
something that I thought an error, I denied myself the
pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing
immediately some absurdity in his proposition ; and in
answering I began by observing, that, in certain cases or
circumstances, his opinion would be right, but in the
present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference,
&c. I soon found the advantage of this change in my
manners ; the conversations I engaged in went on more
pleasantly. The modest way in which I proposed my
opinions, procured them a readier reception and less con-
tradiction ; I had less mortification, when I was found to be
in the wrong ; and I more easily prevailed with others to
give lip their mistakes and join with me, when I happened
to be in the right.
And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence
to natural inclination, became at length easy, and so
habitual to me, that perhaps for the last fifty years no one
has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to
this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it prin-
cipally owing that I had early so much weight with my
fellow-citizens, when I proposed new institutions or altera-
tions in the old ; and so much influence in public councils,
when I became a member ; for I was but a bad speaker,
never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of
words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally
carried my point.
His words definitely resonated with me, as I have long been in the habit of dogmatically asserting my opinions. I am also prone, as he was, to pride and arrogance. This post is my first attempt at reversing that trend since I left Christianity. I have in the past been better at avoiding dogmatic expressions, but have found that there has been a correlation between increased devotion to my studies and lack of patience with those who hold contrary opinions.
When a dispute arises, or someone expresses a contrary belief to our own, we generally look for objective justification of our opinions. What I mean is that, in order to bolster our arguments, we appeal to things which seem to carry universal epistemological weight. For instance, if I disagree with a Christian, I will usually appeal to the rules of logic in an attempt at making a reductio ad absurdum argument (reducing an opponent’s view to absurdity).
While this is a totally acceptable and honest approach to argumentation, it will not likely endear the other person to me. I think there is a time and place for such argumentation, but it may be true that we generally overestimate it’s beneficiality in informal discourse. Rather than trying to beat someone over the head with logic or science, maybe we should not be worried about the other person’s opinion at all. Maybe, a more pragmatic approach is worth considering.
Instead of trying to prove or disprove my or another’s opinion by appealing to objective justification, I find it tempting to approach conversation by primarily appealing to common values and opinions. What I mean is that finding commonality may have more pragmatic value than focusing on contrary opinions. If someone wishes to discuss a topic with me, in which we do not have an opinion in common, it may be better to know at the outset what the purpose or goal of discussing the topic is. If the goal is to learn more about the opposing perspective, or to solve some problem, then I think the topic is worth engaging respectfully. However, if the person initiating the conversation is not sincerely interested in the contrary opinion, and there is no problem to be solved, then it is probably not worth engaging in.
I don’t think both sides must be sincerely interested in the opposing viewpoint, but I do think there needs to be mutual respect and an absence of dogmatic statements if the conversation is to avoid dissolving into dispute. I think the burden is especially on the initiator to have proper motives. I imagine myself being on the receiving end of questions on a sensitive topic. In the ideal scenario I would state clearly that I do not wish to debate, but would be willing to share my perspective respectfully if the other person was sincerely interested in what I have to say. On the other hand, if I were the initiator, I would only bring up a sensitive topic if I were sincerely interested in the other person’s perspective and willing to refrain from directly contradicting the person or acting in an otherwise provocative manner. I would also not speak openly about a controversial topic unless I knew the audience held similar opinions or is interested in mine.
This applies to writing as well. There is more liberty when writing an article or blog post to a non-specific audience than there is in conversation. After all, I am not compelling anyone to read what I write, and those who do are most likely interested in the topic. There is a greater freedom in writing to address controversial subjects. But when this is done, there are still reasons to presume that tact is important.
Firstly, insulting or accusing another person in writing is arguably worse than doing so in conversation. This is because the person is not present to respond.
Secondly, mocking or insulting groups of people or their view is likely to agitate and cause unnecessary stress both for the writer and the respective group.
Thirdly, a dogmatic or condescending approach is likely to antagonize those who are prone to dispute. It is likely to make people feel as if their intelligence is being called into question or that the writer is arrogant or prideful.
The fourth vice of writing would be a negative preoccupation with the flaws in opposing viewpoints. This can lead those of contrary opinion to feel attacked and can lead to defensive reactions.
All of these things seem, upon reflection, to be hindrances to the development of an intellectually open society. I am most guilty of dogma, condescension and preoccupation with the flaws of opposing viewpoints. Knowing this, I hope to improve the tone of my writing and conversation by avoiding these vices. I hope that I can continue to learn from others and be less concerned with ‘winning’ arguments (a futile endeavor) and more concerned with valuing the thoughts and opinions of everyone and respectfully contributing to public discourse.