I used to really enjoy a rousing discussion about Big Things. Now I’d pretty much rather have my teeth pulled. Here’s why:
When we use the word “believe” I think we tend to use it like “believe in the Tooth Fairy”, ie something we believe because somebody told us once when we were very small and it sounded nice and was fun and we were pretty gullible so yes, we believed. In the realm of adult discussion I think when we say “such and such believe such and such” it’s a way to downplay anything offensive in what we are about to say. Well, sure I BELIEVE what you are doing isn’t the right thing to do, but hey, no biggie, it’s just a belief. Yet this is not what I mean when I discuss what I believe. I believe things because I have pondered them, studied them, and become convinced about them. I believe things based on evidence, trust in the source, etc. and now I am certain. I could more easily replace the word believe with “know” than with “suppose” or “think”. Of course, belief is not synonymous with knowledge. One way I know this is that I often meet other intelligent, thoughtful people, who firmly and certainly hold things to be true which are the opposite of those things I believe. This can be an uncomfortable feeling. If that person is as certain as I am, one of us, or I suppose possibly both of us, must be wrong. And I’m sure it’s them. I’m also sure they think it’s me. Is the ground under my feet as firm as I think it is? Eeeeeew doubt. Doubt that is hard to remove. I can go back and check my reasoning and say, yes that still all looks correct. Good, I’m still sure I’m right, but then they do the same and here we are back again. Perhaps this is the root of two common problems in debate today.
One is to simply pull a Pontius Pilate, shrug and say “what is truth?” Everybody’s opinions are equally valid. Which of course simply means that they’re all equally invalid, or at least pointless. This way lies madness. I once tried to argue with a firm relativist. (Is that an oxymoron?) The discussion quickly devolved into a search for some starting point where we could agree. In the end, he argued that 2+2 might equal 4 to me, but it might equal 5 to someone else. I suggested that that would simply be a word game where the word 5 simply meant what everyone accepted 4 to mean. To which he replied, “well that’s your opinion.” At which point I decided to enjoy my beer and stop trying. Also, this method usually ends with dishonesty because sooner or later it becomes clear that while “everyone is entitled to their opinion” those who think that is silly, certainly are not. Those people are judgmental meanies. They should be stopped. Overall I would say it’s a method invented to avoid conflict and general unpleasantness, relieve any discomfort with one’s own doubts and make sure nobody can disagree with you because disagreement loses any actual meaning.
At first blush, the relativist approach seems pretty ridiculous, until you see just what kind of unpleasantness these folks are trying to avoid. On the other side of the pendulum’s swing is the other solution to our problem of opposing beliefs. Those who disagree with you must be utter idiots, supremely lazy, or just plain evil. Reducing everyone who disagrees with you to pathetic fools is very comforting, but it simply flies in the face of reality. The reality is, I may disagree with Stephen Hawking’s atheism but I cannot reasonably say he’s just plain stupid. On the other hand, many incredible minds throughout history have believed in God, and it would be equally arrogant and lazy to dismiss the works of Thomas Aquinas, for one example, as religious fiddle faddle. If you watch the news you’d think ALL intelligent economists agree that raising taxes is baaaaad. Except that if you change the channel you’ll learn that ALL intelligent economists agree that taxes MUST be raised!! Odd… could it be that intelligent people disagree and some are occasionally wrong? Somehow though, in every realm of debate this is what we do. Don’t like my politics? I must be a bigot or a communist. Don’t like my religion or lack thereof? I’m ignorant or angry. It seems like the signs of a great debater today are that he can most fully ridicule his opposition rather than most reasonably argue his case. Mockery is not a proof. Offending people is not a virtue. Yet how often do people hold up their willingness to sneer at others as some sort of badge of honour and evidence of how firmly they believe what they believe? The other flaw in all this, aside from being shabby debating, is that being a better debater doesn’t necessarily make someone more right anyway. Verbally expressing your reasons for a belief is a skill separate from reasoning to a belief. Where does all this condescension, smugness, and mean spiritedness get us? Precisely nowhere. We haven’t proven we’re right, we’ve just proven we can yell down the opposition. No wonder most people would rather crawl back into that safe, quiet, non-confrontational space where everybody is right and nobody is.
Of course, these two schools feed each other. The more people try to say that the only thing that matters is that everyone be “nice” and nobody feel bad, the more those who actually hold something to be true want to yell “stop worrying about everyone’s feelings and STAND for something already!” The more the clever debaters slice and dice with nasty witty mockery the more the average person wants to say “ugh this is just so unpleasant let’s never talk about anything important.” So next time we find ourselves believing something in opposition to another let’s remember a few things we have in common. Let’s remember we’re both human beings yearning for and sincerely searching for truth. That’s generally the case, even when the person really isn’t the brightest or the nicest. And let us not be too disheartened by the doubts this situation may engender. They are an invitation to learn more and more about what we believe. They are also an opportunity for humility. My amazingly but often secretly brilliant husband said the other day that the best way to ensure our children didn’t fall into crazy errors in life was to make sure they were humble. I hope that they are able to see what they know, what they have yet to learn, and when they must be guided by faith and by the wisdom of others. Humility allows you to see that reasoning can only take you so far. Faith gives you peace as you continue to learn. Humility and Faith go hand in hand.