Beyond Argument: Religious Prejudice and Ignorance
In a classic Peanuts Cartoon, little Linus asks Lucy, “Do you ever pray Lucy?” In typical Lucy fashion, she responds, “Are you trying to start an argument?” Then Lucy explodes.”I SUPPOSE YOU THINK YOU’RE SOMEBODY PRETTY SMART, DON’T YOU?” Linus is seen grabbing his security blanket, walking away and muttering to himself, “You right…religion is a touchy subject.”
Do adults know everything? Not really. Not by a long shot. Just because we have reached a certain age or size or strength or level of maturity or we’ve achieved an advanced college degree doesn’t qualify us as “know-it-all’s.”
Most adults I know don’t claim to be invincible. No pretensions here. They will admit it when they don’t know something. I don’t know Spanish and I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I can’t fix the transmission on my car or replace the siding on my house or program my GPS correctly or reset the microwave timer. And I have never been to China and don’t know what the Great Wall is made of. These are just a few of the things to which I admit ignorance.
Under most circumstances, being uninformed is neither threatening nor embarrassing to most adults. Like the addict seeking to rebound, admitting ignorance and powerlessness is the first step toward seeking wisdom and recovering. A sure sign of maturity is the willingness to admit what we don’t know. Most adults express that willingness openly and frequently. For every rule, however, there is the exception.
The Exception To The Rule: Religious Convictions
The most notable exception to our willingness to learn something new is our religious convictions. For whatever reason, we cling to these beliefs like a bulldog holds onto a bone. Despite that so much of what we actually know is contradictory to what we claim to believe, under no circumstances are we willing to change without a fight. The formation of our faith originates from inveterate experiences and does not allow for disparity. A strong resolve lays dormant just below the surface when any suspicion about our religious convictions arises and we will not be moved. .
Religious convictions and personal value structures feed on each other. It is often impossible to separate the two. Each is the root cause of the other. These attitudes and opinions become like lenses through which we view our world and make sense of our experience. Our religious convictions become the criteria by which we form ethical judgements about good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, morality and immorality. The longer we hold them the more entrenched they become.
It is a personal attack to call these assumptions into question. To suggest that one’s religious beliefs might exist on shaky ground or have little merit is to assail more than just a set of arbitrary opinions. It is to trespass. It is to besiege our very being. It stabs at the heart and soul of our very being. After all, we are what we believe.
“We shall not be moved” is an understatement when questioning adult religious convictions. We claim absolute insight and complete wisdom about spiritual matters. We are adamant about what we believe and why we believe it and are unappreciative of those who try to dissuade us from these beliefs.
Self Validating Convictions
Unlike children, adults seem less inquisitive about their spiritual beliefs than about any other aspect of human behavior. The adult curiosity quotient remains very low. New ideas or differing perceptions seem unable to persuade. Adults appear intimidated by challenges to their religious convictions. Because religious beliefs so easily become solidly entrenched, we are prone to some of the most fallacious statements that serve to convince us of the truth of our convictions. They are poor arguments. Here are some of the ones most frequently used:
$ “Everyone I know believes the same way I do.” Interpretation – We already know that most people polled believe in some form of a supreme deity. The only point at issue now is how do we view this God? Truth is decided by majority vote and no one can argue differently.
$ “This is what I believe and my belief has made me successful.” Interpretation – There are successful Christians just as there are successful Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Atheists. Put any two successful Christians together and you will have three opinions as to how they got that way.
Despite the fallacy and futility of our thinking, we still continue to defend staunchly our religious persuasions by use of contrived arguments. Adults seem unlikely vessels into which new ideas or new perceptions can be introduced that will affect their strongly held beliefs, values or principles concerning religious matters.
Can a person argue their way into or out of a religious conviction? Probably not. Religious arguments are rarely, if ever, open-ended opportunities for learning. Challenges to our convictions more often become confrontational. We become defensive. A stalemate ensues rather than new learning.
Sideswiped and Shanghaied – Most of us have experienced the well-meaning evangelicals who come knocking at our door. It feels like they are itching for a fight. Both the content and the tone of the conversation somehow feels immediately confrontational (“Do you know where you will go if you were to die tomorrow?). We want to argue with them, but we feel we have been highjacked, sideswiped, swindled or shanghaied. We are caught flatfooted and that’s doesn’t seem fair. Only afterwards does the feeling of disappointment set in when we realize how unprepared we felt when required to stand our ground and substantiate our beliefs (or lack of them) in the midst of a challenge.
Debate Resolves Nothing: I used to think I had the persuasive powers necessary to convince people of my way of thinking about the Kingdom of God. If only I could lay out my argument in simple terms, it would be obvious. If I could just argue better than the other person, I’d win souls for Jesus. It never happened. Instead what I found was that people who like to argue about religion don’t really want to learn anything. They just like to argue. These people have their minds already made up. Active listening is at a minimum. Instead, it’s a matter of looking for points to score against the other. The argument itself becomes sufficiently engrossing to keep each person from considering the other’s point of view with any seriousness. After a few minutes of scoring points, hurt feelings begin to emerge. Any hope of persuasion dissolves and defensiveness sets in. Religious arguments almost never change opinions. Debate is a poor expression of seeking the truth about religious matters.
I can think of at least two reasons why religious arguments fail to be persuasive:
$ It is the arguing that energizes people and not the content of the argument. The competitiveness- the excitement of debate and the winning or losing- is what matters. Arguing only intensifies and entrenches the proponents, particularly with religious discussions where truth is attached to personal beliefs that cannot be verified (“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” – (Hebrews 11:1).
$ It is particularly difficult to separate the beliefs from the believer. When our strongly held convictions are attacked, it feels personal. When that happens, we become fiercely defensive, feelings get hurt, and there is no room for new information or changed opinions. No where is this more prevalent than with religious convictions. As someone once said, “The battles will not be won by the truth that we are told but by the beliefs by which we live.”
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
To affect religious learning, we must be willing to acknowledge and accept what adults’ claim they already believe. Let them know we honor and respect their staunch convictions. Be careful not to give the slightest hint of suspicion or impropriety. With adults, spiritual formation requires; better yet, demands that we acknowledge their attachment to previous experience. Knowledge and acceptance, however, don’t imply truth and validation. It does offer the potential for future dialogue and conversation rather than shutting the door entirely. Adult learners must be encouraged and allowed to think through what they have already incorporated into their religious thought patterns before they are willing to look through a different lens at their tired and tested beliefs. The key to this process is dialogue. In Part Two of this book, we will experience the use of dialogue as we look at the teachings of Jesus. Remember, it not about Jesus. Our task is to learn what Jesus is about.