The Christian student group I work with at Harvard is co-sponsoring a reading project this summer along with a humanist student group in which we will, together, work our way through both Richard Dawkins’ God Delusions and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions. While we anticipate much lively and productive dialogue along the way, I think everyone involved is also aware of how tenous such mutuallyhelpful conversations can be in the face of extreme emotional passion and fragile epistemological insecurity. So, recently a short piece was composed on civility and courtesy to help guide our group discussions and to (hopefully) set the tone of our engagement with one another. While particular to this local reading project, I thought it might be of value to all who desire greater respect and humility in religious discourse that takes place within the public square. In my experience, self-professing Christians in our society are increasingly adopting hostile, immature, and counter-productive attitudes in their relationships with unbelievers when the topic tends toward God. If Christians ought to be distinctively marked out by anything, it should be by humility and graciousness. Toward that end, here is the piece:
“We instinctively recoil from seeing an object to which our emotions and affections are committed handled by the intellect as any other object is handled.” –William James
William James’ observation has the distinct ring of truth to it—no one enjoys the experience of having their most central, cherished beliefs called into question by others. Such cognitive dissonance is as emotionally unpleasant as it is personally threatening to our own sense of identity. No doubt this is one reason that personal dialogue over matters pertaining to religion and atheism can so quickly descend into shouting matches marked by pettiness, nastiness and arrogance. Yet what good are our convictions if they are never tested, never submitted to critical exposure in the public square of conversation?
Therefore, in spite of the very real potential for uncivil argument to arise, we contend that the value of examining together these profound issues which are so constitutive of our shared humanity far outweighs the dangers. Nonetheless, we also desire that our corporate summer reading of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions would be empty of such disturbingly extreme reactions and condescending attitudes. Instead, we long to see a discussion between Harvard students that is characterized by humility, by listening intently to the perspective of the other (no matter how different), and by mutual generosity in the words we choose to speak to one another. Courtesy and civility are fast becoming a lost art in the religious and political dialogue of the West—simply peruse the hate-filled comments section on any blog article focused on religion or atheism at CNN.com or the New York Times website if you doubt that. We inhabit a world that is fast losing even the ability to talk sensibly and courteously to one another in the face of increasingly hostile divisions of ideology. Here at the start of our summer conversation, we want to summon all participants to rise above the callow meanness that so often dominates public debates on these issues, and to be committed to treating our fellow participants with respect and integrity, regardless of how contradictory their convictions and beliefs may be to your own.
This “brief word” about civility is intended to function as a sort of social guideline or rule book for our extended email conversation this summer. Of course, immediately at the outset it might be contended that religious believers, agnostics, and secular atheists have no common ground upon which to erect a shared moral vision for dialogue. While not wishing to minimize the significance of our very real differences in worldview, we are confident that every Harvard student who takes part in this discussion shares a crucial value: namely, that persuasion trumps coercion when the mental beliefs of human beings are at issue. We all value the integrity and the necessity of the voluntary belief-forming process that any given individual has a right to experience. We all hold that this ought to happen through rigorous education, by mutual consent and in warm, civil discussion in the public square, and not through force, brutal antagonism, or social ostracization. At the end of the day, we can agree to disagree if need be and yet coexist in society together. But along the way, we ought to respect and honor those with whom we disagree, no matter how passionately certain we are of the error of their views. Our value for persuasion over and against coercion—even if we finally have quite different reasons for that value—is what can sustain respectful conversation among us in the face of substantial disagreements.
G.K. Chesterton once argued that bigotry should not be equated with the certainty that you are right on any given matter, but rather with the moral inability to sympathetically understand how another person could possibly have arrived at a different conviction than you. “How could they ever think that? How stupid!” is the real essence of bigotry, according to Chesterton. Narrow-mindedness is, so to speak, the moral unwillingness to place oneself deeply inside the perspective of another and to consider why they have come to think the way that they do. And in the absence of such empathy, we instead opt to villainize or demonize those who differ from us. Avoiding such demeaning attitudes, of course, does not entail being any less confident in the truth of one’s own position, in spite of the foolish contemporary sentiment that epistemological confidence in one’s construal of reality constitutes the very essence of arrogance. (Consider Yeats’ famous dictum that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, which surely represents the spirit of our age.) But it does rule out the sort of hubris and exacerbated sense of intellectual (perhaps even moral) superiority that can only exclude, only separate human beings from one another. If nothing else, we hope that this summer discussion will allow us to each gain a better understanding of the perspectives and convictions of our peers, and to regard them with more authentic respect than we currently do, even if we yet remain convinced of our own beliefs.
Finally, a quick word of caution about the two books we will be reading together. Both Dawkins and Hart are brilliant scholars, and the meticulous arguments of both are worthy of our attention. However neither is without their flaws. Arguably the weakest point of both books is the often caustic, immature and harshly condescending tone that each author displays when speaking about those against whom he is contending. As we engage with the intricate lines of thought in both Dawkins and Hart, let us not imitate this quality!
With a view toward encouraging and maintaining civil, respectful dialogue with one another this summer, we propose the following principles and rules for our discussion:
*Respond to arguments, not people. No ad hominem (“against the person”) attacks will be welcomed on the email discussion list. Whether Hart or Dawkins is in view, or the words of a fellow student, aim to deal dispassionately with the logic of the argument put forward and nothing else. Do not mock, degrade or insult those you disagree with, no matter how untenable or ridiculous their position may seem to you. Likewise, if you offer a line of thought in defense of either Dawkins or Hart and that perspective is then critiqued carefully, do not retaliate out of anger or personal embarrassment.
*If you do find yourself upset or frustrated by a certain aspect or argument of one of the books (as no doubt all of us will be at some point or another), or by another student’s articulation of their belief, take a few moments (or longer!) to cool down before posting your own response. While this is quite obvious and simple, much unfruitful hostility can be avoided if we each abide by this admonition. Avoid angry, off the cuff remarks.
*Avoid generalizations, such as “All Christians/atheists are like this…”, or “All materialistic/supernaturalistic worldview commitments lead inevitably to this horrific or ridiculous result…”. Instead, try to engage the particular arguments that are actually being advanced. No single atheist or agnostic or religious adherent represents all others of their ilk. Let us not treat them—whether Dawkins, Hart or a student—as if they do. Also, deal with the positions that people actually hold—and not the position you personally believe is the inevitable logical endpoint of their thinking if they are consistent with their own convictions. The slippery slope critique can be a legitimate one to venture, but it must be used cautiously and infrequently.
*Before responding, seek to understand the viewpoint that you critique as accurately and as sympathetically as possible. Try to get inside how the person you disagree with thinks, and why they think that way. This discussion group should be free of caricatures and straw-men!
*Be open to seeing things in a new light, from a new perspective, and even to having your own convictions changed or significantly re-shaped. While relationships will hopefully be established and deepened between many students along the way—and this is a worthy attainment in and of itself!—of course we each also desire to come closer to the truth, whatever that may be. Yet perhaps no act requires more integrity, humility and grace than acknowledging one’s own error and adopting an alternative vision of reality. As Francis Bacon once noted: “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion…draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.” This disposition is as common to Christians as it is to atheists, as widespread among Muslims as among agnostics. Such an attitude, while culturally prevalent and psychologically understandable, is a hindrance to discovery of further truth about ourselves, our world, and (perhaps) God. If any person is looking forward to joining this discussion primarily (or only) to mercifully reward the rest of us with their own blessed, privileged insight into the cosmic truth of the universe by demonstrating how profoundly mistaken everyone else is (and thus ridding us of our indefensible, infantile notions), that constitutes a serious problem. As we seek to contribute and engage, let us all also be open to learning from others.
*Yet none of the above points should be taken to imply that these issues are not of great significance, or that we should not be passionate about our convictions! Civility and courtesy in dialogue are not in tension with the pursuit of truth in ultimate matters of moral gravity and human flourishing. Rather, they are their necessary social condition, if truth is to be unveiled and sustained in our community at Harvard. Therefore, while we do ask each of you to be models of respect and graciousness during our conversation, this does not imply at all that these issues are weightless, or that you ought not to be passionate about what you believe. Our plea for civility here does not downplay how radical the personal, ethical and social consequences are of our vision of these matters. Only deep emotional maturity—not simply intellectual horsepower or logical prowess—can hold these two realities together in public dialogue.
*Always assume best intentions. Email has many advantages as a form of communication, but it is missing all kinds of non-verbal communication cues that we rely on in normal conversation – facial expressions, inflection, laughter, gestures, voice volume, etc. Smiles and punctuation don’t even come close to making up for this absence. So, often, it is difficult to accurately tell the intention behind a statement – it is easy to miss irony, to interpret forcefulness as yelling, etc. Therefore, if any given person writes something that could be interpreted as conveying multiple sentiments, assume best intentions. If something that at first seems offensive or antagonistic could possibly be construed in a harmless way, accept the harmless version.
May our summer reading project and discussion be invigorating, challenging, life-changing and genuinely respectful throughout!