Saturday, July 5, 2014

Discussing Things People Don’t Like Discussing

One of the benefits of writing this blog is that it’s sparked conversations with a variety of people that I otherwise would not have had. To me, the most interesting conversations are respectful debates: conversations where people disagree, but they actually talk about why they disagree rather than getting mad and yelling at each other. I love the fact that Bill Maher has conservatives on his show to provide an opposing viewpoint...but I hate the fact that it often just ends up in lots of “No, you’re wrong, asshole!” and “That’s ridiculous and you’re a stupid doodyhead.” To be fair, that’s a natural reaction when you vehemently disagree with a person you don’t know (although “doodyhead” seems like a strange word choice), but it’s also practically pointless.

When talking to people that you actually know, the level of vitriol goes down substantially, and people are forced to resort to, like, actual arguments and stuff. “You’re wrong, asshole” is replaced by things like “but the problem with that is...” and “here’s some anecdotal evidence for why I believe you are incorrect, my good friend.” Just kidding, real people don’t talk like that--no one wants to admit that their anecdotal evidence is merely anecdotal.

The point is, these are the types of conversations that actually lead to greater understanding on both sides because people are forced to put a real, human face on the opposing side of the argument. They're also less likely to simply dismiss a point they don't agree with when it comes from someone they know. Personally, I wish that these types of conversations took place more frequently. Then again, I’m a competitive jackass who enjoys debating. I also like to bill myself as “the most logical person I know,” so I tend to debate reasonably well. As a disclaimer, I don’t think I’m the most logical person in the world--just the most logical person I know...although I’m probably shortchanging some computer nerds I know. Also, I’m biased.

There’s a bunch of people who believe that the best way to lose friends is by discussing religion and politics. There’s some merit to that: talking about these issues from opposite sides is likely to put some strain on the relationship. If it’s not a very strong relationship then yes, it could be fatal. This is why I don’t advocate talking about this stuff at work--you may not know your coworkers that well or like them that much, but you will be forced to continue to interact with them, so you don’t want to strain those relationships as they might not be able to handle it. When you’re friends outside of work and you agree on these topics then it’s fine; otherwise just talk about sports or, you know, whatever it is that women talk about. I assume they have some kind of go-to non-controversial topic they discuss all the time. Like shoes, or abortion.

On the other hand, some relationships can handle some strain. If you’ve known the other person for a while, there should be a reasonable amount of goodwill built up. Presumably you have respectful conversations. You should be able to disagree on some stuff and still remain friends because your friendship was built upon other stuff to begin with. You can take some time off before seeing them again, allowing everyone to cool down if necessary. You also don’t need to discuss this stuff every time you see them; chances are you can each make the case for your side the first time you talk, and then simply agree to disagree going forward (you’ll just have a better understanding of why you disagree).


Having spent my whole life in Ohio where I was raised as a Methodist, the majority of the people in my life are Christian. That proportion decreases as time goes on and I befriend more heathens, but before I graduated college there were very few people in my life who were not religious. I’ve come to find out that some people I assumed were Christian aren’t, and I also know some people who have, like me, quit religion. I’m still left with a bunch of Christian friends and family members (and we’ll pretend like all my family members qualify as friends going forward), so I’ve had a number of these conversations in the past few years.

Honestly, I think they’ve all been beneficial. I won’t pretend that they haven’t been occasionally uncomfortable, but I’m glad I’ve had them nonetheless. The main reason is because of the increased understanding between both sides, which in turn increases tolerance and empathy (and hopefully there’s enlightenment on both sides as well).

On the religious side, my friends get to hear my reasons for leaving Christianity behind so they understand why I became an atheist. Hopefully, it softens their impressions of atheists in general since, if they’re friends with me, they presumably like me, which should allow them to be more tolerant of atheists (which would be nice since atheists may be the least trustworthy demographic in this country). It improves their worldview by adding more information to it--even if they don’t agree with me, they still come away with a better understanding of the world by knowing how a group of “others” views it. It will also give them food for thought. Again, even if they don’t agree, they will have had to rationalize why they disagree, and critical thinking is almost always a good thing. Maybe they’ll even be like me and, after a great deal of thinking, come to the conclusion that they were wrong about some stuff that they had always held as true.

On my side, I get pretty much all the same benefits. We’re all adults (I don’t have these conversations with my nephew--somehow I don’t think that would go over well with his ordained parents since he mistakenly looks up to me as a cool uncle (since kids are stupid enough to believe that I’m cool)), so we’ve all had time to think about the big questions and come to our own conclusions. Having come down on the opposite side of religion, I had a tendency for a while to assume that religious people were kinda stupid in some fashion. To be honest, I can’t say I’ve moved past that opinion when it comes to fundamentally religious people who impossibly try to take millennia-old books literally, but most of my friends are of the moderate/liberal Christian variety. Most of them aren’t actually stupid; some are smarter than me. They’ve just had different experiences than I have and they’ve processed the evidence and arguments differently than I have. Do I think they’re wrong about religion? Yes. Do they think I’m wrong? Yes. But now we both know why the other person is wrong, and hopefully we don’t automatically disdain someone just for coming down on the opposite side.

I also understand the world better since I now have a better understanding of the billions of people who remain religious even into adulthood. I’ve also had to refute their arguments or adjust my stance or come up with new ideas, all of which are good things if they bring me closer to reality. Again, critical thinking is a good thing. Even when people don’t fundamentally change their stance on a topic, they should at least end up closer to the truth.

One of the other benefits, of course, is that I come away with a better understanding of my friends’ specific points of view. Even within the same denomination, religious people can have vastly different views so it’s rarely safe to make assumptions. Just because someone identifies as Catholic doesn’t mean they’re as crazy or as unreasonable as a stereotypical Catholic. Most of them don’t even condone child molestation, and most of them have the good sense to ignore that bullshit about birth control being sinful. Plus the new pope seems like a pretty good dude, especially as far as popes go. Catholicism still sucks, of course...but there are plenty of Catholics who don't.

Some of the conversations I’ve had in the past couple years have been in writing, which has the advantage of allowing time to clearly communicate arguments. On the other hand, in-person conversations have the advantage of forced cordiality as most people try to avoid disrespecting their friends to their face. Sometimes I can be a bit offensive when writing this blog to the world at large. It’s not my explicit intention to be a dick about this stuff, but I’m not one to let political correctness stop me from clearly expressing how ridiculous I think religion is. In person, though, I’m a delightful fellow who is, for the most part, quite polite. I’ll probably still make more logical arguments than whoever I’m talking to (which is easy to do since my arguments aren’t faith-based), but they won’t be quite as aggressive or offensive. Since I’m not as offensive, I’m more likely to have a receptive audience and they’re more likely to actually consider the points that I’m making rather than simply thinking, “Man, Kyle can be a real dickface sometimes” and refusing to read any more of the stuff I’ve written (I assume that people who don’t like my blog think of me as a dickface. Also, it turns out that Google thinks “dickface” is a real word, so feel free to use it in your own high-minded writings).

My final reason for advocating discussion on religion and politics: these topics are really, really important. As in, so important that they practically demand debate in order to come to the best possible resolution. If there is an afterlife, I’d say figuring out the rules that determine how you spend it is a pretty damn important endeavor. If the major religions have it right and I’m going to spend eternity in either perpetual bliss or perpetual torment then I really want to know which set of rules to follow in order to get through the pearly gates.

On the other hand, if they’ve all got it wrong then we should collectively stop all this silliness we’re engaged in. We should stop wasting so much time and energy and emotion and hatred on baseless beliefs. We should stop acting like books that are thousands of years old provide a reasonable guide for modern morality. We should stop promoting ridiculous views of sexuality that are sourced from (supposedly) celibate old men. We should stop fighting wars over land that is no more holy than my yard. We should stop fighting wars in general since pretty much all of them are fought over religious and/or political ideologies. Perhaps most importantly, we should stop making laws based on our interpretations of what a non-existent god wants (not just in the United States, either).

All of these “we should stop” statements only apply if there are no gods, but if that’s the case then we really need to stop fucking up life on Earth if it’s the only one we’ve got. Any religiously-influenced laws are made with the afterlife in mind, which means that they are completely, totally, absolutely irrational if there is no afterlife. Sure, there’s an intersection of laws that work on both religious and secular levels--most of us can agree that murder is bad...although even that is not always the case when it comes to Islamic fatwas. So we can’t even all agree on that. Thanks, religion. You’re doing a bang-up job of keeping swaths of the world trapped in the Middle Ages. Maybe it’s time we talked about that.