Should we have discussions with people who disagree with us or should we simply back off and "respect other's beliefs?" I tackle the idea that we should withhold discussions and argue that people shouldn't feel intimidated when having fair discussions about intellectual matters.
When people explain beliefs that they have about the nature of the universe (or almost anything), I ask questions...and people do the same with me.
When people use vague or ambiguous terms like spiritual, energy, or soul, I ask for a definition and explanation of how the term is being used.
You always hear people using the term "spiritual" and it often means very different things. It's like many words in the English language...does it mean
- I believe in a god, but I don't subscribe to dogma?
- I believe in Jesus, but I don't go to church?
- I pick and choose from various religions?
- I meditate and have new-age beliefs?
What about "energy"
Does this mean
- what I feel to be a "life force" that we all have that
- is consciousness
- apart from consciousness
- activity that people have (the child has lots of energy)
- some sort of "aura" that people "give off?"
Try it yourself or ask people who use these terms...you'll surely get different responses.
I ask questions because I'm interested in following the conversation, learning what people believe, and why they believe it. All sorts of people hold all sorts of beliefs.
When I ask questions about terms, I'm not trying to debate or put someone in the hot seat, but if you use a word I'm unfamiliar with, I expect an explanation for my understanding. I'm very comfortable about discussion, but many people aren't. Some people might never have discussions with people of different viewpoints and some people might just believe something without reason, not be prepared to explain, etc, etc, etc.
...so many people find discussions with atheists (or virtually any person who holds a different position) intimidating and get nervous.
When I was a theist, I was almost never challenged by another individual until someone finally asked me a question along the lines of "Why is faith a good thing?" and I got very nervous, defensive, and evasive. Perhaps it's just human nature. Perhaps it's weakness. Perhaps it's something else. I wasn't comfortable discussing this, but I eventually understood that the person wasn't being a jerk or giving me a hard time, but was just asking questions...and I tremendously respect him for that because that night was the start of a major life change.
When someone of an opposite view challenges your position merely by stating his/her own, it's very easy to be intimidated and possibly even feel inferior...especially when a person is very sharp, well-spoken, quick to respond, and articulate.
Some people don't even like discussion because they don't want to defend their positions and just believe what they want to believe. Some people don't like discussion because they feel like it's improper to challenge others' beliefs at all. Some people don't like discussion because they don't want to change their minds or even consider other positions.
I can sympathize with some of these concerns, but I do firmly believe that all discussion is healthy as long as there is respect in the conversations for the persons involved. I'm not out there belittling people for what they believe. I take arguments and claims and form responses to the claims and ask critical questions in a very fair and intellectual manner. Sure, I do poke fun once in a while (especially when I get hate mail), but everyone does...
Atheists would be foolish to be jerks in conversations because they'd have no chance of being taken seriously and this would be counter to the aims of discussion, much like Phil Plait explains in this amazing video:
It's obvious that we're all not going to agree and it's also obvious that people aren't going to change their minds overnight...but that's not what I intend. I feel that it's more important to have the discussion and understand while being respectful and intellectually honest. Discussion breeds intelligence and knowledge.
I love chatting with others who have different beliefs than I do and I love chatting with friends who have different approaches than I do.
I'm not a shy and quiet person by any means. I'm vocal and not afraid to express myself. Because of this, some people find me confrontational, but I think it's a misnomer because the word should be "conversational." I ask questions and people ask me questions...and that's the way I think it should be.
We're often under the false impression that we should leave others' ideas alone and not ask questions because asking questions is "disrespectful." I vehemently disagree with this sentiment! Asking questions and critiquing is not disrespecting a person. We discuss politics, musical taste, favorite restaurants, what the best sports team is, etc, and have the conversations. We don't find offense when someone disagrees with us or asks us questions about why we like Big Macs and dislike Whoppers. Why should religion be any different or above criticism?
Many people haven't had critical discussions with people and carry preconceived false notions like
"Anything I say will be shot down."
"He's going to make fun of my beliefs because he doesn't agree!"
"He's so closed-minded, so it's not even worth it."
"He's intolerant of believers."
"He's going to call me a hypocrite if I'm a moderate."
Sentiments like this are simply false. How can you know what will happen in a discussion if you've never even have one? I try to be as charitable as possible because I want to have a chance of being heard and I want to have a good discussion. If I shut people out, they simply won't listen.
I've posted about this in the past in small focus, but I suppose this is the post to really put everything on the table.
Don't be intimidated by discussion...I'm just asking questions :)
...and certainly don't be afraid to discuss your beliefs and why you believe them.
You never know what the future will bring and perhaps you're willing to change your positions when new arguments are presented...I certainly did. Progress and thinking is always a good thing. If you never change your positions or don't want to, well, so what? You can always learn and even bolster your own positions by speaking with people you disagree with. Have the courage to present your ideas...for there's nothing to be afraid about.