Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Room Without Rants (Or, The Sorry State of Public Discourse)

They talk a lot, and loudly, and all at the same time. If they were your family during Thanksgiving, they’d be talking with their mouths full and the football game blaring in the background. It would be almost amusing if it weren’t in fact rather tragic.

I’m referring, of course, to the nonstop talking heads who can be found at almost any hour of the day, talking nonstop, all over television and radio. They talk about everything and nothing, so much so that they actually blur the distinction between talking about something and talking about nothing. They are, alas, the face – or perhaps I should say the food-stuffed mouth – of public discourse.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Not even when it comes to the more controversial topics of public discourse: politics, the economy, “death panels,” and in particular the crucible within which these all are raised beyond the melting point, namely the cluster of issues relating to religion, faith, and God. As I was researching my new book The God Question: What famous thinkers from Plato to Dawkins have said about the divine, in fact, I discovered a very appealing alternative. The religion debate shall serve as my example, but the points in fact generalize to all forms of debate.

There are primarily four sorts of people, it seems to me, who participate in debates about God: the reasonable theist, the reasonable atheist, and unreasonable versions of each.

By a “reasonable theist” I mean someone who believes (or is inclined towards belief) in God but who is open to exploring (and critiquing) that belief with all the normal tools of knowledge acquisition, including perception, experience more broadly construed, and most importantly reason. The reasonable theist desires not merely to believe in God, but to believe in God in the strongest and most coherent way he or she can – which requires investigating, in a genuinely open-minded and frequently critical way, the strongest and most coherent versions of theism available.

By a “reasonable atheist” I mean someone who believes (or is inclined to believe) that God does not exist but who is open to exploring that belief with all the normal tools of knowledge acquisition, including again, most importantly, reason. Such a person recognizes, in particular, that to reject belief in God in a reasonable way is to reject the strongest and most coherent versions of theism – which in turn also requires first investigating those theisms in a genuinely open-minded (if frequently critical) way.

“Unreasonable” people of either persuasion, meanwhile, are roughly everybody else (including, unfortunately, myself much of the time).

When you look at what the famous thinkers have said about God you are, generally, in the presence of very reasonable persons, both of the theist and atheist variety. But when you turn on your TV or listen to your radio or read most of today’s periodicals and even best-selling books, you are generally in the presence of not very reasonable persons, of both varieties. What you witness is often about as appealing as your uncle Fred’s screaming “Touchdown!” with his half-chewed turkey bulging from each cheek. There are the loud voices and the raving rants. There is the invoking of labels and the calling of names: theists are foolish, irrational, close-minded and crazy, while atheists are hedonistic heathens, selfish and soulless sinners. Mostly there are people talking – shouting – right past each other, there is lots of noise and very little significance, and there is definitely, most definitely, no listening.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Public discourse cannot generally be on the same level as scholarly discourse; of course not. But discourse can be reasonable even when it is widely accessible, even when it dispenses with jargon, Latin phrases, and little logical symbols. Public discourse in fact could learn a lot from the famous thinkers, not specifically about their therefores and reductios and if p then q’s, but about something more general. For when you enter the presence of the famous thinkers you are in a room dominated first and foremost by respect – not merely for the other occupants of the room, but for something more fundamental: respect above all for the norms of reason, of reasonable debate, and for the very act of inquiry itself.

This is a room where the conversation is at non-rock-concert decibels. This is room without rants, where points are made and defended and – here is the amazing part – there are actual pauses in speech where other people can get not just a word in but whole paragraphs, and respond, actually respond, in a relevant way, to the points the speaker is actually making. There is no name calling here. Or maybe there is some, for we may call what goes on, in this rant-less room, a name which has become increasingly irrelevant in public discourse in recent years: namely, a conversation.

This need not be imagined as a warm and mushy love-fest, of course, replete with herbal tea and frequent group hugs. The word “conversation” here characterizes only the genuinely participatory nature of the discourse. “Conversation” can, and in this case does, include many diverse kinds of content, even the kind more regularly associated with caffeinated beverages: argument, disagreement, and debate.

For to those people committed to the norms of reason, reasonable debate, and ultimately to the act of inquiry itself, one thing quickly becomes clear above all else: reasonable people may (and generally do) disagree about almost every important topic. What that means is as simple as it is profound: namely, the sheer fact that someone reaches a different conclusion from yours doesn’t itself mean that they are unreasonable.

And once you realize that you realize something else.

This: that you can learn a tremendous amount from people with whom you disagree, as long as they are as committed to the act of inquiry as are you. For if they disagree with you it is because they have reasons they find persuasive: arguments they find compelling, objections which seem to them to undermine your own positions, and so on. Well, if you really want to believe whatever it is you believe on the basis of genuinely good reasons, then who, we might ask, do you want to talk to: the person who already agrees with everything you believe, or the person who has discovered problems and objections and counter-arguments to your beliefs?

When you look at what the famous thinkers have said about God, the most startling thing you discover is precisely that: the widespread recognition that they can learn from those with whom they disagree even the most profoundly. Historically the famous thinkers from Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions have read each other’s works, debated each other’s positions, and learned from each other, even as they diverged in their conclusions about as radically as one can. The same goes for thinkers from competing denominations within any one of these traditions.

And the same goes too, most of all, for theistically-inclined thinkers and the atheistically-inclined.

Or rather, to return to my own labeling and name-calling above, it goes for the reasonable theist and the reasonable atheist. They may reach quite opposite conclusions in the end, but you can see, as you look at my description of each above, that they both will spend much of their time engaged in precisely the same activity: investigating, in a genuinely open-minded (and frequently critical) way, the strongest and most coherent versions of theism available. It is no accident that they each might well make each other’s best, most productive, study partners. For their goal isn’t to “score points,” or to “win” the argument -- but instead to reach the truth, or at least the best approximation to the truth of which we are capable. And that is something that just might best be accomplished precisely through genuine conversation amongst disagreeing parties – that is, conversation governed by the norms of rational inquiry and all that that entails.
The lesson for today’s world is obvious: much goodness ensues when those conversing are reasonable non-ranters who, as a bonus, often swallow before speaking.

But don’t just take my word for it: ask such thinkers as the Jewish Maimonides, the Christian Aquinas, and the Muslim Averroes.

Or don’t take anyone’s word for it. Think it through for yourself.

Though, of course, it is only in a room without rants, in the end, that you can even hear yourself think.

[Adapted from an essay originally appearing on www.religiondispatches.org.]

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