Thursday, August 21, 2008

118. Too often we avoid asking 'why'

In most professional and social circles, it is considered almost taboo to engage in a serious conversation about religion or politics. The reason for this social taboo is the sensitive and personal matter of such discussion and the potential for inducing a heated argument- one that can strain working or even casual relationships. This is particularly true for someone like me, who often wonders off the beaten path.

It is has been my argument for years now that a civil discourse would serve people well- to open lines of discussion and offer the potential for compromise. The country will continue down its divided path if we only speak politically or religiously in our guarded and like-minded social or familial circles.

How is it that we have gotten to this point, where people are afraid to engage in meaningful discussion? Why do we spend so much time talking about the weather, who won the game last night or the latest office gossip? Why do we waste our time on such superficial conversation when there are so many important issues reigning down on this country? Why do our leadership groups not spend the time of a community's most influential people on the difficult questions? Why do we play it so safe?

I think that the major reason that we avoid these subjects is not because it is personal in nature, but because people do not know why they believe the things they do. In other words, to have a religious or political discussion requires that not only do you have reasons for your beliefs, but that you are able to withstand the criticism of those beliefs or ideas.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "Few have the courage of their convictions. Fewer still have the courage for an attack on their convictions." How true this seems. The most difficult question you can ask someone is "why?" The tension of the conversation escalates when one challenges the response to this question. Many people react as though they own the right to their answer, as though it cannot be rebuffed or a judgment made upon it.

For example, sometimes people will ask why I do not believe in god, but are uncomfortable when I ask why they do believe in god. When I ask someone why they are Christian, the answers are basically scripted in the truths of Christianity. However, when I suggest that the main reason he or she is a Christian, rather than a Muslim or Hindu, is because they were born the United States (rather than the Middle East or India), people are appalled at the suggestion that there is not an inherent truth in "their" religion. To many, a belief in god seems rather obvious, if for no other reason than so many other people believe.

However, when you have honest meaningful conversations with people, rather than repeating what Bill O'Reilly said the night before, we are often surprised to learn that the other side is not "evil," and that there might be room for compromise. Unfortunately, some people spend so much time with people that think like they do, who reinforce their ideas, that they have never actually heard a good opposing argument. Furthermore, we tend to offer credibility to the arguments made from the people we trust, so when we grow up getting our ideas from our parents or pastor, we place great weight on them. And it is not that we should not place value on their opinions, but it is always good to hear opposing arguments. We should not be afraid to ask why.

The nuisance of the "why" question for many is that we can keep asking it. Our beliefs are often built upon other beliefs or assumptions. And if any belief or assumption fails, the entire argument fails. For example, if someone says they do not approve of homosexuality, I might ask why? Here is how the conversation might proceed:

"Why do you not approve of homosexuality?"
"Because it is not right."
"Why is it not right?"
"Because The Bible says so."
"Why is The Bible authoritative?"
"Because it is the word of God."
"Why is it the word of God?
"Because I am Christian and we believe The Bible is the inspired word of God."
"Why are you a Christian?"
"Because I was born in the United States, and since most Americans are Christians, it is statistically likely that, due to family, cultural and social influences, I will arbitrarily choose Christianity over all other worldly religions and non-religions."
"Well said... we've talked before- haven't we?"

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