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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Crucial Aspect That Always Slips My Mind

I was so dissatisfied with the outcome of the debate on whether or not the world would be better off without religion. As my friend Ruth pointed out, it’s a moot point, since one has to imagine not only a different present and future but also a completely different history leading up to the present. Still, for the sake of the argument, I can accept the thought experiment.

What bothered me was that even in this fairly high-level discussion, most of the time the teams seemed to be talking past each other, although I have to say that this was truer, in my opinion, of the atheist team than of the religion team, and on that score, therefore, I would have given the religion team more points. The religion team, as I heard the debate, had the better listeners and spoke more directly in response to what the opposition put forth. I also thought they offered better historical evidence for their case, while allowing that every human institution is a mixed bag of good and bad and that religion is no exception. I only caught one example of what I considered name-calling. It came from the atheist side, and on my mental scorecard their score was lowered for the lapse in civility.

But I always forget. Never a debater myself, I want genuine conversation and open discussion and honest give-and-take, and what I forget is that a debate is, first and foremost, a contest. Like a wrestling match or a chess game, it is not about mutual education or understanding but about winning! Alas, in that sense it is also very much like a courtroom trial. The hopeful idea is that in a debate or a trial, the adversarial proceeding will bring out enough pieces of truth that an audience or a jury will be able to put it together. Does that happen in a debate? Some audience members changed their minds, but why? What were their reasons?

So much of what’s really important, it seems, never gets said at all, while what we’ve all heard a hundred times gets said yet again, maybe with a clever line to win laughs from the audience. Well, I like a laugh as well as anyone, but when a subject is as serious as this one and the debaters seriously wedded to their positions, not merely assuming them to entertain us for an hour, I want more.

We so seldom these days in this country hear high-level, real debate, but I realize now that the best debate wouldn’t satisfy me. It isn't debate I want. I want real conversation. In that regard, I can make better sense of what I felt at the end of the NPR debate. These were only four men. I am not taking one side to be representative of all religious people or the other side to be representative of all atheists. As far as these four men went in this debate, however, the team that officially lost had done a better job in my eyes because I heard them more often addressing the other side in ways showing they had been listening and were making direct responses to the other side's concerns. The atheist team, in my opinion, was not only condescending but given to making sweeping generalizations and setting up straw men (arguing as if all religious people are fundamentalists). They were also, as I heard them, fatally close-minded. Obviously, others heard the speakers very differently and judged them by other standards than mine.

I wonder, though. Can a win-or-lose contest possibly hope to further a search for mutual understanding, let alone the search for truth?

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The forecast this week is for highs in the 40s. It doesn't feel like December. Where is our snow? Snow or no snow, I promise more of a holiday mood in the days ahead. There will be holiday ornaments, holiday books, a decked-out dog and any other surprises I can find in my bag of tricks. It's time to lighten the mood, and don't think I don't know it!

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