This post should be the first in a series of a general 'umbrella topic' of "Reframing the Discussion." I hope to talk more about this topic in future posts, podcast episodes, and speeches dealing with the sub-topics of how to be a better communicator, engage in a genuine conversation, and change perspective of how people view disagreement and discussion in order to encourage others to view disagreement and discussion as a positive 'thing.'
In previous months -- and especially following a wonderful discussion I had with philosopher Peter Boghossian (discussion is now available here) -- I have been really interested in the general topic of how a person can effectively communicate with others and what -- if there is an 'answer' -- is the 'best way' to engage a person whom one happens to disagree with whether a discussion is regarding what one considers a 'heated topic' or something as non-controversial (or what one would think would be non-controversial) as how science informs philosophy/how philosophy informs science. I don't think there is just one way to be an effective communicator...but I also don't think that any given way of communicating messages to others is permissible simply because there is not just one way to be an effective communicator; some methods of communicating can rightly be labeled as ineffective.
Every so often, 'turf wars' of sorts are present in the secular community in which people argue that since -- as some assume -- people can't or won't 'change their minds' on some issues, people should have no problems or moral qualms about flat-out insulting theists, attacking individuals with clear malice, and dropping any intentions of education. [Education, though, admittedly ought not always be the overt or latent goal because satire, blasphemy, etc. may be appropriate in many cases...] Theists will likewise be uncharitable to secular individuals; it works both ways (as some commonly say "There are asses in both camps.") I note this as a rationale for authoring this post in which I will use an encounter I had with two people today -- regarding a topic totally unrelated to secularism or theism -- to illustrate some points and later return to issues of atheism and theism later in this post.
Earlier today while I was waiting for a bus to arrive, I heard a woman openly talking about how she is upset because she, on her account, had to quit a job she had (assisting disabled persons in an assisted living facility) because the hourly pay was too low leading to her -- instead of working in a field or a place of employment she wanted to work in -- working in a field she was not interested in.
I responded to her expressing a concern and said, at one point, that it is too bad that persons in helping professions often get paid very little compared to some persons in other professions. Soon after I said this, an elderly man interjected and asked me if I was "for socialism." I said, "Excuse me?" (because I didn't understand why he said that) and asked him to clarify what he meant by that. Instead of responding to my question and having what I consider to be a fruitful conversation, he continued saying, "I made 40 [dollars] an hour before I retired. Did I make too much money?" Once again, I asked him to clarify what he was saying...and the man simply walked away.
As you might have thought (or might have been lead to believe because the lead-in to the previous paragraph), this is not a good way to express disagreement with someone or have a conversation. From the looks of it, it seems that this man wasn't interested in actually learning something about my position, understanding my position, or having a discussion. Instead, the man seemed to have jumped to conclusions, distorted my reasoning (without even, of course, identifying what it was), and just 'pulled a hit-and-run'.
A productive way to start a conversation, before jumping to conclusions about a position one might endorse or what a person believes, is to ask some questions. In this case, questions like a very general and elementary introduction to a conversation would be "Why do you think people in helping professions should earn more money?" and "Do you believe that all workers should earn roughly the same amount of money?" [attempts to gauge what a person believes by directly identifying what one thinks the person believes]
Following these questions, I would be able to identify my position, learn something this man believes, the man could learn something I believe, and so much more. Reflection on an issue like this (and so many others) might be very valuable because humans have blind spots, people may introduce something a person hasn't thought of, and -- quite optimistically -- we can both work toward reaching justified true beliefs (or perhaps something like that).
Returning to the secular/theist angle...if persons enter conversations viewing conversations as learning opportunities or opportunities to educate and have the intention for the 'other' to walk away with a positive impression of someone whom they disagree with [rather than having someone walk away even more 'polarized'], both 'camps' can learn much about being effective communicators in, as I call it, 'reframing the discussion.' Two indications of being a critical thinker -- no matter how smart someone is or no matter how confident a person may be about the beliefs they hold -- are a willingness to consider others' points of view and engage in discussions with people with whom they disagree.
Like it or not (and you should like it), there is much that secular individuals can learn from theists. Theists are not, as some unfortunately seem to caricature all too often, people who can add nothing to conversations about even religion because their theological assumptions are unwarranted (although, as most theists and atheists reading this would likely agree, people like Pat Robertson -- for instance -- seem to show a tremendous disregard for truth and say really stupid things regarding certain topics).
I will admit, when I first considered myself to be an atheist, I was filled with too much unwarranted confidence without experience and deep reflection [at least compared to where I am at now] and my approach was pretty shitty. After much engagement with academic theists, more investigation of 'better arguments' (as opposed to arguments that even academic theists consider to be quite silly and, to borrow a phrase I have heard from some, 'infantile'), and some fruitful discussion with lay theists, I consider myself to be a much more learned individual and a more effective communicator. There is also thankfully still much more to learn!
Reframing the discussion as a positive encounter, of course, shouldn't mean that everyone should jump to unreasonable conclusions of 'all beliefs are of equal weight because there is no such thing as truth and perception is reality,' 'people's beliefs should be immune from criticism' or assent to the commonly uttered phrases of "I have the right to my own opinion" or "You should respect my beliefs" as genuine reasons for people to hold beliefs or otherwise, as previously mentioned, be immune from criticism [click the hyperlinks for my thoughts on these topics]. I have 'belief intolerance,' as funny as it sounds (and how very uncontroversial it should be) in the case that truth exists, people can (and are) be wrong about certain matters, and the simple fact that someone holds a belief is justification for holding a belief. I don't, as some diversity proponents unfortunately do -- as I will plainly put -- commit intellectual suicide by sabotaging one of the chief aims of higher education which is leading students to justified true beliefs with an acknowledgment that truth exists.
What then is the moral of this story? The next time you happen to disagree with someone about a matter -- instead of jumping to conclusions and not having a genuine conversation with the intention of learning something or communicating an educational message -- try to ask some questions, not be a hostile person, and assume you know what people believe before you happen to ask. Although it may seem to be a cliche of sorts, I find truth in the phrase 'you never know what you can learn from others or how you can influence others.'
Of course everything can't be fully explained and I didn't consider everything possible in this post so, as always, feel free to comment on this post and please post with the intent to have a genuine discussion and such. : )