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The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

Should Debate About Religion Be Open And Without Restraint?


Religion should not enjoy a privileged status, especially when many religious people strive to influence politics and public policy based on their religious beliefs. Do I violate some rule of civil discourse if I draw or publish a cartoon lampooning the Catholic Church’s position on abortion when the Catholic Church is trying to influence public policy on abortion? If so, I fail to understand the reason for such a rule. Such self-censorship merely serves to perpetuate the taboo mentality that has protected religion for too long.

While I agree with the writer in principle (and the article is well worth reading), I have to reiterate a point that I have made a number of times on this blog.

Religion is not just another subject for debate. It is the foundation of the world view and basis of hope for billions of people.  Its roots go far deeper than belief in quantum theory or evolution, because what are believed to be its effects are discernible by ordinary people without arcane training, if they choose to interpret their world uncritically.

As compassionate practitioners, we owe it to believers to treat them gently. While it is true, as the writer points out, that they attempt to influence policy and government in the direction of their own beliefs, that is also true of other special interest groups, including secularists.

I believe it is fine to debate religious ideas, within reason, but debate is always with the consent of both sides. It is not accomplished with bludgeons on unwilling participants. We need to understand that when people’s core beliefs are threatened, they become defensive and inflexible regardless of the content of those beliefs. To pound, willy-nilly, on issues they find threatening will only stifle debate, not extend it. Furthermore, to attempt to alter someone’s core beliefs without offering something that will adequately replace the framework of his life is to commit cruelty of the first order. Morally, it no different from the acts of those who attempt to force religion on others.

Very few secularists were born to their belief system.  Most of us came to it after many years of searching for a direction that made sense to us.  Furthermore, some of us were traumatized by religious people, and have yet to deal adequately with those issues (which may explain some of the vehemence in discourse). So, let us debate if we must.  But let us also remember that minds are unlikely to be changed, and — above all — that when it comes to religion, logic is never an issue.

And let’s be gentle, understanding that discussion is not battle and that, even if it were, this is not one that we are really equipped to win.  We need to remember that secularist fanatics are no more correct in their behavior than religious ones, regardless of the logic in their arguments, because reasoned discourse requires mutual respect.  How can we demand that of believers if we do not deliver it ourselves?

Author: Bill

Stumbling down the Middle Path, one day at a time.

8 thoughts on “Should Debate About Religion Be Open And Without Restraint?

  1. Pingback: Religious Debate? Or Battle? | Digital Dharma

  2. p.s. Bill, I like your last comment about being dazzled by your own intelligence!! 🙂

  3. I enjoyed this post and the comments.
    Personally, I see great benefit in questioning my deepest assumptions and sources of comfort.

    We all have probably experienced how the sense of self can get very tied up with subtle belief systems, i.e. the belief in believing nothing. To me, the goal of Buddhism is to go right for the core beliefs and threaten them, not protect them. But that’s just what I’m going for.

    That said, not everyone wants that. It is crucially important to pay attention to what other people are asking for. If a person is sincerely interested in unraveling their deepest, most comforting attachments, that will probably happen. If religious explanations satisfy, there is no reason to push or argue.

  4. We humans have a tendency to label things. To put things in categories. So there exists 10,000 religions. Evey person in those categorical religions believe and think of the religion in a slightly different manner. So as you say, compassion and understanding that whatever one’s religion is, it is serving a very deep need in that person, and should not be trampled upon. Throughout life we change. Our minds change to some degree every day. Maybe trying to believe and keep exactly the same religious beliefs is a source of suffering in this world. It sure seems to cause a lot of turmoil. My vote is to let others work out their own salvation…..i do not mind sharing my Buddhist practice with others, but i never think they should follow what MY view is.
    Well thought out blog post. Enjoyed it!


    • Thank you, Chana. I spent many years being dazzled by my own intelligence, which led me down so many dead-end trails I can’t begin to tell you. Now I think many of the world’s problems revolve around the tendency for people to talk about beliefs rather than practice them.

  5. @ Bill

    I appreciate your correction, but please note my caveat:
    “Agreed. So challenges need to sometimes cut deeper than just theology or logic.”
    I can’t tell you of the countless conversations where the “basic beliefs” conversations were just the starting points to explore these deeper aspects. I have had several folks influenced greatly by these challenges when they hit the personal level. But it is an art to get there.

    Discussion and challenges can work, it depends on relationships and connection.

    Again, even Buddhist literature is full of these dialogues.

  6. “As compassionate practitioners, we owe it to believers to treat them gently.”

    “Compassion”, different from fuzzy love, can mean harshness which helps relieve suffering in the long run. Stories of shocking masters abound in Buddhism. Perhaps it is important to confront at times if the potential of lessening religious tribal exclusivism exists.

    “But let us also remember that minds are unlikely to be changed, and — above all — that when it comes to religion logic, by definition, is not an issue…”

    Agreed. So challenges need to sometimes cut deeper than just theology or logic.

    But I agree with your tone. We need to choose wisely.

    • “Perhaps it is important to confront at times if the potential of lessening religious tribal exclusivism exists.”

      I point you to any number of studies showing that challenging basic beliefs in people who are not seeking answers is counterproductive, and simply strengthens the tribal ties. You can start with Rokeach and move onward.

      Further, I don’t believe it is our business to force our ideas on others, as they might do to us. It makes us no better than them. You refer to discussion. That is mutual; force never is. The Buddha did not proselytize. If people are seeking information, and wish to engage, that is a different matter from that to which I refer.

      Rokeach, Milton. The Open and Closed Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1960.

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