Dialogue Without Diatribe

How can we learn to disagree without being disagreeable?

I was recently speaking at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where I’d been asked to address the topic “Does Religion Poison Everything?” During the lecture, one student at the back of the lecture room gesticulated wildly every time I made a point with which he disagreed. At the end of the talk, there was a time of Q&A and this student was among the first to raise his hand. He began by self-identifying as an atheist and then proceeded to ask a series of increasingly complex questions about moral philosophy. After the event was over, the student found his way to the front and continued his questions and we went to and fro for about half an hour across a range of issues: Can you be good without God? Do you need God for moral values? What does the good life look like? Finally the student shook my hand and said, “I’ve disagreed with almost everything you’ve said in the last 90 minutes. But this has been the most fascinating conversation I can remember and you’ve given me much to think about. Thank you.”

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That comment made my day because it was a refreshing break from the norm, in that often when those who hold to wildly different worldviews—atheism and Christianity, for instance—engage with each other, the result can be more heat than light. Atheists engage in “argument by soundbite” whilst religious believers sometimes write off those who disbelieve in God as immoral pagans, and thus neither side actually take the time to listen to the other. As Harry Lewis, the former Dean of Harvard College, once wrote, lamenting the fact that intelligent conversation about the deepest questions is now increasingly hard in universities (and his point might apply to the media and the marketplace, too):

What used to be the big question of humanistic learning — what does it mean to be human? — now has little place in the academy because there is no way to tell whether the question has been answered correctly or not.

It might encourage Harry to learn that one of things I have discovered in years of travelling across the world, speaking in a wide variety of settings, including many universities, is that I think many people are open to talking about some of these issues in a way that is intelligent and respectful. My colleague, Ravi Zacharias, and I were recently at McGill University in Quebec, for a pair of open forums entitled “Does Spirituality Matter?” We had been told by the organisers that we might, if we were lucky, get 100 students per evening. In the end, 900 per night attended, and the overflow room had an overflow. People of all faiths and none wanted to engage with the topic and the questions and conversation flowed long into the night.

I believe we stand at a cultural moment where the need to answer some of life’s biggest questions gets ever more pressing, as science, technology, and politics raise them all the louder. What kind of “questions” do I have in mind? The old ones: What does it mean to be human? Does life have any kind of purpose? What does the ‘good life’ look like, and who gets to decide? Is death the end and how does your answer to that question, negative or affirmative, effect the here and now? Was Bertrand Russell right when, after reflecting on where his worldview predicted the universe to be heading, he concluded that “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built”? Whatever position one takes on these matters, we can at least agree, I hope, that these are not unimportant questions. They are also questions on which people disagree and thus we need to find a way—through dialogue, conversation, questioning and listening—to explore what others think.

When I lived in London, one of my favourite habits on a weekend was to visit Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park. Speakers’ Corner is affectionately known as the world centre of free speech, for there anybody can stand on a ladder or a soapbox and speak about their beliefs—religious, political or otherwise. I learnt public speaking at Speakers’ Corner but also found it a wonderful place to debate and dialogue with people who radically disagreed with my Christian worldview, especially Muslims and atheists. (I so enjoyed those conversations that they led me to do a degree in theology and philosophy, and then a PhD in Islam.)

What I learnt at Speaker’s Corner and what I’ve continued to discover, as I’ve had the privilege of speaking to diverse audiences around the world, is that human beings are not going to agree on everything. The major worldviews disagree profoundly on almost all of the important questions (for example: are human beings merely atoms and particles, or do words like ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’ or even ‘soul’ refer to something?) But it is through dialogue and debate that we can be encouraged to think more deeply, stretched to consider the challenges to our own worldview, and perhaps challenged to rethink our own reasons for our convictions better.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer and political activist who survived the gulags and wrote with such insight into the human condition, was fond of this old Russian proverb: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world”. Much of the modern world is deeply pluralistic. Some people look at that pluralism and think the way to deal with difference is to rudely squash all challenging worldviews. Others think we should collapse the distinctives and say that “truth is relative”, that everybody believes essentially the same. But I think the way to a peaceful society lies down neither of those paths, not least because truth is too important to reduce to power plays or to relativism. Perhaps if instead we can to listen, to discuss, to dialogue, and to debate, we can find ways to live together with our differences.

Dr. Andy Bannister is a popular speaker, author and broadcaster. Andy is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and an Adjunct Speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Andy speaks and teaches regularly throughout the UK, Canada, the USA, and the wider world on issues relating to faith, culture, politics and society.