Last semester, I discovered and was enthralled by the debates and writings of prominent New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Jews are said to have a gene for atheism so this isn’t surprising. After a few weeks of gorging on arguments against religion, I attempted to engage in a real-world religious discussion with a person I’ve known and taken classes with for two years. The discussion rapidly escalated (at least in part due to some needlessly aggressive questions from me) and rapidly ended with this person angrily calling me a “little Jew” and storming off.
I’d never experienced that kind of anti-Semitic comment hurled in anger before. It was shocking. This person later apologized and I accepted. We’ve all been in situations where someone gets under our skin and we lash out with the lowest insults we can think up.
However, that experience, on a college campus with an intelligent person, got me thinking about the current state of ideological exchange and how difficult it has become to broach many sensitive issues. The main problem seems to be an increasing tendency to become defensive and prioritize feelings and self-righteousness over scientific, thorough debate.
It is all the more unfortunate that people adopt these responses when questioned on their most deeply held beliefs. In many ways it is not surprising that one is most defensive about one’s deepest beliefs but it would seem all the more important to subject those core beliefs to thorough scrutiny to make sure that one isn’t basing one’s life on a bad set of ideas.
The “little Jew” comment seems to epitomize this problem, and religion is a prime example of defensiveness and the triumph of emotion over scientific reasoning. From the (admittedly few) conversations I have had with people of faith, I’ve found that they have frequently failed to seek out arguments against their faith and, if they have, they offer defenses of dubious scientific value or invoke the emotional reassurance of faith as an ostensibly legitimate trump card. This kind of motivated reasoning is not unique to adherents of organized religion. I’ve heard it from non-religious friends who choose to believe in some amorphous “higher power” or people who flippantly say that “everything happens for a reason.”
This problem of motivated reasoning extends beyond religion. In the debate over abortion, I see all too many pro-choicers respond to legitimate criticisms and questions over when and whether a fetus deserves protection with screams of “my body, my choice,” as if the body of the fetus isn’t in some way distinct from the mother. On the other side, pro-lifers are all too ready to accuse those in favor of abortion of committing genocide.
These types of responses to legitimate criticism not only shut down any reasoned debate by invoking an emotional response but also shut down even the possibility of reasoned discussion. Topically, college campuses around the country right now are struggling with this issue. As a liberal, it is depressing to see ostensibly progressive students disrupting and shutting down the events of conservative speakers and mercilessly haranguing professors and students alike who in some way violate the current incarnation of progressive dogma. Trinity is better about this, but we have not been immune.
How then can we vaccinate ourselves against this breakdown in the exchange of ideas? There are several clear solutions. Initially, we must become accustomed to engagement with all ideas, even those that we find infuriating or offensive. From a willingness to engage can come discussion. Discussion should be a time of listening, of understanding where the person you disagree with is coming from and of hearing in their own words what they think and why they think it. Civil discussion builds the mutual respect necessary for the most important and hardest stage in the exchange of ideas: criticism.
Criticism is necessary to yield real progress. Discussion alone will yield mutual understanding without any progress towards the greater truth nestled between two opposing ideas. However, as the “little Jew” comment demonstrated, criticism is what people tend to have the hardest time with because criticism naturally makes us defensive. To get around this bug of our psychology, we should approach criticism not like lawyers or politicians but like scientists. We should dispassionately consider all arguments and evidence and pursue each to its logical end. Like scientists, we should let our conclusions be determined by where our rational thought takes us, not whether we like the answer.
Through a scientific paradigm of criticism, we can approach all issues, even tricky ones like the verity (or lack thereof) of religion or the biological versus social explanations of gender and racial disparities. Scientific thinking has been responsible for every great human leap forward and it can also resolve the issues and ideological divides that still hold humanity back.