Monday, November 22, 2010

How Not to Win a Religious Argument

Religious doctrine has made the news again. This time it's the Catholic Church's hard-line stand against birth control. The current Pope has caused a stir with his assertion that condoms may be useful in the battle against AIDS. The use of condoms specifically to prevent pregnancy, he's quick to add, is still a mortal sin.

The comments attached to the Yahoo!News article on this subject are even more entertaining, in a grotesque way, than the article itself. When last I looked there were over three thousand -- a fair number from Catholics scandalized that their Pope should start down a slippery slope that could lead to the acceptance of birth control, a good many from atheists seizing the opportunity to claim the Pope's statement as evidence that all religion is B.S., and a few eager Catholic-bashers asserting that every priest, including the Pope, is a pervert. So many comments, and -- as far as I had time to read -- nary a sane word among them. What source of friction is more maddening than dispute over religious doctrine?

Arguments over religion are nearly impossible to engage in wisely -- one of the reasons many people think they're best avoided. I don't know the right way to handle oneself in such disputes, but like the always-muddled Stephen Blackpool in Dickens' Hard Times, I have a pretty good idea what not to do.
(WARNING: I will be expressing my own religious views in this blog. If you don't care to read them, back out now.)

In a political chat room I used to frequent I read this proclamation: "A good sermon is one that makes the heathen run screaming into the night." This goes sharply against the Christian faith that I was raised with, which averred that it was never God's will that any soul should be lost, and that God would seek to reach sinners (that is, all of us) with the same urgency that a housewife turns the house upside down in search of a lost coin. From this perspective, a good sermon would not make the heathen run screaming into the night. Rather, it would make them sit down and listen. It would make them think.

(The writer of the original statement had obviously forgotten that many of the most eloquent spokesmen for Christianity, from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis, were "heathens" into their adulthood, and therefore knew well from their own experience how God seeks out the lost. Many Christians are a good deal wiser today because no fire-and-brimstone sermon sent such men screaming into the night.)

But those who perceive the "heathen" as enemies to be driven away are dedicated to affirming the all too human proposition of "I'm right, you're wrong, any questions?" For them, proclaiming religious doctrine isn't about doing God's will; it's about winning, often at all costs. This approach can do a great deal of harm, often undesired.

A friend of mine from my Auburn days told me about a girl she knew, whose parents raised her in the Baptist Church and made sure she went to Sunday School regularly. The family had a good friend whom the little girl adored, who happened to be Jewish. When the man died suddenly, she was plunged into grief. The following Sunday, she was at Sunday School as usual. The lesson topic happened to be "Christianity as the only true path to heaven." The little girl listened closely, absorbing the lesson, working up the courage to ask a question. Finally she raised her hand. "Ma'am, does this mean my friend is in hell?"

The Sunday School leader looked her dead in the eye and answered, "Yes."

I'm not sure what the right answer would have been. Certainly this woman was simply speaking the truth as she saw it. But her failure to factor the feelings of a grieving girl into her equation had a result she did not intend: the girl turned her back on the church and on her faith, never returning to either. Isn't there a Bible verse somewhere that says something to the effect that a fate worse than being thrown into the sea with a millstone around the neck awaits anyone who causes a little child to stumble in her faith?

I had a similar experience once, on the aforementioned political website, and, as it happens, on the subject of birth control. In the course of a discussion I got very tired of posters conflating abortion and pre-conceptual birth control, and asserting that people use birth control for casual sex alone. I believed I had a story that could prove them wrong. A couple I know and love very dearly, just a generation ahead of the Baby Boom, had been, for the first five years of their marriage, in a highly unstable financial situation (like many couples). They fully intended to become parents, but wanted to wait until they were more financially secure. So they used birth control. When they were ready, they stopped, and they were blessed with a healthy baby girl. Their use of birth control during those early years of their marriage was not a rejection of parenthood (although I see nothing wrong at all with married couples deciding parenthood is simply not for them). However, my friends have told me that those five years proved a blessing, because they had a chance to solidify as Husband and Wife before becoming Mom and Dad. It may be one reason why they are still married after almost fifty years, while so many couples of their generation endured divorces.

When I posted their story, hoping my point might take, I received this reply: "Birth control is a mortal sin, as your friends will find out on the Day of Judgment."

This poster honestly believed she could persuade me of the rightness of her stance, by telling me that two of the people I love most in the world are going to hell. Far from convincing me, such a statement would push me deeper into Perdition. I wonder how many God-fearing Christians drive people further away from God on a regular basis, simply from their eagerness to be right, and to make disputes over faith a matter of winning and losing rather than arriving at true understanding.

"I'm right, you're wrong, any questions?" Matters of faith are rarely that simple, because God speaks to us as individuals whose souls are complex, not as mobs or herds whose drives are animalistically instinctual. Forgetting that complex individuality in the person to whom we're speaking is, in a nutshell, the very way not to win a religious argument.

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