If you were to look at older posts on this blog, you would see me being critical of how defensive religious people are about their beliefs. In the earlier days of the atheist community, there was a divide between those who were openly critical of people’s faiths and those who wanted to build bridges or who simply didn’t see the point in criticizing or challenging personal beliefs.
Now, after some years, the rifts, arguments, and points of contention have changed, but it strikes me that the same fundamental question is still at hand; what do we do with people’s sacred beliefs?
Of course, this is not a question unique to the atheist community. I’d bet it’s pretty universal across cultures, societies, etc.
So, what about people we don’t like? What about people who have hurt us? What about people we refuse to talk with? I am not very certain of this framing, and I am writing this more with an interest to structure my thoughts than to try and compel a specific argument, but allow me to posit an idea.
As a background for this, allow me to summarize my views on how we rationalize, which I have written about before.
Not all of our conclusions are truly rationally derived. In fact, I would say that probably a good number of them are not. Through some unseen bias, trauma, idealism, or even dedication to a person or group (groupthink, tribalism, or even loyalty to a loved one), we come to a conclusion that is more based upon emotion than pure rational thinking (a kind of Critique of Pure Reason, as it were), and we then rationalize that emotional decision.
We all do this, a lot. In fact, I notice that it’s much more prevalent the more rational a person thinks they are; it’s often the most logically-minded people who are susceptible to this. (Yes, myself included).
And then we, the rational paragons that we are, defend our emotional conclusions. And we become defensive around the subject of that conclusion. And then those who differ with us become the other, from another tribe, and then we cannot even hear, understand, or possibly even be around those people. We read them unfairly, we credit them with motives which they might not have, and we are unable, and usually unwilling, to hear them.
Friendships, romantic relationships, business partnerships, and all other sorts of human relations are lost through such means, and it often takes years, if it happens at all, to be able to see past the biases which we build when this happens. This is how enemies and estrangements are made, and it’s utterly ridiculous most of the time.
You’ve been hurt. Someone made a decision which had an unwanted result, from your point of view. Maybe you were friends for years, maybe you have only known them for a few months, or maybe they are a family member. Now, aside from the rare person who is actually malicious (and hell, we can almost never be sure that our “enemy” is ever really that person, because it usually feels that way to the harmed), most people who hurt us were not trying to. Their reasons for what they did are probably complicated, they probably regret their actions (at least to some degree), and they are probably not the person that your angry, hurt, and resentful self sees.
And yet I am willing to bet that in the long run that demonized version of them will be the one which you (and your friends who console you) will remember. Because memory is associated with emotion. No matter how good things were, you remember them through the association of that pain.
And so you create a sacred space of belief about that person, what they did, and any contradiction of that narrative are dismissed, like we do with all our beliefs; they survive on the nectar or bias and demonization. I’ve done this, myself. In the period of healing over the least couple of years, I’ve done it to several people. In recent months, I’ve started to doubt my beliefs, with regard to some of these people, and I have begun to question whether the conclusions I reached were true.
In one case, I realized that a specific person who was vilified among the people closest to me was not, in fact, vile at all. I realized that she was someone who was suffering, who made mistakes, and who I loved very much. The details don’t matter here, but suffice it to say that this realization cost me dearly, because I handled it badly.
But the only reason i realized it was because I was able to question the tribalistic groupthink which was forming around this person. I was able, eventually, to see around the biases which others were trying to compel me to accept. And I made the decision which I needed to make, but in the wrong way.
I have always been a person who has been willing to question the most sacred of my personal beliefs. One could frame this as lack of confidence in myself (and that is also partially true), but I believe that it is also a virtue to not be able to look at my personal beliefs as sacred objects not to be questioned. The traditions, childhood dreams, and ideals we carry sometimes blind us to the possibility of transcendent growth. Sometimes ideals are more a hindrance than a boon to personal enlightenment; beware the person of strong conviction, for that conviction is the lens through which they see the world.
The result of all this pondering is that I wonder if maybe I have been very wrong about some things. Many things, perhaps.
I have read what some have said about me, and know what others think of me, but despite my flaws (and I certainly have them), I am not the person I see reflected in their thoughts. And if I do not give my view of others the same revision which I give to my own beliefs, it would be irrational to expect them to do the same. I cannot expect others to see past their biases if I will not see past my own. I have to be willing to be wrong, about everything.
Too many people out there in the various communities in which I have walked are unwilling to hear what some other people have to say, and really hear it. Too much enmity (some of it is actually deserved, but not all of it), too little willingness to reconsider, and too much desire to be right than to be willing to listen. Too much conviction. Too much comfort and certainty about one’s own values and goals, for my taste. Those things are as likely to be cages as virtues.
I’ve lost people I have cared about because I’ve made mistakes, because others have made mistakes, and because (usually) we both made mistakes. We’re human. But an unwillingness to listen, to hear, to drop down the walls between us all is not helping anyone. We all had reasons for the decisions we made, and if we might be willing to look past our feelings a little bit, perhaps we could see why we might have made the same decision as they did, and perhaps begin to forgive.
Or, you know, we could all just move along feeling self-righteous and comfortable in whatever tribe we’ve formed. That could be fun too, right?
I’ve been wrong, you’ve been wrong, and we will all be wrong more than we’d like to be. Don’t let the potential for understanding, enlightenment, or intimacy be lost for the sake of your stupid sacred beliefs and conclusions. That’s completely silly.