My first time reading Bertrand Russell on Christianity was a greatly frustrating experience. I found myself shaking my head and thinking “No! No! No! That’s not it at all!” Russell was critiquing a different Christianity from the one I know. Of course, that’s not terribly surprising since Russell was writing several generations ago in a different cultural milieu, but, alas, there’s no shortage of modern misfiring critiques – of Christianity, other faiths, and even religious critiques of atheism, humanism, and naturalism.
It seems to me that a large part of this failure is due to a lack of meeting of minds. By this I don’t just mean a failure to engage with the core ideas of the worldviews of others, but rather I mean a failure to engage with the actual human beings who hold these ideas. It’s fairly easy to spot when a critic of some religion (or a religious critic of atheism) has spent little or no time personally engaging with those who adhere to that particular tradition. Sure, books can teach us a lot about Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism, but many ideas – particularly religious ideas – are never just abstract, but are embodied in human persons and communities. If you read every book on Islam ever written there will still be something lacking in your education and understanding of that faith if you have never engaged with “embodied Islam.” When we engage with the individuals who adhere to some worldview or other we typically find nuances that books often struggle to communicate. Believers often disagree or understand elements of their faith in a different way from what was expounded by Joe Faith PhD in his new book on the subject. You see with your own eyes what faith means to the individuals who adhere to it, you come to appreciate the diverse reasons they hold to their faith, and you learn something of their history, culture, and psychology, in a way that books cannot communicate. It really makes a huge difference: not unlike the difference between reading all about Paris in a guidebook and then actually visiting the city for yourself to experience and appreciate the life, vibrancy and beauty of the place.
Most importantly of all, when you engage with those from other worldviews you gain a significant degree of empathy. When critics of some faith tradition haven’t engaged at a significant personal level with adherents of that faith they often speak incredibly aggressively, and in a way that tends to dehumanize those who hold to that tradition. It’s a bit like that modern internet phenomenon witnessed by anyone who reads the comments section of a controversial article or video: people tend to talk to others as if those others are more machine than man. Often things get said which would never get said if the people were sitting at the same table looking into each other’s faces. The human dimension of the exchange is, tragically, often diminished. I’ve witnessed atheists being spoken to as if they are moral degenerates trying to send the country to Hell in a handbasket. Sometimes this is given a “holy spin”: atheists really, deep deep down, know God exists; therefore their atheism is really little more than a wicked moral rebellion against their creator. I’ve also seen religious believers written off as dangerous fanatics who’d like nothing better than to cage their opponents like wild animals. As for me, I’ve been spoken to – by people who don’t know me from Adam – as if I’m a brainwashed idiot, a fool, a moron simply by virtue of the fact that I’m a theist. I suspect many of these people live their lives in something of a bubble, surrounded largely by people who think and act like they do. In my experience, I’m sad to report, religious believers in particular can be incredibly inward looking. Many Christians have no real friendships with people who do not share their beliefs. I’ve gone to churches where people only ever socialize with their fellow churchgoers. It’s easy to see how under such circumstances those who hold significantly different worldviews can come to be demonised, viewed with distrust or derision. And this applies to Christians who belong to other traditions and denominations. I often wonder to what extent the ugly spectacle of Christians at one another’s throats can be explained simply by this reluctance to form friendships and significant social interactions beyond one’s own sectarian boundaries.
Actually spending time with people who disagree with one’s own fundamental opinions can be humbling, enlightening, and mind-expanding. I once thought of Hindus as little other than irrational mystics, and I thought so largely as a result of my academic studies (I had studied world religions as part of my theology degree). Then I met some Hindus – spending several weeks in an area of London containing a 60,000 strong Gujarati Indian immigrant population. I’ll never forget one particular Hindu businessman. He knew his tradition inside out and back to front, and understood Christianity at least as well as I did. He was reflective, friendly, level-headed, sensible, and very successful. I visited several Hindu temples and met many Hindu families, experiencing their friendliness and warmth, and I left London a very humbled young theologian. Rene Descartes, whose own travels had opened his eyes to the wealth of views and opinions in the world, had written words that were ringing in my ears: “all those who hold opinions quite opposed to ours are not on that account barbarians or savages. . . many exercise as much reason as we do, or more…”
In my previous article I said, “We aren’t the wholly rational impartial observers we might like to paint ourselves as. Each of us, for better or worse, is a complex of many factors and influences: our upbringing, our background experiences, our cultural milieu, our peers, our education, our innate temperament and dispositions, and much else besides. These things provide the spectacles through which we view our world.” I didn’t always believe that. I was happy thinking I was one of the few impartial rational observers and others – such as the Hindus – were irrational screw-ups. But when we take the time to get to know those of other faiths and none – beyond superficialities and text-book understandings – we come to appreciate the complexities involved in belief formation, and, crucially, come to see that those who disagree with us are not simply wicked or stupid. They are, just like us, human beings with a personal history, psychology, and culture.
As we come to appreciate this reality it should help to burst the little worldview bubble that we tend to keep ourselves in.
Stephen J Graham