It’s hard to discuss faith with people who don’t share yours. It is, in my experience, harder to talk to those who disagree than those who have no strong beliefs. Our beliefs are part of our self image. They literally become part of who we think we are. When you question someone’s faith, you ask them to confront their whole view of the universe.
This, understandably, makes such discussions difficult and, at times, provocative.
So, how do we have these discussions when they become crucial to governance and the future of culture. How to handle education, interpret the social contract, and build a sense of community among all the people in a society are all effected by the faith or faiths of those it encompasses. What do we do when some of those people reject what others consider facts. What happens when some value tradition, while others value progress? How can we discuss the future when we can’t agree on the past?
The key is that we must all learn to listen. Too often, we let our faith, our surety, deafen us to the perspectives of others. We are so sure of the rightness of our views, that we ignore the wisdom of ages, or the constant revelation of science. How many new medicines would we miss out on, have we missed out on, because we did not listen to the wisdom of ages in regard to herbs and diets? How many would we be missing had we failed to study the natural world and move beyond assumption? Neither side has a perfect track record.
Science has an advantage, in that it is meant to change. Review and constant testing of theory against new data is intend to keep anything other than skepticism and process from becoming orthodoxy. Sadly, this fails to make the scientist immune to the infestation of ego by belief. Not so much unlike the prophet who believes he has heard the voice of God, some pioneers of scientific theory convince themselves that their methods are flawless and their data is pure and unassailable. Often, too, those who claim to be skeptics and persons of reason forget that we cannot discount something simply because it cannot, as of yet, be tested. If we simply denounce the idea, we can never hope to understand it.
This is, admittedly, a smaller problem (in terms of numbers), then the assertions of the religious. The religious zealots clearly out-number the so-called-secular fanatics, those those embracing the New Atheist title are out to make just as much noise.
Religion’s willingness to ignore observable fact has a long and well publicized history. Going back to Galileo or even Socrates, orthodoxy has adamantly rejected even the self-correcting ideals of science. Tradition has always fought back against progress, even within religions. How bloody have the conflicts been that have their roots in the protestant revolution?
We must learn to listen to one another. We must learn that we will always be more alike than we will be different. Science seeks the truth, knowing that we may never see the whole picture. Religion claims to have the whole truth, but that only those who ignore the details will ever see it. Ultimately, though, both are expressions of the same human need. Science needs to be made wondrous again, so that it might capture the need for mystery and devotion a little better, while religion needs to start admitting that, despite some really good and helpful ideas or dogmas that are very comforting, we can only guess and have faith. That is, we all need to admit that we don’t have the whole truth, but that the responsible search is more important than fighting over the methods we each prefer.