What to do about disagreement?

While on sabbatical in Japan, I have heard that, in a recent service of Focus, one speaker drew a clear-cut line between whom he regarded as a Christian and whom he did not. In response at least some of the Luther College community felt excluded and offended. Since I was not on campus at that time and since two of my colleagues already responded to this incident by blog, I will not talk about this particular event.

What I would like to talk about, however, is the deeper problem this event has reminded me of. In my mind, the incident this semester reverberates the controversy surrounding one candidate for the presidency of our college last spring. It is the same debate our country has been engaging in for years and is now acted out once again in the so-called "war on Christmas" and the response to it that can be only called the "war on the war on Christmas." Recently, I even heard of the "war on the war on the war on Christmas."

The problem that surfaces in all of these instances is the question why are we as a community, be it the Luther College community or the community of everyone living in the U.S.A., incapable of dealing with disagreement. Why do we feel the need to exclude and disrespect those who disagree with us?

It is very obvious that people in the U.S.A. and as well to some degree at Luther College are divided, consciously or unconsciously, into two groups. And all of us who engage in the public discourse on certain issues, mostly connected in some way or another to religion, are, to varying degrees, guilty of this. Even the rhetoric "it is not me, it is them" falls into the same trap of dividing one community into two irreconcilable groups.

This dichotomization seems to pervade the public discourse. Besides the fact that this approach precludes any diversity of positions, this so-called "culture war" has taken on worrisome proportions. People usually identified as "value conservatives" are accused of having views that are discriminatory. In turn, the same "conservatives" accuse people identified as "liberals" of taking their own freedom of speech away from them. In my field, comparative religious studies, people referred to as "exclusivists," who claim they know truth while others do not, feel excluded by so-called "pluralists" who advocate that all religious truth claims should be respected.

It is important to point out that these two kinds of exclusivisms are not identical. The one deals with beliefs about reality, morality, etc., the other with beliefs about said beliefs. The former may have concrete legal implications while the latter mostly pertains to theory and belief systems. However, on one level, both positions have to deal with a similar question, namely the encounter with beliefs other than ones own and the people who hold them. How are we supposed to treat people whose beliefs differ from ours? In other words, or as a colleague once asked me, how can I have my own beliefs and yet accept people with dissenting beliefs?

However, as "exclusivists" have pointed out, "pluralists" have a similar problem: pluralism is a belief, even if it is a belief about beliefs and not about the nature of reality and the divine. While "pluralists" are tolerant of all religious beliefs they exclude certain beliefs about beliefs. Thus, the "pluralist" "liberal" as well has to ask the question as to what to do with beliefs other than one's own, in this case, exclusivism. Similarly, Swami Vivekananda, who saw tolerance as the supreme principle, once asked the question whether "tolerance has to tolerate intolerance"?

One key to solving this problem is the observation that truth claims are frequently conflated with identity claims. This goes both ways. We often mistake adherence to individual truth claims as an indicator of specific identities and identity claims as an indication of specific beliefs. However, this is not necessarily the case. For example, the argument from intelligent design is often identified with a particular "conservative" form of Christianity although it only suggests the necessity of a designer of the universe. It specifies neither a particular creation story nor the right way to interpret the Bible. Because identity is often conflated with beliefs, people on both sides of the big cultural divide have become increasingly incapable of accepting disagreement and are more and more willing to exclude if not condemn people who disagree with them. Disagreement is denounced as "dissent."

This brings us to a second key. The unwillingness to consider viewpoints other than one's own implies a rather strong conviction in if not certainty about the veracity of one's own beliefs. Such an attitude raises, of course, a few questions. Are we really so sure about our beliefs that we are ready to exclude even the possibility of other options? Are we so sure that there is nothing left for us to learn? Do we really want to claim the kind of knowledge usually attributed to and reserved for God?

I have been struggling with these questions as philosopher of religion and as a person whose religious practice is not shared by the majority of the community in which I live. Over the years, I have come to approach disagreements from a standpoint of epistemic humility – in short, I assume that my understanding of the world is partial and incomplete at best. This does not mean that I do not have lots of opinions. I do. However, I am not yet ready to assume that they all will stand the test of time.

On the contrary, I am quite willing to accept the possibility that I will change my current opinions in the future as I have done in the past. I also assume that my interlocutor is as informed about the subject and as convinced about his or her own position as I am. The goal of our conversation is not to prove who is right but to learn from each other. This approach may have been the reason for me to decide for a career in comparative religious studies choosing an interdisciplinary method.

When I encounter disagreement on religious issues, in most cases, I do not try to figure out who agrees with me or who is right and who is wrong. I rather assume that there must be a reason for the disagreement and attempt to get to the root of it. Thus, I take to heart Dōgen's observation that "when one aspect is emphasized, the other one is obstructed" and try to find out what we can learn from each position.

When I teach philosophy of religion, I usually present the pros and cons of each position. Judging from the feedback I receive, most students find this feature of my class the most difficult as well as the most rewarding one. Using this method, I learn from "exclusivism" that there are different, and sometimes conflicting, truth claims and from "pluralism" that the divine is beyond human grasp. I learn from "exclusivism" that we have to commit to one particular practice or set of practices and from "pluralism" that it is perilous to condemn those whose practices or beliefs differ from ours.

I believe that if we admit that we are not 100 percent right and the designated other is not 100 percent wrong, if we are open to the possibility that we can learn from each other, then, there is an opening for a community of understanding and respect.

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf is professor of religion at Luther College. Kopf is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy. He is also the author of Beyond Personal Identity and the co-editor of Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. He publishes in the areas of Japanese Buddhism, comparative philosophy and intercultural understanding. At Luther College, he is the coordinator of the Asian Studies Program, organizes the student meditation group and teaches study abroad courses in Japan, Hong Kong and China.

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  • December 21 2013 at 2:56 pm
    Daniel Cook

    No Christianity in this editorial.