5. Confessions of an Ex Atheist
Aka How to Build Bridges Across Ideological Differences
You may have heard this quote before: “Who is a wise? The one that learns from every person.”
This is from Ben Zoma, and is recorded in Pirkei Avot 4:1 (Literally: Chapters of our Fathers), which is a part of the Torah that was passed down through oral transmission (and was written down because of the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem). When this lesson is thought about deeply, we realize that it is paradox. If, in order to be wise, we must learn something from everyone, then the conclusion is that we are actually not wise, and never will be, since it is impossible to meet and learn something from everyone in this world in one lifetime! This lesson is not about actually achieving this kind of wisdom. It is telling us that achieving wisdom should not be our goal, as it is impossible to do. The ego that wants to achieve “wise-ness” needs to be nullified in order to actually achieve it! So instead, it is teaching us a way of life. We must train our minds to realize that every person in this world has something incredible to offer. Each person that we meet has something that we don’t, and we must strive to discover what that is. Imagine what kind of place the world would be if we treated every person like we would treat a renowned scholar.
This is exactly what our sages are trying to convey to us. Ben Zoma is stating that indeed every person in the world IS a renowned scholar! (And the “wise” thing to do when meeting this person would be to learn from them!)
This is very important, and a beautiful way to live life. It’s a wonderful thing to keep in mind when interacting store employees, taxi drivers, people on the bus etc. But what about people who, to put it crudely, are completely wrong? What about the people who, in your eyes, are completely immoral, conformist, dangerous, uninformed, emotionally biased and who threaten the most important ideals that you live for?
We come into contact with people like this at least once in a while. There is no avoiding it. And I don’t think it should be avoided! (But obviously we don’t need to seek it out either.) Learning how to speak to people that are completely different from you is a good thing, and can be an amazing tool for growth. And we actually can learn how to learn from these people… but it takes some work.
All of this is coming from an ex-atheist slash agnostic. Throughout my life, I’ve gotten into many discussions, debates and arguments with people who disagreed with me passionately. And I’ve been on both sides. Some of these discussions went well, and others… not so much. But luckily, I’ve learned a lot from all of it.
The following goes for all ideological differences, from religious to political to relational and everything in between. When you feel a discussion going into stormy territory, take the focus off the other person and focus on these points instead. Here is how I wish I had spoken to others, how I wish I had been spoken to, and how I strive to treat others today.
Questions/ideas to keep in mind:
First of all, find out if this person interested in a real discussion. Or does he/she just want to argue and/or prove a point?
Often, a person will open a topic without a real intent on hearing what the other has to say. These preliminary statements are often emotionally loaded, and are meant to provoke an argument. Some examples are “how can you be stupid enough to believe in a Gd that would allow the Holocaust to happen?” or “anyone that doesn’t support public healthcare is a selfish person”. Usually there is a real question underneath these statements which can be discussed quite productively, if you can get to it. But sometimes it’s impossible to get beneath the surface. If a person is angry enough, you might just have to let it go and hope that a better opportunity comes up in the future when he/she is in a better state of mind. However you don’t want to walk away from a person that actually is open to discussion. A good way to find out is to acknowledge their pain. Saying, “Wow, I can see that you really care about this issue. I also care about it a lot, but it’s obvious that my approach is very different from yours.” If the person seems interested, continue the discussion. And if the person doesn’t respond and keeps making loaded statements, be persistent. However, if you find that you’re not getting anywhere you might have to call them out and end the conversation by saying, “It’s obvious that you are not interested in a discussion and just want to prove to yourself that you’re right and I’m an ignorant person. Go ahead if you must, but if you’re ever interested in having a real discussion where we both learn from each other, you know where to find me.” Hopefully that will get through, and this person will approach you at a different time. However, if you did succeed in making an opening, read on.
This person is right.
This is a tough one, but I wish so much that I had been treated like this back when I was atheist/agnostic. I thought religious people were arrogant, and I had good reason to believe this! Even though many of my statements were meant to provoke (as above), I wish that someone had been able to get over my offensiveness, and ask me why I actually thought the way that I did.
You’ll be surprised what you come up with when you treat people like they are right and are curious about why they have gotten to their conclusions.
I once had an atheist say to me, “I don’t believe in God”. I asked, “What do you mean when you say God?” He said, “A big man in the sky that controls and punishes and gives people a false sense of righteousness and security.” I said, “Haha, I don’t believe in that Gd either!” This made him curious. He then asked what I mean when I say “God”. It turned out that we agreed on many things, but just used different words to describe the concepts! If I instead had treated this person like he was wrong and I was right, we would have never been able to build that bridge, and he would have left the conversation thinking that I believed in what he thought was “God”. Yikes.
What is the real issue/question?
Most often, people will have opinions about something for a reason that they are not clear about. A girl might say, “how can you possibly believe in infinite goodness when so many horrible things happen to good people?” On one hand, she might be genuinely interested in your answer (and if she is, answer her!) However, her real question might actually be, “Even though I accept that my boyfriend broke my heart, I can’t stop hurting. When will it stop?” This girl isn’t interested in the real reason why bad things happen to good people. To answer this question, she would need to step away from her emotional hurt, and she obviously isn’t ready for that yet. Her real questions are, when will her mourning stop? When will she stop hurting? When will she be in the place that she can gain some actual perspective?
Figuring out the real question can take some work, but it is worth the time. Often we will try to answer someone’s question when it’s not even what he/she is asking!
Say “I don’t know”.
Very often, a person from a different ideological perspective will ask you something in order to poke holes in your ideas. I’ve done this many times to others, and I’ve had it done to me. It’s not nice to be asked a question that you don’t know the answer for, but we need to realize that we are all human, and there will always be things that we don’t know, even when it comes to the topics we know the most about! When a person does this, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Be grateful that they found a hole in your knowledge, because now you can patch it up! Thank them, go do some research, and follow up. So much can be gained from this. You will gain new knowledge. They will respect you because you were able to admit that you didn’t know. And therefore they will respect your position on the topic even more. They will recognize how much you care about this topic because you took the time to find out an answer. And they will also recognize how much you care about them, because you actually took the time to follow up. I have had this done for me quite a few times, these people are the ones that I admire more than words can describe.
Am I being smug?
It may be that you really do know the truth. That you really have seen the light and done a lot of work to learn about what you now know. You might actually have the solution to all that the world is lacking. And you may really want to give this person some of your knowledge in order to help them. However, remember that this does not mean that you are better than anyone else. Whatever knowledge you have is a gift. You didn’t “earn” it, and it should only make you more humble and grateful. Feeling smug and righteous will work against you and the amazing knowledge that you possess, because a person will see through your smugness instantly and then you won’t be able to share what you know with them!
So much can be said about this tip… books have been written about it. By nature, I am a blabbermouth, and not a good listener. Very often I will find myself in discussion just waiting for a gap so I can put in my next point. This works against me in so many ways. The person I’m talking with doesn’t feel listened to, and in turn probably won’t be able to listen to me. The conversation will escalate easily because of the tension and speed. Stress levels will be high. But most importantly, I’m missing out on the opportunity to hear what this person has to say! Remember Pirkei Avot from earlier on. I need to realize that even if this person is saying something that seems completely ludicrous, there is something that I can learn from them. There is something that this person is telling me that I am not able to hear because I am so clouded by my own biases. Try to let go of your need to prove yourself, and concentrate instead on what this person is trying to teach you. The wonderful thing about this is that the person will most likely want to hear what you have to say as well.
Find common ground (it exists!)
Sometimes you will get into a discussion with someone that you just can’t connect with at all. The issue is too heated and you just can’t understand each other. In this situation you need to find out what you DO understand about each other. Here is some common ground that most people share:
– We all want to be happy.
– We all want our loved ones to also be happy.
– We care about the world
– We value justice, truth, beauty, honesty, respect and connection
– And we care about each other (the person we are discussing with) enough to want to discuss this important issue with them.
Take some time to establish this with each other. Create mutual trust and a feeling of warmth and caring. Once some common ground has been established, the discussion can go somewhere much more easily. Take it slow. Don’t worry if by the end you can only agree on one thing. That’s all you need in order to build upwards!
No gimmicks! (Please)
This is a personal pet peeve I have. Often I’ve had people try to “sell” me an ideology in the same way that the media tries to sell me an iphone. I agree that sometimes these selling techniques will get people to buy, but more often than not, they will turn people off. And if the goal is getting others to buy an ideology, then what exactly are you selling? If you have something real to offer, then you don’t need to “sell” it. You need to give it with all of your heart. You need to give it honestly, without an agenda. If you have an agenda, people will see through it, and you may cause them to miss out on what you’re really trying to give.
What do I want from this?
Our goal should always be building bridges. We want to create understanding and bring light into the world. If someone happens to agree with something that you do and wants to incorporate it into his/her life, then we want this person to do it with complete honesty and gain as much happiness from it as possible.
Always remember: This person is much more important than the topic that we are discussing. It doesn’t matter whether I know or agree with him/her. What matters most is that this person is a human being that has infinite potential within. I need to respect that always.
So please, the next time you get into a discussion with someone that has a different ideology from you, try to keep these points in mind. Remember that the goal is not to have a world where everyone agrees and does the same thing. That would be extremely boring. The goal is to help discover the colours that we already have within ourselves and help others do the same. We all want to shine as brightly as possible. And we can’t do this without realizing how much we can learn from each other. Let’s vow to incorporate these ideas into our relationships with those that we know now, and those that we will get to meet in the future.