I often get email from people who are trying to have a conversation with a religious person who is twisting their words. It can be very hard to have such conversations. We can question our own sanity when every sentence we utter comes back as a twisted pretzel. It is particularly painful to try to show a friend how their religious prejudice is harming someone else. Invariably the person with a prejudice concludes that they are the real victim. I am hoping this article will help a bit in those situations.
I decided to write the piece after I had a dream last night where I was officiating a funeral. Suddenly the funeral was crashed by a minister and his wife who wanted to use the opportunity to save the people from what I was saying. The preacher huddled down near a grieving family member oblivious to the angry look on that family member’s face, and then proceeded to bombard the poor family with the rehearsed words and studied gestures we’ve come to expect at a traditional funeral.
I woke up from the dream and wondered what might have triggered an anxiety dream like that. Then I remembered a rebuttal I read just that day to something I had written earlier. A few weeks ago I wrote an article for the Austin Statesman that was a call to the kind of religion the world needs, which I said would require changes from all of us. (link below). I try not to let those things get under my skin, but I hate when people cannot even understand what is being said.
One reader wrote a sarcastic response to the article that I think is illuminating on its own merits. We can learn a lot by how someone unconsciously changes our argument in a rebuttal. When human beings hear a truth that does not fit into what we already believe, we can respond very predictably by distorting what we heard. This rebuttal to my article was a case study in not wanting to hear. He sarcastically says:
We want to learn from “all religions of love” accept (sic) those in Western culture. We must exclude religions of the west with their limited understandings and misguided beliefs, rules and repetitive rituals. It seems one of those “magical changes” must be that 14311 Wells Port Drive Austin, Texas 78728 is not part of Western Culture. It’s so nice not to have an allegiance to the Presbyterian denomination as they were founded in Western culture.
In the article, I stated that western culture has a limited definition of religion. By that I meant we in the west tend to associate religion with supernatural beliefs, obedience to the rules of our cult and to repetition of rituals intended to magically change ourselves or our world. I said that there are many religions of the world that transcend those limits.
When I said “western culture” I did not mean everyone within the culture, but a critic would have a legitimate beef in pointing out my over-generalization, but his anger seemed to be directed at the fact that I was questioning those very traits. The rebuttal switched my point about narrow definitions to an attack upon the west itself which would obviously make me a fool since I come from the west.
When we don’t want to hear a new truth we often forget any contextualizing done by the speaker. After that distortion, it is easy to attack their argument as hypocritical because they too come from that group. Again, the rebuttal would be legitimate in questioning whether I was over generalizing (I was), but the brunt of the argument seemed to fall instead on defending that narrowness.
The rebuttal then takes on the three points of my article. The refutation is based on changing my statement “healthy religion leads us into reality, not out of it,” to an attack on all religion. The rebuttalist says sarcastically:
1. Religion truly is leading us out of reality. Especially, faith and superstition that lead into untestable truth claims. All those silly afterlife and untestable truth claims such as there is a hell to shun and a heaven to gain or the wages of sin is death. Yes, we absolutely need to be honest with each other, especially about Niebuhr and not about Jesus Christ.
In the second sentence my critic actually makes another valid point. If I say religion must not be based on untestable claims, then it cannot be based on belief in miracles, in threats of hell or in promises of heaven. If I had a way of conversing with the man, this might be a place we could have a meaningful disagreement, but it is also important to remember that I didn’t say religion shouldn’t make untestable claims. I said that untestable claims should not replace our common duty to be honest about the world we share with others. In other words, we can believe untestable things, but we cannot impose those beliefs onto others. It seems to me the author did not want to hear that point and so changed it into something else.
Again, the rebuttal says sarcastically:
2. I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to be less afraid of heretics and more afraid of Christian truths. No longer should our faith rest on the power of God, but rather on the holy torch of reasoning, human wisdom, and persuasive words.
It is interesting that, whereas I said the church should be more weary of its own prejudices, the writer changed what I said about prejudice to an attack on “Christian truths.” It would have been proper for him to try to argue that my statement amounted to an attack on Christian truths, but instead he misquoted me so he wouldn’t have to even make the case.
3. Yes, the world needs to call us to be good citizens. Christians need to be of the world and not just in it. We should not be a holy people, sanctified in Christ and called according to his name.
Here the writer interjects the word “world” into my call to be a good citizen so he can then use Jesus’ quote about being in the world but not of it. He then does another standard trick, he quotes scriptures that beg the question:
2 Timothy 3:1-5 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
Is this scripture really a rebuttal of anything I said? Could it not be used in any theological discussion by any two believers who don’t respect each other?
4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. 9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
I may be getting forgetful, but when did I say I was the messiah? What is happening here is that, because my critic does not respect me, he sees a string of negative phrases in scripture as clearly referring to me, although each indictment would be his own interpretation of what the words meant.
Communication can be hard. We have a duty to try to communicate with those who believe differently. But I also believe it is disingenuous to pretend to have a conversation with someone who is using these techniques of distortion. One of the most helpful tools for conversation is to request that both side repeat accurately what has been said. After each speaker can say he or she has been heard the conversation can proceed. Sometimes our only gift is to point out that conversation is not possible unless both parties are willing to at least hear what is being said.