From time to time I have conversations with friends in which religion or politics come up. Usually these conversations go well but sometimes they run afoul of conflicting basic premises. I avoid conversations about religion unless I sense that there are at least some shared assumptions.
One of those difficult conversations came up in the last few days in an email exchange with a 16-year old intellectual genius, an international performer with his own manager and bodyguards, a boy who is a university student but is now in the hospital after serious injury and illness have sidelined him for months in a hospital where he will likely be for several more months. He is generally familiar with my views and he raised some issues and defended his views with biblical references. I had to respond to him in some way that did not damage our friendship so I attempted to explain to him why an ongoing dialogue about religion might be difficult for us. Here is the relevant part of a much longer conversation:
“….So now to the question of religion. When so inclined I can argue rather forcefully on topics in which I have an interest and I like a good philosophical argument, but I have been reluctant to get into religion or politics with friends or family because often they have turned out badly. My wife’s family holds traditionally conservative Christian views and they thought when their daughter married a young man with degrees in religion and ordained into the Christian ministry that they knew what they were getting in a son in law. I had discussions with them many times and I tried to keep away from sensitive issues but eventually they figured out that my views were not in line with their views and after trying unsuccessfully to “convert” me they pretty much disowned me. Over the passage of years they mellowed and became loving parents who accepted me despite my heretical views and my mother in law, now 94, has grown to love me unconditionally. However my wife’s two sisters are rather hostile still, and they are politically to the right of Mussolini and ardent supporters of the horrific Donald Trump, so we do not talk at all any more.
“… my rule for dinner table conversation is that religion and politics are not acceptable for discussion unless they are brought up by others and the tone in which they are brought up leaves some openness for discussion…. I would never let a theological or political point interfere with a friendship. That is just not my style. But a fundamental problem I have with some who hold strong religious beliefs is a kind of trump card they play in a discussion at which they assume there is no more discussion possible, specifically, “God says…” or “the Bible says….” That is never an acceptable answer because it presumes that we agree on the validity of that conversation ending trump card.
“There are a lot of difficulties I have with the way in which the Bible is used in theological discussions that go beyond the conversation-ending assertion that the Bible has the final answers: biblical literalism is a relatively late understanding in church history; which codex or manuscript or translation contains the words of god; the difference in saying that god speaks to us through the bible and the bible is literally the words of god; whose interpretation we use in trying to understand the words; how to deal with conflicts and contradictions; etc. I don’t want to write a treatise here, just lay out a general sense of the problems we face if we make the assumption (which I do not) that the Bible is in some sense the word of god. So my point here is that quoting the bible as a response to a question relating to religious understanding just doesn’t work because it is a circular argument that depends on accepting an assumption about the role that the Bible plays in theological discussion that I do not share.
“You asked me if I accept the adage God helps those who help themselves. Yes and no, and this is where interpretation comes into the discussion and suggests why people of quite different religious understandings can agree on the phrase. It could be literally true in that if you want god to help you then do your part to help yourself because otherwise you are expecting something to happen with no effort on your part; OR it could mean, helping yourself and god helping you are essentially the same thing, that is, the adage means there is no help other than what you do to help yourself and it is therefore a mythological way of saying “don’t assume there are any magical answers coming from outside yourself….
"I think people get defensive and angry when discussing religion because those beliefs are identified with who someone is, and if they lack confidence or feel threatened in those basic beliefs they get angry and hostile and want to cut off conversation.
"You frighten people, my friend, because you are a genius intellect … and people don’t know how to handle it. They think they are talking with a child and they can’t handle it when they are suddenly over their heads in the conversation. It confuses them. And, yes, you may alter or threaten their reality.
"I understand your views, your humility, your sense of needing forgiveness—it all makes sense to me because I grew up in a religious context where that was the norm. I found it hard to think when I had to deal with someone who did not share that perspective. I think that is why I had such a hard time in my years of university and theological school. I struggled to make sense of a different reality that was intruding into the sanctuary of once held secure views…. Anyway I appreciate you sharing your views with me. It helps me to understand you better even though I no longer share those views. It may help you to understand me, too, if you realize that I once shared those views but over time I lost the ability to make sense of the world without a different set of assumptions.
"Anyway, friendship is more important to me than belief, and if god exists (a phrase I hate because logically it does not make sense, to exist is to be a part of this world), then surely he understands that I was created with reason and a rational mind, and I am only operating with what god gave me.”