Setting aside our differences

Originally published at the Daily Maverick

Daily Maverick readers will no doubt have noticed that last week, many of this community of opinionistas, editors and journalists congregated for The Gathering 2.0. A fair number of you were there too, and those I spoke with – readers and contributors alike – confirmed that they got as much value out of it as I did.

One key factor in its success, at least as far as I’m concerned, had to do with the value of community, shared goals and aspirations. Finding common ground and room for collaboration has always been difficult, and it has perhaps become increasingly difficult in a world of sharply divided identities and rather loud disagreements.

As was the case at the first Gathering two years ago, I was struck by the sense of a common purpose and shared commitment to finding solutions for South Africa and its developmental and political troubles. Sure, we sometimes disagreed on what those solutions should be, but there was little doubting our sincerity in looking for them.

It’s rare, though, to get to have these conversations in rooms without hostile commenters, and where a combination of ticket prices, self-selection and invitations extended pretty much ensured that people were going to be respectful, even when they disagreed. Out there on the Internet, or in more typical gatherings, civility and respect are not so easily guaranteed.

One thing that has certainly changed for me in the time between these two gatherings is my desire to attempt to be more sympathetic to the reasons why people disagree on goals and strategy – especially in the area of religion, where most of my attempted interventions take place.

Those of you who follow the endless squabbles in the secular, sceptical, or atheist community will know that fighting with each other is as much a part of the game as combating religious dogma is. And this isn’t only because there can be dogmatism and unreason on the non-religious side too – which there certainly can be – but also because everyone is sometimes guilty of being more interested in being right than in making progress.

Making progress – whether it be finding a political solution to a seemingly intractable problem, or persuading the rank-and-file Catholic to join you in publicly denouncing a child-abuse-enabling Cardinal – sometimes requires collaboration rather than antagonism. And, the former is more often appropriate than the latter is, as far as I’m concerned.

Don’t get me wrong – there is room for anger, and there is room for the sharpest criticism. Not only because the sharp criticism can inspire others to break with a tradition or belief, or serve as a lightning rod for debate, but also because it’s sometimes deserved.

The column I abandoned writing this week was going to amount to an extended insult (on issues, rather than ad hominem) directed at Blade Nzimande, and (leaving aside the fact that he would probably never have noticed it) attacking him seems permissible because he is presumably capable of brushing it off.

Likewise, I can feel more comfortable attacking Ray MacCauley rather than his parishioners, or the quack Professor or Doctor rather than those that change their diets or medical regimes on his or her advice. Because we all make mistakes, and while we should all sometimes know better, those of us in authority or with the expertise required to make the judgement in question should know best of all.

But as with any area of contestation – and especially in what I’m confident is an Internet-fuelled tribalism and hyperbole – caricatures so often win out over trying to find common ground. On the pro-science and secular side (and note the false dichotomy there – as if the religious can’t be pro-science, just like pro-life invites the caricature of “anti-life”), what community there is is partly premised on a caricature of the “other”, just like religious folk can easily point to some obnoxious atheist they know and use that person as their baseline for understanding non-believers.

What I worry about in these cartoonish versions of reality is firstly the possibility that we’re forsaking opportunities to learn things – about each other, about difference, about persuasion; and second that we’re impeding progress towards what could in many instances be common goals.

A significant proportion of secular activism – at least on the web – currently consists of people mindlessly (or so it appears) sharing photographs of a Hitchens or Sagan looking thoughtful, and accompanied by an inspirational (or blasphemous) quote. Often, these imagines will come from Facebook groups such as “I fu**ing love science” – as if saying so makes it true.

It doesn’t make it true. Mostly, we love the false impression of community that’s gained through imagining that the other – whether it be the unscientific, Bronze Age-mythology believing monotheist, or the dogmatic, immoral and cruel New Atheist – through the eyes of our respective prejudices.

I’m currently (too slowly) working on a review of Chris Stedman’s provocative new book “Faitheist” (edit: review now posted here), in which he makes the case for atheists “reaching across the aisle” and getting involved in interfaith efforts aimed at bettering lives. As he puts it somewhere in the book: “Do we simply want to eradicate religion, or do we want to change the world?”

These goals are of course not mutually exclusive, but in our eagerness to caricature each other, I worry that we lose sight of the possibility that focusing on the latter could contribute to achieving the former. More to the point, it could do so at a lower cost than encouraging divisiveness does, because the partisan outlook obscures the fact that we probably have more in common than what divides us.

Of course we need to keep asking whether beliefs are true or not, while encouraging people to discard untrue beliefs where possible, even if they are comforting. But no matter how often we ask those questions, they will have no effect unless someone is listening. And why should anyone listen, when it’s clear that the person asking you to listen has no interest in conversation?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.