Among recent emails from readers and listeners have been some on a topic near and dear to my heart: how can we engage one another in dialogue, move toward better understanding of one another and how the world really works, and still not be rude, off-putting, arrogant, unkind, or violent? Is it even a realistic goal, when dealing with sensitive topics like religion or politics? Obviously these are complex, million-dollar questions. Those who have read A Secret of the Universe know that these challenges are central to the moral of my little story. Is it possible to elevate our “humanness” to the point where we can honor disagreements, love one another, and still move toward caring, learning, and understanding, all without compromising intellectual honesty and our search for “truth”?

If we could answer these questions, we could probably end world hunger, stop the wars that rage around the globe, maintain perfect marriages, and find proverbial heaven on earth. Certainly I tried to illustrate a conceptual solution centering on the human capacity for “love,” which happens to be a central tenet of many of the world’s myths—from which we can learn. But alas, there are disagreements between and among people who share both similar and differing views on gods, the existence of gods, politics, worldviews, definitions of reason, and how science can or cannot address important questions.

One Such Debate

Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution is True) was recently criticized for his intellectually honest critique of Chris Mooney (author of The Republican War on Science) and Barbara Forrest(philosopher of science and witness at the Dover trial). In his own blog at, Coyne said they “take me to task for not being sufficiently nice to the faithful, and assert that my criticism of science/faith accommodationismwill alienate those liberal Christians who support evolution.” Give it a read and you’ll see the challenges more clearly, but it appears Coyne is intellectually honest, very polite, not mean-spirited, and never engages in ad-hominem attacks or any such unkind behavior. Still, he is quite direct; and with regard to such issues, it shouldn’t surprise us that somebody gets angry.

So Coyne hit on what I see as a fundamental issue in the skeptical movement toward a science/reason based way of understanding and solving the world’s problems (assuming there is one): namely, the methods, means, and modes of discourse and dialogue. There seems little agreement on how to engage, even within this “skeptical” worldview Coyne and I appear to advance.

I’m all about tolerance. As many of you know I have spoken extensively on interbelief/interfaith tolerance, and my novel is about loving friends and family trying to figure out a way to continue to love and learn and share together, amidst hugely conflicting discoveries about what is historically “true” with regard to religious and political “reality.” While I know little these days, I assure you that most people are not even vaguely familiar with the serious disagreements between the brightest and best scholars, on central issues ranging from major historical problems with orthodox Christianity, to very little consensus between major schools of economics. You really can find a reputable, esteemed economist to argue just about any course of action in these tough times. But once we humans “own” a dogma with our egos, and invest ourselves in that position, we tend to hold it very firmly.

Especially with regard to the hot issues surrounding religious belief—those issues into which the supernatural realm is called in to testify—there is little consensus on HOW we should even begin to go about our dialogue. Where do we start?

So back to Coyne’s blog, wherein he feels he has been polite, but he refuses to capitulate and back-off what he sees as an empirically backed, superior argument, just for the sake of being “tolerant.” In other words, should we even consider supporting an untruth—which is contrary to how the world advances—merely in the interest of being nice?

A False Choice

Unfortunately, debates like this often wind up in a false dichotomy: either intellectual honesty and our commitment to “truth” and reason has to be compromised; or alternatively, we must be forceful, persistent, or even rude and in danger of “bad etiquette” in order to make a point.

Through my extensive experiences with deconversionsand conflicting worldviews—my own as well as the countless stories I receive from readers/listeners to my podcast programs—I reject this false dichotomy. It IS possible to be kind, tolerant, and understanding, while also advancing understanding and continuing to explore the merits of the various arguments. But how? It is difficult, isn’t it?

Yes, but the crux of the matter, as I see it, centers on that elusive line between the social world and the intellectual realm where real learning takes place. Let me explain.

There is a time and a place, according to social norms, for just about everything. For example, theological seminaries are wonderful places where deep and thorough debates take place. Esteemed New Testament scholar Dr. Bart D. Ehrman often laments that the seminaries teach the great debates, and the substantial problems brought to bear by two hundred years of modern, higher critical methods of scholarly inquiry; but, he argues those very legitimate differences are not often honored once the hallowed halls are departed, and pews are filled with local congregants. The point is that it is not “bad form” to be extremely critical in seminary. Many seminarians at these great institutions are not even theists. All is well and the wonderful scholars of varying “beliefs” all seem to get along swimmingly. Seminary is an appropriate place and time for debate.

But there are also social institutions, and tribes, and gangs, and traditions in the real world. If as an non-theistic agnostic, I run into a church and begin telling people about the incompatible, distinct Christologies and theologies offered by the unknown authors of the four canonical gospels (let alone the non-canonical gospels)—or irreconcilably conflicting birth narratives in the gospels, the genealogy problems, or why there were two Jesuses (Barabbas) in the best, earliest copies of the text we later came to attribute to “Matthew”—that would be rude. Worse still would be walking in and telling people their god is a delusion (though Richard Dawkins makes that point in an intellectually honest way in his bestselling book by that title—which legitimately falls into that learning realm, where the listener/reader is open to, interested in, and “okay with” the information exchange).

Why It Matters

But see my point, please. The point isn’t who is right and who is wrong. The point is that we play on two separate fields, one is the factual exchange, the other is the social, interpersonal, and emotional; and the latter essentially regulates and controls the chances at the former.

So why not just liveand let live, Steve? Well, that’s a good place to start, and I do promote that. Given the alternatives, it’s a great choice. Still, those who push harder and risk being accused of being rude have a legitimate point about wanting to better the world, and not be ruled by homophobes or Jerry Fawells, or be cared for by incompetent doctors who are quacks. Advances don’t happen through abandoning learning, curiosity, and reason. Progress happens through information exchange and finding out what is “real” and what is not.

But take that a step further. Intellectually, all participants in a free society are able to hold beliefs; but since those beliefs affect others (voting, juries, legislation, etc.), they cannot be asserted while simultaneously being held above critical scrutiny. The costs of taking action based upon gang, tribe, dogma, or untrue emotion-driven assumptions can simply be too great. From unenlightened groupthink to mob psychology, the dangers of unquestioning loyalty are now well known to humanity. So how do we find the common ground and avoid our false choice, our false dichotomy of only two options: complicit caving-in and passivity, or pushing the envelope to force the argument?

It would seem we have not yet asked the most important question. “What is the goal?” What is the purpose of this dialogue and discussion we wish to hold? What is the purpose of our conversations and the very act of engagement? Of our persistence in standing firm for reason and refuting the argument that some things—like religions—are private and can never be questioned or refuted?

Worthy Goals

It would seem to me that a worthy goal must be at least two-fold. As a first step, we must raise consciousness and awareness about the importance of mutual understanding. If we don’t have the desire, if we don’t want to learn and gain mutual understanding, the rest of the effort is probably futile! The efforts at mutual understanding and progress will fail, or move far too slowly as the decades click by. People shut their ears and minds, but through awareness and admission that we care enough about reaching understanding, even the greatest of cognitive illusions and mind traps can be ameliorated as we learn about them. In order to hear, there must be a genuine desire to listen and understand one another.

To be intentionally redundant, the second step doesn’t really matter until the first step is accomplished. The social elements of interpersonal communication are vitally important, no matter how much we rationalists want to wish them away and say they aren’t—or shouldn’t be—part of the equation. After recognizing this, we can move to the second step, the actual exchange of data and ideas to gain the mutually desired understanding.

Still, it is vital to note that these are not distinct steps, and we constantly bounce back and forth between the social/political and the information exchange, as we build trusting relationships. It can’t all happen at once, any more than building a marriage can come from a single week of factual, business negotiations about how trust will guide the relationships. You can’t just sit down and agree to these things on a purely reasoned ground. We must bounce back and forth between conversations about the business of the relationship, and the social realm trust-building and mutual caring.

Then, and only then, if both the desire to mutually understand one another and then the information exchange take flight, might we accomplish an elusive third goal: finding truth, or even seeing someone change his or her mind after gaining new insights?

Some argue somewhat reasonably that progress requires both schools of engagement—the aggressiveand the social/political/trust-building; then, somehow the pace of change gravitates to the normative, goldilocks middle zone—one that is “just right.” While that is an understandable, perhaps warm thought, I’m not yet sold. Again, if minds close at moment we transgress the line between the social and learning modes, the game is over and there is no progress. In other words, I argue that being a jerk impedes the overall pace toward mutual understanding and progress, and may even reverse it.

Avoiding Transgressions

So in summary, we must work to avoid the false dichotomy mistake. We can, and must, balance the social, political, diplomatic, and interpersonal elements of communication, with the factual content being transmitted in the learning/insight stages. Stephen Jay Gould’s understanding of this is shown in his work on mitigating language. We all know that changing the mind of an emotionally invested believer in anything, can be nearly impossible.

The best way to avoid transgressions is to at least periodically evaluate if all parties are in agreement about the mode in which exchanges are taking place, social or learning. In other words, maybe the secret is in being mindful, thoughtful, and routinely making sure you have not switched inadvertently from a factual argument to an emotional one. And when that happens, try to clarify that it has happened, and that we will all be going back to social trust-building until we are again in agreement that understanding, through intellectually honest exchanges, is a mutually beneficial and shared goal. In short, we must ask, “Is this the right place, at the right time?”, and do so more frequently than our left-brain wiring would suggest is necessary.

If we don’t start with opening hearts and minds—which requires dancing the social dance as relationships bounce between the appropriate times and places and the safer, social realms—the understanding and learning will never come.

One final example: Among scores of such debates about the existence of god, I had the opportunity to hear Christopher Hitchens—the prolific columnist, pundit, intellectual wrangler, and author of God is not Great—debate his conservative and equally talented U.K. columnist-brother Peter Hitchens. Before I make my point, however, please understand that I have heard Christopher Hitchens speak many times before, and I very much enjoy his brilliant repartee, his irreverence, and his intellect. I am, in the privacy of my home, a closet fan I dare say.

That said, it was fascinating to watch the faces of my sweet family members, and the Grand Rapids, Michigan audience, as pitbull Christopher berated his brother Peter. You can listen to the debate online, but I watched as what I think was a relatively sympathetic, agnostic crowd at the Fountain Street Church, recoiled rather noticeably at the sometimes-visceral, patronizing, and aggressive style of Christopher Hitchens.

Ironically, that’s probably why I love Chris at times, much as I love the lead character on Fox TV’s House, who says the things we all sometimes wish we could say. But you see, in the real world, just abandoning diplomacy and spewing forth our most unmitigated tirades is not helpful toward either of our primary goals. We can’t speak to people as the character House does if we want to build trust and move toward our first common goal—to desire and see the benefit ofimproved understanding, let alone move toward factual exchanges with the utopian, ultimate possibility of mutual enlightenment and/or changing minds.


For these and other reasons, the debate will rage in—and among—all the tribes and gangs engaged in all the culture war issues. Should we be more aggressive, or should we capitulate and be “tolerant.” It is a false choice. Unfortunately, until we see the need to first recognize our shared connectedness and humanity, the promises of peace, understanding, and progress will be slowed.

The fact that I’ve been on different sides of many issues at different phases of my life should tell me that the other side isn’t a bunch of useless idiots. If they are, I am a useless idiot, because I was once there too.

As much as we’d like to, we cannot abandon the interpersonal, social, political, and emotional elements of debate. But that said, we can and must ignore the false dichotomy of only two approaches to debate.

(By Stephen L. Gibson, © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC; and

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