Portsmouth writer Howard Hoggarth gets into an unexpected debate about religion on his way home from work and reflects upon how best to conduct oneself in an argument – offline or online.
It can be hard to talk to people with whom you disagree. This is one reason the current state of public discourse is abysmal. Social media, most notably Twitter, results in the ‘siloing‘ of information and the creation of bubbles that contain no contrasting views. More pernicious still is the anger and bitterness that drive disagreements between people who are anonymous from one another and who will never meet each other in the flesh. But it would be wrong to ascribe all our woes to social media. Having it out face-to-face can run right off the road just as easily as any virtual dispute.
Whatever the medium or the setting, when you debate with others, patience and open-mindedness are virtues. It also helps to respect your opponent and regard them as acting in good faith: when they take a view different to yours they are not doing it because they are necessarily stupid or evil. They may know something you don’t, in fact.
On a summer afternoon in 2015, I was on my way home from my cleaning shift at a gym in North End. So short was this shift that often I couldn’t accumulate enough money for even the bus fare. My flat was in Southsea, the other side of the city. On a sunny, dusty day the walk was more long, tiring and tedious than ever.
I turned into Kingston Crescent and noticed a long, low building of dark cream bricks and a spire-like tower. It bore a large sign of shiny metal reading ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’. An outpost of Mormonism – that very American religion – in the UK, let alone Portsmouth? That was new to me.
Two young, smartly-dressed men were on the pavement just outside the church. They made a valiant, but fruitless, effort to engage a passerby. I considered avoiding them by crossing to the other side of the road, but it was hot and I was tired so I decided I would just go ahead and barge my way through. One of the men was slightly rotund with red hair and glasses, the other a black and slim, a serious expression on his face. As I approached them they turned to me, their eyes bright and hopeful.
‘Mormons?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ replied the chubby redhead in a thick American accent. He started to ask about me coming to some meeting or other but I was already slipping between them and trying to get away.
‘Thanks, I’m an atheist,’ I said, hoping that would throw them off.
‘Why are you an atheist?’ asked the other one, also in a US accent, from behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder, still walking, and saw that they were following me. ‘I see no evidence for God,’ I snapped back, turning away again and marching on.
‘Do you see evidence there is no God?’ said the redhead. At that, I paused and spun round to face them. Redhead had just shifted the burden of proof – one of my biggest pet peeves. ‘I’ll set him straight and then walk away,’ I thought. But I ended up being with them for more than an hour.
Most of the talking was done by the thin black man whose name was Paine. I never got the name of the redhead, who did more listening than speaking. Initially, the conversation ran along fairly standard lines. I asked Paine why he believed in God and Mormonism in particular.
‘Because I’ve had experiences,’ he replied.
‘Well,’ I began, utilising a typical response to this typical argument: ‘there are people who have experienced being abducted by UFOs.’ This seemed to make Paine thoughtful so I continued with the comparative religion gambit. ‘Why do you believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God and not the Koran?’ I asked. ‘Why believe Joseph Smith is a prophet and not Mohammed?’
‘I am reading the Koran right now,’ replied the redhead.
‘And what do you think?’
‘I believe he was inspired but I don’t believe he was a prophet.’
I didn’t know what to make of that.
The conversation turned to morality. Predictably, they said morality derived from God. I knew how to deal with this. ‘Would you kill your child if God commanded you to?’ I asked, knowing there was no way anyone would answer that affirmatively.
‘Well God does ask Abraham to do that in the Bible,’ replied Paine. ‘God didn’t make him go through with it’.
The Bible is not the central text for Mormons but it is still highly revered among them and its stories are considered ‘canon’ as it were. I countered with the story of Jephthah who sacrificed his daughter to God as a thank you for his victory against the Ammonites. This left Mormon number two speechless, confirming that, like most of the faithful, he had no idea what was actually in the scriptures.
It was left to Paine to respond. ‘Well,’ he said in a slightly apologetic tone, ‘I know it sounds awful and everything but if God came to me and said kill your child, I might not like it but I’d do it.’
The New Atheist commentator Sam Harris tells a story about his meeting a religious person who exhibited a degree of moral confusion so shocking that Harris had to – and I assume he means this figuratively rather than literally – retrieve his eyebrows from the back of his head. After what Paine had just said, my eyebrows felt like they would shoot of my head and enter the stratosphere. The statement was alarming enough, but it was the fact it was stated by a man so polite, friendly and seemingly sane that made it so distressing. I noted to myself that Paine had just demonstrated one of the problems issues of religion: it can make perfectly ethical and mentally stable people believe, say and even do things that we would otherwise associate with the mad or sociopathic.
The conversation could have fallen to pieces at this point. I could have berated Paine for being inhumane or foolish. Instead I managed to stay calm and tell myself that more likely he just hadn’t thought this through. I told Paine how, in my opinion, that attitude of obeying the word of God regardless of his responsibility for many of the atrocities throughout history, and indeed today. I even hit them with the Euthyphro dilemma; the philosophical conundrum devised by Socrates that undermines the idea of divinely ordained morality. It asks whether a thing is moral because the gods say so, or do the gods declare something to be moral because it is in of itself moral. If the former then morality is arbitrary, if the latter then the gods are irrelevant.
The Mormons listened to everything I said with polite attentiveness. They took some of what I said on board, agreeing that religion could drive people to do evil. Emboldened by this, I decided to bring up the dubious status of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism himself. I asked my new acquaintances what they made of Smith being a con-artist and the subject of several criminal investigations during his life including illegal banking and divination fraud.
‘A what?’ asked Paine.
‘A con-artist’ I repeated.
‘What’s that?’ asked Paine again. I studied the look of good-natured puzzlement on his face and was taken aback when I realised he was being sincere.
‘You don’t know what a con-artist is?’
Paine shook his head.
‘I’m from Japan,’ he said. ‘I don’t know a lot of words here.’
A black Japanese Mormon with an American accent living in Britain. What were the odds of my running into one of them on the way home?
‘Do you mean he was such a good speaker?’ Paine continued. ‘Like his speaking was like an artist?’
I was more shocked than when Paine told me he’d merrily kill his child if the Big Man in the Sky told him to. I decided to drop it.
The conversation ended with me urging them to consider the rationalist position that belief based on faith or personal experience is a pretty bad idea. I added a lot of placation before I did this, so worried was I that they’d take offence. Tell someone that something they deeply believe is wrong and it’s easy for that to be interpreted as calling them stupid. I assured them that wasn’t the case and that it was possible for intelligent people to simply be wrong. Neither of them showed any sign of offence. Indeed both shook my hand warmly when the time came to part and Paine even told me with genuine sincerity that our talk had made him think. The pair retreated back into their place of worship and I continued on my way.
I was proud that I had debated one of the most controversial topics there is and nobody had raised their voice, done any name-calling or assumed bad faith on the part of the other. How smoothly a conversation goes of course often depends on who you’re talking to. Mormons are notorious for their amiability. Would the conversation have gone as well if I’d spoken to diehard fundamentalist Christians or Islamists? I don’t know. All I do know is the only way to have productive dialogue on any subject is by not assuming your interlocutor is an idiot, madman or the Devil.
Image ‘Mormonism in Utah Cave of Despair’ courtesy of Frank Leslie and reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.