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A disagreeable agreement
By George A. Ricker

I made an old friend angry the other day. Actually, I didn’t do it personally. It was my book, Godless in America, that did the trick. She said she had to put it down because I didn’t show the proper respect for her beliefs.

My friend is a Christian, as she has reminded me on several occasions. I think she is of the more liberal variety. She says she agrees with me completely about the necessity for separation between religion and government and is concerned about the turn our country has taken in that regard. I get the impression she is not any sort of fundamentalist.

Partly, her anger was due to a misunderstanding. At one point in the first chapter of the book, I invite theists to take out a few sheets of paper and write out a definition/description of the god they worship that is as complete as they can make it. I state in the text that this exercise is chiefly intended to help them clarify their own thoughts on the matter. It is for them alone. Whether they choose to share it with anyone else is up to them.

Well, she took this to mean I was challenging her to prove her “God” to me. That reading cannot be supported by the text, but it was her interpretation nonetheless. After going back and rereading the offending material myself to be certain I was remembering it correctly, I suggested she might want to give it another look because it really didn’t say what she thought it did.

But, according to her email, the thing that really caused her to put the book down was my reference to “God” as a “critter.” She thought that was hitting below the belt and was highly offended by it. I have no right to criticize her religious beliefs, she said, and even less right to poke fun at them.

Responding, I explained that the phrase “cosmic super critter,” which I use on numerous occasions in the book, is intended to refer to the generic god concept and not to the deity of any particular believer. I also conceded it was, at least partly, my way of poking a bit of gentle fun at the vagueness of the concept.

While I regretted my choice of words had offended her, I stated clearly my refusal to accept the notion that religious ideas were off limits to criticism or jibes or anything else. My respect for her right to her beliefs does not translate, I told her, into automatic respect for the beliefs themselves.

Her emailed response was a terse, “We’ll have to agree to disagree about this.”

Now I use that expression myself on occasion—usually when it is obvious the conversation is going nowhere or when the disagreement is over some trivial matter that isn’t worth the effort it would take to resolve it. However, I try not to use it on matters of substance.

By uttering those words, my old friend had effectively eliminated the possibility of us reaching any sort of understanding. And I had to think the reasons went much deeper than her reaction to the word “critter.”

Atheists are often accused of claiming to know everything. No doubt some do, but I know quite a few atheists personally and have read books and articles by many more and have not found such an attitude to be shared by most of them. Most of the nonbelievers I am familiar with are very careful not to claim more knowledge than they actually possess, and they usually stand ready to amend their views when the available evidence suggests such an adjustment is necessary.

On the other hand, most theists seem unwilling to make that effort. It is really the theist who claims to have all the answers or, more properly, to have the answer. It is the theist who seems unwilling to reconsider his or her beliefs, even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But matters of “faith” cannot be off limits to intellectual inquiry when so much importance is claimed for them. When matters of faith become the basis on which rules and regulations are proposed that will govern not only the faithful but all others as well, then they cannot be granted an immunity that is denied to all other ideas. When religious faith is a private matter between the believer and the object of belief, then it can properly be said to be immune from criticism. But once faith becomes the basis for action that affects other people, then it can no longer claim such status.

By insisting we must “agree to disagree” my old friend terminated a discussion that might have led to better understanding between the two of us on such issues. The impasse won’t end our friendship—at least, I hope it won’t—but will impose a burden on it, one that a friendship shouldn’t have to bear.

I have always thought a true friend was someone to whom you could say anything that popped into your head and be assured of, at least, a fair hearing. That doesn’t mean friends always agree. Far from it. In fact, some of the most profound disagreements I have had in my life have been with my best friends. We did not “agree to disagree.” We thrashed things out until each of us knew where the other stood. Sometimes, along the way, we reached agreement. At other times, we didn’t. But in every case, our friendship was strengthened by the exercise. As was our mutual respect for one another.

This particular friend, the one who has declared we must “agree to disagree,” is someone I knew years ago. We went to high school together, knew many of the same people. Over the years, we had lost track of one another, but a couple of years ago we got back in touch—thanks to a mutual friend and email. So our friendship was interrupted for years. Maybe if it had gone through all the changes the two of us have gone through, we would not now find it necessary to “agree to disagree.”

It’s really too bad though. Now I must edit myself when I communicate with her. Stay off the subject of religion and my book and so on. I can do that. But it means she and I will never be the friends we could have been because, in agreeing to disagree, we have agreed to be less candid, less open with one another.

And I find that very disagreeable.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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