Why People Can’t Be Civil in Matters of Belief

by: hawkgrrrl

August 27, 2013

Still feeling like he’s on solid ground.

I recently had lunch with a friend who navigated a faith crisis a few years ago, but has come out on the believing end, yet realizing that there are many aspects of the church culture that she doesn’t like and assumptions of her church friends she disagrees with.  This was after 20 years as an adult feeling more or less like everyone else, not questioning those same assumptions.  How can someone change their views?  And once they do, why is it so hard for people to get along?

First of all, we often hold religious beliefs apart as if they are a special case, not subject to opinion or argument or logic or different views.  We may do this diplomatically, like not discussing politics at the dinner table, or we may do this because we consider spiritual matters to be a separate class of beliefs, not subject to logical scrutiny and not man-made and prone to error.  Rest assured that beliefs, whether religious or cultural or political, include the same sorts of things:  values, biases, assumptions, and opinions.

In 2010, I read a book by Kathryn Schulz called Adventured in the Margin of Error.  I blogged about her tips to avoid error here.  You can watch her TED Talk here.  You can also read her series of case studies on The Slate.  One of her points is that we never experience BEING wrong.  Being wrong feels exactly like being right.  We never know we ARE wrong; we may realize later that we WERE wrong, but in doing so, we are RIGHT again.  She said being wrong is like when Wile E. Coyote has followed the Roadrunner off the cliff and hasn’t yet looked down and realized that he has no solid ground beneath him.  Until we look down, we still feel confident that we are on solid ground.

These 3 assumptions come out no matter the topic or age of the opponents.

People who believe they are right usually go through Three Assumptions about the opposing argument (rather than listening to it):

  1. Ignorance.  The assumption is that the other person doesn’t have all the information.
  2. Idiocy.  If they have all the information, they are not smart enough to interpret that information correctly.
  3. Evil.  If they have the information and understand what it implies, they must be evil liars, not acting in good faith.

Thanks to the internet, people are even more transparent and less diplomatic in using language that points out the assumptions; when someone is making one of the three assumptions, they may bluntly say things like:  you obviously don’t have all the facts, you don’t know what you are talking about, your comments are too stupid to address, you are a troll, you can’t really believe that hogwash, you are brainwashed, etc.  What’s interesting is that both TBMs and their disbelieving counterparts use these exact same assumptions.  Here’s how it may sound coming from a disbelieving Mormon:

  1. People who still believe don’t have all the facts I have.  They don’t know about [insert thorny issue].  If they had all the facts, they would also stop believing, just like I have.  Some of them bury their heads in the sand and refuse to look at the evidence which is staring them in the face.  
    • The interwebz.  Sites like MormonThink are created with the desire to provide contrary facts to those who haven’t done their own research.  Lots of sites will discuss these facts and evidence from a non-believing perspective.
  2. People who still believe yet have all the facts are illogical.  They lack the education or intelligence to understand the facts and evidence or they would conclude what I have concluded.  They aren’t as smart as I am.
    • Are believers dumb?  A recent study (contested by believers for obvious reasons) states that atheists are more intelligent than Christians.  Read it here.  To read a rebuttal, go here or read below.  Studies like this are just another rehash of the 2nd assumption:  that the opposing argument isn’t as smart as my argument. They have the same facts but are too dumb to come to the same conclusions I have.

      Let’s say that the bottom half of the IQ distribution never questions the religion of their upbringing, while the top half is skeptical. Now, just among that skeptical top half, let’s say that 80 percent end up affirming their faith and remain religious, while the rest reject faith and become atheists.

      Religion would seem to be the clear choice of smart people in this hypothetical example, but there would still be a positive correlation between IQ and atheism. The correlation exists not because smart people have necessarily rejected religion, but because religion is the default position for most of our society.

      This same principle works in places where the default and iconoclastic beliefs are reversed. Japan, for example, has no tradition of monotheistic religion, but the few Japanese Christians tend to be much more educated than non-Christians in Japan.

  3. Church leaders must know all these facts and understand what they mean; they are conspiring for their own gain.  They deliberately keep followers in the dark so they can get tithing dollars.  They misuse the widow’s mite, knowing all the while they are preaching a false religion.  Maybe not all of them are evil, but some of them are.
    • Conspiracy Theory.  Many of you may have read the recent Grant Palmer claim the he met with a mission president and a seventy who “discovered” the church isn’t true and who claimed that none of the apostles believe it either.  From that write up, when Bro. Palmer asked why he was disciplined for writing An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins:  “The GA stated that my disciplinary action (which would have occurred on the final Sunday of October 2010 had I not resigned), was mandated/ordered/approved by the First Presidency of the Church. I said that if the apostles know the church is not true and yet order a disciplinary hearing for my writing a book that is almost certainly true regarding the foundational claims of the church, then they are corrupt even evil. He replied, “That’s right!””

When we believe we are right, we feel compelled to fight against others’ wrongness rather than listen to them.

What does it sound like when the roles are reversed, and it’s a TBM talking?

  1. People who don’t believe haven’t attained the spiritual knowledge that I have.  They lack the experiences (evidence) that I have achieved or been given.  Maybe they haven’t really prayed about it, or maybe they have ignored the spirit when they felt it.
    • Nephi, Laman & Lemuel.  Nephi’s exchange with Laman & Lemuel is a classic example of this (1 Nephi 15: 8-9):  

      8 And I said unto them: Have ye ainquired of the Lord?

      9 And they said unto me: aWe have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.

  2. People who don’t believe yet have had spiritual experiences don’t understand what those experiences mean.  They are too weak to take action based on the evidence in front of them.  They don’t understand how to interpret the spirit.  Maybe they lack emotional intelligence or resilience.  Maybe they are disloyal.
    • Jacob & Sherem.  When Jacob confronts Sherem, this is the defense he uses (Jacob 7: 10-11):  10 And I said unto him: Believest thou the scriptures? And he said, Yea.  11 And I said unto him: Then ye do not understand them; for they truly testify of Christ.
  3. If they have had spiritual experiences yet don’t conclude the same things I have, they are evil.  They leave due to a desire to sin.  They love evil more than good.  They deny the holy ghost by denying the gifts they have been given.  Embracing doubt is rejecting faith.  They are following Satan because it’s the easy way out, and they aren’t valiant or good people.  They embrace works of darkness.  Examples:
    • Jacob & Sherem.  Going back to the smackdown between Jacob & Sherem (Jacob 7: 18-19), Sherem is purported to have admitted openly that he “lied” about not believing in Christ.  This is an area of scripture where I have always had suspicions of an unreliable narrator.  The story wraps up just a little too neatly:  18 And he spake plainly unto them, that he had been adeceived by the power of the bdevil. And he spake of hell, and of ceternity, and of eternal dpunishment.  19 And he said: I afear lest I have committed the bunpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God; for I denied the Christ, and said that I believed the scriptures; and they truly testify of him. And because I have thus lied unto God I greatly fear lest my case shall becawful; but I confess unto God.
    • Korihor.  Korihor’s story ends in a neat little package likewise (Alma 30: 58):  I know that nothing save it were the apower of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always bknew that there was a God.
    • Moroni & Ammoron.  We also see this line of thinking in Moroni’s “skillful diplomacy” toward Ammoron in negotiating an exchange of prisoners (Alma 54: 11):  it supposeth me that I talk to you concerning these things in vain; or it supposeth me that thou art a achild of hell

Way to spin our wrongness into being right again!

Often we cite scriptures as a way to “prove” a point of view.  Of course, scriptures were written by people who believed they were right, justifying why they did what they did.  In other words, human beings consistently use these three assumptions to avoid looking down to see whether they are on solid ground or about to fall.

  • Have you seen these three assumptions at play in the internet discussions you’ve read?
  • Have you used these three assumptions?
  • How do you avoid using these assumptions?
  • Are we becoming less civil due to the anonymity of the internet, or is the internet just revealing the attitudes people were diplomatically hiding?


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25 Responses to Why People Can’t Be Civil in Matters of Belief

  1. SilverRain on August 27, 2013 at 4:26 AM

    Of course people believe they are right. That’s rather like saying that lost items are always in the last place you look for them.

    The problem is when you disrespect people you think are wrong. Or assume that someone merely saying you are wrong is a form of disrespect.

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  2. Dave K. on August 27, 2013 at 7:25 AM

    Funny, my wife and I were just discussing these ideas in light of a TED Talk – “Argument: When losing is winning” The gist is that we should approach arguments as a chance to learn rather than war. In that few the real winner is the person who gains insights and changes his/her views accordingly. If you leave the argument unchanged, you gained nothing.

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  3. Howard on August 27, 2013 at 7:55 AM

    Unlike most other topics politics and religion include large quantities of irrationally held tribal reliefs. The more irrational the belief the more emotionally and psychologically defended they become. The more rational the belief the more understood they become.

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  4. Hedgehog on August 27, 2013 at 8:35 AM

    On the internet it is possible to read a comment in a completely different tone to that in which it was written or intended. Less of a problem in face to face interaction. But an internet plus is the ability to take time to think over a point and formulate a response, when in face to face interaction we may find ourselves saying nothing at all (in my case at least), or perhaps saying something we don’t really mean, or without thinking.

    There are those of course, who feel that if you disgree with them that must mean you aren’t listening. Something my daughter took a while to grow out of.

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  5. Mary Bliss on August 27, 2013 at 8:49 AM

    Have you read Stephen Carter’s book “Civility”? It contains a compelling discussion of religious dialogue when beliefs conflict in American Society and the methods people employ in those conversations that destroy civility and how to counteract that destruction.

    As I recall, he attributes much of the incivility to 1) a decrease in our society of a sense of the virtue of sympathy towards people who believe differently and an increase in sense of the value of being frank and expert at making pointed retorts, 2) inclinations to listen in order to counter-attack rather than listening to comprehend, and 3) the increased isolation of individuals in our society (internet instead of face to face, etc.) which fosters a sense of other people being “other” or less real than we are (a bit like the famous Milgram experiment, in this case the authority figure being those who “like” your comments) which in turn makes it easier to act or speak in ways wound.

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  6. hawkgrrrl on August 27, 2013 at 9:49 AM

    I tend to believe like Winston Churchill (who was criticized for his deferential letter to the emperor of Japan): “When you have to kill a man, courtesy costs nothing.” I do question, though, whether the idea that we have gotten less civil is just nostalgic cherry picking. Political opponents in the early days of this country were far less civil than they are now, and in some circles it was acceptable to shoot someone who strayed across your property line (as it still appears to be in a few states). Frontier justice was replaced with more civil discourse. All the internet does is bring to light what people used to say privately to like-minded friends.

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  7. Seth R. on August 27, 2013 at 11:18 AM

    We are becoming less civil and less understanding due to the Internet, I think.

    I believe this is largely due to the ideological balkanization that the Internet encourages among the population.

    Back in the 1980s and 1990s, we all got our information from 3 or 4 major TV news sources, several nationwide newspapers, and a smattering of major news magazines. They were all national in scope, and sought to compete for the widest national audience possible, and we all tuned in for our information from them.

    Now, there were inevitable gripes about media bias and accusations of this news source or that news source being the lapdog of whatever political interest. But we all tuned in anyway. We all were watching the same news stories.

    We all disagreed vehemently on the news stories, but we were all debating the same stories. There was unity in the national dialogue – even if disagreements were intense.

    The Internet ruined that.

    It bankrupted the newspapers, and drove the network news stations to the brink. The Internet had a different marketing strategy.

    Instead of trying to appeal to a broad national audience and gain as many veiwers as possible from across the nation – Internet news providers would SPECIALIZE. They would target small hyper-minority factions within the population and give them exactly what they wanted. Fox News is sort of an example of the trend in group targeting, but even they are broader and more national than what I’m talking about.

    As a result, as the first decade of the 21st century played out, people stopped going to the centralized national news sources, and instead tuned in only to the Internet news sources, bloggers, news feeds, and Facebook groups that supported their viewpoint. People naturally self-selected out of hearing contrary viewpoints, or even moderate middle-of-the-road viewpoints.

    My Facebook wall is covered with linked news stories from my conservative relatives from obscure news sources I’ve never heard of in my entire life talking about how herbal remedies are life-saving and conventional medicine is a vast government conspiracy. Don’t even get me started on all the crap I had to look at on my wall during the gun control craze a few months ago.

    But the point is – these sources were obscure, hyper-focused, and unapologetically biased, while pandering to all the suspicions and mob impulses of their readership. Not even a hint of a counter-viewpoint in sight. And my relatives and friends self-select themselves into these paranoid corners of the Internet.

    It’s not even that we disagree on the issues anymore. There ARE no common issues anymore. Everyone is pissed off, I tell you. And they are all pissed off about subjects that the neighbors two doors down have never even heard of before. There are possibly people reading this very blog post who get most of their daily news from By Common Consent’s sidebar.

    People have called this an “information age.” I think that is completely wrong. We don’t live in an information age – we live in an age of a-contextualized information, echo chambers, and ideological islands.

    Under such conditions, soundbites, and conspiracy theories abound. The sheer scope of tinfoil hattery that goes on over at RfM for example is enough to make you lose faith in humanity entirely.

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  8. Oliver on August 27, 2013 at 11:25 AM

    This is why I try to maintain the attitude that I am wrong concerning just about everything. I think this is how someone 500 years in the future would likely assess my thoughts and opinions. I think maintaining doubt is necessary to maintain the humility needed to continue learning. There is no one more closed to discussion and thought than someone who is convinced that they already know all that there is to know.

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  9. Howard on August 27, 2013 at 11:38 AM

    People have called this an “information age.” I think that is completely wrong. We don’t live in an information age – we live in an age of a-contextualized information, echo chambers, and ideological islands. The three hour block must be quite a relief for you!

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  10. Seth R. on August 27, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    It’s not a bad idea Oliver. But it doesn’t seem to get a lot of likes on Facebook, alas.

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  11. Seth R. on August 27, 2013 at 11:46 AM

    Actually, the three hour block is full of diverse people from a variety of economic circumstances who I would never choose to associate with on my own Howard.

    My assigned wards have always been incredible sources of alternative viewpoints, different life experiences, and completely different skill sets and experiences that i would get nowhere else in society.

    So yes – they are quite the relief to me. A breath of fresh air after the argumentative staleness of online debate forums.

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  12. Tom Kimball on August 27, 2013 at 11:52 AM

    “but has come out on the believing end”

    So, most stage theorists say that it takes at least a decade to process a faith crisis. Was this really a faith crisis or was is just a summer of “Oh my heck, Joseph had sex with minors!?!”

    I think I can honestly say I’m just coming out the other end of my faith crisis which started about 1989. (yeah, I’m a little slower than most.)

    Did your friend honestly spend a decade with doubt and came out the other end a believer?

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  13. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 27, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Interesting. One of the biggest problems I have with conspiracy theorists is the people who sacrifice in order to serve. Who knows.

    Maybe they need more lawyers involved.

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  14. hawkgrrrl on August 27, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    Tom, she came out a very different type of believer, one who questions and doubts the party line and is more thoughtful than she was about what she believes. It started as a summer of JS polygamy freak out and there was no going back to a superficial trusting faith after that. But she still loves the church and serves.

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  15. Jeff Spector on August 27, 2013 at 5:13 PM

    I have been fortunate to come out of a faith tradition which prides itself on questions, discussion, debate and disagreement.

    Without it, most of you folks would have no one to blame for Jesus’ death.

    Blind obedience is unhealthy whether it is a religion, something like psychology or even science.

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  16. Roger on August 27, 2013 at 9:55 PM

    Jeff, that second sentence is unworthy of you……

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  17. Jeff Spector on August 28, 2013 at 8:51 AM

    Why would you say that Roger? How are the Jews in the Gospels positioned by most Christians? in a positive light? Who is held up as responsible for Jesus’ death.

    it’s what is taught, is it not?

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  18. Nick Literski on August 28, 2013 at 8:59 AM

    Without [Judaism], most of you folks would have no one to blame for Jesus’ death.

    So, Jeff, you currently align yourself with a faith tradition that vaunts itself ad nauseum as the “victim” of supposed persecution, while simultaneously holding resentment against them for the actual persecution suffered by those of your former faith tradition? Your head must be spinning by now!

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  19. Jeff Spector on August 28, 2013 at 9:19 AM

    Well, Nick, it is true to some extent. I do not ‘hold” resentment, as you have characterized it. I have tried to help members better understand the conversations that go on in the Gospels between various Jewish groups and the Savior. And I do reject that they are as negative as many have been taught in the past.

    I also reject the persecution complex that both groups have.

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  20. Nick Literski on August 28, 2013 at 9:46 AM

    Yes, Jeff, I’ve seen you give some great explanations of the context behind ecclesiastical/political actions described in the New Testament. I’ve really enjoyed those comments.

    The above comment, though, was just snide. In my experience, most LDS seem to blame individuals for the execution of Jesus, rather than “the Jews.”

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  21. Roger on August 28, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    Jeff, since you ask, I’ll respond. I take vigorous exception to your characterization of “most of you”. I have never believed in or stated anything in my life related to a purported collective guilt in terms of Jesus’ crucifixion. Neither do I believe that we are punished for Adam’s transgression, nor do I believe that anyone inherited Cain’s mark nor Ham’s curse. We won’t even go into BOM ethnography and origins. It is true that I’ve heard a lot of damned fool things, but I don’t subscribe to most of them and don’t impute them to others.

    Hawk– we seem to have unintentionally answered the question you used as a title for the OP.

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  22. Jeff Spector on August 28, 2013 at 10:40 AM


    If you’re not “one of them” then you are not. But, plenty of Christians, LDS included do.


    There is, in fact, much commentary about the role the various sects of the time had on eventual death of Jesus. And you have to admit, the encounters in the Gospels are cast in a bad light. That’s the only point I was making.

    Sorry to offend you.

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  23. Naismith on August 29, 2013 at 6:28 AM

    Brilliant analysis, thanks so much.

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  24. Ziff on August 29, 2013 at 11:31 AM

    Amen, Naismith. I really like this post, Hawkgrrrl, particularly the three types of responses to other arguments when we think we’re right.

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  25. Douglas on September 1, 2013 at 10:39 PM

    HawkChick – though all your points are salient, the simplest reason why civility gets tossed where a discussion of religion or similar beliefs is that there is emotional involvement. It takes humility and a desire to be peaceful (or at least avoid confrontation) to be “objective” when one’s personal convictions are being challenged. It can be a test not only of one’s beliefs but also one’s character. That is, if you’re secure enough in your testimony, you won’t allow what others say to drive you to anger. Easier said than done. Regrettably, I’ve failed in some ways at this, so it’s easy to pontificate, less easy to follow through.

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