Last week I gave a public speech in which I argued for a greater public understanding and discussion of the role that religion plays in providing social capital on which society relies. After the presentation, I had a short conversation with an audience member which I've been since replayed in my mind several times. She kindly approached me, made a few complimentary remarks, and concluded, "You make a good point, but how do we protect ourselves against fringe religion?"
I wasn't quite sure what she meant, wondering if by "fringe" she had in mind extraterrestrial Raelism, only the most fundamentalist expressions of religion, or orthodoxy of the more mainstream variety. So I asked her directly. "What do you consider fringe?"
Her quick retort caught me off-guard. "Anyone who believes in the literal interpretation of scripture over reason is fringe." This was followed by a stream-of-consciousness screed blaming religion for every incident of racism, misogyny, and social ill present in the world. There were others wanting to speak with me and not seeing the point of continued conversation in this setting, I offered a short polite rebuttal and excused myself from the conversation.
Now lest I be misunderstood, I acknowledge there are expressions of religion in public life that have contributed to social ill. The dividing line between good and evil in the world does not run between those who are religious and those who are not, neither between those who share my religious convictions and others. My theology teaches me that the line between good and evil runs through the human heart, including my own, which frames our social problems very differently than she did.
But my point here is not theological. Nor is it numerical, although her use of the term "fringe" would suggest that my questioner thought there are a lot more people like her, who believe in reason alone, than there are those who believe in revelation and reason. If I understand the polling data properly, she is mistaken. But again, that's beside the point. I replay my inadequate answer, realizing how difficult it is to engage in meaningful conversation when proceeding from such a radically different worldview paradigm.
The education and experience provided to many today, in spite of professing a multicultural sensitivity and tolerance to people from different backgrounds, has failed to provide the tools to really engage the other. The implicit presupposition of my questioner was that anyone with a belief system—anyone accepting what cannot be solely explained by reason, such as (to use my own Christian examples) that there is a real God who is both one and three, that there was a real person named Jesus born to a virgin, or that there is life after death—is by definition irrational and "fringe." For her, reason was truth and there was no truth apart from reason.
She didn't mean to be dismissive of me. In fact, she made the effort to tell me how she appreciated the point she thought I was making. What she heard me say was that people of faith do nice things to other people, help the poor, create beautiful works of art, and behave ethically. These are good for society. What she did not hear was my central point that there was a connection between these behaviours and a belief system. I was arguing that faith institutions are incubators of social virtue and as such, contributors to public life. She admired the virtues but did not even hear my point about their source. She seemingly did not realize that my presumptions included an understanding of life featuring both reason and revelation. Or perhaps she did hear that. Was her "agreement" with my point only a polite opening, masking contempt for what I was saying? Our conversation was too short to tell.
I've replayed our two-minute exchange over the past few days, wondering several times how I might have better responded. It is the absence of a common framework that make words mean different things to different people. Those who overheard our conversation heard us both speak English, but would've had a hard time imagining how differently our brains were processing the words we were using.
The list of words we understand differently is probably a lot longer than we think. And as I learned last week, it also includes the word "fringe."