Talking About Religion

A Non-Christian’s Reflection on Christian Articles

As all Olin community members are invited to submit articles for publication in Frankly Speaking, the content of its articles tends to reflect the passions of the Olin community. Thus, it should be no surprise that Frankly Speaking has published several articles reflecting the religious and spiritual beliefs of our Christian community (e.g., Things Not-So-Well Known, Article 2, Sarah Strohkorb, October 2013; Foundations of World View, Jeff Hart, April 2013). Herein is a reflection on my mixed reactions to such articles as a non-Christian member of our community.

Jeff’s article expresses a deep sense of love for the world as it exists now, and as it could be if we accept forgiveness for our past mistakes, our imperfections, and try our best to follow in the footsteps of a moral standard incarnate. Sarah’s article shares some of the thoughts of her greatest teacher, inviting others to ponder such thoughts themselves, seeking answers to their own questions. I thank Jeff and Sarah for sharing something of such great personal importance. It would be hypocritical of me to do otherwise—I have submitted such an article to Frankly Speaking in the past (Invest Yourself in the Earth, Jared Kirschner, February 2013). The author’s intent behind each of these messages is certainly positive, but this intent is not always perceived by non-Christian members of the audience.

When a difference of thought arises on topics which are not matters of opinion, in order for what I think to be wholly correct, what the other person thinks cannot be wholly correct. (And I doubt that many people would label their religious and spiritual beliefs as “matters of opinion”.) For most topics, this isn’t an issue—I have no deep, personal attachment to my understanding of statistics (sorry, Allen!) or the physics of various classes of transistors (sorry, Brad!). But for some of us, our core identity is inseparable from our beliefs regarding religion and spirituality. These beliefs shape so many aspects of our lives—a point well-articulated in Jeff’s Foundations of World View articles. Thus, we have a significant stake in maintaining the correctness of our own beliefs.

There are times when I actively engage in opening my own beliefs to questioning and evaluation, such as when I consult sacred texts, listen to sermons, or willingly discuss religious or spiritual concepts with others. But, in the event of unsolicited encounters with a broadcast of differing religious and spiritual beliefs, there are two options: (1) both sides acknowledge that both beliefs can be wholly “correct”, or (2) at least one side feels, or is perceived by the other side to feel, that in order for their own beliefs to be wholly “correct”, the other’s beliefs cannot be wholly “correct.” My personal experiences as a non-Christian in a predominantly Christian society have biased me to default to option #2—if the broadcaster is casting his or her own beliefs as “correct,” the implication is that mine must be “incorrect.” With option #2, the broadcast message can be perceived as a threat—a declaration of dissent against the foundations of my identity in the guise of persuasion—even if the encounter is a well-intentioned article in a school newspaper. Unfortunately, anger is often the first line of defense.

As Sarah’s article posits, it is quite possible that I would derive personal value from a thorough examination of Jesus’ teachings. However, there are countless other sources of religious and spiritual thought for which I can make identical claims, and which can—perhaps more applicably—be labeled as “not-so-well-known” within our community. I question whether the author would be receptive to such a claim regarding a non-Christian source. While I do appreciate some of the concepts conveyed by Matthew 5:43-48 as transcribed in the article, I do not appreciate the contained question “Do not even pagans do that?”, which ascribes a moral inferiority to pagans and suggests that such a claim from a “pagan” source would not be welcome. While the article can be interpreted as a neutral mention that a study of Jesus’ teachings might benefit my own religious and spiritual learning, it can also be interpreted as a claim that Jesus’ teachings are superior to my current sources of choice.

Jeff’s article explicitly frames the discussion as a safe space in which differences in beliefs can be mutually-respected—expressing interest in the world views of readers while offering his own. Unfortunately, this framing faces limitations due to its medium of communication. Despite an explicit call for responses in future Frankly Speaking publications, none were given. I personally did not feel comfortable expressing my own worldview in a public, written response, nor in a private audience with Jeff because I had no established relationship with him at the time. Through no fault of the author, the proposed reciprocal exchange of ideas felt, in reality, more like participating in a debate without having a chance to speak. The author claims rational, scientific, historical, and philosophic, and pragmatic evidence in support of the Christian worldview—can we both make such claims in support of our differing worldviews without devolving into a zero-sum game? I certainly found it difficult to do so in the context of a newspaper article, despite Jeff’s neutral, welcoming tone.

My conclusion from the introspective process of writing this article is that general-purpose newspaper articles are not well suited to fostering a constructive exchange of religious and spiritual ideas. Even with great care exercised by the author, those with differing beliefs may approach the author’s broadcast as an opening move in a zero-sum game which the audience is coerced into playing. To my Christian kin, please understand why non-Christians might react negatively towards your message, even if you have the best of intentions. To my non-Christian kin, please understand that not every offering of a Christian perspective is intended as an attack on your differing perspective. I hope that, as a community, we can understand and empathize with those who have differences from us, religious or otherwise.

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