It’s The Way You Tell ‘em
He was first labelled as a fundamentalist by a teacher, “because I was arguing that Christians were right and everybody else was wrong.” He wasn’t open to questioning his beliefs – in fact, it had simply never occurred to him that they needed questioning. “As far as I could see, the Bible was true, and the Bible said certain things about ethics and religion and morality, things that meant that everyone who didn’t believe them was wrong, and almost certainly going to hell… So when faced with people who did not share this perspective…it was mainly my job to tell them that they were wrong and that I was right.”
What he didn’t mention, because it rather went without saying, is that fundamentalists aren’t usually particularly nice. The fact that Andrew is now very nice is clear evidence that he has learned to be less dogmatic about his beliefs, and to question not only what he says, but the way he says it - as readers of this blog will be aware.
I was reminded of how important that is just the other week. I was caught between two friends – let’s call them John and Paul – who were having a teeny dispute. Nothing ugly, but I had been appealed to for adjudication. They both had valid points to make, and had reached an impasse. I told them I’d have to take some time to think about it, to get my own head clear, and would get back to them. In the mean time I asked a mutual friend, George, for advice.
We didn’t really get very far, to be honest, though as a parting shot, George told me “I tend to side with John in these things because he has a stronger commitment to getting down to the truth.” I realised that my instinctive reaction was to side with Paul, and after analysing why for a moment, realised it is because I have a stronger natural friendship with him. Don’t get me wrong, neither of us think Paul is likely to lie or compromise the truth in a given situation, it was just interesting to note the different things George and I valued. He wanted to side with the person who was most likely to be right; I wanted to support the person I most liked.
That’s an important impulse to remember as we engage in debate with friends - or through blogs and social media. It is important to be sure of the truth of what we are saying but, as Andrew learned, it is far better to be willing to examine our firmly held beliefs and approach such conversations with humility. There are very few people who are won over solely by the strength of an argument, regardless of its delivery, and even those who agree with you can be turned off by an aggressive, fundamentalist style of argument (as is beginning to happen to Richard Dawkins).
Bananarama told us in the ’80s “It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. That’s what gets results.” They were half right. What you say is vitally important – there’s no point winning people over to a hope that is unfounded or a comforting lie – but you’ll find it challenging to win them over to anything if you approach it with uncompromising arrogance. As we are told in Proverbs, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall… [But] gracious words promote instruction.”