So on Monday at work we broke the first rule of politeness: never discuss politics or religion.
Picture of Editorial from New Scientist no 2967
The reason we started the conversation is simple. A colleague, who I’ve known all my life but don’t actually know that well, has inherited various bibles and another colleague expressed an interest in seeing them. He brought them in to work, we discussed them. One of the bible’s was the new translation used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the other was the bible plus book of Mormon used by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, generally known as the Mormons, although I understand they prefer the term LDS.
While I knew the people I work with had strong opinions on the subject of religion I didn’t realise how touchy some of them could be. It wasn’t the atheists either, who politely pointed out that they felt the books were ‘fairy stories for grown ups’ but were still happy to discuss the different points of perspective and were more sensitive to the points of politeness. Despite the reputation of committed atheists – based on the behaviour of famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins – of being rude and mocking, I found that the really bad mannered were the Christian staff members.
I had an opinion, based on my upbringing, education and tendency to read anything that interests me, that the biblical stories are allegorical and metaphorical, that they were a way of passing on histories, laws and social norms associated with a specific culture, community and time. This was shouted down and I was called an atheist because I didn’t believe in their god. I challenged that, because although originally the word ‘atheist’ was used to describe a person who didn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian deity, it now refers to a person who denies the existence of the divine in any form. I am not, therefore an atheist, I do have religious beliefs. Apparently my polytheism was an excuse to further insult me.
It gets better though. The person who called me an atheist took exception to me because I found her distinction between the new translation bible as ‘Truth’ and the Mormon bible as ‘made up stories’ hypocritical. I admit I laughed, not in mockery of her beliefs but because, from my perspective, she couldn’t see the irony in her statement. I later apologized, because it was unnecessarily impolite.
I really shouldn’t have bothered though, since she continued to belittle my beliefs because I didn’t agree with the simple monotheist/atheist dichotomy. I gave up trying to present my beliefs and stuck with science and history in answering questions.
Another colleague is a Jehovah’s Witness; he was quiet much of the time and was interested in both books. Later in the day he did answer someone’s questions. I, being me, suggested non-religious answers based on my allegory hypothesis.
This was the point at which I bashed my head against a stainless steel fridge door, repeatedly because I had to explain, again, what allegory means.
I also asked what I thought was a perfectly reasonable question to determine to what extent our resident Jehovah’s Witness believed in the literal interpretation of the bible. I’d have liked to have asked more questions but the hassle wasn’t worth it. I might ask them next week, just because I’m curious.
Apparently I was mocking his beliefs because I held a different opinion.
No, really I wasn’t. Holding a different opinion doesn’t equate with criticism or persecution. Asking questions to establish the beliefs and opinions of others isn’t an implied insult.
What is insulting is refusing to listen when a different perspective is offered, if it’s relevant to the subject, and shouting down anyone who disagrees with you.
All in all it was an interesting day, and the next morning we all agreed that discussions about religion would be shelved for a while.
There is a point to me relating this adventure. It made me think about a few things, one of which was the social ‘rules’ we’re taught, the politenesses we’re supposed to observe. The polite conventions we use as social rules, to navigate workplaces and other public spheres, as opposed to private spaces, appear to me to work to limit unnecessary conflict.
The ‘no discussion of politics or religion’ rule is a fine example of this. In the situation I found myself in on Monday there was a good chance that a real quarrel could have started, a state of affairs that could have caused a toxic environment. It didn’t because of the characters of the people involved. I’m introverted so I struggled to get my point across to the group and so gave up. I found it easier to talk to individuals, my old acquaintance and our supervisor specifically. My colleagues are, by and large, non-confrontational even though they have strong feelings about religion, and most hold the opinion that everyone has different opinions and that’s just fine. Basically, they’re nice.
But what if? What if, instead of our atheists quietly and calmly stating their opinion they’d been obnoxious? What if I were more confident addressing groups, what if, instead of laughing to myself at what I perceived to be ironic I’d called my colleague a hypocrite? What if our Christians had been felt bullied and become bullish about it? Basically, what if even one of us didn’t adhere to other social conventions about polite behaviour, since we’d already stepped over one boundary? What if we weren’t all so nice?
I love a good debate but participants have to believe that everyone will abide by the conventions of polite behaviour. This allows debates to be a civilised exchange of views that develops greater understanding, rather than a free for all shouting match (otherwise known as parliament).
Not all social conventions have positive consequences, because they foster prejudice against those who break them, but in the case of politeness I think there’s something to be said for not rejecting this particular convention.
I’m going to get down off my soap box now, after saying one final thing: be pleasant to each other.