Religious Orders

The Discussion Dichotomy

Posted: Friday March 25 2011 @ 5:12am

Religious Order: Religion

I've been meaning to write about the Discussion Dichotomy for awhile, but never got around to it. But, I got hit with it today in a Facebook comment thread and that's prompting me.

Here's what happened: Someone posted a link about white dwarf hypernovae and how they might be responsible for the lack of discernable communications from other civilizations in the universe. Which lead to someone mentioning the movie Contact and how he suspects he's the only person in the world who actually liked it. I assured him I liked it, but that I liked the book better. And he launched into an impassioned critique of the book.

Which is fine, but the response was, well, a lot more than I was expecting from my off-hand admittance of liking the book.

And, to be honest, I only remember liking the book more. I have no idea why anymore. It's just been too many years since I read it.

No big deal, but it reminded me of the cause behind this, which I call the Discussion Dichotomy, because I like alliteration.

Usually, I'm used to see the Discussion Dichotomy happen in discussions between atheists and religious folks. The problem is the term discussion. To atheists, and in the dictionary, discussions are conversations meant to come to conclusions. They're debates, if you will.

But often, when people talk about discussions, they merely mean sharing, or shooting the shit, or just talking about stuff.

And that leads to a lot frustration, especially in the context of religion. Certainly not all the time, but quite often, when religious folks want to discuss religion, what they really want to do is share their beliefs. And they might very well be honestly interested in hearing yours. And that's a valuable thing to do. (After all, how can I dismiss their beliefs without actually learning about them? That's right, I'm always plotting your demise! Always!)

But atheists hear discuss religion and we want to debate its merits. We want to determine whether there's evidence to believe it. (Which, of course, there isn't, because there isn't a God.) And this leads to frustration from both parties. We atheists can't figure out why the religious folks are so unwilling to actually defend their beliefs and why they get offended at our efforts. Meanwhile, the religious folks can't figure out why we're such argumentative cusses.

Now, it's tempting to just say Well, the atheists are correct that discussions are debates because the dictionary says so. Except that dictionaries reflect societal usage, they don't define it. And there's such a thing as being a pedantic ass. (I know. I often am one.)

In a colloquial context, I'm happy to use colloquial definitions. And, if someone wants to discuss something with me and I suspect they desire a sharing experience, I'll ask them for clarification. There's value in sharing. There isn't much value in trying to debate someone who really isn't interested in debating.

So, to link this back to the beginning of the post, I was just engaging in sharing, but the other guy was in debate mode. So he took my comment as an invitation to debate, whereas I was just sharing remembrances. Luckily, the quality of Carl Sagan's fictional writing skills isn't something as important to others as religion often is, so the conversation moved on.

But I think it's a wise thing to consider, the next time you're asked to have a discussion, whether the other person is looking for a debate or just wants to share.

(As a final note, none of this should be construed as an excuse for those who enter into debates, then punk out when they start losing.)

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