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In Theory: Can believers and nonbelievers find common ground?

May 03, 2013

Can believers and nonbelievers connect? Is there a common ground they can agree on?

Writing in the New York Times, T. M. Luhrmann thinks there may be, but admits it's going to be difficult. The author of "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God," about how evangelicals develop the skills to speak to God and how it can change their minds, says that there's a line in the sand between those with faith and those without, a line that cannot be crossed because of the fundamental differences in beliefs and outlook. She tells of being at a dinner party and telling a friend about her work with evangelicals. Her friend's response was, "You talk to those people?" Luhrmann says this "in-your-face" attitude is rooted in an anthropological phenomenon called "schismogenesis," where a move by one side makes the other side dig its heels in further, and vice-versa. Evangelicals believe those without religion are dangerous to their beliefs and rights, and those without religion believe evangelicals are dangerous to their beliefs and rights. "Perhaps there is hope," Luhrmann says, "... [issues such as] same-sex marriage and abortion should not be approached by drawing a line in the sand and demonizing everyone on the other side." She says a conversation is needed to at least keep moving forward and not end up with separate camps that are permanently in conflict.

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Q: What do you think?

I begin by protesting the division of humanity into "believers and non-believers." There's neither such as a thing as one who always believes everything nor one who never believes anything.

Everyone believes in something, at least some of the time — if not in God, then in some other form of transcendent truth or ultimacy; in love, or art, or justice, or patriotism or the goodness of humanity. Everyone believes in something.

And no one believes in it perfectly. The staunchest of believers in any principle or religion is subject to doubts and crises and tenets called into question, and to just plain changing their mind. Belief is a dynamic, elusive, maddening wisp of a thing, which loves nothing better than to slip like quicksilver out of our grasp and pop up someplace new.

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