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Making Sense of Diversity:
A Series of Friday Noon Conversations at Bryn Mawr College

April 14, 2006

Anne Dalke, Wil Franklin, Paul Grobstein and Orah Minder

Religious Perspectives and the Liberal Arts Environment

"The Perils and Potentials of 'I Believe'...."


Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged
in the On-Line Forum

Anne introduced the discussion by observing that, "for the Christians among us, today is Good Friday. We are anticipating Easter Sunday on which, we believe, Christ was resurrected from the dead." On the Bryn Mawr campus, today concluded a week-long look @ "Religion on Campus," during which a range of events--lunches, evening panels, religious services, and interactive workshops--were aimed @ highlighting the diversity of faith @ Bryn Mawr. In that context, she, Paul, Wil and Orah thought it might be useful to think out loud w/ the participants about the role of belief @ a liberal arts college: when is it a a good starting point for a discussion? when is it a conversation stopper?

In 1999, in a book called Philosophy and Social Hope, Richard Rorty published an essay called "Religion as Conversation-Stopper," in which he argued that taking a position on religious grounds stopped productive public conversation, because the source of authority was not negotiable, not debatable or testable in any public forum. For folks like Anne, who understand religion as a process of continually doubting and testing what one believes, what Quakers call a search for continuing revelation, Rorty's understanding of religion was a little limited. Her hope for today was that we would all be talking together about something a little more complicated, about "The Perils and Potentials of 'I Believe....". Belief can be a useful starting point for exploration, but a destructive trap as an ending point, if it is used as basis for altering observations to bring them into line with one's belief; for neglecting observations that are inconsistent with one's belief; for failing to to seek out new observations that might challenge one's belief; or for not taking seriously the potential significance of beliefs different from one's own.

Paul, Wil and Orah each then told a short story about a "time when belief started or stopped a conversation." Paul began with reflections about what one "does w/ the concept of belief in an intellectual community, when one is working w/ people who may believe otherwise." In that context, he found himself resisting any attempt to codify belief, wanting to "pair it w/ a healthy humility." Paul recalled a 2003 Summer Institute session w/ K-12 teachers (many with strong religious backgrounds) on how biological systems work. "How could I discuss evolution w/ teachers resistent to that notion?" He developed a lesson plan which emphasized evolution not as a "belief" of scientists, but rather as "a story, a way of making sense of observations." The class went very well. Proud of what had happened, Paul went home and told his daughter Rachel about the class. Her reply: "Daddy, that was dishonest. You believe in evolution." But he doesn't "believe" in any story, and he doesn't tell stories in order to get others to believe in them. Rather, he makes them up (out of available observations) and tells them to others, with an open invitation to use them as they see fit. "To believe in a story is to end the ongoing process of discovery, to stop 'getting it less wrong.' I would rather go on changing, evolving, and emerging. The liberal arts are not about getting people to believe; they are about sharing stories. My job as a teacher is to figure out what story is most useful @ a given point, and why. It is to help my students get better @ telling useful stories themselves." From Paul's perspective, "sharing beliefs can be a good starting point for conversation, as long as no one tries to get others to have the same beliefs, and is not trying to protect his own beliefs against the impact of other people. That's what I believe."

Wil followed with his own "cautionary tale of an 'I believe' trap," along with some reflections on why it happened, and how better he/we might learn better to communicate w/ people of different beliefs. He told his story as a "plea for help: how can we join in conversations that don't end up w/ two people on different sides of a wall?" Wil confessed that, after the 2004 presidential election, he entered into a conversation w/ a family member (who had voted differently) with a "desire to convert." He shared so much (in terms of daily experiences and lifestyle choices) with this family member; he wanted to understand what her thinking was, and share his with her. But her early "open" replies to his e-mails became increasingly brief, then stopped. Although he is still (largely out of inertia) "sending her interesting stuff," they no longer talk. "And that's the problem: the person I wanted to talk w/ more, I now don't talk w/ @ all." The reason? "I wasn't so careful about the conversion part. I really wanted to share, with someone with whom I shared many goals in common. But that's not how it came across. I was encouraging someone to believe my way." Wil's offering to our conversation was this: "as soon as you say 'I believe,' you draw a circle--that others don't want to be included in." Are we all going to stay "comfy" in the same circle, not moving forward, or out, to engage with those who see the world differently from ourselves? How to preach to someone outside your choir? How do we enter these conversations w/out putting up walls? It's desirable, and inevitable, that there will be boundaries. But how can we be less defensive, and get others to be less so? How do we keep the conversation going?

Orah then spoke of her understanding of the relation between conversion and belief. She asked why others think belief is so integral to religious life. She herself grew up in a religious family, and went to Jewish day school, but she never questioned what she believed, and was not accustomed to talking about it. Assigned to tell story, today, about "what I believe," she decided that she "doesn't believe in anything." She herself "believes in the possibility that there is a God." She thinks belief is dangerous when it sets up blinders, "when people can only see one thing," and no peripherals. Her vision isn't stuck on what she believes. She can allow other people to believe other things.

What is the nature of belief? What makes a belief religious? What might it mean to "believe in a possibility"? Physicists understand the shape of electrons as "just the possibility of what is"; literary critics "believe in the possibility of fictional characters"; students are sent to religious school to learn stories, "not truth." But those stories are possibilities; they "do things." Is "belief in possibility" the same as "suspension of disbelief," remaining open to whatever possibilities arise? "As soon as I say, 'I believe,' nothing else is possible." But in a state of disbelief, there is no need to convert anybody. "At my best, I live in a state of suspended disbelief."

You can keep the dialogue more open, if you ask people what they believe. But if you approach their belief out of a motivation to change it (as opposed to thinking of it as something useful to yourself) your method becomes the expression of a political agenda. Ask yourself: how hard would it be for you to change your belief to theirs? Trying to convert each other is "just an intellectual debate." Instead, we might try to explain--and to understand. Think "education and growth, not changing the other person's mind." "People just get unreasonable about politics." Can we be more honest about what we want to learn, and our own prejudices? Can we shift the conversation, to say, "You have no reason to trust me, but you need to," to be honest about the mistrust?

"A really different thought" was then offered: "belief can take you to a kind of understanding, which suspension of belief cannot." Is it possible to take that step, that "leap of faith," w/ the motivation of understanding? Is such a belief will-able, or do you actually have to believe? Conversion presumes a right and wrong, that one's own way is completely correct, and if others don't believe it, they are wrong. Conversion is a "whole body thing." Belief is a "whole person endeavor." No one can ever take away your experiences--but you can go learn about everything else.

There are two kinds of belief: the "blind kind," that refuses to question. "In Nepal, eating cow is bad. No reason. Blind belief. And that kind of blind belief is hard to change." Another kind of belief results from using questioning to arrive at a valid conclusion; it involves coming to believe in something because you have thought about it, have arrived at a "new standard that one does not want to re-think."

How would you start conversations w/out having beliefs? After identifying "individual wants and desires," do we want a bigger picture? To "improve our belief," based on more facts and reasoning? Are we willing to understand better? How to distinguish between the intention to explain, and the desire to convert? Between trying to understand, and trying to argue someone, logically, out of their position, using counterexamples? We agreed that the distinction between naive and considered belief was useful: it's the difference between "blind belief" and the position that, having considered something, and come to a belief, one might not want to re-think it. The key issue has to do with this second category, of considered beliefs. Do we want to keep on thinking about them, or not? If not, then we're going to have trouble talking to people w/ different beliefs. Unless you can see something of use to you, in a belief different from your own, there's "no way around" a person determined not to change her belief. "It isn't going to be conversation."

It was suggested that a big part of the stories we tell is what community they make us a part of. "It is a really big wide world. "Belief" identifies a set of stories, seasons, and ceremonies--a shared way to deal w/ the world. It creates a community. So of course (the threat of) conversion is scary! But can't communities stand side by side? Can't civilization break into sections? Must we believe that our own community's understanding of the world has to be everyone's? If your religion takes a particular stand on sexuality, must you believe that everyone has to take the same stand? We had some debate about whether "belief is necessarily individual"; we share beliefs with other individuals. And yet, within any given group, there will be a variety of beliefs (think: pro-choice Catholics).There was skepticism that "anything is entirely internally generated. We are influenced beings"-- through parents, peers, etc.

A participant told a story about a "belief that changed yesterday, in a way that bothered and scared me: I learned that Iran will not have the capacity, for another 10 years, to put together a bomb. That time frame changed my mind about the need for immediate intervention." Perhaps we all need to take time, to be more diplomatic. Information can change our view. The more information we have, the more choices are available to us. And how strongly we believe--or even our inclination toward a certain belief--influences and limits how much we are open to new information.

It comes down to faith. "I like the idea of living side-by-side, w/ different beliefs." The goal shouldn't be to convert, but to understand, both in religion and politics. If each candidate wanted the best for the country, we could judge them as having different means for the same goals. We should be able to appreciate each other. The Koran says, "There is no coercion in matters of religion."Judaism also prohibits conversion. Instead of trying to convert others, just try to understand them, to appreciate them for their different beliefs.

A "devil's advocate" (sic) then asked some questions about the significance of belief for pulling together community. Even if a community does not not have evangelism as an avowed goal, the activity of defining a community--as made up of members who are different from those in other groups, and like those in their own--potentially puts it at odds with those other groups, and with other aims that are not about community-building. Could we conceive of an effective community in which everyone benefits from their differences (as opposed to taking comfort in their similarities)? The challenge here would be see an advantage in deliberately seeking out ideas different from one's own. This is called Bryn Mawr College.

In this dialogue-based community of ours, however, there seem to be one particular set of rules governing how we talk about faith. Seen as individual and personal, faith is protected from the sorts of critique associated with other parts of our lives. All different types of belief are freely discussed, until we arrive @ the matter of religious faith--and then the conversation stops. Somehow, we seem to feel that it's not respectful to push others in the same way, around questions of religion. "Different laws govern that, and it stops the dialogue."

"I believe" is the name of the logic underlying the academic system. Not being allowed to write it in paper is a index to an invisible belief system. Although "I believe" can not be used as evidence for a conclusion in an academic paper, students can certainly begin a paper with "I believe," if that claim is the starting point for a discussion, and is supported with relevant observations. We are all acculturated to stay away from personal beliefs. Are we afraid of getting "too close to somebody"? Mightn't we be better off if we encouraged a sharing of personal beliefs, a handling of them, as we do other things? It's an important and legitimate fear, of stepping too close to somebody. But why do we think that religion is "too dangerous to talk about"? Our national belief system, democracy, is not viewed in that way. Why categorize--and treat--religion differently? Democracy is an idea we can put into practice. How hard can that be, in a liberal arts community?

This was the last of the Friday afternoon diversity discussions for the 2005-2006 academic year. Conversation is invited to continue on-line. Contact Vanessa Christman with suggestions for topics and presenters for fall discussions.

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