Collin Boots | Reframing religious dialogue


The Devil's Advocate | The diversity of beliefs at Penn is wasted if we simply pretend to agree all the time


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Collin Boots 

The Devil’s Advocate

Photo by Collin Boots


Penn’s promoters and advertisers loudly trumpet our diversity as a campus. The University’s website has an entire subdomain dedicated to the subject.

This is a worthy cause, but it only amplifies my disappointment with how our religious diversity is squandered by the current interfaith culture at Penn.

Penn is dominated by a form of interfaith event I will call a “summit.” Like their diplomatic namesakes, summits are structured events where various parties put aside their differences in hopes of achieving a common goal. Summits often overflow with phrases such as “coexist” and “can’t we all just get along?”

While generally creating a tepid yet strangely pleasant atmosphere, any serious disagreement or dispute between faiths is consciously suppressed in favor of emphasizing the tenuous similarities between religions.

Do not misunderstand me: Summits have valuable roles to play. Programs in Religion, Interfaith and Spirituality Matters, Penn’s interfaith umbrella group, and CHORDS often do great community service work and are experts at bringing disparate groups together for a common purpose.

My concern is rather that they seem to have a monopoly on the interfaith culture at Penn. Serious issues of religious division such as abortion, sexuality, marriage equality and women’s health are rarely topics of discussion in a culture that avoids confrontation or conflict at seemingly any cost.

On the scattered occasions when such difficult questions are posed to an interfaith panel, panelists rarely challenge each other’s assumptions or positions. Instead, they voice their own opinions in the most muted and least potentially contentious form feasible and conclude with a hearty “agree to disagree.”

The milieu such discussions create seems to be in conflict with academic ideals; beliefs should not be held out of reach of honest inquiry and skepticism.

It may seem that the perfect antidote to this condition is to organize more formal debates around campus. However, this is also the wrong approach.

I find the debate format to be more of a performance art than an intellectual tool. Debates intentionally force speakers to alternatively voice their own opinions and refute their opponents. Admitting they are wrong on any point is seen as a failure rather than intellectual honesty.

As an extreme example, take tomorrow’s debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and creationist Ken Ham, the founder and CEO of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. The glorified theme park features vegetarian velociraptors, trained triceratops with saddles and dinosaurs surviving a global flood by hitching a ride on Noah’s Ark. Ham believes the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, an egregious error equivalent to downscaling the distance between New York and Los Angeles to under three meters.

Yet Ham still stands a very strong chance of “winning” the debate, because he has the distinct advantage of not being bound by facts. A debate puts two viewpoints on even footing, regardless of merit.

Somewhere between the extremes of summits and debates must lay a compromise. Allow me to suggest a few guidelines for reaching it:

1. Avoid debates, aim for dialogue. By asking questions instead of asserting beliefs, both parties will get closer to understanding.

2. When approaching a dialogue, your primary goal should be to change your own mind, not your neighbor’s. Go into the discussion hoping to have your mind changed in some way. Even if you only learn how to better defend the beliefs you came in with, you have grown intellectually and the dialogue has achieved its purpose.

3. All people should be welcome and all beliefs open to question. However, not all beliefs or questions need be considered germane. Pick a specific and focused discussion topic, and work hard to stick with it. Dialogue requires a delicate balance and can very easily devolve into debate.

Some campus organizations like Penn Secular Society, The Veritas Forum and the Christian Association are already beginning to provide spaces for this kind of dialogue through panel discussions and coffee chats. I hope that in the future more interfaith groups will expand their horizons with similar initiatives.

Penn’s religious diversity is incredible, so why squander it by glossing over the beliefs that make us unique?

Collin Boots is a master’s student studying robotics from Redwood Falls, Minn. Email him at cboots@seas.upenn.edu or follow him @LotofTinyRobots.

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