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Civility and Rhetoric

Civility, rhetoric, dialogue, common ground

Arthur Martine on True Politeness

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Politeness has been defined as an “artificial good-nature;” but it would be better said that good-nature is natural politeness. It inspires us with an unremitting attention, both to please others and to avoid giving them offense. Its code is a ceremonial, agreed upon and established among mankind, to give each other external testimonies of friendship or respect. Politeness and etiquette form a sort of supplement to the law, which enables society to protect itself against offenses which the law cannot touch. For instance, the law cannot punish a man for habitually staring at people in an insolent and annoying manner, but etiquette can banish such an offender from the circles of good society, and fix upon him the brand of vulgarity. Etiquette consists in certain forms, ceremonies, and rules which the principle of politeness establishes and enforces for the regulation of the manners of men and women in their intercourse with each other.

I Beg to Differ

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How do we communicate with people who disagree with us? In today’s polarized world, friends and strangers clash with each other over issues large and small. Coworkers have conflicts in the office. Married couples fight over finances. And online commenters demonize one another’s political and religious perspectives. Is there any hope for restoring civil discourse? Communications expert Tim Muehlhoff provides a strategy for having difficult conversations, helping us move from contentious debate to constructive dialogue. By acknowledging and entering into the other person’s story, we are more likely to understand where they’re coming from and to cultivate common ground. Insights from Scripture and communication theory provide practical ways to manage disagreements and resolve conflicts. We can disagree without being disagreeable. And we can even help another see different points of view and learn from one another. Find out how.

Evan C. Rosa on Achieving Disagreement

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“Achieving disagreement.” That’s a curious phrase. Is disagreement really something to achieve? It’s intriguing because it implies you can’t safely assume that all ideological conflict counts as legitimate disagreement. And it’s provocative because it seems to suggest that disagreement is something to seek after, to embrace. We don’t always achieve disagreement. We often fail. When we don’t truly understand the other — if we can’t articulate their view charitably — we fail genuinely to disagree. So what’s the difference between really, actually disagreeing—entering into a shared conversation—as opposed to a competition of monologues?

The Global Charter of Conscience

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The Global Charter of Conscience has been drafted and published by a group of followers of many faiths and none, politicians of many persuasions, academics and NGOs who are committed to a partnership on behalf of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” for people of all faiths and none. ¶ A growing number of academic studies and reports show that “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” is widely neglected and threatened today. A recent Pew Forum report, for instance, says that three quarters of the world’s population live in countries where is a high degree of menace to their faith – sometimes through government repression, sometimes through sectarian violence, and sometimes through the mounting culture wars that we are now seeing in Western countries. ¶ In our global era, it is said that “everyone is now everywhere,” and that “living with our deepest differences” has become a massive global problem, especially when those differences are religious and ideological. This is a huge problem for the future of humankind that must be resolved.

Jacob Merrill Manning on Half Truths

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This work is not undertaken in a controversial or partisan spirit. I am no dogmatist or polemic, though my point of view, to which much patient study has led me, is the supernaturalism of Jesus of Nazareth. It seemed needful to say this at the outset, owing to the acrimonious and denunciatory style in which, for the most part, the questions between Christianity and its assailants have been hitherto debated. The natural presumption, in view of the past, is, that whoever appears on this field has only entered into the strifes of other zealots; that he comes as a warrior thirsting for victims, and in no sense as an inquirer. The terms which this ancient debate has bequeathed to us, and to some of which a certain odium still adheres cannot be now laid aside. They have such a currency, in the language of the day, that no candid person will charge it to bigotry or unfairness, but purely to the necessity of the case, that they continue to be used. It will be seen, in the title which I have chosen for this work, that I regard many forms of infidelity as half truths, at least in their origin. Believing that the human intellect naturally craves truth, I shall not easily be persuaded that any body of doctrines, which has been put forth by earnest thinkers, is unmixed error; nor shall I fail, so far as the nature of my undertaking will permit, to point out the merits of writers whom, as to their main tenets, I may feel bound to condemn. Some of those writers manifest, at times, a calm spirit of inquiry which their critics would do well to emulate. It is not only lawful, but often greatly for our advantage to learn from those with whom we disagree. Truth has not as yet revealed itself wholly to any finite mind; and the remark of Him who was the Truth, about the beam in the eye which sees the mote in a brother’s eye is not altogether inapplicable to those who are defending scriptural doctrine against the assaults of infidelity.

Irreverence

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One of the most trying defects which I find in these — these — what shall I call them? for I will not apply injurious epithets to them, the way they do to us, such violations of courtesy being repugnant to my nature and my dignity. The farthest I can go in that direction is to call them by names of limited reverence — names merely descriptive, never unkind, never offensive, never tainted by harsh feeling. If they would do like this, they would feel better in their hearts. Very well, then — to proceed. One of the most trying defects which I find in these Stratfordolaters, these Shakesperiods, these thugs, these bangalores, these troglodytes, these herumfrodites, these blatherskites, these buccaneers, these bandoleers, is their spirit of irreverence. It is detectable in every utterance of theirs when they are talking about us. I am thankful that in me there is nothing of that spirit. When a thing is sacred to me it is impossible for me to be irreverent toward it. I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people. Am I in the right? I think so. But I ask no one to take my unsupported word; no, look at the dictionary; let the dictionary decide. Here is the definition:

Robert P. George on Friendly Disagreements

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Like my Swarthmore peers, I wanted to be sophisticated and enlightened — and to be regarded by others as sophisticated and enlightened. So a lot of what I believed simply as a matter of tribal loyalty was reinforced by a tendency to adopt views that conformed to the beliefs of what the late Irving Kristol dubbed “the knowledge class” — professors, elite journalists, and the like. With the exception of abortion, which I had thought about a lot, I hadn’t really thought myself into the positions I held. Rather, I had taken the short cut: I was content to believe what I thought sophisticated and enlightened people believed, or at least were supposed to believe. I simply, and rather unselfconsciously, assumed that an approach of that sort would reliably place me on the correct side of the issues. And, of course, it would give me access to a world I wanted to enter more fully — the elite world of important people who really counted and made a difference. If I got the right credentials, beginning with a Swarthmore degree, and held the right views, I could be someone who mattered. It was then, as it is now, a common motivation for students at elite colleges and universities.

The Economist on Heresy

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To most Western ears, the very idea of punishing heresy conjures up a time four or five centuries ago, when Spanish inquisitors terrorised dissenters with the rack and Russian tsars would burn alive whole communities of ultra-traditionalist Old Believers. Most religions began as heresies. Today the concept of “heresy” still means something. Every community built around an idea, a principle or an aim (from fox-hunting enthusiasts to Freudian psychotherapists) will always face hard arguments about where the boundaries of that community lie, and how far the meaning of its founding axioms can be stretched. But one of the hallmarks of a civilised and tolerant society is that arguments within freely constituted groups, religious or otherwise, unfold peacefully. And if those disputes lead to splits and new groups, that too must be a peaceful process, free of violence or coercion.

Classical Rhetoric, Contemporary Science and Modern Civil Discourse

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Pathos or emotion-based appeals are common and often effective in political life, but emotion and cognition are deeply intertwined, and emotion need not detract from, but rather may be a prerequisite for, “reasoned” deliberation. Consistent with this, perhaps we can draw on the force of the emotions underlying our commitment to civil discourse to help create an ethic, culture and set of institutional incentives for civil discourse. These would aim to dramatically reduce purposive or careless deception, falsehood and “misinformation,” exaggerated claims, verbal abuse and intimidation, ad hominem attacks and personal vitriol, while enhancing issue-focused discussion, empathy and mutual respect, as well as willingness to debate in good faith, listen as much as we speak, consider the evidence, explain the reasoning behind our points of view, and remain open to ideas and evidence suggesting that our established opinions could be wrong, so that we can hear and consider seriously the reasons of those with whom we disagree. All of this would be consistent with the necessarily passionate debates, fundamental disagreements, and First Amendment principles that characterize a vibrant representative democracy. Read the full brief.

Pigliucci’s Exhortation to Skeptics, Atheists, and Secularists

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No matter their cause, every group falls short of its aspirations. Amongst skeptics, atheists, and secularists, some less fêted voices like Michael Ruse and Julian Baggini have lamented the rise of a cavalry of imperious and hostile firebrands that have become the face of atheism. More recently, Massimo Pigliucci, a member in good standing of said community, echoes their concerns. He calls upon his cohorts to reject scientism, anti-intellectualism and a number of vogue theories and instead embrace classic epistemic virtues like charity, respect, and civility. Notably, he draws particular attention to the irony that it is the so-called “community of reason” that is so often hostile to the discipline of reason: philosophy.

Sincerity

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It is not easy to speak the truth; it is less easy still to speak the truth in love, that is, to be sincere. For, as I understand them, sincerity and the speaking of the truth in love are almost equivalents. Some men speak the truth and are rude. Others speak the truth and are blunt. Others speak the truth and are frank. The sincere speak the truth not with rudeness, not with bluntness, not in frankness, but in love. There is no sincerity except that which springs at once from a love of truth and from brotherly love. Sincerity does not exist apart from charity. Love of truth untempered by love for man is a harsh mistress, apt to scold and quarrel, effecting less for all her scolding than sincerity effects by a smile. ~ An Excerpt

John F. Kennedy on Our Common Interests

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So, let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all
inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

Abraham’s Children

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Scarcely any country in today’s world can claim to be free of intolerance. Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, Sudan, the Balkans, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and the Caucasus are just some of the areas of intractable conflict apparently inspired or exacerbated by religious differences. Can devoted Jews, Christians, or Muslims remain true to their own fundamental beliefs and practices, yet also find paths toward liberty, tolerance, and respect for those of other faiths? In this vitally important book, fifteen influential practitioners of the Abrahamic religions address religious liberty and tolerance from the perspectives of their own faith traditions. Former president Jimmy Carter, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Indonesia’s first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, and the other writers draw on their personal experiences and on the sacred writings that are central in their own religious lives. Rather than relying on “pure reason,” as secularists might prefer, the contributors celebrate religious traditions and find within them a way toward mutual peace, uncompromised liberty, and principled tolerance. Offering a counterbalance to incendiary religious leaders who cite Holy Writ to justify intolerance and violence, the contributors reveal how tolerance and respect for believers in other faiths stand at the core of the Abrahamic traditions.

Endowed by Our Creator

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The debate over the framers’ concept of freedom of religion has become heated and divisive. This scrupulously researched book sets aside the half-truths, omissions, and partisan arguments, and instead focuses on the actual writings and actions of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and others. Legal scholar Michael I. Meyerson investigates how the framers of the Constitution envisioned religious freedom and how they intended it to operate in the new republic. Endowed by Our Creator shows that the framers understood that the American government should not acknowledge religion in a way that favors any particular creed or denomination. Nevertheless, the framers believed that religion could instill virtue and help to unify a diverse nation. They created a spiritual public vocabulary, one that could communicate to all — including agnostics and atheists — that they were valued members of the political community. Through their writings and their decisions, the framers affirmed that respect for religious differences is a fundamental American value. Now it is for us, Meyerson concludes, to determine whether religion will be used to alienate and divide or to inspire and unify our religiously diverse nation.

A Public Faith

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Debates rage today about the role of religions in public life. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, various religions come to inhabit the same space. But how do they live together, especially when each wants to shape the public realm according to the dictates of its own sacred texts and traditions? How does the Christian faith relate in the religious pluralism of contemporary public life? While Volf argues that there is no single way Christian faith relates to culture as a whole, he explores major issues on the frontlines of faith today: 1) In what way does the Christian faith come to malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions? 2) What should a Christian’s main concern be when it comes to living well in the world today? and 3) How should we go about realizing a vision for human flourishing in relation to other faiths and under the roof of a single state? Covering such timely issues as witness in a multifaith society and political engagement in a pluralistic world, this compelling book highlights things Christians can do to serve the common good. ~ Product Description

A Plea for Civil Disagreement

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We interrupt this broadcast for a rare excursion into contemporary politics, but only to make a broader plea. Last night, here in the U.S.A., the Democratic controlled House of Representatives passed a very controversial health care reform bill. Apropos of our last article, the debate on the floor was intense, the differences irreconcilable. For the minority, John Boehner deplored the bill, characterizing it as striking at the heart of the American Dream. For the majority, Nancy Pelosi beamed that it was a final step toward ensuring the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. As bitter as the debate has been, it was to be expected that the conservatives who opposed the bill would be angry and frustrated. Sure enough, this morning I overheard radio talk show host Mike Gallagher mid-tirade, calling the Democrats “filthy”, “vile”, “bastards”, “vermin”, and for good measure, “bastards” several more times. It recalled Rush Limbaugh recently calling Democrats “cockroaches”. These despicable comments do not represent the best of conservative commentary, and I am very aware that such rhetoric is as bad and worse on the other side. What is ironic is that such voices bemoan the demise of the American republic even as they undermine the civil discourse that is vital to it. It is perfectly appropriate to offer withering critique of ideas and actions, but these ad hominems are themselves worthy of severe reproach. Many of the conservatives who are angry and frustrated this morning are Christians, and to you I make a special plea. May we exemplify Jesus’ exhortation to “love our [ideological] enemies, to treat them as our friends”. May we treat them as we would wish to be treated. May we speak what we consider the truth in love. May we chasten each other when incivility speaks. May we be exemplars of civil discourse. This is our calling.

Authentic Communication

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Whether setting about to love our neighbor, to settle a dispute, to share in the suffering of others or to speak up on behalf of the marginalized, we inevitably must engage in communication. And what could be more natural, more human, than communication? But we all learn quickly enough that good communication is not always natural. There is much to learn from Scripture and from the academic study of human communication. Tim Muehlhoff and Todd Lewis are able guides, aiding us in understanding the broad field of human communication in Christian perspective. Here they offer readers a vital assessment of the power of words, perspective-taking, persuasion and conflict management — all in an effort to improve our abilities to communicate forgiveness and shape the world we live in for the good. Special attention is focused on the place of Christians as counterpublics — those who offer alternative perspectives to the dominant voices in society. ~ Product Description

Stanley Fish on Secular and Public Reasons

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Whether the argument appears in its softer or harder versions, behind it is a form of intellectual/political apartheid known as the private/public distinction: matters that pertain to the spirit and to salvation are the province of religion and are to be settled by religious reasons; matters that pertain to the good order and prosperity of civil society are the province of democratically elected representatives and are to be settled by secular reasons. As John Locke put it in 1689 (“A Letter Concerning Toleration”), the “care of men’s souls” is the responsibility of the church while to the civil magistrate belongs the care of “outward things such as money, land, houses, furniture and the like”; it is his responsibility to secure for everyone, of whatever denomination or belief, “the just possession of these things belonging to this life.” ¶ A neat division, to be sure, which has the effect (not, I think, intended by Locke) of honoring religion by kicking it upstairs and out of sight. If the business of everyday life — commerce, science, medicine, law, agriculture, education, foreign policy, etc. — can be assigned to secular institutions employing secular reasons to justify actions, what is left to religious institutions and religious reasons is a private area of contemplation and worship, an area that can be safely and properly ignored when there are “real” decisions to be made. Let those who remain captives of ancient superstitions and fairy tales have their churches, chapels, synagogues, mosques, rituals and liturgical mumbo-jumbo; just don’t confuse the (pseudo) knowledge they traffic in with the knowledge needed to solve the world’s problems.

Speaking the Truth in Love

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To speak the truth, or what seems to be truth to us, is not a very hard thing, provided we do not care what harm we do by it, or whom we hurt by it. This kind of “truth-telling” has been always common. Such truth-tellers call themselves plain, blunt men, who say what they think, and do not care who objects to it. A man who has a good deal of self-reliance and not much sympathy, can get a reputation for courage by this way of speaking the truth. But the difficulty about it is, that truth thus spoken does not convince or convert men; it only offends them. It is apt to seem unjust; and injustice is not truth. ¶ Some persons think that unless truth is thus hard and disagreeable it cannot be pure. Civility toward error seems to them treason to the truth. Truth to their mind is a whip with which to lash men, a club with which to knock them down. They regard it as an irritant adapted to arouse sluggish consciences.

Civility In Company and Conversation

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George Washington, sometime before the age of 16, transcribed Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. To modern ears many of these rules may seem quaint and moralistic, overly aristocratic and deferential. But though they are primarily rules of a bygone formality, good manners are most often an outward expression of respect toward others and there is a timeless wisdom in many of them. One of the prevailing undercurrents here at Afterall.net is a desire to be competent at speaking in love what one takes to be true and not trivial. The first article I wrote here was “Recipe for Conversation“, borne out of frustration with my own failure in many cases to speak with as much kindness as conviction. It is not easy to disagree without being disagreeable. Fortunately, to our great benefit, there is a long conversation in Anglo-American discourse about this subject of “civility” or “civil discourse”. Indeed, the American Experiment is in large measure an attempt to live well with differences. To that end, Washington’s rules with respect to civil conversation are worth considering. If nothing else, they are a glimpse into another time. Not surprisingly, incessant talkers and interrupters, not to mention gabbing with a mouth full of food, were as gauche then as they are now. As an aside, I’ve also added a new category, Civility & Rhetoric, to begin to gather books, quotes, and papers on this subject in one place. ~ Nate

How to Criticize Religion

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Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great is an expression of the profoundest moral outrage at the transgressions of religious people. As such, Hitchens follows in a long and honorable tradition. Indeed, in his life and teaching, Jesus also was a consummate critic of corrupted religion. In particular, it was the religious authorities of his time and place — the pharisees — that he most roundly denounced. His criticisms were many, but included charges of hypocrisy, pride, legalism, and unkindness. Like Hitchens, a consistent theme in Jesus’ criticism is how inhumane their religious strictures had become. For example, in one of a number of confrontations over Sabbath observance, Jesus reminds the pharisees that the Sabbath was instituted for the sake of humankind, not vice-versa. Furthermore, the letters of early church leaders follow Jesus’ precedent in confronting the failings of his earliest followers. And they all stood in a long line of prophetic voices that, according to the biblical record, were called by God to correct the recurring degeneration of Hebrew, and then Christian, religion. Finally, today you can browse the bookshelves of any Christian bookstore to find volume after volume lamenting this or that shortcoming of the Church. Clearly religion can be corrupt, even poisonous, and it is hardly exempt from criticism. But though Hitchens is in good company in his indictment of religious transgressions, god is not Great is something of a missed opportunity. Because his rhetoric evinces such a profound contempt for people of faith, Hitchens fails to speak persuasively to the very people he thinks need saving. If intended merely as a call to arms for his compatriots, god is not Great is a tour de force. But if he hopes to deconvert the converted, to liberate those captive to religion, another course is needed. If that is the aim, here’s how to criticize religion.

The Myth of Religious Violence

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The idea that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East. William T. Cavanaugh challenges this conventional wisdom by examining how the twin categories of religion and the secular are constructed. A growing body of scholarly work explores how the category ‘religion’ has been constructed in the modern West and in colonial contexts according to specific configurations of political power. Cavanaugh draws on this scholarship to examine how timeless and transcultural categories of ‘religion and ‘the secular’ are used in arguments that religion causes violence. He argues three points: 1) There is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of political configurations of power; 2) Such a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion as non-rational and prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of Western society; 3) This myth can be and is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against non-Western others, particularly the Muslim world. ~ Synopsis

Alan Gomes on the Historian’s Task

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Leopold Von Ranke’s famous maxim that the historian’s task is to “tell it like it was” may be ridiculed by those who doubt the possibility or even the desirability of objective history, but I believe Von Ranke was fundamentally correct. In the case of intellectual history, this involves understanding a thinker on his or her own terms, in his or her own context. It is coming to grips with a document’s meaning and penetrating what underlies the arguments being advanced. It is no about rehabilitating or castigating those long dead, but about grasping objectively what is being said and why. ¶ While objectivity is the historian’s goal, this does not mean that the historian is void of personal commitments, or that he or she must remain neutral as to the truth or falsity of the positions under consideration. The point is simply that history qua history is not about passing such judgments but is merely about getting the story straight, however the chips may fall. It is only after the position has been understood on its own terms and without bias that the historian may turn to evaluation and employ the fruits of his or her discovery in polemical or other theological application. But at that point we’ve moved beyond the historical task simpliciter and into something else — something wonderfully valuable and necessary, perhaps, but something different nonetheless.

Michael Lind on the Roots of Natural Rights

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In reality, neither Jewish nor Christian traditions know anything of the ideas of natural rights and social contract found in Hobbes, Gassendi and Locke. That’s because those ideas were inspired by themes found in non-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy. Ideas of the social contract were anticipated in the fourth and fifth centuries BC by the sophists Glaucon and Lycophron, according to Plato and Aristotle, and by Epicurus, who banished divine activity from a universe explained by natural forces and taught that justice is an agreement among people neither to harm nor be harmed. The idea that all human beings are equal by nature also comes from the Greek sophists and was planted by the Roman jurist Ulpian in Roman law: “quod ad ius natural attinet, omnes hominess aequales sunt” — according to the law of nature, all human beings are equal. ¶ Desperate to obscure the actual intellectual roots of the Declaration of Independence in Greek philosophy and Roman law, Christian apologists have sought to identify the “Creator” who endows everyone with unalienable rights with the revealed, personal God of Moses and Jesus. But a few sentences earlier, the Declaration refers to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Adherents of natural rights liberalism often have dropped “Nature’s God” and relied solely on “Nature” as the source of natural rights.

Ryan T. Anderson on a “Christian Nation”

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First, this phrase “Christian nation” is a famously confusing one. No recognized leader in the so-called “religious right” has ever called for America to be a theocracy or believed it ever was, but this is what Meacham accuses. He asks, “What then does it mean to talk of ‘Christian America’? Evangelical Christians have long believed that the United States should be a nation whose political life is based upon and governed by their interpretation of biblical and theological principles.” Well, if you’re talking about the biblical principles of not slandering, stealing or murdering, then, yes. But I don’t recall any of us ever proposing that it be the law of the land that everyone, say, confess their sins, one to another, or that we lock people up when they chose to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. We do however believe something close to what Meacham himself admits in his article, which he offers as a corrective to people like us. He would have us understand that, “[America’s] foundational documents are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (though there are undeniable connections between them). This way of life is far different from what many overtly conservative Christians would like.” Well, actually not so different. We understand that Christianity had a deep impact on our nation’s founding, its guiding documents and our national growth. Deep, but not singular. We thankfully live in a country of religious freedom.