Monday, August 18, 2008

An invitation

A dear friend and former teacher has invited me to join a religious/philosophy discussion group, which would be a very good way for me to improve my French. But I am going to decline, not because I don't need the practice--I do. But because while it purports to be a "discussion," what really usually happens is that it quickly could turn into a verbal sparring session: Someone presents a theory and cites a historical reference; someone else disagrees and challenges the validity of the 'argument', citing a different reference; and then a third person pipes in to demonstrate why his belief or opinion is more valid than that of the others'.

What does it matter, really, that Buddhism is not really a "religion" [break off here for a 15-minute discussion on what constitutes a religion], or that atheists don't believe in God, or that agnostics aren't jumping on any particular spiritual bandwagon (i.e., committing one way or another, belief-wise), or how a particular religion mutated or evolved, or what Jesus or Buddha would say about X, Y or Z? I know these things matter to some people, and they can discuss such subjects endlessly. I guess I am not one of them because it doesn't, in the scheme of things, seem all that important to me right now.

My experience of discussion groups involving religion or philosophy (or politics), has been largely that participants attempt to defend a particular belief or position to people who believe the exact opposite. There is a lot of talking, but very little actual listening, and it always seems to boil down to: "I believe X, and you believe Y," and the sole purpose of the "discussion", as it sometimes escalates into an eventual shouting match, is everyone is trying to convince everyone else that they are Right and the others are Wrong. The thing is, nobody will admit that to themselves.

For example, say a person makes a statement (about religion or philosophy or politics) and someone else replies with an alternate view. This often results in an immediate verbal attack back. If the discussion is by email, it a response might be delivered with exclamation points or words all in capital letters (indicating that someone has hit a nerve). One then responds with a counter comment or cites a reference; the other person then argues that that information is erroneous, irrelevant, or biased and offers his or her justification for the opposite view... punctuated with more exclamation points. And the war is on, ha ha. And while it's always good to gain more knowlege and be better informed, it rarely results in either party's really being all that receptive to seriously considering anything that would radically change an already deeply held belief.

To have a meaningful discussion, you first have to agree on the terms, define the language. If what X means by "God", for example, is different from what Y means by the word "God", then you're coming from different universes. Ditto for philosophical or political discussions.

To be fair, perhaps this group wouldn't turn out that way. But discussions of this sort seem to me an exercise mainly for scholars and fellow devotees. I'm flattered to have been invited. While it might be interesting to compare what Kant and Plato and Aquinas and Spinoza and Christ and Buddha all have to say on a particular subject, in the end I have really only my own personal experience to go by. I have spent years reading and thinking about philosophy and religion and don't especially enjoy having to justify whatever conclusions I've drawn, or engage in debate about why I feel that one particular belief system seems more reasonable to me than another. It's too personal a matter. Again, if I were a scholar, such lively academic conversation would be of much more interest. (It was,at one time, very much so, actually.) But you can only talk about it so much (unless it's your "field"). Everybody to his own path.

It occurs to me that the REAL reasons for my declining, though, are something much more basic: (1) I get tongue-tied when obliged to speak in front of a group; and (2) my French is not yet good enough to allow me to engage in any meaningful way in what probably would be a lively discussion with everybody all speaking rapidly, discussing books or writings or philosophers or scriptures with which I may not be familiar.

But what a nice thing to have been asked.


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