Last night, we were visiting some of our oldest friends. I’ve known them for a bit more than 10 years, while my best half has known them for around 14 to 15. As is often the case, we often talk politics or religion or whatever… there are no “barred” conversation topics and we are able to disagree and agree about things without there being hurt feelings or anything silly like that.
What makes this phenomenon interesting is the evolutionary change that has occurred in the viewpoints of our friends over time. To be specific, when we first started conversing 10 years ago, our friends were fundamentalist Protestant biblical literalists (6000 year old earth) and Mr. Friend (not his real name) was a staunch Republican and Conservative (big “C” conservative!) who pretty much listened to Rush Limbaugh constantly.
I, in contrast, was raised liberal Catholic and in a Democratic household. I had always pretty much been an atheist and had grown up learning about evolution and science and the like.
As one might imagine–our initial conversations were often quite interesting in that we came from very different places and had some rather different outlooks and perceptions of the events of the world. The initial conversations about evolution, about the omniscience of god and the possibility of free will (which I argued was not possible with omniscience..) are some that I will never forget because I actually got to engage with people who really didn’t believe the same things as me, and I had to think about my own positions more and figure out how to convey them in an accurate and persuasive manner.
In any case–last’s night’s conversations demonstrated how much can change over time. Our friends no longer are fundamentalists. They no longer believe in a 6000 year old earth. These changes actually occurred years ago, but just last night, my Mr. Friend admitted that he no longer really sees himself as a Conservative or Republican–and that he reluctantly thinks of himself as a liberal.
Now.. I say this not to brag and it has never been my intention or my practice to try and harangue my friends into believing what I believe. Instead, it has only ever been my practice to question what people state when it is presented without solid evidence and to ask them to do the same. I have argued with them strenuously–as I’m sure they will attest–and I do often employ what a good friend has termed “scorched-earth style argumentation” in which I will marshal tons of evidence and craft strong rhetorical arguments to make my points.
However, I’ve also always said–“believe what you want, but know why you are believing it..” and I’ve always meant it.
What was really rewarding for me was to see that such a strategy can actually work in the long run and that my friends have come to be a lot more critical about stuff than they originally may have been. Their epistemologies have become more robust and their approach to the world is more open and less structured by unquestioned beliefs.
Again–this is not a question about WHAT they believe–I would have been equally happy if they were still religious and conservative and justified their beliefs with evidence and argumentation (and I have conservative friends who can do just that and some religious friends also…)–but rather a question of HOW they believed it.
In this sense–they have come to possess the “liberal outlook” that Bertrand Russell talks about, when he states:
“The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”
This is what my position has always been from the beginning, and it is perhaps the one thing that I want to make sure my friends also embrace. Believe what you want, but know why and how you believe it.